The Sheik by E. M. Hull

220px-EdithMaudeHull1To entertain myself on a long train trip this week, I brought a copy of E. M. Hull’s THE SHEIK to read. This is the shockingly steamy and famous romance novel by the British author, Mrs. Edith M. Hull (who probably needed to use initials to disguise the fact that she was a woman), published in 1919 in Britain and in 1921 in the U.S. It was a huge seller, but became even more so when it was made into a movie starring Rudolph Valentino in 1921, catapulting him to international fame. Because the second in my Roaring Twenties series SILENT MURDERS is set in the mid-Twenties in silent-movie Hollywood, I mention Rudy several times. He has a few cameo appearances. In the fourth book, which I am writing now, I mention the book itself. So I thought I’d better read the thing for myself. I wanted to see what constituted “shocking” in the 1920s.

It was hard coming across a copy. The library doesn’t carry such old books, nor do bookstores. I got a very old, used copy of a paperback from paperbackswap.com, so fragile that the pages kept crumbling as I turned them! 

220px-The_Sheik_with_Agnes_Ayres_and_Rudolph_Valentino,_movie_poster,_1921If you like romance novels, this is one you should read, if for no other reason than it started the craze for desert romances. It uses language we consider offensive today, for example, all dark-skinned people including Arabs are referred to as niggers, while avoiding anything considered offensive then, such as damn or hell. To note that the story seems trite is like saying that Shakespeare used lots of cliches. Hull was the first. Legions of romance writers followed her example and wrote similar stories in a similar vein. Her story involves a rich English noblewoman who is kidnapped and raped by a powerful sheik. She hates him. Then she loves him. He hates her; then he loves her. Happy ending in the desert wilderness. Most amusing is the kicker: he’s not a real Arab!!! (Of course not, no English girl can be in love with a dark-skinned barbarian!) The sheik is really an English lord, raised in the desert by Arabs and tanned by the sun. Made me think of  Tarzan, who similarly turns out to be the son of an English nobleman, raised by apes in the jungle. 

What is fascinating, to me at least, is the language and the way the story unfolds. For young women of this era, independence is not a virtue. Diana can only be happy when the sheik “tames” her, wrings all the spirit out of her, humiliates her, and makes her his slave. Then, she find true happiness. Here’s a paragraph so you can see for yourself:

Son of the SheikShe looked after him, as he went through the curtains, with a long, sobbing sigh. She was paying a heavy price for her happiness, but she would have paid a heavier one willingly. Nothing mattered now that he was not angry any more. She knew what her total submission meant: it was an end to all individualism, a complete self-abnegation, an absolute surrender to his wishes, his moods, and his temper. And she was content that it should be so, her love was prepared to endure whatever he might put upon her. Nothing that he could do could alter that, and nothing should make her own her love. She had hidden it from him, and she would hide it from him–cost what it might. Though he did not love her, he wanted her still; she had read that in his eyes five minutes ago, and she was happy even for that. 

The silent movie, and its sequel, Son of the Sheik, were wildly popular, yet many fathers and husbands forbade their daughters and wives from seeing it. Too sensuous for impressionable women–although the rape is never shown or mentioned.  Stories abound of females fainting in the theater during the movie. You can see why I’ve enjoyed learning about this book and movie, and why I’ve mentioned it in the book I’m writing now. 

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hmm. I’m going to have to watch this again, b/c I’m seeing in “reviews” (there’s a great one on the “Movies, Silently” blog) that the rape scene is not in the movie…but I got the impression it was pretty strongly implied that Diana had given in to overpowering desire if not simple brute strength. In any event, I love Rudy & look forward to visiting with him in your book.

    • The rape scene isn’t in the book or the movie. It’s obvious, but done with a sort of “fade out” effect. The word couldn’t be mentioned in print.


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