Excerpt from Seraglio by Janet Wallach, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reading Guide |  Reviews |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio


by Janet Wallach

  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • Published:
    Jan 2003, 336 pages

  • Rate this book

Buy This Book

About this Book

Print Excerpt

"I was humiliated and frightened; nothing seemed familiar. I did not know where I was or even when it was. After the pirates seized our ship I lost all sense of time; clocks and calendars are meaningless conceptions when they have no use. And as for place, in that first thick fog of the baths I watched the women fondling each other and thought I had entered Lesbos or the Limbo of Vanity."

When the bath was finished. She motioned for her old frock and took something from the lining, but the dress was no longer hers to wear. Instead they wrapped her in a linen towel and slipped tortoise pattens around her feet. We use the wooden clogs to keep from falling on the slippery marble and to protect us from the heat steaming up from the floor, but though she moved with grace, she found the high heels too treacherous to walk in, and they had to help her into the cooling room of the baths where she seemed grateful for a cold sherbet. She drank the orange ices thirstily, hardly pausing to catch her breath.

In the dressing room next door, they gave her fresh clothes: she stepped into the thin shalwar, hesitant in the pantaloons gathered at her ankles; and then a gauzy blouse that let her breasts show, but she seemed glad for any kind of cover. Over that they slipped an entari, the long, tight-sleeved, silk dress scooped out to plump her bosom and buttoned only at her waist; and a simple linen girdle, without jewels, which she sashed at an angle around her hips. She sighed with relief when she realized she did not have to wear the tortoise pattens outside the bath; like all the others she was given embroidered slippers. Then I led her down the hallway to the mistress chamberlain.

Ordinarily, the queen mother rules the harem, but Sultan Abdul Hamid had bid farewell to his mother long ago, and it was the kahya kadin who ruled us all. An aged virgin appointed by the sultan, who called her "Mother" now, the mistress chamberlain was privileged to carry a silver scepter and to have use of the imperial seal; the only others permitted to do so were the sultan and the grand vezir.

Charged with training hundreds of female slaves, it was her job to make certain that life in the harem ran smoothly: there was a staff of forty just for the padishah, to see to it that everything from his clothes and his jewels, his ablutions and his bath, his syrups and his coffee, his table and his laundry, his musicians and his storytellers were always ready and in perfect order. There was also a staff for the chief black eunuch, and staffs for each of the wives, the favorites--the concubines--and for the mistresses themselves.

Under the mistress chamberlain was a mistress for each area, all of them long past the age that could turn an eye: mistress of the Koran, the coffee service, the treasury, the sherbets, the pantry, the pitcher service, the scribes, the laundry, the wardrobe, the jewels, the embroidery, the coiffures, the ceremonies, the music, and the sick. Those mistresses, in turn, trained the younger women in their service. Lucky were the pretty girls chosen for the sultan's staffs; unlike their superiors who had never slept with a man, they had a good chance of being summoned by the sultan for an intimate rendezvous. If not, the fortunate ones might be chosen as wives for some important man outside the palace, a provincial governor, a pasha, or a military officer. Or if duty called, they might become palace mistresses themselves someday, enriched by material goods if not by matters of the heart.

I indicated to the girl that she should stand still and wait while I approached the silver chair; I bowed deeply and kissed the kahya kadin's sleeve. When I raised my head and saw the hint of a smile upon her face, I knew that she was pleased by the fair-haired virgin; the girl was young, but it was clear she was skilled in social graces and worth twice as much as any peasant we received.

Excerpted from Seraglio by Janet Wallach Copyright© 2003 by Janet Wallach. Excerpted by permission of Nan A. Talese, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Support BookBrowse

Become a Member
and discover your next great read!

Join Today!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: Hag-Seed
    by Margaret Atwood
    There's a scene in The Tempest that many critics have concluded is indicative of Shakespeare&#...
  • Book Jacket: Crossing the Horizon
    Crossing the Horizon
    by Laurie Notaro
    In Crossing the Horizon, Laurie Notaro takes us back to a time when flying was a rare and risky ...
  • Book Jacket
    Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions
    by Mario Giordano
    Munich matron and self-described worldly sophisticate, Isolde Oberreiter, has decided to retire to a...
Book Discussions
Book Jacket
The Bone Tree
by Greg Iles

An epic trilogy of blood and race, family and justice.

About the book
Join the discussion!

First Impressions

  • Book Jacket

    The Next
    by Stephanie Gangi

    Fast-paced, wickedly observant, and haunting in the best sense of the word.

    Read Member Reviews

Win this book!
Win The World of Poldark

Win the book & DVD

Enter to win The World of Poldark and the full first series on DVD.


Word Play

Solve this clue:

One S D N M A S

and be entered to win..

Books that     

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.


Free Weekly Newsletter

Keep up with what's happening in the world of books:
Reviews, previews, interviews and more!

Spam Free: Your email is never shared with anyone; opt out any time.