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October 25, 2020
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Hottentot Venus: A Novel

Hottentot VenusIt is Paris, 1815. An extraordinarily shaped South African girl known as the Hottentot Venus, dressed only in feathers and beads, swings from a crystal chandelier in the duchess of Berry’s ballroom. Below her, the audience shouts insults and pornographic obscenities. Among these spectators is Napoleon’s physician and the most famous naturalist in Europe, the Baron George Cuvier, whose encounter with her will inspire a theory of race that will change European science forever.

Evoking the grand tradition of such “monster” tales as Frankenstein and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Barbara Chase Riboud, prize-winning author of the classic Sally Hemings, again gives voice to an “invisible” of history. In this powerful saga, Sarah Baartman, for more than 200 years known only as the mysterious lady in the glass cage, comes vividly and unforgettably to life.

Reviews: Hottentot Venus

“In 1810, Sarah Baartman sailed willingly from her home in South Africa to England with her English husband, believing that fame awaited her as an African dancing queen. Well, she certainly found fame. Based on the true story of a woman who was exhibited as part of a freak show in London’s Piccadilly and upon her death at age 27 was publicly dissected in France, this novel by poet, sculptor and novelist Chase-Riboud (Sally Hemings) conveys Sarah’s victimization so well that the reader is still cringing after the last page is turned. Sarah herself copes with the harsh reality of her husband’s betrayal-she’s essentially been sold into slavery-through denial and gin. Her best chance to escape comes when abolitionist Robert Wedderburn intervenes by bringing her contract before a judge in an attempt to rescue her. Sarah, however, won’t go along with it, because she doesn’t want to return to Good Hope, where her Khoekhoe tribe struggles against colonization. Wedderburn captures the reader’s frustration when he tells Sarah: “You are the unwitting collaborator of your own exploitation, agent of your own dehumanization!” Indeed, there are many tough scenes to endure, as Europeans endlessly ridicule her body and elongated genitals (mutilated as part of a tribal ritual) and examine her as a scientific curiosity. What makes the story, and Sarah’s life, more bearable are the tender scenes with Alice, Sarah’s English governess who stays with her and truly cares for her. Kudos to Chase-Riboud for exploring this story of oppression and for humanizing a woman who was virtually regarded as an animal, according to the ideology of the day.” –Publishers Weekly

“As she did in her best-selling Sally Hemings (1979), Chase-Riboud dramatizes a true story. This time, she goes back to the Dutch colonies of 1810 to recount the life of Sarah Baartman, a South African woman who was coerced into becoming an exotic dancer by two parasitic men. Having already lost her family in the Dutch and English massacres, Sarah faced certain death by staying in South Africa. Unfortunately, her journey toward a better life results in another kind of exploitation–this time on the freak show circuit in London. Forced into a cage in African garb, which allows the crowd of onlookers to intimately inspect her body, Sarah is put on public display as an example of a primitive oddity. Sadly, the dehumanization of Sarah did not stop with her death. In 1816, her dissected body was exhibited in a French Museum. In 2002, after a long legal battle, her remains were finally laid to rest in South Africa. Praise to Chase-Riboud for her total immersion in the spirit of Sarah Baartman.” –Elsa Gaztambide, Booklist


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