Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

Sophia Poole: Writing the Self, Scribing Egyptian Women

Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

Sophia Poole: Writing the Self, Scribing Egyptian Women

Article excerpt

Sophia Poole (1804-91) was the sister of the Arabist Edward William Lane, She visited Egypt and wrote a book, in three volumes, about Egyptian women which was meant to be a companion book to Lane's Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians (1836). The Englishwoman in Egypt (1844-46), always regarded as a correct and objective representation of Egyptian women, is also a reflection of the writer's own visualization and inscription of her identity. Poole, this article argues, defined herself as both an English person and a woman, two aspects that were hard to reconcile at the time. Poole was faced with a conflict which she tried to resolve by both complying with her gender identity and creating a role for herself as a functional Britisher. Yet, she did this largely at the expense of Egyptian women.


Sophia Poole, sister of the Arabist Edward William Lane, established herself as a writer after the publication of her text, The Englishwoman in Egypt (1844-46). The text was pronounced a success immediately after its publication, enjoyed a good reception, and a second edition of it appeared the following year in America (Kararah 153). According to Stanley Lane-Poole, the writer's grandson, who is regarded as an authority on the topic, The Englishwoman in Egypt "gained for her [Poole] ... a place in literature" (121). After the lapse of a century and a half, in 1994, Jane Robinson, author of the anthology of women travelers, Wayward Women, wrote of Poole:

   When her highly popular accounts of a lady's life in 
   Egypt were published back in London, they caused a mild 
   sensation. It might be permissible for a learned chap like 
   Lane to immerse himself in the exotic culture of the 
   East--but an Englishwoman? A Christian wife and mother 
   dressing herself up in Turkish "trousers" and visiting 
   the city's harems? Living in what she insisted is a haunted 
   house, and witnessing barbarous murders almost on 
   her own doorstep? And, worst of all, taking Turkish baths 
   with the natives? Sophia tempered the sensationalist--with 
   a serious study--to complement Lane's Manners 
   and Customs of the Modern Egyptians--of the habits and 
   customs of harem life in Cairo ... and qualified herself 
   admirably to write a definitive text to Filth's stupendous 
   photographs of Egypt in the 1850s. (Robinson 305. 
   Emphasis in original.) 

Robinson's writing on Poole is representative of the current feminist view of our writer. Robinson makes the double argument of the oppression of white women under white patriarchy, and points out Poole's admirable qualification of herself as a competent writer whose work can be placed on equal footing with Lane's and Francis Frith's. Such readings create the double problematic of constructing the female self as a one coherent self that verges on the heroic, thereby following in the footsteps of patriarchal definition and practice. Such readings also tend to applaud imperial perceptions and colonial collaboration rather than acknowledge the rights of the topic of the text along with those of its writer. Robinson's important reference book indeed echoes the initial reception of The Englishwoman in Egypt. Poole's efforts and courage were celebrated by Victorian male reviewers, ironically much praised because coming from an inferior gender, a mere woman. (1)

The Englishwoman in Egypt: The Egypt in the Englishwoman

On his third visit to Egypt the by then renowned author of The Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians (1836) persuaded his sister together with her two sons to join him for a long residence in the country for the explicit purpose of her supplying a complementary account to Lane's, one that would be descriptive of the harem to which he was not allowed access. (2) While Lane supplied the "objective" in the form of geography and history, his sister supplied the female, personal and the domestic, simultaneously diluting and fetishizing his authorial account, ultimately lulling and popularizing the academic into the descriptive and anecdotal. …

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