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THree E. M. Hull’s The Sheik And he was an Arab! A man of different race and colour, a native; Aubrey would indiscriminately class him as a “damned nigger.” . . . She did not care what he was, he was the man she loved. e. M. Hull, The sheik I n 1919, a romance novel by a little-known Derbyshire woman was published featuring the story of the aristocratic but tomboyish Lady Diana Mayo, an English virgin who, in her travels through French colonial Algeria, is kidnapped by an Arab sheik and raped many times.1 She eventually falls in love with this “brute” of an Oriental “native” but then discovers—much to her surprise—that her beloved Arab rapist sheik is in fact the half English, half Spanish son of a peer of the British realm. As for the sheik himself, the violent and priapic Ahmed Ben Hassan is reduced to repentance and redeemed by his love for Diana. He reverts to “civilized” standards of patriarchal European gender norms and presumably forsakes rape and promiscuity (though not necessarily his penchant for strangling evil Arab opponents when he deems this justified ). The two live happily ever after in the desert, leaving the reader with the final spectacle of an aristocratic English couple “gone native,” it is true, but who reign imperialistically over the unruly Bedouin tribes of the Sahara in an area that was nominally under French colonial control. Edith Maude Hull’s The Sheik thus concludes with a reassertion of reactionary patriarchal gender relations as well as the fantasy of proxy British rule over French-colonized natives. It was a subtle display of one-upmanship in British imperial rivalry with the French. « 88 » Desert Passions Since the 1970s, feminist, postcolonial, literary, and film scholars have paid intermittent attention to Hull’s novel, analyzing its feminist and sexual politics as well as its racial and imperial implications. In this chapter, I discuss existing scholarly work on The Sheik before arguing that when we read Hull’s novel, considerations of Britain’s experience of sexuality and violence during the First World War are crucial, as are understandings of the influence of whiteness and imperialism in British history. feMinisT responses To The sheik The Sheik elicited a polarized and visceral reaction upon publication in 1919. Billie Melman claims that its sales in Britain surpassed all other best sellers at the time. Yet while it achieved instant cult status among its mainly female readers, literary critics and self-appointed guardians of social morality were appalled, dismissing it as “a typist’s daydream” and condemning it for its overt portrayal of sadomasochistic sexuality—a response that has been repeated by feminists throughout most of the twentieth century (Melman 1988: 90). However, since the 1990s, a growing body of scholarship on The Sheik has revised earlier hostile opinions and now offers increasingly sophisticated analysis of issues of gender, power, race, and imperialism in the novel. The earliest responses by feminist scholars to The Sheik echoed contemporary reviews that condemned it as a “poisonously salacious” novel, in the words of the 1921 Literary Review (Blake 2003: 69). Objections did not focus on its portrayal of Arabs and the Orient so much as on its portrayal of sex and the treatment of women. In The Purple Heart Throbs: The Subliterature of Love (1974), one of the first book-length surveys of romance fiction, Rachel Anderson declares: The Sheik is the most immoral of any of the romances, not because of lewd descriptions of sexual intercourse . . . but because of the distorting view Miss Hull presents of the kind of relationship which leads to perfect love, and the totally unprincipled precept that the reward of rapists is a lovely English heiress with a look of misty yearning in her eyes. (188–189) Melman describes The Sheik as “a prudishly told tale of masculine dominance and complementary feminine masochism and passivity” (1988: 102), while Mary Cadogan argues that the novel is not only an “anti- e. M. Hull’s The sheik « 89 » feminist tract in which rapist behaviour is rewarded,” but also a “justification of racism” (131). Since the late 1980s, scholars considering the novel within its historical context have reexamined issues of gender and sexuality. Melman’s comprehensive chapter on the appeal of the “desert romance” in Women and the Popular Imagination in the Twenties (1988) was among the first publications to pay sustained scholarly attention to The Sheik. Along with Michael Diamond’s detailed discussion in “Lesser Breeds”: Racial...


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