Hottentot Venus: A Novel

Barbara Chase-Riboud

Doubleday Vintage, 2003

Agent: Sandra Dijkstra

It 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.

 “Full of ideas…works most powerfully when it zeroes in on the plain misery and longing of Baartman’s life. Chase-Riboud creates some horribly memorable scenes…Chase-Riboud has a talent for turning the public statements of the Great Men of history against them, revealing them in their bombastic cluelessness.”
New York Times Book Review

"In historical novels such as Sally Hemings (about Jefferson's slave mistress) and Echo of Lions (concerning the Amistad slave ship mutiny), Chase-Riboud tackled similar issues of race, power and oppression. In Hottentot Venus, the author and part-time Paris resident portrays human degradation in new terms…’Hottentot Venus’ illustrates how racial cruelty can be tightly wrapped in a shroud of scientific reason.”
San Francisco Chronicle

“Chase-Riboud's historical novel about Baartman, Hottentot Venus… tells her version of the story of the modest herdswoman, who was born in 1789 and died in 1816. It's written in a sweeping, kaleidoscopic style, with Sarah's melancholy thoughts interspersed with the musings of European scientists of the day and the cold calculations of the people around her. It's a hauntingly compelling tale…In the novel, dates and historical characters correspond to Baartman's life…‘A lot has been written on Sarah Baartman, all from the outside, looking at her as an object,’ the writer says. ‘Despite all the literature, she's never had a voice of her own. I simply take her from the inside out.’”
Los Angeles Times

“Chase-Riboud’s expertly recreates Baartman’s spirit and those of her contemporaries, tempering the unconscionable cruelty the young woman faces…Though misunderstood and ridiculed by her European overseers as a freak, Baartman proves to be a complex, daring and unforgettable character – and Chase-Riboud a savvy documentarian and powerful storyteller.”
San Diego Union Tribune

“Barbara Chase-Riboud’s latest historical novel retells the story of Sarah Baartman, her the voice of a feminist heroine…‘Hottentot Venus’ borrows from the conventions of a historical romance. There’s rape, betrayal, unrequited love…Her first-person narrative is poetical and masterful.”

“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 conveys Sarah’s victimization so well that the reader is still cringing after the last page is turned…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.”
Publisher’s Weekly

Hottentot Venus conjures the pain of some of the most sensitive and hurtful relations between the powerful and the powerless whatever their color, whatever their gender.-We have never heard Sarah Baartman's voice. But in this chilling and mournful new novel, Chase-Riboud brings back to life a woman whose existence as a symbol has obscured her essence.”
The Washington Post

 “Ultimately, Hottentot Venus is about resurrection. For through the novel, Barbara Chase-Riboud has restored Sarah Baartman's life, her name, her voice, her humanity.”
The Philadelphia Inquierer
“Barbara Chase-Riboud, best known as the author of Sally Hemings, tackles another hot-button historical incident in Hottentot Venus”

“Hottentot Venus is about one of the great obscenities of the so called Enlightenment. Barbara Chase-Riboud's extraordinary novel recovers this riveting story of cultural voyeurism and phtsical cruelty with unblinking historical verisimilitude, ennobling pathos, and unerring narrative pace. This is an important book that lodges in the conscience like a nacre.”
David Levering Lewis, historian and winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Hottentot Venus is an extraordinary book by an extraordinary woman; Barbara Chase-Riboud succeeds brilliantly at everything she turns her hand to: sculpture, history, poetry. This story of brutal racism would seem to be a wholly depressing narrative. On the contrary, by virture of beautiful pacing and writing, the novel is an exhaulting experience for the reader; and it rises to such heights at the end, that we experience a true epiphany. Like Beloved and Cry, the Beloved Country, this book is essential.”
Caroline Kizer, member of the Academy of American Poets and winner of the Pulitzer Prize