African Queen: the Real Life of the Hottentot Venus
Saartjie Baartman (Baartmen? – PW and Booklist each spell the name differently, and I don’t have the book in front of me to correctly spell it, so use the spelling I remember) was, for many years, exhibited as a ‘freak’ to Regency society in England. A young woman from the continent known as ‘darkest Africa’, (I can’t find the phrase origin for ‘darkest Africa’ – does anyone know where it came from, or when?) Saartjie was misused, ridiculed, coldly handled as a commodity, but the author does an extremely good job of reconstructing Saartjie’s dignity as a woman who did the best she could in dreadful conditions.
She certainly comes off much better than her ‘handlers’, and I can’t help comparing her status to that of the teen stars of today (think Britney Spears) who are used by adults to fill their own coffers, with little real care for how the life they lead impacts their development as a human being of worth, sensibility and emotion. Saartjie, of course, suffered much worse abuse in every manner imaginable. But as with many of those teen stars, in the end Saartjie became an alcoholic who longed for home.
Saartje Baartman’s story is terribly sad, but in this book she is given some measure of tragically belated recompense for a life too short, too hard and deeply lonely.
As a research book, this is fascinating reading, giving insight into the hideous dichotomy of Regency England, a world in which feminine modesty was supposedly valued, and yet this poor woman was exhibited in a bodysuit intended to present her as naked, and thousands of “lower class’ English women were abused as maids of all work and prostitutes, subject to the cruel whims of their masters… and mistresses.
But even disregarding its research use, this non-fiction work is a fascinating read, and deeply compelling.