Pairing: Heiress and sheik
First Sentence: "Are you coming in to watch the dancing, Lady Conway?"
Climax: Instead of choosing a "climax" passage like I usually do, let this be your warning that there is a lot of rape in this book. -M.R.
|In case it's not obvious, this is the movie poster, not the book cover.|
I have had what can only be described as an extremely hard time writing my review of this book. It's mostly because I highlighted practically the whole thing and there's just so much to talk about. In the past, this sort of thing has just resulted in my not reviewing a book at all, but this time I was determined that my effort at reading this nonsense not be wasted. So, this is the longest and hardest I've ever worked on a review.
E. M. Hull's The Sheik made it onto my radar via A Natural History of the Romance Novel. It's mentioned a lot in that book, and I decided that in order to expand my experience of the romnov genre, I needed to pick up what was basically the prototypical category romance novel. A Natural History gets into some of the plot details, but I guess it didn't really sink in for me just how bad this was going to be.
In case you want to skip to my final opinion about the book: do not read it, it is toxic. Romance has come a long way in 100 years. This book was actually the 50SoG of its day, and the fact that it's been largely forgotten (though not without leaving a huge impact on the romance genre) reassures me that that other book will soon be forgotten too.
Here's what happens.
Diana Mayo is a 19 year-old heiress raised by her much older brother after the death of both of their parents. She has basically been raised as a boy, which all of the characters at the beginning of the novel can't stop talking about. Of course, despite her unconventional upbringing and fondness for riding and shooting and wearing pants, she's still really really beautiful but doesn't know she's beautiful (e.g. "In default of any other confidant she had always talked to herself, with no thought for the beauty of the face staring back at her from the glass."). The book begins with a sort of going away party for her. She's about to take a "solo" (with entourage but no one else of her class), month-long trip into the desert. Everyone tells her she's crazy to do this and she sasses all of them because she's an independent woman (e.g. "I am perfectly able to take care of myself. I can shoot straight and I am used to camping"). Her friend Arbuthnot proposes marriage and she aggressively friend zones him, saying that marriage would curtail her freedom.
The night of the party, Diana is disturbed by a presence in her room, but doesn't really let it bother her. The following day, she and her brother head out on the first leg of her journey. Diana is ecstatic to be in the desert, a landscape that she loves. That evening in camp, her brother insists that she abandon the trip because she's a woman and it's dangerous, but also because he wants her to come to America with him. He'll be on a hunting trip for both big American game and a big American wife. The two of them argue, and when he leaves the following morning Diana is happy to be rid of her brother and in charge. This whole argument and the section following are so full of famous last words that it's actually laughable.
It's at this point in the narrative that the racism which will be a constant companion for the remainder of it sets in. Diana is scornful of her native guides, scornful of the desert people she sees from afar, and downright racist full stop. This is chapter 2. Not long into her trip, Diana and her entourage are set upon by a large group of Arabs on horses. These men kill or wound several of her guards, and Diana basically just sort of assumes that they'll hold her for ransom and this will be a minor inconvenience and good story for later. "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." After a long horsechase, the leader of the Arabs catches Diana. It horrifies Diana that he would lay his hands on her, partly because she's used to scorning the attentions of all men who approach her, and partly because she can't believe "a native" would touch her.
The man is extremely strong and speaks to Diana in French (which she also speaks). It gradually dawns on Diana that she isn't at all safe after all. He's handsome and has a luxurious tent in the desert. He is the Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan. In the face of a danger that had never once occurred to her, Diana finally loses courage. Although she fights him to the end of her strength and begs him for mercy, Ahmed rapes her.
Part of what makes this book so uncomfortable is that the portrayal of Diana as a rape victim is very good. She is shaken to her core and blames herself for it, reflecting that if she'd just stayed in her place like a proper woman, it wouldn't've happened. It's not a case of "dubious consent." (I get into this more below.) The following day, she tours around the sheik's compound while he's out during the day, meeting some of the people who work for him. She finds a book written by the Vicomte Raoul de Saint Hubert and dedicated to his friend Ahmed Ben Hassan, Sheik of the Desert. When Ahmed returns, he reveals to Diana that his crime wasn't one of opportunity, but that he'd been watching her for weeks and had paid off her escort and even replaced the bullets in her personal sidearm with blanks (this was the presence she felt in her room earlier). He also taunts her with the fact that no one will come looking for her for quite some time: her planned trip was a month long, and her brother, who barely cares about her anyway, doesn't plan to see her until she reaches America after the trip.
