- Degeneration, Regeneration, and the Moral Parameters of Greekness in Thomas Hope’s Anastasius, or Memoirs of a Greek
Published anonymously in 1819, Anastasius, or Memoirs of a Greek Written at the Close of the Eighteenth Century caused a stir among a reading public that had been abundantly regaled with verse and prose narratives about the Levant1 over the last hundred years or so.2 Unlike other products of the exoticist imagination, the text appeared to project an 'authentic' image of the Ottoman Empire. This feature, together with its narrative complexity, controversial morality and the protagonist's resemblance to Byron's 'fatal men', led some of its early readers to assume that it had been written by the illustrious poet himself. However, the author of Anastasius was Thomas Hope, a wealthy dilettante of Dutch-Scottish descent with a serious interest in architecture, painting, sculpture, costume- and furniture-design and a sorry reputation for eccentric pranks and displays of conspicuous consumption. That he also possessed a literary talent seemed incredible at first. This might explain the surprise and disbelief with which the serious press reacted to the news of Hope's authorship.3 Chagrined by this reaction, Hope wrote a letter to the Editor of Blackwood's Magazine asserting his familiarity with life in the Ottoman Empire and insisting that his novel was a vehicle for his own extensive observations on the East. Furthermore, it had been completed long before 'Lord Byron's admirable productions appeared'.4
As David Watkin has suggested, the published text of Anastasius may have been based on notes written in French in the course of Hope's youthful tour of Turkey, Egypt, Syria, and Greece in the 1780s.5 However, it seems reasonable to assume that the original version was revised as it was translated into English and might thus have imbibed certain Byronic elements in the process. The debate over the authorship of Anastasius, though, is instructive insofar as it provides insights into early nineteenth-century British social and cultural life. Hope's impressive career [End Page 177] as a writer, collector, patron of eminent artists, and practitioner of the 'applied arts' (a term he himself coined) could not dispel prejudice and gain him the recognition he so well deserved. While we should in principle resist the sentimental impulse of commiserating with him on account of his position as 'a displaced Dutchman with Scottish background [sic]',6 we should nevertheless acknowledge the resentment that he awakened in a society that was resolutely moving away from the residual cosmopolitanism of the Enlightenment. Repeated gibes at such signs of Hope's 'foreignness' as an 'effeminate face and manner' and 'broken English'7 and sneers at the triviality of his aesthetic pursuits clearly testify to his contemporaries' growing adherence to notions of cultural and national purity and their corresponding distrust of figures that appeared hybrid or 'impure'.
The dismissive attitude to Hope might explain the relative neglect into which his novel fell after the initial interest it aroused in the 1820s. This tendency is evident even in the present, despite the enduring critical favour for historicism and the corresponding interest in long-forgotten texts and authors. The most recent historicist reading that Hope's novel has inspired is Resçat Kasaba's 'The Enlightenment, Greek Civilization and the Ottoman Empire: Reflections on Thomas Hope's Anastasius' (2003).8 Kasaba claims that his essay 'examines the source and the implications of [the] clash between the enlightenment's [sic] idealized Greeks and the real Greeks of eastern Mediterranean [sic] through a close reading of [the text]'.9 The examination is intended to reveal Hope's 'tough' view of the 'real' Greeks as 'too poor, too religious, and too well integrated into the Ottoman Empire to respond to the call' of European Philhellenes for 'the rescue of Greek civilisation from the Turkish rule'.10
My own contention is that Hope's novel fruitfully engages with late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Western European debates over the character and historical destiny of the modern Greeks. Among other things, Anastasius considers the possibility of their forging an identity based on personal integrity and mutually beneficial relations with others. The novel...