The Emperor’s Babe

The Emperor’s Babe is historical fiction, written as an “autobiography” in verse.  The story is told by Zuleika, who is a poet and the book is written as a series of poems.

Zuleika, the daughter of Sudanese immigrants, lives in Roman occupied London (Londinium)) in AD 211. She and her friend Alba “were the wild girls of Londinium”, “partners in crime.”  As an eleven year old child, Zuleika is married off to Felix, a much older, successful Roman.  She spends her time as a girl about town, providing the reader with a view of life in Londinium.

As an aristocratic wife, she benefits from her husband’s position, but is unhappy. Throughout the book Zuleika thinks about who she really is:  Londinio or Nubian?   She begins to write poetry, which help her express her feelings of identity.

She begins an affair with Septimius Severus, the Emperor of Rome.  The story becomes more serious and darker, describing the depravity of Roman society, especially as related in Zuleika’s visit to the amphitheatre.

The book was a different sort of read for me, confusing at first, but a rhythm developed as the story progressed.  The story uses Latin and modern words. I think the author may have done this to show the connection between Londinium in AD 211 and the space of today’s London. The author states “There are many parallels to be made between Londinium and contemporary Britain/London, and I simply played on this to make the period more lively and accessible, as well as using language to do this.  The language that Zuleika uses is very now, very modern.  The novel is peppered with Latin, Italian, Cockney-rhyming slang, patois, American slang, pidgin Scots-Latin, and in the case of Severus, broken English.  Using language in this way greatly aids characterization as well as making the text dynamic.” (McCarthy). I found this somewhat distracting (was the word “glamour puss” ever used in ancient Londinium ?) (Evaristo p.35)Perhaps the use of modern slang was used to make the characters more familiar to today’s reader.

I can see the author’s use of modern street names as another way of connecting Londinium and today’s London. I think this may show how Zuleika “occupies” the space of London.

In the article “Revisiting the Black Atlantic: Bernardine Evaristo’s Blonde Roots.”, the point is made that Bernardine Evaristo portrays Londinium as similar to today’s London.  The article states “Evaristo portrays London as a conglomerate of cultures, accents and peoples that very much resembles the multicultural metropolis of today.”  (Munoz-Valdivieso).

As Evaristo herself suggests, “in one sense, The Emperor’s Babe is a dig at those Brits who still harbour ridiculous notions of ‘racial’ purity and the glory days of Britain as an all-white nation” (McCarthy).

The story ends sadly, although I am not entirely clear as to how it occurs.  The emperor dies, Zuleika’s affair is discovered, and Zuleika discusses her funeral with Alba. Is she murdered?  Is she dreaming of being strangled? Does she commit suicide?  I would be interested in hearing from the class regarding the ending and their overall impression of the book, which was a very different kind of read.

Evaristo, Bernardine.  The Emperor’s Babe. London: Penguin Books, Ltd. , 2001. Book.

McCarthy, Karen “Q&A with Bernardine Evaristo”. Valparaiso Poetry Review VIV.2(2003):

Munoz-Valdivieso, Sofia. “Revisiting the Black Atlantic: Bernardine Evaristo’s Blonde Roots.” Interactions 19.1-2 (2010): 53+. Academic OneFile. Web. 27 June 2013

Image: The Londinium of the Emperor’s Babe



The Emperor’s Babe


         The Emperor’s Babe is a beautiful novel written in verse and follows young Zuleika through her life in Londinium. The novel forms a commentary on the various kinds of oppression of people and small liberations found within these spaces of restriction. As Londinium itself serves as a community made mostly of slaves and immigrants, the place is a practiced space of many different forms of restrictions; whether those restrictions are set by race, gender, age, or general poverty. The spaces in The Emperor’s Babe are interesting to analyze because they are chosen and dictated by others. Many, if not all, of the spaces that we inhabit on a daily basis are by choice, our social spaces being reflections of our interests and the people that we most easily develop relationships with, our homes representing wealth and social status, and how we think about and describe these places all evolve from a common discourse that stemmed from our choice to spend time in these spaces. By having our spaces predetermined for us, the perception of these spaces are then complicated because the spaces were not constructed by choice. This would lead to an entirely different dialect to stem from the spaces and alter the perception of space. Many of the spaces that the characters inhabit represent a sense of oppression to them.

