Term Paper, 2013
Sophia Lane was the sister of the famous orientalist Edward William Lane, who suggested that she and her sons join him in Egypt so that she could report on the female side of Egypt's gender-segregated society. The result was her book of letters The Englishwoman in Egypt: Letters from Cairo. Like her brother, Lane adopted local customs and dress in order to gain acceptance in Egyptian social circles. However, Lane herself hated veiling, and writes that she veiled only in order to gain access to harems, bathhouses, and other "women-only" areas.
Her autobiography is extremely interesting for the average European reader who reads about the exotic strange Orient with its weird habits and customs as well as the modern scholar who finds it a rich source of information about an important period in the history of Egypt specially that it covers the everyday life more than the historical events as seen from an external point of view. She writes "Imagine the face covered closely by a muslin veil, double at the upper part, the eyes only uncovered and over a dress of coloured silk an overwhelming covering of black silk extending in my idea in every direction. I looked with dismay at the donkey I must mount which was waiting for me. Nothing can be more awkward and uncomfortable than this riding dress." (Lane 38)
There are lots of other bizarre incidents (according to the Europeans) in the book like the belief of the appearance of the “Efreet” and the servants leaving the family, the phenomenon of “el sarab” or the mirage, Ramadan habits including the severity of fasting, the night call of prayer by the “Mueddins” and “el mesaharaty” calling people to have a final last chance meal before fasting, the description of mosques from the inside through her dashing adventure, marriage without seeing the future wife, Muslim ceremonies regarding the dead, cemeteries and the hired mourners, the description of public baths for females and the harem.
According to Edward Said, "Orientalism" is a style of thought based upon making certain generalizations about the part of the world known as the 'EastThe Orient is almost a European invention. It had been since antiquity a place of exotic beings, haunting memories and remarkable experiences where Europe’s greatest, richest and oldest colonies existed as well as an integral part of European material civilization and culture. It has helped to define Europe (the West) as its contrasting image, personality and experience. Thus, it represents “the Other”. Said says in his remarkable book Orientalism (1978) “The Orient exists for the West, and is constructed by and in relation to the West. It is a mirror image of what is inferior and alien to the West.” (Said 52)
Said explains that the earlier orientalists were more of silent observers but the modern orientalists like Lane took part in the everyday life of the orients. The earlier orientalists did not interact a lot with the orients, whereas the new orientalists lived with the orients as if they were one of them. In the preface of her autobiography, Lane writes “these are the notes of one to whom Egypt has become almost as familiar as England” (Lane XXI). The autobiography is written from the first person singular perspective. In general, the author, the narrator, and the protagonist must share a common identity for the work to be considered an autobiography. This common identity could be similar, but not identical. The self that the author constructs becomes a character within the story that may not be a completely factual representation of the author’s actual identity. He/she may not even be accurate when describing events due to many factors.
From a New Historicist perspective, critics seek to find meaning in a text by considering the work within the framework of the prevailing ideas and assumptions of its historical era. New Historicists concern themselves with the concept of power, the intricate means by which cultures produce and reproduce themselves. Even the most authentic historical sources of information are considered forms of narration where not everything should be taken for granted. These sources tell some kind of story and therefore, these stories can be analyzed using the tools of literary criticism taking in consideration that most these books represent the master narrative. Usually texts were written by white male Anglo- Europeans revealing the experiences of people they criticize or oppress in order to maintain their superiority and having the upper hand. For example, British writer Sir Wilkinson mentions in his travel book A Handbook for Travellers in Egypt (1847) small details about the way poor Egyptians refuse to deal with large coins or gold because they are afraid of losing them
The best money to take to Egypt is English sovereigns, or Spanish and Austrian dollars … the traveller must take all he wants for his journey, before he leaves Cairo. He should also provide himself with a sufficient quantity of piastres, 20, 10, and 5 para pieces, as in buying fool or other things in the villages, his servants will not always find change for larger coins; it is not convenient to be delayed, until a poor peasant can search for it; and many object to taking gold, even of the country, from the natural fear of losing it, or of suffering from some change in its value. (Wilkinson 98)
The English Woman in Egypt as the title suggests is written about Poor Backward Egypt from the Perspective of Mrs. Sophia Lane the White British Upper Middle Class Lady. Being the master narrative (or the higher voice) gives writers the privilege of writing history independently.
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