Work in Progress – The Corsair: A Tale of Female Anarchy

Kirsty J. Harris is a postgraduate researcher at Anglia Ruskin University, interested in the intersections of poetry and maritime history, women’s narratives of the sea, the history of piracy, and queer feminist readings of early nineteenth-century texts. Her thesis is titled ‘In Peril on the Sea: Shipwreck and Loss in Poetry 1805-1822’. Blog | Twitter | Email

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Liberty Leading the People.

Le 28 Juillet: La Liberté Guidant Le Peuple
Eugène Delacroix, 1830
Oil on canvas
© Louvre Museum, Paris

Delacroix has also turned a partially naked woman into a partially nude woman, exerting over the female body an aesthetic control that parallels the taming of the warrior woman in popular balladry. Liberty thus contains her contradictions: She is both a “dirty” revolutionary born of action and an other-wordly, idealised female subject born of a classical artistic inheritance and perhaps a new 19th-century definition of femininity.
Delacroix was reading Byron’s poem ‘The Corsair’ – about piracy – as he was painting Liberty between October and December 1830.

(Marcus Rediker)

There are few things more subversive in maritime history than piracy, however romantically pirates from the Age of Sail have come to be seen in the twenty-first century. Byron’s poem The Corsair is often cited as a purveyor and, sometimes, instigator of this romanticised view of a brutal reality. My research focuses on layers of subversion found within poetry of the sea in the early nineteenth century, and what is interesting about The Corsair in particular is that the violence and truly piratical action in the text does not come from Conrad, the eponymous corsair himself. Instead, the character responsible for murder, jailbreak, vengeance and anarchy is the Turkish harem queen, Gulnare.

By the end of Byron’s poem, Gulnare takes on the same role as Liberty does in Delacroix’s painting, above. Like Liberty, she has been an other-wordly, idealised female subject, described in the second canto as ‘a shape of air’; and ‘so fair a shrine’ (II.433, II.445). Her ‘classical artistic inheritance’ can be seen in the discrete references to figures like Clytemnestra, Medea and Cleopatra when she kills her husband to avenge her own honour. Most significantly though, she is ‘a “dirty” revolutionary born of action’ when she emasculates both Conrad and the Pacha Seyd, commits her vengeful murderer, and leads her people onward in an act of revolution that is both for herself and against their now dead master. Gulnare represents female anarchy, which stands out bold and fierce against the brooding Byronic antihero figure of Conrad and the insipid, fragile heroine Medora.

Maritime Historian Marcus Rediker’s article on female pirates focuses on the histories of earlier eighteenth-century figures like Anne Bonny and Mary Read. He points out that ‘the popular genre of ballads about warrior women such as Bonny and Read was largely suffocated in the early nineteenth century by a new bourgeois ideal of woman-hood. Warrior women […] lacked the now-essential female traits of delicacy, constraint, and frailty’. (WP 108). I am interested in poetic narratives which fight back against this suffocation of female strength in this period. The dominant trend may have been moving toward a more gentle and fragile concept of woman-hood in poetry, but the legacy of the earlier warrior women was not entirely suppressed. Subversive and challenging to begin with, it became even more so when it was placed in direct counterpoint to this gentrification of female characters that Rediker points out.

Gulnare is a good example of the tenacity of the figure, and a character who inverts what was happening across a wider range of literature. Instead of starting as off fierce and becoming tamed, Gulnare first appears in the narrative as a soft, refined queen, described as a ‘slave’ (II.224), weak ‘prey’ (II.206) and ‘wond’rous fair’ (II.434). Through the course of the text we see her gain dominance over both the men to whom she starts off as a subject – her husband, and, of course, Conrad. By the end of the poem she has become the defiant, murderous, female pirate.

She defies her husband to plead for Conrad’s life, and then murders Seyd in an act of vengeance as she is ‘against his rage repelled’ (II.206). She breaks Conrad out of prison and takes command of Seyd’s men, who obey ‘at her sign’ (III.444). At the end of Canto III she is an outlaw who has killed one man and rescued another, before crossing the sea still bearing the ‘fearful spot’ (III.536) of blood from the murder on her forehead. Her ‘female hand’ (III.381) is stronger and more violent than Conrad is at any point, and her consistent bravery and determination make Gulnare the fierce and vengeful hero figure that Conrad never actually manages to be.

She succeeds as a warrior woman because she is active, mutable, and ultimately ungoverned, much like the sea itself. Gulnare abandons her roots and the established order of her life with Seyd and the harem, and changes them for chaos and homelessness; the life of an outcast, a rebel; a murder. She becomes the proof in this poem of Michel Foucault’s concept of a sailing ship as a “heterotopias”, a place separated from all other places and where the social, gendered, and structural divisions of land-based societies no longer function. At the end of the poem Gulnare continues to wield a silent power over Conrad simply by having been an active agent of change. Her subversion is threefold: she is pirate, woman, and renegade queen, a character with a storyline more than worthy of carrying the torch for the historical female outlaws like Bonny and Read.

For further discussion on Gulnare as a pirate warrior woman, see my article ‘My Soul is Changed: Pirate Identity and Shifting Power in Byron’s Corsair’ in Byron Journal Vol.44 No.1 (2016). Available online here.

References

Lord Byron. Complete Poetical Works. Ed. Frederick Page. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970.
— ‘The Corsair: A Tale’. 277-302.

Michel Foucault. ‘Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias’. 1967. Transl. Jay Miskowiec (1984). Available here.

Marcus Rediker. ‘When Women Pirates Sailed the Seas’. In: The Wilson Quarterly Vol. 17 No. 4 (1993). 102-110.

Work in Progress is a regular feature on our blog where members contribute short articles about their current research. If you’d like to contribute a piece, please get in touch!

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