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Reading Group Guide

Discussion Questions

Hottentot Venus: A Novel

1. What was the role of missionaries during this period in African history? How does Reverend Freehouseland's influence on Sarah actually contribute to her remaining a slave, even though he legally "freed" her from slavery?

2. What role does faith play in Sarah's life? How does religion shape her and the actions of those who exploit her?

3. During her time in London, Sarah forms a strong friendship with Princess Caroline, a dwarf who is also on display at the 225 Piccadilly freak show. How does Caroline's death foreshadow Sarah's? How else is Sarah's posthumous fate foreshadowed in the course of the story?

4. Was Sarah right to be suspicious of Robert Wedderburn and his efforts to free her? How would Sarah's story have been different if she had rebelled against Dunlop and Caesar and cooperated with Wedderburn?

5. In the first chapter Sarah describes the reactions of some of the people who come to see her on display in Paris. Why do women torment her more than men? Why is pity more painful for Sarah to endure than jeers and laughter?

6. How do the working class people of England react to the Hottentot Venus? How does their reaction differ from that of the French intelligentsia?

7. What kind of relationship does Sarah have with Alice Unicorn? In what ways were their early lives similar? What are the paradoxes in their relationship?

8. Discuss the plight of women during this period in history. How does Sarah's marriage to Alexander Dunlop change her life? How does her position in society compare to that of Alice's?

9. How does Dunlop manipulate Sarah throughout the story? What power does he have over her?

10. How do the various characters (Dunlop, Caesar, Réaux, Cuvier, etc.) justify to themselves and the public their horrific treatment of Sarah? Do they all see her as less than human?

11. How does the changing of Sarah's name–from Ssehura to Saartjie to Hottentot Venus–rob her of her identity and contribute to the mythology surrounding her?

12. Sarah did not receive a proper burial until 2002 when the French government agreed to return her to South Africa. Why did it take 150 years for this to happen?

Hottentot Venus: A Novel
by Barbara Chase-Riboud

  • Publication Date: November 9, 2004
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor
  • ISBN-10: 1400032083
  • ISBN-13: 9781400032082