A.S. Byatt, Books, Charlotte Bronte, Edgar Allan Poe, Feminism, Harold Bloom, History, Jack the Ripper, Jane Eyre, Literary criticism, Misogyny, One Thousand and One Nights, Scheherazade, Shahrazad, Shahryār, The Arabian Nights, The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade, Whitechapel Murders
Once upon a time Shahryār, the Persian king of all kings, was betrayed in love by his wandering wife. Shahryār exacted his revenge not only upon his wife, who died on the executioner’s mat, but upon every woman who would become his wife. Every day Shahryār would marry a beautiful virgin; in the evening he would deflower her; and then he would have her head lopped off the following morning.
Three years had passed and this femicide had claimed a thousand victims. You might think that a king who had murdered so many beautiful virgins would be lynched by the rest of the male population, but maybe taxes were low.
None of Shahryār’s successive wives could escape the shadow of the faithless original, just as the tone for all femininity had been previously set across the Christian world by Eve’s weakness. Significantly, the woman who would redeem all women would be not required to symbolically reaffirm the innocence of women. Eve, for example, was eventually redeemed by Mary, a mutant superwoman who was somehow both a caring mother and the solemnest of virgins. The transgression of Shahryār’s nameless first wife is expiated by Scheherazade, the daughter of the vizier. Having freely volunteered to marry the king, Scheherazade tells a story to him each night and breaks it off before dawn, so that he has to irresistibly spare her life in order to obtain the ending. With this trickery, there is no evidence that Scheherazade is especially good and her behaviour gives no assurance that she will not betray Shahryār in the future.
The most crucial feature of Scheherazade’s story is that she is more faithful to the city’s young women (a selection of whose heads must now decorate the palace walls like Chinese lanterns) than she is to her husband. The Persian and probably nearer-the-mark version of her name, Shahrázád, means “city-freer.”
Scheherazade would become the all-knowing, all-controlling narrator of the One Thousand and One Nights. She would bring the whole world into Shahryār’s bedroom – all of its recorded history and places – just as her own story would take the drama within Shahryār’s bedroom to all around the world.
She is an overwhelmingly positive figure. She is, in the words of the novelist AS Byatt, “one of the strongest and cleverest heroines in world literature.” She is perhaps the most powerful woman to be found in Western literature before the nineteenth century. She is certainly the most famous fictional character from the Islamic world. The literary critic Harold Bloom has joked that, “Of all the world’s storytellers, Scheherazade is at once the most fecund and the best motivated.” Age cannot wither nor custom stale the infinite variety of her stories.
The censurers say that she is nothing more than a good memory, that she merely recites a load of stories and poems that she did not herself create. Male scholars, so the censurers allege, had dreamt up this figure to function as an unthreatening maternal presence who can temper autocratic excess. Scheherazade is thus Magna Carta in a frock, a reformer rather than a revolutionary. The virtues which she is intended to convey are duty and an ingenious passivity before horrendous, exploitative injustice. Her stories freeze the king into an enchanted statue, as inactive almost as any modern constitutional monarch, but with nothing to put him permanently out of action.
Nonetheless, the different authors of the One Thousand and One Nights are today more anonymous than Shakespeare. Their names have been written in the desert sand whilst that of Scheherazade rings down the ages, from storyteller to storyteller. She may not have created any of her stories, but she has collected them and retold them with her own skill. Hers are the only tellings to survive.
Versions of herself can be discerned looking out of her own stories time and time again. It is a recurring motif: the bewitching female scholar, who is discovered by a court just as Scheherazade was discovered and who consequently stuns her discoverers with her knowledge. Examples of this include the slave girl Tawaddud, who trounces all of the caliphate’s male experts in a public examination (they scamper away defeated in a state of undress, having torn off their robes); and Nuzhat al-Zaman, who showcases her education in front of the court in the story of ‘Umar ibn al-Nu’man and his sons. Scheherazade is effectively multiplied within the One Thousand and One Nights into an army. Or perhaps all of the wives who were executed by Shahryār have been reincarnated in Scheherazade’s tales as heroines and superwomen. Each of these women no doubt carries their own One Thousand and One Nights around in their mind. They are equipped at all times to distract a jinn or a tyrant with a festival of fiction.
