By Merryn Allingham
In I set out to send my heroine, Alice Verinder, to Constantinople in search of her sister, though at the time I had only the vaguest notion of Turkish society in the early years of the twentieth century. What I discovered surprised me.
When you read of the Ottoman period in European literature, stereotypes abound. Turkish wives are seen as slaves and chattels, locked away behind harem doors, but the truth was far more nuanced. The legal status of Turkish women of the time was better, in fact, than that of European wives. The Turkish wife had absolute control of her property and the law allowed her to do what she wished with it – either on marriage or if she later inherited. And she could act independently of her husband: maybe sue in court or be sued herself, without regard to him.
Within their own homes, too, Turkish women had more power than was commonly thought and were treated with courtesy and respect. Outside the home, they were similarly respected. It was considered a sin to stare at women in public, for instance. And if a man behaved badly towards a woman, regardless of his position or religion, he would not escape punishment.
Leisure time in the harem.
Good manners were prized in this society and personal cleanliness, too, was seen as essential. Baths and hammams abounded and the harem itself was clean and orderly. Wooden floors were covered with carpets beaten daily, and the rest of the house scrubbed every week. No dirt, dust or footmark was allowed – every man and woman, regardless of rank, would take off their outdoor shoes for indoor slippers. The cleanliness and order of the imperial harem is one of the first things that strikes Alice.
|Bathing Ottoman style — the slave is attentive, read to assist.|
The harem itself was a collection of spacious but sparsely furnished rooms. There was a large meeting room in the middle, with smaller rooms branching off – this was the anteroom where the women socialised, along with their female guests and female slaves. A gallery bordered the whole, with windows most often looking out onto the garden. Any windows that faced the street were covered with latticed shutters. In the homes of the wealthy, marble fountains were sometimes found in the anterooms.
Women spent virtually all their time within these rooms. If there was a garden, they would walk there regularly though always with a companion. If they went out publicly, it was with another woman or with one of their female slaves. Only elderly women could go alone! And so a natural modesty was assured. If a woman’s behaviour aroused the slightest suspicion she might be unchaste, she was despised and her husband and family humiliated. Even neighbours would feel their honour tarnished.
The harem itself was an institution governed by a strict hierarch, extensively and intricately layered.
Also slavery was temporary. White women were obliged to serve as slaves for nine years but black women from Africa only seven, as they were thought less well-suited to a colder climate. When a woman was freed from slavery, she received a legally valid certificate of emancipation. She could ask to stay with her former master’s family for life and would be looked after, or she could request to be married. If she chose to marry, she was given a trousseau, jewellery, home furnishings and often a house of her own. The freed slave received a pension of life from his or her master and would keep strong ties with their former family. Many former slave women, particularly those trained in the harems of the elite, married men of high position.
As a result, it was possible to see slavery as a vehicle of upper mobility, a social ladder, rather than a badge of disdain. This is something that Lydia Verinder, a keen suffragette, finds almost impossible to understand. Many young girls from poor families volunteered to become slaves, or their families sold them into slavery, believing they would have a better future. Others might be captured during tribal raids and sold to slave dealers for profit.
In an imperial palace like Topkapi, most slave girls were not concubines – only those at the top of the palace training system, who excelled in intelligence, character and accomplishments as well as beauty, were eligible as concubine candidates. In addition to being a residence for the royal family, the imperial harem was a training institution – a kind of royal finishing school. The women destined to be concubines were often trained by the sultan’s mother herself. The Valide Sultan in has complete control over every woman and every slave in the imperial harem.
Dancing and music were some of the skills a concubine in the imperial harem would need. (A Harem by J.G. Delincourt).
Other young slave girls were assigned to an experienced slave woman who trained them in elaborate Ottoman etiquette. The girls would be taught to speak and read Turkish and also taught the basic beliefs and practices of Islam. They learned to sew and embroider and, if they had musical talent, taught to play an instrument or to sing or dance. Both Alice and Lydia are, at different times, entranced by the skills of the women they live with.
My heroines soon have their preconceptions shattered. Yet they both find Topkapi a mysterious and often threatening place. Never more so than when Alice shows herself determined to uncover her sister’s fate and by doing so, faces danger at every turn.
A Tale of Two Sisters
Separated by time and distance, two sisters seek answers for all they’ve lost.
When Alice Verinder’s beloved sister Lydia goes missing, Alice boards the Orient Express bound for Topkapi Palace in Constantinople, determined to find her.
Lydia was governess to the Sultan’s young children and though her letters spoke of exotic delights and welcoming hosts, the reception Alice receives is decidedly cold and answers unforthcoming.
Now, as Alice digs deeper into the secrets of a land foreign to her she has only Englishman Harry Frome to help her. But as their search uncovers unforeseen dangers and exposes an unexpected passion, is Alice ready for the truths they’ll uncover?
Pick up your copy of
A Tale of Two Sisters.
Merryn Allingham was born into an army family and spent her childhood moving around the UK and abroad. Unsurprisingly it gave her itchy feet and in her twenties she escaped from an unloved secretarial career to work as cabin crew and see the world.
Merryn still loves to travel and visit new places, especially those with an interesting history, but the arrival of marriage, children and cats meant a more settled life in the south of England, where she has lived ever since. It also gave her the opportunity to go back to 'school' and eventually teach at university.
She has written seven historical novels, all mysteries with a helping of suspense and a dash of romance - sometimes set in exotic locations and often against a background of stirring world events. Her latest novel, A Tale of Two Sisters, is set in Constantinople at the turn of the 20th century when rebellion within the Ottoman Empire is growing ever louder. Against this background the novel traces the fate of two sisters, Alice and Lydia Verinder, and explores themes of family, love and loss.