The Slippery Signifier
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AT THE TURN OF THE NINETEENTH CENTURY, THE OTTOMAN EMPIRE ACTED as a particular counterpoint in a growing repertoire of imaginative landscapes that included Catholic Europe, colonized India and the once-Edenic America. The way in which Romantic writers utilized Ottoman geography constitutes a specific kind of British self-fashioning that simultaneously exculpated and condemned revolutionary ambitions, reform philosophies, and commercial policies in a number of imperial pursuits throughout the world. This study traces the uses of the figure of the Turk and the Ottoman Empire by Romantic writers in a variety of literary genres. It particularizes the brand of Orientalism that British writers envisioned at a time when the British Empire was redefining its own status as an empire in the East.1 By the early eighteenth century, knowledge of the Ottoman Empire was widely available as a way to figure despotism or ineffectual government for whatever reason the writer needed. Throughout this study, I focus on the three primary ways in which the Ottoman Empire represented despotism: its treatment of the Greeks; the institution of the Harem; and the failure of the empire to modernize itself commercially and industrially. In analyzing the literary uses of these aspects of empire I point out the fundamental instabilities in these issues and the characteristic difficulties writers run into when they try to control their connotations and associations.