Nubian Circle Book Club

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Hottentot Venus

Phyllis Rhodes

A Wonderful Work of Historical Fiction!

Hottentot Venus is a wonderful work of historical fiction by Barbara Chase-Riboud surrounding the exploitation and short life of Saartjie "Sarah" Baartman.  Saartjie was a South African herdswoman who was brought to England in 1810 and exhibited in a freak show for seven years as the "Hottentot Venus."  She was exhibited in a cage partially covered in "native attire" where thousands came to view her protruding buttocks and elongated labia ("apron") a symbol of beauty and desire by her tribesmen. 

A distortion on the image of Venus as the goddess of love and beauty, Saartijie was heralded as the missing link between man and apes thus propelling her as an atrocity to be gawked upon, repulsed and pitied by Victorian England and France.

Saartjie's experience in England lands her in a famous legal case in which abolitionists took her "partners to court insisting that Saartjie was enslaved and working against her will.  She, being an illiterate person, testified that she had signed a written contract with her "partners" and was being fairly compensated; however considering she died in poverty, the contract (if it truly existed) is highly questionable. Immediately upon death at age 27 from complications caused by alcoholism, syphilis, and tuberculosis,  Saartjie's body was sold and dissected to prove the theory that she was indeed the missing link and not human.  Her remains (death caste, full skeleton, and prized apron) were callously displayed and stored in a Paris museum for nearly 200 years and were only recently returned to her native South Africa for burial in 2002.

Chase-Riboud's in depth research and careful reconstruction of Saartjie's world is superb!  The novel is lengthy, detailed and descriptive.  It has a Victorian flair to it -- especially in the passages where in depth dialogue is used to convey the Englishmen's misguided, racists thoughts of the time.   The author's imagination fills in the gaps and gives Saartjie a resonant voice that transcends time.  A true work of historical fiction as it references the French Revolution, American Civil War, and historical figures like Jane Austen, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Charles Darwin. 

The reader empathizes with Saartjie, all the while pulling for justice to be served for her.  This is a touching novel -- one that will stay with the reader well after the last page is turned. 

The Nubian Circle Book Club rating for Hottentot Venus  is 4.5 stars out of 5 stars.