Or at least this is part of Scheherazade’s spell – the idea that she walks around with an entire library in her head is often rather wildly attributed to her. She presumably means for us to compare her to the amazing Tawaddud, but she has actually an entire day between each night in which to desperately cobble together her next instalment. I picture her scratching about in musty texts and rummaging amongst already thoroughly-depleted manuscripts. “Oh shit, I’ve used the device of the roc four times before – will he buy it again?” She does not know, of course, that there need be only one thousand and one nights. She must go on the working assumption that the king has to be satisfied indefinitely, until one of them finally drops. Moreover, there is nothing to say that Scheherazade will be relieved of the burden of having to recite ever more dazzling stories once her husband has formally repealed his wife-killing policy. The whole point of his power is that it is capricious and that his word can always change.
I am not sure that Western literature has ever equalled the figure of Scheherazade. I am not sure that it has even done justice to Scheherazade herself. In their Arabian Nights Encyclopaedia (2004), Ulrich Marzolph and Richard van Leeuwen write that Scheherazade “became the heroine of a large number of literary pastiches and Oriental stories in all kinds of creative writing, including music and the cinema… In European literature, film, and art she is usually represented as an attractive and lascivious femme fatale.” The encyclopaedists protest that “the Arab sources… describe her as a learned and intelligent woman.” The “femme fatale” imagery typically ramps up the sex in order to do down the scholarship.
For all of the liveliness of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade” (1845) you are left acutely aware that this short story has only resorted to humour defensively. The joke here is the discovery of a lost manuscript which reveals that Scheherazade was in fact executed a day after the original Arabian Nights had ended happily ever after. Ironically, the rambling “eighth” adventure of Sinbad the Sailor which finally provokes her husband’s outraged cries of “Absurd!” and “Preposterous!” is a catalogue of real-life wonders (e.g. hot air balloons and Babbage’s calculating machine). This is just a bit of fun, you might think, but Poe is still on the king’s side. Scheherazade is undone, the daily executions resume, and femininity does not escape from the shadow of Eve:
… Scheherazade, who, being lineally descended from Eve, fell heir, perhaps, to the whole seven baskets of talk, which the latter lady, we all know, picked up from under the trees in the garden of Eden.
It is unimaginable that a man of Poe’s mind could have set Scheherazade down straight. He could not have stared into this sun and met the gaze of such an empowered, knowledgeable female.
More encouragingly, Robert Irwin, who edits the latest translation of the One Thousand and One Nights, notes that, “in its broadest outline, [Charlotte Brontë’s] Jane Eyre is patterned on the frame story of the Nights… the novel is, in short, the story of how the autocratic sultan is tamed by a good woman.” Rochester’s horse, Mesrour, indeed appears to be named after the eunuch, Masrur, who accompanies the caliph Harun al-Rashid on many a midnight adventure in the Nights. It seems less than certain that the Victorian period could have ever come up with Jane Eyre by itself. The animating spark in Jane’s character is the drop of blood which she has inherited from Scheherazade, though unlike Scheherazade she is a revolutionary rather than a reformer. Harold Boom has whimpered of how, “Rochester is all but castrated by Charlotte, since his maiming and blinding by the plot is so curiously gratuitous… in the process of taming him into a mate suitable for Jane Eyre.” This in the end renders Jane Eyre too much of a wish-fulfilment to locate the credibility that it needs.
The height of Shahryār’s influence in the Victorian period is not to be found in literature or even in the arts at all. Although the king had ordered a woman to be executed every day, the anonymous individual who was responsible for the Whitechapel murders of 1888 did not proceed at quite this rate. Whether or not he was literate, “Jack the Ripper” was undoubtedly familiar with the story of King Shahryār. He probably also encountered a Scheherazade of his own. The killings simply stopped, without the murderer being apprehended, and so perhaps he was laid up in a garret somewhere whilst a prostitute desperately fended him off with cliffhanger after cliffhanger.
[This is an excerpt or a cut from a forthcoming series of essays which is based around Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1885 portmanteau novel The Dynamiter. There will be either eight or ten instalments, dedicated to such themes as the Victorian city, Fenian terrorism, and immigration. Hopefully, posting will have commenced by Easter.]