Montesquieu

Usbek to Roxane in the sera­glio in Isfahan


How for­tu­nate you are, Roxane, to be in the fair land of Persia, and not in these poi­so­nous cli­mes where they know nei­ther shame nor vir­tue ! How for­tu­nate you are ! You live in my sera­glio as in the domi­cile of inno­cence, untou­ched by the assaults of all humans ; you have the joy of being hap­pily power­less to fail.1 Never has a man defi­led you with his las­ci­vious gaze ; even your father-in-law during the licence of feasts has never seen your lovely lips ; you have never for­got­ten to wear a sacred head­band to cover them. Fortunate Roxane ! When you have been in the coun­try, you have always eunuchs who wal­ked ahead of you to put to death anyone fool­hardy enough not to flee your sight. What dif­fi­culty even I had, I to whom hea­ven gave you to bring me hap­pi­ness, to take pos­ses­sion of that trea­sure which you defen­ded with such deter­mi­na­tion !2 What a disap­point­ment for me those first days of our mar­riage not to see you ! And what impa­tience once I had seen you ! Yet you did not satisfy it ; you pro­vo­ked it on the contrary with the obs­ti­nate refu­sals of arou­sed shame ; you trea­ted me just like all those men from whom you cons­tantly conceal your­self. Do you remem­ber that day when I lost you amongst your sla­ves, who betrayed you and hid you from my pur­suits ? Do you remem­ber that other day when, seeing that your tears were to no avail, you invo­ked your mother’s autho­rity to check the impe­tuou­sity of my love ? Do you remem­ber, when every resource fai­led you, of those you found in your cou­rage ? You took a dag­ger into your hand, and threa­te­ned to immo­late a hus­band who loved you if he conti­nued to demand from you what was even more dear to you than your hus­band ? Two months were spent in that com­bat of love and vir­tue. You pushed your chaste scru­ples too far ; you did not give in even after you were defea­ted ; you defen­ded an expi­ring vir­gi­nity to the ulti­mate extre­mity ; you regar­ded me as an enemy who had aggres­sed you, and not as a hus­band who had loved you. For more than three months you dared not look at me without blu­shing ; your cons­ter­na­ted mien see­med to reproach me the advan­tage I had taken. I did not even have a tran­quil pos­ses­sion : you hid from me as much as you could of those charms and gra­ces, and I was enthral­led with the grea­test favors without having recei­ved the smal­lest ones.

If you had been rai­sed in this coun­try, you would not have been so upset. Here women have lost all res­traint ; they show them­sel­ves to men with unvei­led faces, as if they wan­ted to ask to be taken ; they look about for them ; they see them in the mos­ques, on strolls,3 at home. The cus­tom of being ser­ved by eunuchs is unk­nown to them ; ins­tead of that noble sim­pli­city and amia­ble modesty that pre­vail reign among us, we see stark impu­dence to which one can­not pos­si­bly become accus­to­med.

Indeed, Roxane, if you were here, you would feel outra­ged at the awful igno­miny to which your sex has des­cen­ded ; you would flee these abo­mi­na­ble halls, and long for that gentle retreat where you find inno­cence, where you are sure of your­self, and where no threat makes you trem­ble ; in short where you can love me without fea­ring you will ever lose the love that you owe to me.

When you high­light the lus­ter of your skin with the love­liest colors, when you per­fume your whole body with the most pre­cious essen­ces ; when you put on your most lovely clo­thes ; when you seek to dis­tin­guish your­self from your com­pa­nions by the gra­ces of dance and the sweet­ness of your sin­ging ; when you gra­ciously rival them for charm, sweet­ness, and light-hear­ted­ness, I can­not ima­gine that you have any other pur­pose than to give me plea­sure ; and when I see you blush modestly, and see your eyes seek mine, when you find your way to my heart with your sweet and flat­te­ring words, there is no way, Roxane, that I could doubt your love.

But what can I think of the women of Europe ? The art of making up their faces, the orna­ments they put on, the care they take for their per­son, their cons­tant preoc­cu­pa­tion with being attrac­tive, are so many stains on their vir­tue and insults to their hus­bands.

Not that I think, Roxane, that they take their effron­tery as far as such conduct might well imply, and carry licence to the hor­ri­ble excess that make one shud­der of abso­lu­tely vio­la­ting conju­gal troth. There are very few women wan­ton enough to carry the crime that far ; they all carry in their hearts a cer­tain cha­rac­ter of vir­tue that is engra­ved there, which is given by birth, and wea­ke­ned, but not des­troyed, by edu­ca­tion ; they might well let up on the out­ward obli­ga­tions which modesty requi­res : but when it comes to taking those last steps, nature rebels. Thus, when we enclose you so secu­rely, when we have you guar­ded by so many sla­ves, when we cons­train your desi­res so much when they sail too far, it is not that we fear the ulti­mate infi­de­lity : but because we know that purity can­not be too pure, and the sligh­test stain can cor­rupt it.

I pity you, Roxane ; your chas­tity so long tes­ted deser­ved a hus­band who would never have left you, and could him­self have repres­sed the desi­res that your vir­tue alone is able to sub­due.4

Paris this 7th day of the moon of Regeb 1712

The language here is strikingly similar to the justifications often given for life in a convent : see for example Hieronome Platus’s The Happiness of the Religious State, n. p., 1632.

Roxane’s principal characteristic, her reputation for “ferocious virtue”, will be evoked later, in letter 149.

According to Chardin, the notion of stroll is foreign to the Persian mentality.

The tragic tone of this letter, reflecting Usbek’s rather formal relationship with Roxane, his most cherished wife, is very different from the one he sent to Zachi (letter 19). Nevertheless, Roxane will not again be mentioned until letter 143. Nothing confirms the confidence he expresses with regard to her devotion to him, as there is not a single letter from her until letter 148, more than seven years later.