Sujata Iyengar.  Shades of Difference. Mythologies of Skin Color in Early Modern England. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2005. 310pp. ISBN 0 8122 3832 X.


Anu Korhonen
University of Helsinki

Anu Korhonen. "Review of Sujata Iyengar, Shades of Difference. Mythologies of Skin Color in Early Modern England." Early Modern Literary Studies 15.1 (2009-10) <URL:>.


  1. Whether romance, lyric, masque, or narrative, Sujata Iyengar, in her book Shades of Difference, suggests that early modern literary affiliations “entangle with variable concepts of skin color and emergent racial distinctions” to produce specifically early modern ways of figuring difference (1). Historical and material contexts – bodily, gendered, religious, scientific, and social – here collude with literary genres, constructing different languages and traditions for negotiating human variation. Iyengar explores racializing discourse as a “structure of feeling,” a term she borrows from Raymond Williams and uses to point out the temporal complexity of ideological formations as well as the overlap of political institutions and private beliefs in discursive construction.

  2. Iyengar’s book is divided into three parts. The first part, ‘Ethiopian Histories’, examines the Renaissance transmission and interpretation of classical and Biblical texts on blackness. She focuses on ambiguous heroines such as Chariclea of Heliodorus’Aethiopica or the Bride of the Song of Songs, figures whose beauty, rank, and ethnicity depended on, and changed according to, understanding of skin colour. She then concludes her chapter with juxtaposed representations of the Irish and the Ethiopians in Stuart court masques.

  3. In part two, ‘Whiteness Visible’, Iyengar reads early modern poetry and drama for white skin in its different variations, including blushing, pallor, and cosmetic colourings. Contextualizing epyllia with moral treatises, and stage plays with anti-cosmetic tracts, Iyengar shows that skin colour worked towards configuring not only ethnic prejudice, but also sexual difference.

  4. ‘Travail Narratives’, the third and final part of Shades of Difference, plays with the early modern double meaning of ‘travail’ as both hard work and travel. Iyengar first examines different constructions of gypsies whose skin colour, whether natural or artificial, linked with mythologies of illicit labor and stage performance. The travel section of the chapter examines English travelers’ ethnographic accounts of Africa and African bodies, texts that can be seen as constructing an early version of racialism that hinges on both skin colour and labour, especially slavery. The book concludes by moving forward in time towards the Restoration and the scientific revolution, where the escapism of prose romance may have offered an alternative to the gradually stabilizing fictions of race.

  5. Iyengar consistently resists imposing “a straightforward historical trajectory ‘toward’ racialism or ‘toward’ color-prejudice” as an explanatory mechanism (1). Rather, she interprets early modern negotiations of skin color as an open-ended discussion, a dynamic history unbound by a necessary march towards race and racism. She follows the diverse and often contradictory ways in which her texts construct otherness, and demonstrates the complexity of the varying meanings of skin colour while also reading for intertextual references, influences, and paraphrases.  For her, following the multiple literary networks in which skin colour emerges can account for change better than can a history that views skin colour through the later prism of race.

  6. Discussing blushing and cosmetics in a book on skin colour is a deft move that works well to destabilize our conceptions of what skin colour is all about: for the early moderns, it was less about race, despite the embryonic imagery that later appears racializing or racist. Iyengar’s choices suggest that skin color is really about many kinds of difference – even changes in one’s personal appearance and emotional stance that onlookers may interpret as a marker of moral quality. Where her discussion on Ethiopians focuses on ambiguous blackness as difference from the white English norm, her reading of the variants of whiteness reveals complex understandings of what constitutes skin colour, how it changes or remains permanent, how it can be manipulated and for what purpose. Skin can blush, blanch or tan, both voluntarily and involuntarily; white and red can be produced with face paints; and even dark skin can potentially be artificially manufactured, as in the case of gypsies. These different kinds of skin color may also point to the same “structures of feeling”, such as sexuality: where black skin could denote uncontrolled sexuality, and the pallor of a green-sick girl her lack of sexual activity, blushing too was related to conceptions of shame and sexual purity. Common notions about the inability of black-skinned people to blush worked together with early modern conceptions of visible modesty, and Iyengar skillfully draws these connections.

  7. My main reservation with Iyengar’s book is that her commendable avoidance of the teleologies of historical narrative and her shying away from overarching interpretations make for a book so rich in detail that it is sometimes difficult to see at what point the very multiplicity of skin colour becomes mythology. If she searches for “structures of feeling”, whether residual or emergent, how do these various constructions form a structure? Are we left only with the particularities of literary genre and the idiosyncrasies of early modern writers? From a more historical point of view, this also seems insufficient, even though it is easy to applaud Iyengar’s wariness of simplification and over-generalization. Her scheme works well when she points out the ambiguity and sheer multiplicity of racializing discourses that are at play at any given time, and even within any given text; it works less well in distinguishing the temporal aspects, the rising and ebbing tides of emergence and residuality in her mythologies.

  8. Nevertheless, I wish to stress how impressive a book this is. All the different configurations of skin colour, various racial contexts, movement between permanent and changing color, and the wealth of texts analyzed may make it a challenging read. But they also make this a dizzyingly complex book that cleverly plays with distinctions and differences, and inspires with its varied and multi-layered readings from a wide range of genres.



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