Fast forward one month, and Diana is still the sheik's prisoner and victim. Ahmed is brutal not only with Diana, but with his servants as well. She's witnessed him beating a person to death (or at least near death) and doing the same to a stubborn colt. She's even contemplated suicide to escape, an eventuality he has foreseen and gone to pains to prevent. From what I understood, Ahmed doesn't actually beat Diana along with repeatedly raping her—a distinction without a difference, really—but he does brutalize her in other ways. He calls her by another name (Diane) and forces her to wear jewels that she doesn't want. She finds his behaviour unpredictable and never knows how he will treat her. "It was the swift transition from ferocity to gentleness that she could never fathom. His complex nature was beyond her understanding."
Four more weeks pass. Diana has been allowed to go out riding, sometimes with the sheik, sometimes with his French valet, Gaston. One day when she is out riding with Gaston, she pretends to lose her handkerchief, and then when Gaston goes to retrieve it, she makes a run for it with the horse. Ahmed finds her after several hours, during which she's had time to get sentimental about the time that she's spent with him. In order to catch her, he has to shoot her horse out from under her, and he carries her back to the compound with him on his own horse. Very abruptly, Diana realizes that she's in love with Ahmed:
It was enough for the moment to lie with relaxed muscles, to have to make no effort of any kind, to feel the soothing rush of the wind against her face, and the swift, easy gallop of The Hawk as he carried them on through the night. Them! With a start of recollection she realised fully whose arm was round her, and whose breast her head was resting on. Her heart beat with sudden violence. What was the matter with her? Why did she not shrink from the pressure of his arm and the contact of his warm, strong body? What had happened to her? Quite suddenly she knew—knew that she loved him, that she had loved him for a long time, even when she thought she hated him and when she had fled from him.This gives her pause for about five minutes because he's an Arab ("[a] man of different race and colour, a native") but she decides that that doesn't matter, because she loves him. When they get back to the compound they wait up to see what has become of Gaston. He's alright, but the whole incident also leads to Diana's realization that the sheik doesn't love her back, and therefore she is still miserable. As ridiculously abrupt and unearned as Diana's sudden realization is, it at least gives the reader a sort of reprieve from the constant rape.
Two more months go by. Diana has been lovestruck but still pretends to hate Ahmed because she doesn't want to bore him. He announces that Raoul de Saint Hubert will be coming to visit. Diana extends her prejudice toward Arabs to the French, and assumes that Raoul will be a vain jerk. She asks Gaston what Raoul is like and Gaston reveals that he and his twin brother Henri grew up on the Vicomte's father's estate. Henri is now Raoul's valet. Diana wonders about why young Ahmed would have decided to hire a French valet, not to mention why that valet would stay in the desert with the sheik, but instead of inquiring about that she asks if the Saint Huberts are old or new money. (Old.) So she will be meeting someone of her own social status for the first time since her abduction. She finds herself jealous of how the sheik feels about Raoul. Diana goes for another ride in the desert with Gaston and has a loaded revolver this time, but doesn't try to escape again or kill herself (I can't believe I have to specify this).
Diana meets Raoul over a meal and then we get a startling conversation between him and the sheik (everything previous is from Diana's third person limited perspective). Raoul chastises the sheik for his cruelty to Diana because she's an English lady, and the sheik laughs it off. At the end of the chapter, we discover that the sheik has sworn that he would make anyone English suffer if he came across them... but that making Diana suffer has not brought him much pleasure. Oh and by the way there is a rival sheik nearby called Ibraheim Omair who has been mentioned a few times (though not by me).
