Edith Hull The Sheik (1919)
"Are you coming in to watch the dancing, Lady Conway?"
"I most decidedly am not. I thoroughly disapprove of the expedition of which this dance is the inauguration. I consider that even by contemplating such a tour alone into the desert with no chaperon or attendant of her own sex, with only native camel drivers and servants, Diana Mayo is behaving with a recklessness and impropriety that is calculated to cast a slur not only on her own reputation, but also on the prestige of her country. I blush to think of it. We English cannot be too careful of our behaviour abroad. No opportunity is slight enough for our continental neighbours to cast stones, and this opportunity is very far from being slight. It is the maddest piece of unprincipled folly I have ever heard of."
The Sheik is pretty hot stuff for its era.
It is also very easy to write it off simply as a work so offensive to the sensibility of modern women that no one should read it. I'm not going to be naïve about this: there are elements of this book which are revolting and it is fortunate that these scenes - multiple rape, for instance - are couched in a sort of Vaseline-tinged aura of Edwardian obfuscation which leaves almost everything to the imagination.
This is a book - written by a woman - which warns about the fate that befalls women who act independently. This is what happens to women who don't listen to men. This is what happens to women who are financially independent. This is what happens if you wear trousers in public. This is the fate of a woman who is "a girl who was a girl by accident of birth only" and who has no desire for marriage or physical intimacy:
To be bound irrevocably to the will and pleasure of a man who would have the right to demand obedience in all that constituted marriage and the strength to enforce those claims revolted her.
All of this is meant to titillate the reader, of course. Many readers will also be offended by a plot development along Stockholm Syndrome lines between abused and abuser. There's also a weird homoerotic subtext about the Sheik liking women who look like boys. The Sheik also plays into stereotypes of Orientalism (I'm think about Edward Said here) and the non-white Other:
Until they started shooting the thought that the Arabs could be hostile had not crossed her mind. She imagined that they were merely showing off with the childish love of display which she knew was characteristic.
This is ugly stuff.
She was utterly in his power and at his mercy—the mercy of an Arab who was merciless.
I'd read this book if you want a good laugh at outdated customs such as changing for dinner in the desert into "clinging jade-green silk, swinging short above her slender ankles, the neck cut low, revealing the gleaming white of her soft, girlish bosom":
That explorer woman we met in London that first year I began travelling with you explained to me the real moral and physical value of changing into comfortable, pretty clothes after a hard day in breeches and boots. You change yourself.
Apart from that, read it at your own peril.
She turned the pages, dipping here and there, finally forgetting the author altogether in the book. It was a wonderful story of a man's love and faithfulness, and Diana pushed it aside at last with a very bitter sigh. Things happened so in books. In real life they happened very differently.
I certainly hope so.
Rating: are you kidding?
Incidentally, I read this because I read Verity's review (her perspective is both kinder and more balanced) and thus realised it was still in print; and because I enjoy old films.