Even in instances of slavery and arranged marriages, the spaces that these characters inhabit cannot be defined as definitively restrictive. Michel Foucault states in his interview on “Space, Power, and Knowledge” that he “does not think that it is possible to say that one thing is of the order of ‘liberation’ and another is of the order of ‘oppression’…there always remain the possibilities of resistance, disobedience, and oppositional groupings” (Foucault 135). I believe that Foucault’s theory is tested and enforced in The Emperor’s Babe because Zuleika is able to find power in areas of her life within the confines of the space that she inhabits. While slavery and Londinium serve as symbols of oppression, as well as the arranged marriage, Zuleika is still able to find liberation in her affair with Septimius Severus and her sexual endeavors. Being a woman is usually observed in books as a badge of oppression; constantly being expected to conform to societal norms and the needs of men. However, Zuleika uses her womanhood throughout the book as her badge of liberation and resistance. Her sexuality is what gives her the most power. In sexual endeavor’s Zuleika is able to have complete control over the situation, making men become submissive to her desires. She teases to seduce, asking “who’s the boss?” (Evaristo 226) until men beg for her and give in to her control.

Perhaps one of the most interesting quotes in the book was Zuleika’s statement that “we exist only in the reflection of others” (Evaristo 139). I really liked this quote but I feel that it could be taken in two different ways. First, that we exist by comparison to other people and every emotion that we experience exists in comparison to other emotions. The poor are considered poor because the wealthy existed. If there were no wealthy, then there would be no poor. I believe that this interpretation of the quote can again be applied to the commentary on how people perceive the spaces that they inhabit. Due to Londinium being representative of an oppressive space, the people who live within the confines of its boundaries are aware of the world that exists outside and therefore aware of their oppression. However, the people within Londinium would not be unhappy with their space nor would they feel oppressed if they were unaware of a better world by comparison outside of those boundaries. Also, people constantly compare themselves to the people around them, which cause us to see faults in other people and create an image of what we do not wish to be, but also see things that we envy in others and attempt to embody those qualities. This nature causes a cyclical habit of creating ourselves to reflect or rebel against the images of how others portray themselves.

The second way I believe that this quote can be interpreted is in regards to Foucault’s theory of the Panopticon effect. This theory stems from a prison known as the Panopticon, in which the cells were made of glass and encircled around a large, cylinder watch tower that the prisoners could not see into. By not being able to see into the watch tower, the prisoners were therefore unaware of the moments when they were under surveillance and assumed that they were constantly being watched. This paranoia of constantly being observed provoked the prisoners to regulate their own behavior, leading to one of the best behaved prisons in history. Foucault applies this model to the social world, by arguing that people regulate themselves and their actions based on the belief that they are constantly being watched and monitored by all of society, which has a set of expectations and norms for everyone to fulfill. The characters in The Emperor’s Babe therefore believe that they are constantly being watched and regulate their behaviors to succumb to societies demands in order to best fit in. The only time the characters seem to find instances of rebellion against this are in sexual endeavors.

Interesting Links:

Oppressive Spaces, Social Networks, and the Panopticon

Interview with Bernardine Evaristo

Mourning in Tracy Chevalier’s Falling Angels

Jay's Mourning Warehouse

Jay’s Mourning Warehouse

While reading Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier, I was struck by Lavinia Waterhouse’s “The Complete Guide to Mourning Etiquette” found on page 102. Never had I heard of such strict, elaborate steps that people at this point in history followed while mourning. I myself haven’t had to grieve anyone since I was five years old; all I remember is everyone wearing a lot of black and going to church for a while. After completing the novel I decided to do a little research on the Victorian mourning process and found two articles:

The first I found on Chevalier’s website and it more or less summarized the information she provides through the characters in her novel. Chevalier writes that “the rules for who wore what and for how long were complicated, and were outlined in popular journals or household manuals such as The Queen and Cassell’s – both very popular among Victorian housewives” and later notes that “men had it easy.” Returning to the text, we see this present in Lavinia’s “Complete Guide” where there is a page and a half dedicated to how women have to mourn and three lines about how gentlemen are expected to mourn. Now, Chevalier starts the online article by writing that ““mourning clothes were a family’s outward display of their inner feelings,” and I argue that due to the fact that women were expected to go out and buy what sounds like an extensive amount of new, “appropriate” clothing to wear for up to two years (depending on the person she is mourning) and mourn for the longest amount of time, this social practice is perpetuating gender stereotypes.

Since the women wear mourning clothes for longer periods of time and the clothes signify one’s inner grieving, that leads to the idea that women are more emotional and weakened by mourning more than men are. Not only that, but because the information about mourning was provided through magazines mainly read by women (the top of this post features a lovely ad for Jay’s Mourning Warehouse, found in a popular women’s magazine at the time), women were expected to discipline their physical bodies in order to be accepted by society. The theme of body discipline and deviance is mentioned another time throughout the novel, when Kitty Coleman wears an outfit that exposes her legs during the women’s protest. Simon comments that Kitty “wears a short green tunic belted in the middle…She’s got bare legs, from her ankles up to—well, up high…everyone’s staring at Kitty Coleman’s legs” (244). Again, the society is condemning a woman for not disciplining her body to fit into society’s idea of appropriate conduct for a woman.

