Orientalism —”exoticism” or “Oriental fantasy” — is a term that refers to the geography and culture of large parts of Asia and North Africa, plus some of what we now think of as Eastern Europe. From a British point of view, “Orientalism” connotes foreignness or otherness and it sometimes seems it refers to everything east of the English Channel.
In literary history, Romantic Orientalism is the recurrence of recognizable elements of Asian and African place names, historical and legendary people, religions, philosophies, art, architecture, interior decoration, costume, and the like in the writings of the British Romantics.
The Orientalism of British Romantic literature has roots in the first decade of the eighteenth century, with the earliest translations of The Arabian Nights into English that inspired writers to develop a new genre, the Oriental tale, of which Samuel Johnson’s History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia (1759) is the best mid-century example.Romantic Orientalism continues to develop into the nineteenth century, paralleling another component of Romanticism, “Literary Gothicism.” Two of the most imposrtant authors of this genre — Clara Reeve and William Beckford —wrote Oriental tales mixing exotic settings, supernatural happenings, and deliberate extravagance of event, character, behaviour, emotion, and speech Gothicism and Orientalism provided imaginary characters, situations, and stories as alternative to, even as escape from, the reader’s everyday reality.
The Romantic Period in Britain is now recognized as a time of global travel and exploration, accession of colonies all over the world, and development of imperialist ideologies that rationalized the British takeover of distant territories.
Nowadays the cultural, political, commercial, and aesthetic dimensions of the synchronous growth of Romanticism and Orientalism assumes the value of forerunners of British colonial anxiety and imperial guilt.