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The Cruel Hoaxing of Pierre Loti

The French novelist Pierre Loti caused a stir in the 1900s when he championed the cause of Turkish women. But just who were the three veiled women who gave him his information? Ömer Koç reports on an infamous literary deception

The East is a career, said Disraeli, and the life of Pierre Loti is a perfect example of Disraeli’s dictum. Just as he filled his house at Rochefort with exotica, so he crammed his writing career with novels set in a gamut of places stretching from Tahiti to Turkey, from Isfahan to Japan.

Loti’s first novel, Aziyadé, which he published anonymously in 1879, is set in Turkey. It tells of the love of an English naval officer stationed in Istanbul and a young Circassian woman married to a much older Turk. Aziyadé, which became popular both in France and in Turkey, endeared Loti to the Turks and vice versa. Except for Turkish food, Loti loved everything Turkish and proved an indefatigable friend of the country. He understood well the spirit of the Turks, and no writer, except perhaps Gautier in Constantinople, has so touchingly described the charm and beauty of Istanbul.

When Les Désenchantées, one of Loti’s later novels, also set in Turkey, was serialised in the Revue des Deux Mondes, it was an instant success. It is the story of three indomitable, over-educated, upper-class Turkish girls, two sisters and their cousin, who epitomised for Loti the suffereings and constraints of a traditional restricted way of life imposed on the new breed of Turkish women. When it was published in book form in 1906, it met with even greater success…

Perhaps the most important reason for the work’s popularity was the dramatic discovery that it was based on fact. In January 1906 two of the three women on whom Loti had modelled his heroines fled from Turkey, fearing that their identity would be disclosed. Although it was known that Loti’s novels were mainly autobiographical, there had always been some doubt as to what extent they were the result of his actual experience. Aziyadé was thought by many to be wholly imaginary. The flight of the two Turkish women fuelled the public’s curiosity and, by confirming the factual basis of the plot, ensured a dazzling reception for the book…

The story of Les Désenchantées is the story of a huge hoax…

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Issue 3, 1992/93 The Pink House
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Other Highlights from Cornucopia 3
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  • The Pink House

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Issue 3, 1992/93 The Pink House
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