Jason Goodwin: The upside of life in a harem, and modern-day slavery on the King’s Road

Our columnist considers the realities of everyday existence for the women kept in 18th century Ottoman harems.

I knew of an old lady on the King’s Road, now dead, who was sent a helpmeet by a diplomat admirer of hers, on the grounds that she needed someone to cook and clean. Only gradually did it dawn on her children that this woman wasn’t paid – she was really intended as a gift. The idea that this might carry on in modern London seems a terrible affront to human dignity.

I was reminded of this just now, when I started to write a piece explaining what Ottoman harems were about. It’s to accompany a new production of Mozart’s first opera, Abduction from the Seraglio, being staged at the Grange Festival this summer.

The Habsburg Emperor Joseph, who came to the first night in Vienna in 1782, enjoyed the show, but warned Mozart that he had used ‘too many notes’, presumably in similar vein to George III, who approached the author of the multi-volume The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to remark: ‘Scribble, scribble, scribble, Mr Gibbon?’

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon

To be fair to George III, Decline and Fall really is quite long…

One of the things that strikes me about the opera is how positively Mozart, who was only 26, imagined the Pasha’s harem. Far from being a cage of licentious abandon, it’s rather stuffy and flirtatious, like Joseph’s Court.

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The two ladies of interest imprisoned there, Konstanze and her maid, Blonde, retain their virtue and plan their escape, with the help of their lovers beyond the walls. The Pasha captures the lot of them, but, being a real gentleman, renders them liberty on grounds of love conquering all.

This is a rather Rococo gloss on the way harems worked, but it isn’t miles off. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu visited harems in Constantinople in the 1720s. She found them, compared to London drawing rooms, rather free and easy places and her take on Ottoman slavery was quite provocative.

‘I cannot forbear applauding the Humanity of the Turks to those Creatures,’ she wrote, after a visit to the slave market.

‘They are never ill us’d and their Slavery is in my Opinion no worse than Servitude all over the world.’

Lady Mary may have had rose-tinted spectacles, but she at least put her money where her mouth was: she became the first European to accept the Turkish practice of inoculation and bravely had her beloved son inoculated against smallpox.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in Turkish dress

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in Turkish dress

The other point of interest in Abduction is that Blonde is English. Mozart and his audience immediately understood when she declares: ‘Girls are not goods to be given away! I’m an Englishwoman, born to freedom, and I defy anyone who would force me to do his will!’ Voltaire and Montesquieu also admired our record of mutual respect and the championship of liberty, which are the real British values politicians always struggle to define when asked to do so on the radio.

Our penchant for liberty may have come under frequent strain, but we never ran a police state. There was no Terror, no ID cards, arbitrary arrest or summary justice and, as the 19th century progressed, political refugees such as Kossuth or Marx were free to come and go.

The tradition is not compatible with having a slave on the King’s Road, but power can be a two-way street. The unpaid helpmeet in question showed her resentment by making the food increasingly hot and spicy. One by one, her mistress’s visitors refused to eat it.

She redoubled her efforts with the chilli, until the food got so hot that even she couldn’t bear it and the only person who carried on imperturbably was her mistress, who happened to like it like that.