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The Exotic Woman in Nineteenth-Century British Fiction and Culture
A Reconsideration
Piya Pal-Lapinski

Becoming Modern: New Nineteenth-Century Studies

New Hampshire
2004 • 192 pp. 13 illus. 6 x 9"
Literary Criticism / Cultural Studies

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" [Pal-Lapinski] disputes the claims of much postcolonial criticism and argues that 19th-century representations of the sexually volatile odalisque did not reduce such women to passive recipients of the imperial, patriarchal gaze."—CHOICE

A fresh and provocative approach to representations of exotic women in Victorian Britain.

Since the first reports of travelers returning from visits to the Ottoman and Mughal empires in early modern times, European culture has been obsessed by the figure of the odalisque. The term initially used to describe a woman living in a Turkish harem or Indian zenana, gradually broadened to include and connect various iconographies of the exotic woman in the West. Many of these constructions, while rooted in the harem odalisque and sharing some of her attributes, move beyond her to connect with other aspects of European culture.

Pal-Lapinski, using “odalisque” interchangeably with “exotic woman,” sees these terms as fluid, shifting categories that transform themselves continually. Concentrating on images of exoticized women within British culture and fiction with close links to the French tradition of the odalisque, she takes up a range of representations of exotic women—the female poisoner in Wilkie Collins’ Armadale (1866); the colonial courtesan and professional dancer in an Indian setting; the vampire and New Woman; jewelry design and ornamentation in the work of René Lalique and in Bram Stoker’s Egyptian fantasy, Jewel of Seven Stars; and the positioning of the Italian opera singer within the London operatic arena in Bulwer Lytton’s Zanoni (1842) and Vernon Lee’s A Wicked Voice (1890), fiction set in Naples and Venice, respectively.

Exploring decorative arts, medicine, and opera, as well as literary texts, Pal-Lapinski shows that constructions of exotic femininity in nineteenth-century British culture must be approached through an interdisciplinary perspective in order to fully understand their complexity. And by shifting and expanding the parameters of the odalisque as a category of analysis, the author firmly establishes her as a richly multivalent trope. As the author writes, “To see the exotic woman as a figure which plays a crucial role in the emergence of certain formulations of modernity instead of as a product of a totalizing gaze, to decouple it from imperial hegemony in several important instances, is to . . . recognize the revolutionary otherness of the past.”

Reviews / Endorsements

"The Exotic Woman is a serious addition to nineteenth-century scholarship, particularly of Victorian imperialist anxieties. Pal-Lapinski's dense and knowledgeable study will serve anyone interested in nineteenth century culture, politics, and science."Victorian Studies

"[A]bsorbing and worthwhile, with some excellent rediscover of rich texts."
Journal of Victorian Culture

"The detailed interdisciplinary re-examination of the complexity and elusiveness of the exotic and protean female figure in The Exotic Woman in Nineteenth-Century British Fiction and Culture: A Reconsideration makes a compelling contribution to post-colonial and nineteenth-century studies." European Romantic Review

Piya Pal-Lapinski's book makes an outstanding contribution to at least three fields of study: Orientalism; gender; and nineteenth-century fiction in English. She integrates all of these by examining the intricate and fluid relationships of West and East. She demonstrates that the body was constructed and theoretically modified not just by visual and textual representations, but also through contemporary interests such as toxicology and tropical medicine. She demonstrates the extent to which identities were far from fixed, but were in a constant state of imbalance and mutation. Hence, the so-called exotic and the domestic are conceptually intertwined and strictly binary concepts are dismantled. The exotic gaze becomes a self-modifying process. The book's radicalism is achieved not least through its clarity of language, transparency of argument, and subtlety in choice of example. It is acutely penetrating and should be read by all with an interdisciplinary interest in these key areas of scholarship.Professor John M. MacKenzie, University of St. Andrews

Working with a fascinating range of visual, literary, and cultural materials from both popular and high culture traditions, including the decorative arts, Piya Pal-Lapinski explores the ways in which representations of “exotic” women —the female poisoner in Wilkie Collins’ Armadale, the memsahibs and native courtesans in Flora Annie Steel’s Voices in the Night and The Potter’s Thumb, vampiric New Women in Bram Stoker’s The Lair of the White Worm, and Italian opera singers in Bulwer Lytton’s Zanoni and Vernon Lee’s “A Wicked Voice”—both contribute to nineteenth-century discourses of empire and expose their incoherence and inherent contradictions. Foregrounding both the dialogue between British and French aesthetic constructions of exoticism and the role that representations of racially mixed women played in emergent professional disciplines such as medicine, ethno-criminology, and archaeology, Pal-Lapinski contributes substantially in this study to the more sophisticated analysis of “the odalisque” that has emerged recently through recent debates with the field of postcolonial and Victorian studies.
Ann L. Ardis, Professor of English, University of Delaware.

PIYA PAL-LAPINSKI is Associate Professor of English at Bowling Green State University.

Tue, 16 Jan 2018 12:49:31 -0500