Author Barbara Chase-Riboud is not a stranger to controversy. Her novels about the intimate relationship between third U.S. President Thomas Jefferson and a slave he owned named Sally Hemings (Sally Hemings and The President's Daughter) elicited equal measures of praise and condemnation. And 10 years ago, she received a $10-million settlement from the Dreamworks film studio over the movie Amistad, after she accused Dreamworks of infringing on her novel Echo of Lions, which was also about the famed slave-ship rebellion.
In Hottentot Venus, takes on another contentious subject: the sad saga of a Khoe Khoe (also spelled "Khoi Khoi" woman from South Africa was displayed throughout Britain and continental Europe during the early years of the 19th century. The woman was known by a succession of names: Ssehura, the name her people gave her; Saartjie and Sarah Baartman, which she received as a servant in Dutch and English colonial households; and finally the Hottentot Venus, which combined a derogatory identifier for the Khoe Khoe and and a snide reference to the Greco-Roman goddess of love and beauty.
Because Europeans of the early 1800s had little or no knowledge of the Khoe Khoe people, they they viewed Sarah as a freak of nature' an oddity, a "missing link" between the human and the subhuman. The primary reason for this perception was a characteristic called "steatopygia," an excessive development of the hips and buttocks that was characteristic of her people.
Chase-Riboud chronicles this story primarily through the voice of Sarah herself, along with those of her captors, companions, and contemporaries. Sarah is a victim of circumstances well beyond her control. Yet she is not a passive object in the tragi-drama of her life. She is the one who decides to leave her homeland, which is besieged by rapacious European colonists. She agrees to accompany a pair of rogues to England, where she will supposedly receive a share of the profits from her purported performances will earn. When she boards a ship departing from Cape Town, she cannot be expected to know that she never see Africa again -- not, at least, while she is alive.
And if she did know, it might not have mattered to her, as her people faced dispossession and slavery at best, and extermination at worst. Putting herself on display in a faraway land would have seemed a small price to pay for freedom from the deadly prison South Africa was becoming for anyone who was not white.
Alas, once she set foot on British soil, Sarah learned that the contract into which she had entered with her two "benefactors" bound her to them as securely as the fetters that shackle a slave. Her "performances" consisted of sitting, standing, walking and dancing, sometimes on a stage, sometimes in a cage. Sometimes she sang and played a guitar. Whatever she did, the crowds that clamored to gawk at her viewed her as an example of a "lower order" of humanity, or perhaps not human at all.
Chase-Riboud counterbalances the quiet dignity of "The Venus" with the reprehensible behavior of the jeering, sneering, object-tossing audiences that pay to see the woman from afar. Yet despite this deluge of degradation, Sarah tries to adapt to her surroundings. She becomes a connoisseur of clothing (especially gloves) and learns to speak Dutch, English and French competently, if not fluently. She also discovers alcohol, which soothes her sorrows but threatens to steal her soul.
Because of the terms of the contract, Sarah's "masters" control her body. The contract gets divided and resold, and is eventually claimed as winnings in a card game by a dissolute Frenchman named Sieur Reaux. Reaux takes Sarah to France, where she becomes just as much of a sensation as she had been in England. She also attracts the interest of Baron Georges Cuvier, a leading biologist of the time, who has a special interest in the classification of humans and the hierarchy of races. He is a proponent of a pre-evolutionary concept called "The Great Chain of Being," and he is determined to discern where "The Venus" and her race fit in that chain.
Cuvier arranges for Sarah to be examined by a group of notable anatomists, naturalists, physiologists and other scientists whose behavior is far more circumspect than that of the crowds at her performances. But their curiosity is just as avid, and their respect for Sarah's personal dignity just as lacking.
Even after the examination ends, Cuvier continues to stalk Sarah like a patient predator. And while Reaux counts his profits, his "Venus" succumbs to the ravages of alcoholism, depression and the myriad European diseases to which she has no immunity.
On New Year's Day of 1816, Sarah dies at the age of 27 of pleurisy and tuberculosis. Cuvier swoops in and claims her corpse for dissection. Venturing into the realm of magic realism, Chase-Ribaud enables Sarah's spirit to speak in the afterlife. Thus, Sarah witnesses her own dismemberment at the deft hands of Cuvier and his colleagues.
The indignities continue. Under Cuvier's supervision, Sarah's corpse is stripped of skin and skeleton. Both the bones and the stuffed skin are put on display in a glass case -- a transparent cage.
Time passes. Sarah's spirit remains tied by invisible tethers to her preserved remains. The lens through which she is viewed changes. Twentieth-century campaigns for her liberation from the museum and return to her homeland gained momentum in both France and South Africa. Finally, in 2002, her remains are repatriated amid great ceremony amid crowds that venerate her.
Hottentot Venus is a sweeping saga, replete with subtle nuances and hard truths, rooted firmly in its colonial Africa and Napoleonic Europe contexts. The characters -- both good and bad, and there are some who are good, both black and white -- are fully realized. Ssehura/Saartjie/Sarah/Venus is a tragic figure, but she does not become a broken one until the end of her short life.
This book is not light reading. But in its indictment of attitudes that continue to this day, it is essential reading.
There are only a couple of speed bumps in the narrative. Chase-riboud mentions the term "evolution" fairly often. But that concept was only in its infancy during Sarah Baartman's time. And Charles Darwin was then only a boy. He does make an appearance toward the end of the novel.
Also, Chase-Riboud places in Africa animals that do not occur there naturally, such as wolves, coyotes, and lynx. These are just quibbles, though, well within the bounds of literary license.
One final note of irony. During the late 1800s, a certain fashion trend flourished for a while among women in Europe and North America. It involved the fitting of a wickerwork construction called a "bustle" to a woman's backside, beneath the long dresses of the day. The bustle made its wearers looks as though they had steatopygia.
Had she lived long enough, what might the Hottentot Venus have thought of that particular fashion statement?
Bet she would have laughed her ass off.