The motif of Orientalism played an important role in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literary works in Europe. Fueling the creative imaginations of artists, literary figures, and in fact all of Europe, this fascination with the Orient also influenced many of the Romantic writers, who situated novels and poetry alike in the mysterious far-off lands of Turkey, India, the Middle-East, and Asia. Relations between East and West first gained widespread political and social importance during the Crusades (1096-1271), when religious hostility between the Muslim and Christian worlds exploded into a power struggle to recapture lands taken by the “Infidels.” However, while failing to successfully recapture the Holy Land, the Crusades opened up increasingly accessible channels to the East. Returning Crusaders brought back stories and goods from the far-off lands they had seen, which excited the popular imagination and created a thirst for greater contact with the Orient. The East became an intriguing destination for travelers, many of whom went on to write about their experiences in exotic lands among unfamiliar peoples and customs. Further, the establishment of trade routes, and the placement of European diplomats, dignitaries, and a military presence in Eastern countries brought more frequent contact and greater familiarity with the once virtually unknown Orient.
Although the earliest travelogues written by Westerners depicted inhabitants of the Orient as “Noble Savages,” they also provided sources of inspiration for Western writers. Scholars point out that there were approximately seventy travel books written during the period between 1775 and 1825. One of the most famous accounts were the letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who visited Istanbul in 1717 while accompanying her husband, Lord Montagu, Ambassador of the Levant Company, on a trip to Turkey. Her “Turkish Letters,” published posthumously in 1763, described harem life for the first time for English readers. Considered scandalous because of Lady Montagu's detailed, nonjudgmental observations of Oriental sexual practices and the custom of polygamy, this work enthralled readers and became a favorite source of information for many writers. In addition to travelogues, this time period was marked by a flowering of scholarship on Eastern literature, history, philosophy, and religion. George Sale completed his translation of the Koran, and such scholars as William Jones (who translated from Arabic, Persian, Hebrew, and Sanskrit) acquainted Western readers for the first time with such texts as the Mahabharata and the Arabian Nights. The Arabian Nights in particular became a favorite in Europe, giving rise to an enormous number of imitators who wrote their own Oriental tales and romances. In a wider context, the vogue for Orientalism was also aided by historic events: Napoleon's expedition to Egypt in 1798 called attention to the military as well as the cultural importance of that region, and the Greek War of Independence (1821-28) enjoyed widespread support in England, most notably from Lord Byron, who personally traveled to Greece to join the forces fighting against the Ottoman Turks. Additionally, colonization by England and other Western countries meant that many more people traveled to the Orient and eventually shared their experiences in written form, giving rise to a large body of memoirs, diaries, geographies, histories, and manuals.
In literature as well as in art, the Orient became associated with lush landscapes, eroticism, mystery, rich costume, and fierce military campaigns. English Romantic writers in search of the unusual and picturesque soon began to incorporate Oriental themes and subjects into their works. Many scholars consider William Beckford's novel Vathek (1786) a landmark of Orientalism. An Eastern romance, it is set in an imaginary Arabian or Turkish land. Its protagonist, the Caliph Vathek, who is half human and half demon, indulges his sensual appetite, faces djinns and genii, and winds up damned to eternal torment in a variation of the Faust theme. While this work has long been considered the prime example of the Orientalist craze in Europe, more recent critics have pointed out that, despite its Oriental trappings, its themes are essentially Western ones. Moreover, Beckford relied on Oriental detail to such an excessive extent in Vathek that the work simultaneously becomes a parody of the style. Romantic writers Lord Byron, Thomas Moore, Robert Southey, and many others nevertheless continued to write in the Orientalist mode, mining the texts of Sir William Jones and other Oriental scholars for details about primitive Oriental landscape, dress, and military strategy, which they incorporated into their works. The Romantic emphasis on liberty also politicized their poetry, so that many of the Orientalist works—for example, Robert Southey's Thalaba (1801), Thomas Moore's Lalla Rookh (1817), and Lord Byron's “Turkish Tales”—depict the struggle to overthrow a powerful Oriental tyrant.
Critics who have studied Orientalism in Europe, especially in nineteenth-century literature, have pointed out that there is much that can be learned about the West's image of itself through the way Western writers have depicted the Orient. Recently, scholars such as Edward W. Said, Eric Meyer, and Jerome Christensen have focused on ways in which Orientalism reflects European preoccupations. The idea of the Oriental as the “Other,” or mysterious unknown, reflects European concerns about a changing, expanding world full of new uncertainties and questions about one's own identity. To these critics, literary Orientalism must also be viewed in light of colonial expansion by Western countries and is problematized by Western political power and the self-appointed mission of “bringing civilization” to the Orient. Some scholars have pointed out elements of this issue in the works of such poets as Percy Bysshe Shelley and Alfred Lord Tennyson, who were drawn to the mythologies of other cultures but felt bound by their Christianity to distance themselves from such influence. Critics such as Patrick Brantlinger, Reina Lewis, and Alicia Carroll have explored how Orientalism in literature influenced and, in some cases, constituted a critique of British nationalism through characterization, choice of theme, and treatment of both Oriental and domestic settings. Another avenue of criticism concerning Orientalism that has attracted attention is the handling of gender in Orientalist writings. Alan Richardson, Meyda Yeğenoğlu, and Joseph W. Lew, among others, have written about the role of women, especially in the writings of Lord Byron, where the veiled Muslim woman symbolizes the ultimate “Other” who can also reveal much about the individual confronting her as well as about Western patriarchy. The wealth of material concerning the Orient that was produced in nineteenth-century Europe allows for a unique understanding of the development of East-West relations, and ensures continued vigorous scholarly interest in Orientalism.