A century ago, a romance writer named Edith Maud Hull wrote her debut novel, a desert fantasy she called The Sheik. The novel was published under the name EM Hull, presumably to disguise the fact she was a woman. Despite being described by one reviewer as “poisonously salacious”, it quickly became a bestseller.
The popularity of her tale of the intrepid, boyish and beautiful Diana who ventures into the Sahara before being captured by her desert rapist-cum-lover sheik was enhanced by George Melford’s 1921 film adaptation, starring the dashing Rudolph Valentino.
The novel’s prototype sheik also made his way into the Oxford English Dictionary where the word sheik (spelled without an h) is defined as a “type of a strong, romantic lover; a lady-killer”.
Hull’s novel had a profound influence on 1920s popular culture – and its legacy has been long lasting – even 100 years on readers are still losing themselves in the desert romance aisle.
During the decade following its publication, Hull’s novel inspired a number of spin offs, adaptations, and parodies including titles such as The Shriek of Araby (1923), and Felix the Cat Shatters the Sheik (1926). Sheik themes infused 1920s music, fashion and travel trends with a desert flavour.
But contemporary critics were not impressed, to say the least. QD Leavis slated it as “rotten primitive stuff” and the novelist Storm Jameson wrote of the instinct of the “educated mind” to regurgitate the novel in much the same manner in which “his stomach would reject a meal of cheap cake”.
American literary scholar Laura Frost has described how, for the cultural elite of Hull’s day, The Sheik was not only an innocuous “bad novel”, but demonstrative of a morally corrupt and hedonistic youth. The novel was, in Frost’s words, a “chief representative of cultural degeneracy”.
Library of love
That the novel was a sensation in the 1920s is no secret, but what might surprise some readers is that the captivity-fantasy narrative formula and the sheik hero made famous by the novel and its film adaptation is still going strong. Publishers Mills & Boon has released more than 300 titles based on the sheik (or sheikh) in the past decade – and more than 30 of these have appeared since January 2018, according to the publisher.
The desert-romance formula never really went away, but the century since its publication has seen peaks and troughs in its popularity. Several high-profile republications of The Sheik have brought the novel to new generations of romance fans. The Sheik was published in condensed form in the 1970s by the queen of formulaic romance, Barbara Cartland, in her Library of Love collection, and Virago included the title among its Modern Classics in the 1990s.
Hull’s novel keeps returning in other guises also. Novelist Violet Winspear – who infamously remarked that heroes of romantic novels “must be the sort of men who are capable of rape: men it’s dangerous to be alone in the room with” – resurrected Hull’s narrative in her 1969 novel Blue Jasmine. In Winspear’s Tawny Sands (1970) the heroine is told that to venture into the desert alone is tantamount to “asking for a dose of semi-rape, if not the real thing!”
And though Hull’s formulaic narrative is mocked in equal measure, the sheik/sheikh hero recurs in other 20th-century novels with alarming regularity in, for instance, Elizabeth Ashton’s Moonlight on the Nile (1979) and Egyptian Honeymoon (1981), as well as John Derek’s 1984 film Bolero, in which Valentino’s iconic starring role in Melford’s 1921 adaptation is a central theme.
Inside the tent
Victoria Vane’s steamy mashup The Sheik Retold (2013), claims to fling “the bedroom door wide open” on Diana and Ahmed while moderating some of the text’s more problematic aspects. Vane’s novel shifts the power dynamics by converting Hull’s third-person perspective into the first-person, thus giving Diana greater narrative control. At the same time, Diana turns the tables on “the menacing tiger” of the Sheik, making him “her prey”.
And sheik hybrid novels are flourishing too with titles such as Lavinia Angell’s The Sheik of Araby: Pride and Prejudice in the Desert (2010) in which the sheik memorably echoes Mr Darcy’s famous line from Pride and Prejudice: “She may captivate you, Yusef, but she is certainly not handsome enough to tempt me.”
Other recent titles include Vampire Sheikh (2011), Secret Agent Sheikh (2011), Governess to the Sheikh (2016), Sheikh’s Baby of Revenge (2018) and the collection Red-Hot Desert Docs (2019), to name just a few.
A tempered tale
Scholars have long recognised in The Sheik an accessible expression of female sexuality otherwise rare for its time. But it’s hard to deny The Sheik’s immensely troubling narrative whereby Diana comes to fall passionately in love with the “lawless savage who had taken her to satisfy a passing fancy and who had treated her with merciless cruelty”.
Though some problematic racist impulses in Hull’s original novel might have been tempered in more recent incarnations of the narrative, the fact remains that many sheik romances rest on the taming and domestication of the heroine by the awe-inspiring man she encounters.
It is in this context that novelist Kate Saunders’ tagline in her introduction to the Virago edition of the novel, which described it as “pornography so soft you could give it to your grandmother”, seems rather unenlightened. But Hull’s novel (along with its many imitators) has held many a reader and writer captive over the years. A century on, for better or worse, The Sheik is still very much with us.
Ellen Turner, Senior Lecturer in English Literature, Lund University.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.