Written by Barbara Chase-Riboud
Published by Doubleday
Review by Vanessa F. Johnson
Stories told within the context of colonialism are not unique. Neither are those about misogyny, exploitation and tragic lives. In her novel Hottentot Venus, author Barbara Chase-Riboud tells such a story, while illuminating a life little known and unforgettable.
Hottentot Venus is the story of Ssehura, a young Khoisan girl orphaned in 1700’s South Africa. Ssehura is renamed Saartjie (which means “little Sarah” in Dutch) by a Dutch Afrikaner who becomes her master. As is Khoisan custom, Sarah is groomed to be more sexually desirable for marriage. Her buttocks are massaged with special ointments to make them swell and her genitalia are stretched to produce the legendary “Hottentot apron,” exaggerated folds of skin. Thus, Sarah is a physical curiosity and a sexual fetish to her white master. He is persuaded by an Englishman to send her to London where she becomes a sideshow sensation. The English gentry is fascinated by her exotic African ethnicity and sexually charged presence making her stuff of legend and myth. Sarah enters the world of circus freak shows and becomes a popular exhibit. She is of “things-that-never-should-never-have-been-born”—bearded ladies, dwarfs, conjoined twins, and two headed goats. The “Hottentot Venus,” as she is becomes known, is the rage of Europe. Yet, beyond the parade of curiosity seekers and perverts, the very real loneliness of this young woman comes through.
At once intrigued and disgusted by the story of the Sarah Baartman, I held on until the end where Sarah speaks as a dissected corpse stripped of her womanhood by a depraved scientist determined to confirm her as the missing link in the Great Chain of Being. Even in death she is displayed as an oddity. Her brain and genitalia are displayed in jars for the benefit of scientific discovery and, no doubt, sexual fantasy.
Chase-Riboud is uncompromising in her recreations of the bohemian sordidness of of 18th century London and Paris. The claustrophobic atmosphere is palpable in her exhaustive imagery. The author’s dialogue technique may take a minute to get used to inasmuch as she doesn’t use typical conventions such as quotation marks. This lends itself to the European feel of the novel. Unfortunately, most of the motivations of the male characters are obvious—greed, sexism, racism, lust—which makes her characterizations typical, though probably true. One character stalks Sarah around Paris, staring at her from around corners and alleyways, then after her death he steals her head from the museum exhibit and lives with it for a year. The psychology behind his behavior however, is not explored, which may or may not be important, yet would have been an interesting exercise.
Chase-Riboud definitely has an agenda here. Telling the story of Sarah Baartman, a personage little known, is definitely one goal. She is none to subtle in her anti-colonial sentiments. She conjures the European fascination with the exotic, while exploring the theme of the “other” through Sarah Baartman and another female character in the book.
Some readers may find an agenda in a novel not to their liking, preferring only to be entertained. Yet, the novel as an art form is the perfect vehicle for raising awareness. Similar to authors of black protest novels in the 1940’s such as Ann Petry and Richard Wright, Chase-Riboud carefully chooses her issues and her subjects. In this case they are one in the same. She chooses as her subject an obscure, yet intriguing personage that reminds us that even “those-things-that-should-have-never-been-born” have hearts and souls. And that sometimes things should be left as they are and where they are.
Vanessa F. Johnson, M.A. is a writer and teacher of American Literature and creative writing in Chicago. She is a consultant with the Chicago Area Writing Project. Ms. Johnson is currently working on a historical novel set during the Harlem Renaissance.