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date: 21 August 2017

Orientalism in the Victorian Era

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature. Please check back later for the full article.

Orientalism in the Victorian era may have its origins in three aspects of 18th-century European and British culture: first, the fascination with The 1001 Nights (translated into French by Antoine Galland in 1704), which was one of the first works to have purveyed to Western Europe the image of the Orient as a place of wonders, wealth, mystery, intrigue, romance, and danger; second, the Romantic visions of the Orient as represented in the works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, George Gordon, Lord Byron, and other Romantics as well as in Thomas Moore's Lalla Rookh; and third. what might be called the domestication of opium addiction in Thomas de Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater.

Victorian Orientalism is all pervasive. It is prominent in fiction by William Thackeray, the Brontë sisters, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Joseph Conrad, and Rudyard Kipling, but it is also found in works by Benjamin Disraeli, George Eliot, Oscar Wilde, and Robert Louis Stevenson, among others. In poetry, Edward Fitzgerald's Rubaiyat is a key text, but many works by Alfred Tennyson and Robert Browning also show the influence of Orientalist tropes and ideas. In theater, it is one of the constant strands of much popular drama and other forms of popular entertainment like panoramas and pageants, while travel writing, from Charles Kingsley to Richard Burton, James Antony Froude, and Mary Kingsley, shows a wide variety of Orientalist figures and concepts, as do many works of both popular and children's literature. Underlying and uniting all these diverse manifestations of Victorian Orientalism is the imperialist philosophy articulated by writers as different as Thomas Carlyle, John Stuart Mill, and Karl Marx, supported by writings of anthropologists and race theorists such as James Cowles Pritchard and Robert Knox.

Towards the end of the Victorian era, the image of the opium addict and the Chinese opium den in the East End of London, or in the Orient itself, becomes a prominent trope in fiction by Dickens, Wilde, and Kipling, and can be seen to lead to the proliferation of Oriental villains in popular fiction of the early 20th century by such writers as M. P. Shiel, Guy Boothby, and Sax Rohmer, whose Dr. Fu Manchu becomes the archetypal version of such figures.