Keeping in mind that Chevalier is a contemporary author, the significance of focusing on the mourning throughout the novel is quite intriguing. After her sister Ivy’s death, a passage in the novel has Lavinia reflecting on her purchases for the mourning process; in order to properly mourn Ivy, the women purchase two black dresses, one cotton petticoat, two pairs of bloomers, one black hat with a veil, two pairs of gloves, seven handkerchiefs, two hundred sheets of stationery, and one hundred remembrance cards. The second piece I found on the mourning process comments on how “by the  middle of the century, funerals had become such big business.” Chevalier brings to light how ridiculous the grieving process was through Lavinia’s obsession with it, but more importantly comments on how something as personal and sensitive as the mourning process was heavily regulated for businesses to make money. The absurdity of capitalism in London, both during the Victorian Era and today, is evident throughout the novel. Tying it all back to the theme of women writing London and mapping Englishness, Chevalier, through Kitty and the mourning process, sheds light on the discipline society places on women’s bodies. This type of regulation, especially enforced through the fashion industry and advertising, still targets women’s bodies and masks it behind the idea that it’s for the betterment and health of the society.

The Emperor’s Babe

Because The Emperor’s Babe dealt with a lot of history that I’m not familiar with, I decided to find an interview with Bernardine Evaristo to help get a better understanding of the text. Karen McCarthy of Valparaiso Poetry Review interview Evaristo about the book here:

One of the aspects that really struck me about The Emperor’s Babe was Zuleika’s relationship with Valeria and Aemilia, her slaves. Evaristo comments in the interview that “Zuleika’s husband Felix buys her two Scottish women as slaves and I was interested in the way Zuleika reacts to them. What struck me is how rarely we read about slavery as something that occurred outside of the black/white axis…What [Zuleika] finds difficult to take on board is the fact that they are suffering because of their position as slaves.  She’d rather not dwell on their pain as her own is at times so overpowering.” Zuleika is, in my opinion, a slave to her forced marriage to Felix. She was young when she left home, and grew up in a world with two extremes: she has luxuries at her disposal but very limited freedom. When Valeria and Aemilia are enslaved to Zuleika, she cannot help but abuse them similar to how Felix abuses her.

When the slaves ask her if they can get married, Zuleika thinks “they had never spoken of needs before. / What New Age thing was this?” (205). What’s interesting is one of the next lines, where she thinks “what would I do without these two? / We’ve virtually grown up together.” Zuleika was still growing and was barely a teenager when she married Felix and started living this sort of life. The relationship between her and the slaves isn’t just they work and please Zuleika, but they are to some degree like members of her family or her friends (at least to her anyway). She doesn’t understand that Aemilia and Valerie have needs of their own, like getting married and having their own lives, because that was all decided for her. Her lack of comprehension is obvious when she thinks “other slaves were no more than sexual/ chattels, or worked like mules, / or wore hand-me-downs- I’d dressed/ these two in bloody Gucci, for Jove’s sake? / Now I am responsible for their needs?”

The fact that Zuleika is somewhat a slave to her husband and that lifestyle yet still treats the slaves in her hands poorly speaks to how Evaristo portrays women’s role in London. Women have been oppressed by patriarchy and the institution of marriage for centuries; many women haven’t benefited from marriage in terms of sexual pleasure, personal autonomy or economically. Felix doesn’t allow Zuleika to have any of these rights throughout the story. But even through her oppression, Zuleika chooses not to give Valerie and Aemilia and of these rights either. These circumstances speak to the complexity of the oppression of women in modern day society (and the time period Evaristo is writing about, I would assume!) and how it’s not as simple as men only oppressing women. We are socialized to be oppressed and to perpetuate this oppression; Zuleika has the opportunity to allow her slaves some sort of freedom to choose to be married and achieve some personal autonomy, but she refuses this opportunity.

Another point that Evaristo brings up in the interview is how “Britain has always been multicultural, and to a greater or lesser extent, multiracial, certainly from the 16th Century when there were significant Black populations in the country.  So, in one sense, The Emperor’s Babe is a dig at those Brits who still harbour ridiculous notions of “racial” purity and the glory days of Britain as an all-white nation.” I’ve definitely fallen into the trap of thinking about London as a center for only white, male authors; most of the literature I was assigned in high school was written by white European men. Evaristo challenges this misrepresentation of the history of London and modern day London.