My latest audiobook from Librivox was The Sheik (1919) by E.M. Hull, and it was a fascinating experience – and not only because I discovered that some people say ‘sheek’ rather than ‘shake’. (The recording was done by a group of people, taking different chapters, and an especial hat nod must go to M.J. Franck who is a brilliant reader.)
If you’ve done any reading about popular fiction in the early decades of the 20th century, you’ll have read about The Sheik. It was an enormous bestseller (selling over a million copies even before the silent film with Rudolph Valentino was released – which, incidentally, you can watch on YouTube). It kicked off a whole new lease of life for desert noir, or whatever they were calling it. And I’m pretty sure that almost nobody reads it nowadays.
I listened to it entirely out of my interest in literary history – not for the novel itself. You’ll understand why the more I explain, if you don’t already know about the novel. And this blog post will have spoilers, because I’m not expecting anybody to read The Sheik. Indeed, I urge you not to read it.
The novel tells of Diana Mayo, an independently-minded young woman who doesn’t want to kowtow to society’s restrictions. She’s not interested in romance or marriage, but instead wants to go exploring on her own – to the concern of her decadent brother. Indeed, she is rather an admirable and refreshing character. Against her brother’s advice, she sets out into the desert with some locals to guide her… and is ambushed. Some of the men are shot. And she is kidnapped by ‘the sheik’. There is rather a lot about how strong he is, and about how his strong arm pushes her strongly against his strong chest. He’s strong, in case that was too subtle.
The sheik is Ahmed Ben Hassan. And he has not intention of letting her go now that he has her. Indeed, between the second and third chapters he rapes her. He continues to rape her every day for several weeks – this is 1919; we don’t see those scenes, but we do get lots of scenes of him looking cruelly at her, laughing cruelly, smiling cruelly etc. Hull goes in for iterated statements.
And throughout all of this, Hull is crazy racist. Lots of sweeping statements are made about “the Arabs” and their supposed disregard for mercy. A lot of her horror seems to come as much from having had sex with “an Arab” as from being raped – though the word ‘rape’ is never used. It’s all pretty unpleasant.
It gets worse.
One day, out riding, she manages to escape. Long story short, she doesn’t get super far until Ahmed Ben Hassan catches up with her and makes her come back to his camp. And… she realises that she is in love with him. I knew this was coming, but I still shouted at the car radio when it happened. I think this brief excerpt sums up everything I hated about the plot of the novel:
Her heart was given for all time to the fierce desert man who was so different from all other men whom she had met, a lawless savage who had taken her to satisfy a passing fancy and who had treated her with merciless cruelty. He was a brute, but she loved him, loved him for his very brutality and superb animal strength. And he was an Arab!
I had thought it might be more like Pamela, where the power of her virtue forces him to repent – but, no, she is the one who changes to be his object. And – skipping forward a few chapters – phew, it turns out he’s actually European after all, so all’s well that ends well.
Hull writes surprisingly well and engagingly, and I’d enjoy reading her in an entirely different sphere – it doesn’t make much of a difference what a writing style is like when it’s about this. My main surprise – as with when Fifty Shades of Grey became so popular – is that so many people had this… taste? fetish? fantasy? Apparently in 1919 this passed for acceptable reading – unless all the millions of copies were read in secret, of course. It’s telling that, in the film, the sheik only thinks about raping her, but doesn’t actually do it.
I’ve no idea what E.M. Hull’s other novels are like (though I don’t hold out hopes for The Son of the Sheik), and I don’t think I’ll explore any further. This dip back a century has confirmed my worst fears from reading about the novel – and painted rather a disturbing picture of what was de rigueur in 1919.