Friday, July 6, 2012

I can’t lie – I’m still not done The Sheik.  I’m going to split it up into two or three posts, since I suspect I’m going to be pretty long-winded on the subject anyway. There’s just so much to talk about in this book!

The Sheik, published in 1919, was British novelist Edith Maude Hull’s first book and was fantastically popular. In 1921, Paramount made a film of the novel starring Rudolph Valentino and Agnes Ayres. Both the book and the movie generated a lot of press, a lot of copycats and a lot of parodies. I’m pretty sure I have at least one sheikh romance on my bookshelf that is basically just The Sheik with the names changed. We’ll see when I get to it…

The Sheik is out of copyright now, so if you want to read along you can get an electronic copy at Project Gutenberg ( It’s a fascinating book, both in terms of the story and what it reveals about changing social attitudes in the early twentieth century. That said, it’s pretty iffy in terms of its race and gender politics. It would (hopefully) never get published as a romance nowadays, given that (spoiler alert) the heroine ends up falling in love with the hero who abducted and raped her. So there’s that…

From the Library of Congress, via flickr (

Is she writing Help Me? Upside-down both ways?

Our heroine is a British aristocrat named Diana Mayo. Her brother is a Sir and her father was very, very rich. Interestingly, for the first ten or fifteen pages we only see Diana from the perspective of the ex-pats in the North African town she’s staying in with her brother. The requisite offended older lady is very offended by Diana’s plan to take a trip into the desert with only servants for company and suggests that these actions “cast a slur not only on her own reputation, but also on the prestige of her country” (1). The men, meanwhile, are mostly all in love with her.

Diana has been raised by her selfish and generally unemotional brother, since her mother died in childbirth and her father killed himself immediately thereafter. She is, according to one of the men, “the coldest little fish in the world, without an idea in her head beyond sport and travel” (3). She’s been basically raised as a boy, expects the independence of a boy and has an absolute horror of love and even physical affection. Her brother, too, seems entirely uninterested in women. E. M. Hull doesn’t do the psychologizing that current romance novels tend to do but I think we can all agree that a mother dead in childbirth and a father who was so in love that he then killed himself, leaving his children behind, makes a good fictional ‘route’ for ‘no interest in romance’.

But Diana also stands in for the ‘flapper’, an icon of changing norms of womanhood. She’s boyish, wears her hair short, enjoys dancing…and believes marriage is the enslavement of a woman to a man. The first time we see her she is described as “vividly alive”, “of medium height and very slender, standing erect with the easy, vigorous carriage of an athletic boy, her small head poised proudly” (4).

Did I mention that her red-gold hair is being lit beautifully by the light from the electrolier? Now why did that word never catch on?!

In the first chapter, Diana says so many times that she will never be willing to obey anyone but herself, that she has no interest in love and that the trip she’s about to undertake is perfectly safe (despite everyone’s warnings that a pretty woman like her shouldn’t go out into the desert without a white man and some white women along – well, they don’t put it like that, but that’s the gist of things) that it’s pretty much a guarantee that this trip is indeed dangerous, that Diana will fall in love and that she will be forced to obey someone else (perhaps the titular Sheik?).

Diana is used to travelling with her brother, Sir Aubrey. They’ve been to India and to America, and mostly anywhere that good hunting is to be found. However, he’s taking off to America to find himself a wife so that the family name can be carried on (how romantic!) and Diana is going into the desert without him, as she refuses to put off her trip (and he in turn refuses to delay his).

Diana rides off into the desert with her guide Mustafa Ali, servants and a pack of camels for her baggage. She is deliriously happy to be in the desert: “the burning sun overhead in the cloudless sky, the shimmering haze rising from the hot, dry ground, the feathery outline of some clustering palm trees in a tiny distant oasis were like remembrances that she watched again with a feeling of gladness that was fuller and deeper than anything that she had been conscious of before” (34).

Unfortunately, as we learn later, her guide has been paid off by the Sheik and Diana’s party is surrounded by a group of men carrying rifles on horseback. Diana, stubborn and brave, takes off on her horse, but is chased down by a man with “dark piercing eyes, and white gleaming teeth” (the Sheik) who plucks her up off of her horse and rides away with her. For the first time in her life, she feels fear and is pretty much overwhelmed by it, both physically and mentally.

The Sheik takes her to his tent, and, addressing her in French, informs her that he is “the Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan” (57). Without explicitly saying it, he basically says that he’s brought her there to rape her: “Why have I brought you here? Bon Dieu! Are you not woman enough to know?” (57).

Then follows a pretty-explicit-for-the-1910s, if-not-actually-that-explicit, rape scene. It’s a conflicted scene, once you know the book’s ending. A lot of the language is similar to that which might be used in a consensual (if forceful) love scene: “the hot mouth pressed on hers was like a narcotic, drugging her almost into insensibility” (58). (“Your love is my drug”?) But E. M. Hull also makes it clear (without using the word) that this is a rape. Diana feels trapped and powerless. She is filled with horror and revulsion. The danger that everyone said was lurking in the desert (an Arab guy who will rape her) came true. Yet, the rest of the book then undoes these fulfilled expectations – Ahmed ben Hassan is not what he seems…and danger can be made less dangerous…

Next Monday – the rest of the book.  Who is this Sheik? What about all the horse metaphors? You say this is a romance?


  1. First of all, i would like to congratulate for embariking on such an intersting project. i really appreciate it especially that i share with you the same area of reseach as i am also working on desert romances in relation to orientalism and issues related to gender, race, speace, ethnecity and religion. i will be much interested in reading your posts and i hope i can have contec with you so that i can benefit from you ... thanks again

    1. Thanks! I'm glad you're enjoying the blog and I'm happy to have someone else who's working on desert romances. I'm looking forward to hearing your opinions!

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