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.