Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Bad Novels: The Sheik by EM Hull

For our second Really, Really Bad Vintage Novel, we step back from the dull and pretentious into the melodramatic and horrifying.

This book is unsuitable for persons. I am putting the review under a cut because it necessarily involves discussion of the said book. So be warned! Only mature persons should venture on. And naturally, since a warning like this is probably the quickest way to seeing this post shoot right to the top of the rankings, don't think that because your mum isn't in the room, nobody'll know if you read this post. I'll know. Remember, I can see visitor stats.

The Sheik is a romance novel. It is also one of the very worst books I have ever read. It is just bad, and the world would be a better place if it was entirely expunged from history. And I have no excuses for having stuck with it to the bitter end.


Our heroine is called Lady Diana Mayo, and she is visiting her brother in Egypt when she decides to travel back to England via caravan through the Sahara. Scorching winds, endless sands, and starry nights appeal to her, whereas the many young men vying for her hand simply leave her cold. On the night before she leaves, she hears a man outside singing “Pale Hands I Loved Beside the Shalimar.”

(Yes, there is a song called “Pale Hands I Loved Beside the Shalimar.” It's as bad as it sounds.)

Several days into her desert trip, Diana and her caravan are attacked by a group of Arabs and she is dragged from her horse and carried far away to the tent of the titular Sheik Ahmed ben Hassan. Furious and terrified, she asks him what he wants with her--
"Why have you brought me here?" she asked, fighting down the fear that was growing more terrible every moment.
He repeated her words with a slow smile. "Why have I brought you here? Bon Dieu! Are you not woman enough to know?"
I would really like to draw a tasteful veil over what happens next. The author, thankfully, also does so, treating the topic with as much nineteen-teens vagueness as this review does, but it doesn't take an overactive imagination to figure out what happens to Diana next—and again, and again, and again, and again, for months. Stated baldly, I hope it sounds every bit as awful as it really is. This, however, is how the author describes it:
Her body was aching with the grip of his powerful arms, her mouth was bruised with his savage kisses. She clenched her hands in anguish. "Oh, God!" she sobbed, with scalding tears that scorched her cheeks. "Curse him! Curse him!"
All this is quite bad enough. But then halfway through the book, Diana manages to escape this miserable slavery, and flees into the desert on horseback. Without food or water, she is finally recaptured when the sheik shoots her beloved horse under her. However, during her escape, she realises that she...are you ready for this?...loves this monster.

“Ahh,” you say. “Stockholm Syndrome.” Probably. Try telling that to all the fans of this book--which still exist; look at the Amazon reviews if you're brave.

So now she loves him—but she's afraid to let it slip, because she's afraid that once she ceases to be interesting, the sheik will send her away. Then one day, something horrible happens! She is captured by a different sheik, who (shudder) intends to use her in unspeakable ways. It's a horrible fate! What a villain!

If you detect a note of sarcasm in my voice here, you are correct. The villain's behaviour is totally indistinguishable from the “hero”'s.

Except that now the sheik (not that one, the first one) now realises that he loves Diana as she loves him! He must ride to her rescue! And after he's been shot and nursed faithfully back to life, they declare their love and live happily ever after.

I just want to assure you that I'm not kidding. This is an actual book. It was written in 1919. I could wish otherwise, but there you are. It's been called “a modern feminist's worst nightmare.” It's true that it's the kind of book that makes feminists froth at the mouth, but for you non-feminists out there reading this, don't take that as a recommendation. The book is an offence to everyone. EM Hull—a woman, of course; no man would write such tripe—never seems to look at her book and say, “I am crazy. This sheik deserves to be horsewhipped, then hung, drawn and quartered; and the girl must be mentally ill to want to stay with him.” No—the whole melodramatic story is free of irony. Edith Maude Hull thinks it's romantic!

But why? It wasn't because people back in the nineteen-teens were so dreadfully down on women generally. It wasn't because our great-grandfathers behaved like the sheik, or because this was actually considered romantic back then. Read almost any romantic story written by a man from this time period and you will read a genuinely moving story in which the female half is more often than not treated like a queen. John Buchan's novel Mr Standfast, written in the same year, contains an enjoyable romance characterised by tenderness and respect, and it's by no means exceptionable.

So why does The Sheik exist? The answer is, like all others, theological at root and may explain more books than simply The Sheik--I'm looking at you, Twilight. In Scripture wives are commanded to submit to their own husbands, to respect them; and in return the husbands are commanded to love and lead their wives, honouring them as the weaker vessel. These roles in love are real, they exist, and they are right, because this is the relationship Christ has with His Church.

At the fall women were cursed to desire their husbands' headship, and the besetting sin of women has always been to wish for control over their men. But the Curse also meant that almost everything, even good desires, can be twisted and perverted to something evil. On some level, women still wish to be lead and still find strong men attractive. At what exact point--twenyt minutes or twenty years after the Fall--this morphed into a desire to be helpless and dominated, who can tell? But we can identify various undercurrents to the mindset that produced The Sheik: a love of evil generally, a love of evil men in particular, a love of anarchy and impiety as set over and against a love of good, of righteous authority, of honourable, decent men. Evil men defy authority; fallen women "like bad boys". The sheik's power over Diana is not the legitimate authority of a faithful husband over a wife. It is instead proof of his rebellion against the religion and culture which have until now protected Diana from exactly this kind of outrage. The sheik is anti-authority.

This can be seen in an additional twisted element from the book that really makes my skin crawl. The decent, honourable men who love Diana are rejected, and the book implies that she is too cold and proud to love them in return. In order to learn to love, Diana must be whirled into the sheik's world, where might makes right and anything is right if you can do it. Brutal and horrifying as it is, Diana's humiliation is necessary because she actually needs to be set free of her inhibitions, set free of her chastity, before she can really love, or live, fully.

The melodramatic writing style (and it is incredibly melodramatic) only makes things worse, as Hulls milks every possible ounce of bathos out of Diana's position. Don't read this book, as you value your sanity, or your moral compass. It's not worth it.

6 comments:

Radagast said...

Thank you: we get all the (limited) benefit of reading the novel, and none of the pain.

Tim Nelson said...

Just a tip: There are a bunch of (sci-fi?) novels about a planet called "Gor", by John Norman. My memory of the books is that they weren't absolutely terrible, if you left out the constant subplots that seem to be based on the Sheikh. I think these are the only books I've ever put in the rubbish bin, rather than recycling, because I didn't think anyone should read them.

Anonymous said...

I personally rather like The Sheik. I don't take it very seriously, and just enjoy it for the roller coaster drama ride.

I would've agreed with your opinion overall if not for how deeply the sheik regretted what he had done in the end.

Again, I'm not going to take this seriously and start arguing over whether or not that makes up for how badly he treated her or whatnot; I just find the drama to be a good read, and that's all.

Anonymous said...

The Sheik is essentially an Edwardian S&M fantasy, and is enjoyable in a kinky way if you read it as such rather than as a blueprint on how to behave in real life.

Anonymous said...

I remember "Gor", absolutely horrible! It was 1982 & I was working at the library. I like SF & saw these books were popular. I could not relate to the 'heroine', she was a selfish jerk, although beautiful, (of course), and I kept waiting for something to happen. Yuk!

Once a man asked me where the "Gor" books were & something must have shown on my face, because he asked me if something was wrong!

Anonymous said...

The song she hears that night in Biskra is "Kashmiri Love Song" It was a poem by Hope Lawrence that was set to music and became popular in the late 19 teens.
The book was written at a time when few, if any, women were portrayed as hunters and sportswomen. And, she was not a coward.

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