Later on, Diana and Raoul find themselves alone. She wonders how he and the sheik became friends but again doesn't get around to asking. Meanwhile, he falls in love with her while knowing that nothing could ever develop between them. When he's called away to tend to someone who has been injured (Raoul has basically become a doctor just because it comes in handy while travelling #lifestylesoftherichandthefamous), Diana decides to go horseback riding. Once again Gaston is her companion. They are out too far or too late and a band of the rival sheik's men surround them and abduct Diana. We switch POVs again to discover what happens when Ahmed returns and finds her gone. He thinks of how he's grown accustomed to her face and that she may have run away again. He's jealous of how Diana and Raoul have been interacting, because Raoul treats Diana with respect and kindness instead of raping her. After some reflection, the sheik concludes that Ibraheim Omair may have captured her. Fearing she's in danger, he realizes that he has more feelings for her than he knew and launches a rescue mission. Within two paragraphs, he laments that he takes so little pleasure from attempting to cause her pain lately, and also that he longs to keep even a shadow from her path. It is upsetting.
Meanwhile, Diana is in Omair's camp and making a lot of gross generalizations about how dirty Arabs are compared to her Arab, Ahmed. She's brought to speak to Omair and he murders his previous favourite woman in front of her. Diana fears that even if Ahmed comes to rescue her, she will be raped and/or dead by the time he arrives. Fortunately the sheik et al arrive just in time. He strangles Omair to death, but gets hit on the head and stabbed before they all make it out of the rival camp. Diana and Raoul work to save him. Eventually Raoul has to drug Diana and put her to bed, while he stays up listening to his old friend's delirious ramblings about how much Diana means to him. Raoul reflects sadly on how he also loves Diana, the only woman he's ever loved or will ever love in all his travels, but how she is the sheik's and his love will never be reciprocated.
While the sheik is still in the grips of his wounds, we finally get this reveal:
"His hand is so big for an Arab's," [Diana] said softly, like a thought spoken aloud unconsciously.
"He is not an Arab," replied Saint Hubert with sudden, impatient vehemence. "He is English."
That's right, ladies and gentlemen, he's not an Arab at all, thank God! Raoul finally tells Diana Ahmed's life story. He's the son of an English peer, the Earl of Glencaryll, and a Spanish lady (Spaniards have Moorish blood, remember). Raoul's father was staying in the desert with his friend, the previous Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan, when they found a woman wandering in the desert. It's kind of implied that the Earl of Glencaryll raped Ahmed's mother, and she ran away from him. The narrative stresses how the Earl was a brutal, abusive husband to his Spanish wife, who is never named. This is pretty laughable, considering that the only characteristic that Ahmed doesn't seem to share with his biological father is that he isn't an alcoholic and yet he's portrayed as the hero while his father is a villain. In any case, the Spanish woman gave birth to a son, and the previous sheik cared for her and eventually fell for her. They were married briefly until her early death, and then the old sheik's love transferred to her son, to whom he gave every advantage and raised as his own. At age 15, Ahmed went to live with the Saint Huberts in Paris to get an education and get civilized. He was successful there but returned to his true love, the desert. When he was 21, Raoul's father revealed the existence of Ahmed to Glencaryll. Glencaryll basically said that the alcohol made him do it. It was even more of a surprise to Ahmed to find out that Glencaryll was his father and he's hated the English ever since. Raoul also claims that this whole incident is what made Ahmed so brutal but I have my doubts.
