Contemporary Romance Review: The Sheik by Edith M. Hull

SPOILER ALERT ⚠

The Book

The Sheik by Edith M. Hull, published in 1919, is as influential to the modern romance genre as Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Perhaps, even more so.

It was a blockbuster of a success, despite its many detractors. While some modern readers may cringe at its depiction of women, sexual roles, and racial attitudes, The Sheik remains a compelling read one hundred years after its publication.

the sheik bodice ripper

The Sheik: The Grandmother of Bodice Rippers

“Shall I make you care? Shall I make you love me? I can make women love me when I choose.”

THE SHEIK

This year, 2022, is the 50th anniversary of Kathleen E. Woodwiss’ the Flame and the Flower, the first “modern romance novel.” The roots of modern romance go back further than 1972, however.

Although Pride and Prejudice and other works by Jane Austen were critiques of manners and social mores, the love stories were at the heart and center. For that reason, her books are both literature and considered to be the first romances.

But as far as I’m concerned, Jane Austen and all her imitators–Georgette Heyer included–didn’t influence the modern historical genre as The Sheik did.

Oh, I liked the story of Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy just fine. I don’t obsess over it as many do. Charlotte Bronte’s tale of Jane Eyre was far more to my liking, anyway. Jane Eyre, however, is more of an ancestor to Gothic romance.

THE SHEIK

The First Modern Romance Novel?

“What I have I keep, until I tire of it–and I have not tired of you yet.”

For the kind of romances I enjoy, their roots lie with Edith Maude Hull’s masterpiece, The Sheik. It is the grandmother of the bodice ripper. If not for the closed-door bedroom scenes, this book would have fit right in with the romances penned in the 1970s.

In 1921, the silent film adaptation of the novel starring Agnes Ayres came out. It catapulted Rudolph Valentino’s career into movie stardom. I recall watching the film as a teen and practically swooning over the fantastic tale.

Decades later, I finally got around to reading the novel.

The Characters and the Plot

He had seen her, had wished for her, and had taken her, and once in his power it had amused him to break her to his hand.

British-born Diana Mayo has it all: fashionable looks, wealth, and a multitude of male admirers. She’s young, thoroughly modern, and fiercely independent. If someone tells her not to do something, she considers it a dare. Filled with boredom, the wild Diana travels to Algeria to seek adventure.

And she finds it in the powerful Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan, who kidnaps her and whisks her off to his desert oasis.

Between the two will be fierce, passion-filled clashes filled. Diana is a contemporary-minded woman who demands equality from her peers. Even so, she cannot resist the allure of the savage, almost primitive male who seeks to dominate her.

When first published, there was nothing like this book.

the sheik bodice ripper

Intriguing Gender Dynamics

Some historians have noted that during “conservative” eras, the idealized feminine form becomes more “traditional.” Typically, in times of social transformation, she is perceived to be more fluid.

In the 1960’s natural hair, short skirts, and slim figures, a la model Twiggy or Mia Farrow, reigned.

In the 1980s, the style was big hair, full lips, and 36-24-36 figures like Kelly LeBrock and Cindy Crawford.

The 1920s was a post War society with women in politics and the popularization of the motion picture. Ideas of sex, gender, and sexual mores were radically changed from the rigid Victorian/Edwardian and Gilded Age Eras on both sides of the Atlantic. Hair was bobbed, hemlines were raised, and large breasts were out-of-fashion.

The Sheik is a product of its time, with Hassan noting:

But the emotion that this girl’s uncommon beauty and slender boyishness had aroused in him had not diminished during the months she had been living in his camp.

The omniscient narrator constantly refers to Diana’s boyish figure and her as a splendid example of a “garcon manque,” a French term for tomboy. That was the old-fashioned term for girls who “behave” like and hang around boys.

It made for a fascinating sexual dynamic that was only flirted with and never really delved deeply into.

The Sheik, A Controversial Novel

the sheik

To say this is a controversial book is an understatement. Because it was such a phenomenal hit, critics could not ignore it, and they were divided in their opinions. Unlike, say, Fifty Shades of GreyThe Sheik cannot be dismissed for lack of quality.

The New York Times labeled the book as “shocking,” but written with “a high degree of literary skill.” It was considered “salacious” and “tawdry.”

“What do you expect of a savage? When an Arab sees a woman that he wants he takes her. I only follow the customs of my people.”

If there was contention about this book 123 years ago, it’s practically obscene today, viewed as problematic. It has been accused of promoting part of rape culture and it reeks of colonial attitudes.

There may be merit to discussing those arguments, as nothing exists in a vacuum. Nevertheless, I say, “Yes. And?” Fiction demands the freedom to write from any perspective. If it is a story worth telling, the story will be told.

the sheik

My Opinion

“If he killed me he could not kill my love!”

From its initial publication continuing to this day, The Sheik remains scandalous. It was an immediate bestseller, yet it received no respect from critics. The novel was labeled “poisonously salacious” by the Literary Review. It was even banned from some communities.

And it was a huge sensation, launching a subgenre of desert romances, several sequels, film adaptations, and Rudolph Valentino’s career.

The influence of The Sheik on romance is undeniable. For many readers, it still strikes a chord today. Despite Diana’s position as a kidnapping victim, there is a strong theme of female power and independence.

Even so, The Sheik gives a picture of the social order of its time. It captured the contemporary attitudes toward colonialism. Perhaps worse, The Sheik portrayed sexual dominance as a means to love.

Final Analysis of The Sheik

E. M. Hull’s desert epic made me feel like a 12-year-old young girl discovering romance. For me, The Sheik was a thrilling experience! It’s pure entertainment, a rush from start to finish. I loved the film; the book was even better.

Without this romance, I don’t know if bodice-rippers or the Harlequin Presents line would have ever existed.

As for the naysayers?

Perhaps it’s good advice not to take fiction so seriously.

The Sheik is unreality. A dark fantasy. An erotic nightmare. Perhaps a little of both.

5 Stars


Synopsis:

Diana Mayo is young, beautiful, wealthy–and independent. Bored by the eligible bachelors and endless parties of the English aristocracy, she arranges for a horseback trek through the Algerian desert. Two days into her adventure, Diana is kidnapped by the powerful Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan, who forces her into submission. Diana tries desperately to resist but finds herself falling in love with this dark and handsome stranger.

Only when a rival chieftain steals Diana away does the Sheik realize that what he feels for her is more than mere passion. He has been conquered–and risks everything to get her back. The power of love reaches across the desert sands, leading to the thrilling and unexpected conclusion.

THE SHEIK by E. M. HULL

3 thoughts on “Contemporary Romance Review: The Sheik by Edith M. Hull”

  1. I need to read this books. Also I appreciate your attitude to “problematic” reads. I definitely agree and don’t think people should dismiss books because they couldn’t be written today .

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