(Click here for information on the 2015 edition of Molly’s Imaginary Summer Book Club Featuring Classics of Women’s Literature. As all of the four selected titles have filmed adaptations, we will be looking at the movie versions as we go along. This month, the July selection, E. M. Hull’ s The Sheik.)
Sometimes the Imaginary Summer Book Club hits that sweet spot, where you’re reading along and all of a sudden you realize that you’re actually not reading a satire of the clichés of genre conventions, but the very origin of those clichés, the source that launched a century of parodies… in this case a Rosetta Stone of heavy-breathing submissive Stockholm Syndrome fantasies.
Sheiks (along with Sicilians and Greek tycoons) remain a mainstay of category romances, and credit goes to Edith Maude Hull, the middle-aged Englishwoman who invented the “desert romance” and seemingly tapped into the depraved (albeit politely depraved) fantasies of her early 20th century female readership.
Lady Diana Mayo was orphaned when her mother died in childbirth and her father, “passionately devoted to his wife, after twenty years of married life they were still lovers,” promptly blew his brains out, leaving newborn Diana in the care of her much older brother, the playboy Sir Aubrey, who raises her more or less as a boy, teaching her to ride, shoot, and globetrot as his sidekick.
Now nearing middle-age, Sir Aubrey has decided to settle down at last and is heading to New York because “of all of the women he had met American women were less actively irritating to him, and so it was to America that he turned in search of a wife.”
Diana, having carved out a reputation as “adventuress”, is taking the opportunity to go on a solo adventure, traveling by caravan across Algeria. Sir Aubrey disapproves, forgettable male-ingénue Jimmy disapproves, all of English society disapproves, but Diana has her mind set. Protected by a life of vast wealth and privilege, she cannot fathom that any harm could come to her, and she cares neither for her reputation nor for romantic entanglements. As far as ice queens go, Diana Mayo would give Ava Cleveland a run for her money.
The book is heavier on action than plot, as Diana is immediately kidnapped by Ahmed Ben Hassan, who had seen her from afar in the marketplace in Biskra and bribed her guide to deliver her to him. Initially Diana remains unfazed:
It would only be a question of ransom, of that she was positive. She must get back somehow to the others and arrange terms. It was an annoyance, of course, but after all it added a certain piquancy to her trip, it would be an experience.
Not until Diana is brought before Ahmed does she realize his intentions:
“Why have I brought you here? Bon Dieu! Are you not woman enough to know?”
And with the words on her lips he came, silent, noiseless, to her side. With his hands on her shoulders he forced her to her feet. His eyes were fierce, his stern mouth parted in a cruel smile, his deep, slow voice half angry, half impatiently amused. “Must I be valet, as well as lover?”
FADE TO BLACK.
Naturally, after a few months, Diana has been “tamed” by her rapist/captor and is now madly in love with him. At which point we get what I like to call the “Whoopee! Twist” (in which the swarthy native hero turns out to be as secretly lily-white as the heroine), when Ahmed’s visiting Parisian school chum reveals that Ahmed is not in fact Arabic, but the son of the Earl of Glencaryll, an English peer (who coincidentally is a friend of Sir Aubrey! Bon Dieu!) with a drinking problem who drove his very pregnant noble lady wife into the desert and into the arms of Ahmed, Sr. who adopted her baby as his own.
So, as long as all of the kidnapping and raping was being done by a secret British nobleman, Diana is free and clear to admit her feelings for Ahmed… just in time to be re-kidnapped by a rival Sheik, rescued, and nurse Ahmed back to health from his bullet wound. When he recovers he sees the error of his ways and plans on sending Diana back to England, which causes her to try and blow her brains out, but he deftly deflects the shot:
Her eyes quivered a moment and then opened slowly, looking up into his with a still-lingering fear in them. “You won’t send me away?” she whispered pleadingly, like a terrified child.
“I will never let you go now. My God! If you only knew how I wanted you. If you knew what it cost me to send you away. You know the worst of me, poor child—you will have a devil for a husband.”
She slid her arm up and round his neck, drawing his head down. “I am not afraid of anything with your arms round me, my desert lover. Ahmed! Monseigneur!”
So. All’s well that ends well?
Is the whole premise too silly to even be offended by? I leave that up to YOU, THE READER to decide. It is (of course) blatantly racist in its depiction of any non-Ahmed Arabs, whose big reveal is flagrantly foreshadowed with frequent comments on his “continental” manners. However, intentionally or not, Hull also undermines the racism: with all of the characters in thrall to their inherited personality traits (one suspects that Mayos have been shooting themselves in the head at the first sign of trouble for generations), Ahmed Sr. is depicted as wise and gentle, while Ahmed Jr. seems to have inherited his streak of rapey sadism from his English father. We never learn what drove Lady Glencaryll into the desert that night because it is literally unspeakable.
The book was filmed, famously, in 1921 as Rudolph Valentino’s first star vehicle.
The film retains the basic structure of the novel, although it arranges to get leading lady Agnes Ayres into something more glamorous than a riding habit for much of the running time.
Also, it notably tones down the deviant sex: even in Hollywood and even in 1921, you can’t actually have your hero kidnapping and raping. Instead it is underlined that Ahmed is a gentlemen precisely because he does not force himself on Diana (much more fun is the 1926 sequel, The Son of the Sheik, with Valentino in a dual role and poking fun at his own image).
Stray Thoughts and Observations: Hull invents the Plu-pluperfect tense:
The passing fancy had passed. It was as if the fleeting passion he had had for her had been drained from him with the blood that flowed from the terrible wound he had received.
My margin-note reads “HAD! HAD! HAD! HAD!”