At last the sheik wakes up. He convalesces over a period of several months, but avoid's Diana's company. She fears that he no longer wants her. Raoul finally leaves, never telling Diana how he feels. Diana reflects on her previous courage and pride and how she's happy to have had all that stripped away, and how hurt she'll be if Ahmed sends her away. At last he tells her that he's going to let her go, and she asks him how he could do such a thing after ruining her. He tells her how bad he feels about raping her now that he realizes he loves her. "Do you think I haven't realised what an infinitely damned brute I've been? I didn't love you when I took you, I only wanted you to satisfy the beast in me." She tells him that he wouldn't send her away if he loved her, he says he's sending her away because he loves her, because she'd have to stay with him in the desert and that maybe he'll get angry one day and beat her or something. There's kind of a weird misunderstanding where she protests and he thinks she might be pregnant and the reader wonders how she isn't pregnant after all of this. She ends by begging him not to send her away:
"Ahmed! Ahmed! You are killing me. I cannot live without you. I love you and I want you—only you. I am not afraid of the loneliness of the desert, it is the loneliness of the world outside the shelter of your arms that I am afraid of. I am not afraid of what you are or what you have been. I am not afraid of what you might do to me. I never lived until you taught me what life was, here in the desert. I can't go back to the old life, Ahmed. Have pity on me. Don't shut me out from my only chance of happiness, don't send me away. I know you love me—I know! I know! And because I know I am not ashamed to beg you to be merciful. I haven't any shame or pride left. [...]"When this doesn't work, she once again contemplates suicide and gets as far as putting the gun to her head and pulling the trigger, but the sheik reacts fast enough that the bullet goes over her head. This final action convinces Ahmed that Diana really does want to stay with him, and the two of them live happily ever after.
*rolls up sleeves* Now let's get into it.
Feminist Fakeout and Diana's Comeuppance
At the very beginning of this book I loved Diana. She's aggressively independent and selfish, exhibiting a total disdain for everyone and everything around her. If she'd continued as the same character throughout the book, Diana Mayo would be a feminist icon. Instead, the author deliberately slaps her down and punishes her for being who she is and wanting a different life from what everyone else in her society thinks she should have. The transition from fierce Diana who has no time for anything or anyone that might get in her way to cowed, lovestruck Diana is one of the most jarring and disappointing transformations I've ever encountered in a main character.
Adjacent to this is the interesting handling of gender in the early part of the book, where Diana and others constantly refer to her as being like a boy. She tells her brother she'll be back in time to be his best man. But she gets punished for this, too. Everything masculine about her is basically obliterated by the end of the book.
Holy Racism, Batman!
We have to really talk about the racism in this book because it's like the whole foundation of the story in a way. I knew from A Natural History that the sheik turns out to be a white man, therefore reassuring everyone that nothing untoward is going on and that Diana hasn't be totally ruined by being raped by an Arab. But Diana never loses a chance to be judgemental and racist toward the native inhabitants of the desert she loves so much. She has no respect for the people who have made this rough place their home, only condescension. Only a European could possibly live or travel there properly.
Rape and Other Domestic Abuse
If racism is the foundation of The Sheik, rape is the walls and roof and everything above that foundation.
For better or worse, the rape in this book is not portrayed along the "her body betrayed her" sort of lines that you sometimes find in a romance novel, and which I actually wish were the case here. I don't think I have ever been so uncomfortable reading a depiction of rape in a book, mainly because here it is so frequent and turns so abruptly to love.
At one point, the sheik bruises her and Diana observes the damage in the mirror:
She looked at the marks of his fingers on the delicate skin with a twist of the lips, then shut her eyes with a little gasp and hid her bruised arm hastily, her mouth quivering. But she did not blame him, she had brought it on herself; she knew his mood, and he did not know his own strength.This is after she concludes that she loves him, but before she finds out that he loves her.
"If he killed me he could not kill my love," she murmured, with a little pitiful smile.
The abuse and the rape combined are just too real, to be frank. There are too many actual human beings still out there being abused by their partners because of cultural attitudes like this (and numerous other factors, of course). As I've learned more about the romance genre, I've gone to bat a time or two for romnovs depicting behaviour that is totally inappropriate in a healthy relationship but is kinda sexy to fantasize about, and this is not that.
Although apparently it was to the many many fans that it had in its day. So what do I know about women's desires circa one hundred years ago, anyway?
So yeah, all things considered, don't read The Sheik. This book wounded me.
I've used the film poster instead of the book cover as illustration for this post, and it's possible that the 1921 silent film adaptation would be less appalling. If you absolutely must experience this story, that would be the way to do it.
It's on Youtube.
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It is very easy to dance if you have a musical ear, and if you have been in the habit of making your body do what you want. So few people seem to be trained to make their limbs obey them. Mine have had to do as they were told since I was a small child," she answered calmly.
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I shall stay and talk to you, but you must give me a cigarette to keep me in a good temper.
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Lunch, when her heart was breaking!
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