Cover of Inventing Ruritania

Inventing Ruritania
Vesna Goldsworthy
254 pages including index
published in 1998

What immediately came to mind when I picked up this book from the library was Edward Said's Orientalism . Where that book looked at how Europe created its image of the Middle East, Inventing Ruritania: The Imperialism of the Imagination looks at how the western idea of the Balkans has been shaped or even created by writers of popular fiction and travel literature. Goldsworthy focuses mainly on British literature, as for British writers "the Balkans are sufficiently close to remain in the field of vision, yet remote enough to be relatively free of the 'traditional friendships' and 'historical alliances' which frequently inspire the specific interests in the area of other European powers" while they are "too far away to be of consistent interest to American writers". Historically, she limits her inquiries to relatively modern times, from the early nineteenth century up to now, as she argues that the Balkans as an area of interest only emerged as Ottoman supremacy in the area was broken. Before there can be stereotypical images of the Balkans, there first has to be a Balkans, obviously and until the Ottoman empire started to disintegrate there wasn't.

A book like Inventing Ruritania, which wants to expose the cliches with which western thought has been riddled about the Balkans, can't help but be political. This is more so when you consider when it was published, in 1998, barely a year before NATO would wage its first humantarian war against Serbia, just after the wars in Bosnia and Croatia had ended. You could see Inventing Ruritania as a sort of metacritique of the sloppy thinking in Britain and elsewhere with which these events were explained and written about. One of Goldsworthy's points in this book is indeed to lay bare the sort of racist stereotyping language about the Balkans that is still used thoughtlessly, often by people who would never dream about deescribing areas like Africa or India in similar terms... Yet Inventing Ruritania isn't a polemic, not even to the extent Orientalism was.

This is largely because Goldsworthy spends so much time analysing and explaining the various novels and traveloques that she argues have shaped the British idea of the Balkans -- and through Hollywood, much of the world's idea of the Balkans too. Starting with Byron and his heirs, who started the idea of the Balkans, especially Greece as a romantic place, Goldsworthy then moves on to the dual image created of the Balkans in late nineteenth century popular fiction, in particular in two very popular but different works: Bram Stoker's Dracula and Anthony Hope's Prisoner of Zelda. The first made the Balkans, through its portrayal of Transylvania as the lair of the vampire into an area of supernatural menace, while the second created the idea of the small Balkan state as something out of a romantic but comic operetta with noble princes waiting for an English heroine to teach them love, simple but loyal peasant populations and fierce but equally loyal mountain warriors, as well as scheming prime ministers and counts and the whole shebang. These dual images Goldsworthy shows to return again and again in Balkan fictions.

Meanwhile some of the same imagery is also on display in the more factual treatments of the Balkans, such as in the comic stories told by writers like Shaw, Saki and E. M. Forster, partially based on their own experiences there, and the diplomatic and wartime reminiscences of slightly later writers like Lawrence Durrell and Evelyn Waugh. All are shown to be fairly patronising, if not disdain full of the Balkans and its inhabitants. But these were just amusements; of more importance were the various travelogues written by a series of intelligent, passionate female writers who would each "adopt" one of the area's countries and champion it in Britain. It was these books that perhaps did the most to create the stereotypes associated with peoples like the "wild" Albanians or "martial" Serbs. It was these stereotypes we saw echoed back in the nineties, during the wars in the former Yugoslavia.

Goldsworthy does well in providing an overview of Balkan literature and explaining how each book portrayed the area, as well as how these individual books together created the idea of the Balkans as we know it. What she does less well is explaining how these ideas influenced policy, either in the nineties or more generally. In some ways, Inventing Ruritania therefore feels like only half a book. Nevertheless, this was still quite an interesting read and Goldsworthy is honest enough to recognise the inherent qualities of the novels she analyses as well.

Webpage created 07-03-2009, last updated 06-04-2009.