The link below is to an article reporting on issues for the Internet Archive in the United Kingdom over copyright and the Open Library project.
A century ago, a romance writer named Edith Maud Hull wrote her debut novel, a desert fantasy she called The Sheik. The novel was published under the name E.M. Hull, presumably to disguise the fact she was a woman. Despite being described by one reviewer as “poisonously salacious”, it quickly became a bestseller.
The popularity of her tale of the intrepid, boyish and beautiful Diana who ventures into the Sahara before being captured by her desert rapist-cum-lover sheik was enhanced by George Melford’s 1921 film adaptation, starring the dashing Rudolph Valentino.
The novel’s prototype sheik also made his way into the Oxford English Dictionary where the word sheik (spelled without an h) is defined as a “type of a strong, romantic lover; a lady-killer”.
Hull’s novel had a profound influence on 1920s popular culture – and its legacy has been long lasting – even 100 years on readers are still losing themselves in the desert romance aisle.
During the decade following its publication, Hull’s novel inspired a number of spin offs, adaptations, and parodies including titles such as The Shriek of Araby (1923), and Felix the Cat Shatters the Sheik (1926). Sheik themes infused 1920s music, fashion and travel trends with a desert flavour.
But contemporary critics were not impressed, to say the least. Q.D. Leavis slated it as “rotten primitive stuff” and the novelist Storm Jameson wrote of the instinct of the “educated mind” to regurgitate the novel in much the same manner in which “his stomach would reject a meal of cheap cake”.
American literary scholar Laura Frost has described how, for the cultural elite of Hull’s day, The Sheik was not only an innocuous “bad novel”, but demonstrative of a morally corrupt and hedonistic youth. The novel was, in Frost’s words, a “chief representative of cultural degeneracy”.
Library of love
That the novel was a sensation in the 1920s is no secret, but what might surprise some readers is that the captivity-fantasy narrative formula and the sheik hero made famous by the novel and its film adaptation is still going strong. Publishers Mills & Boon has released more than 300 titles based on the sheik (or sheikh) in the past decade – and more than 30 of these have appeared since January 2018, according to the publisher.
The desert-romance formula never really went away, but the century since its publication has seen peaks and troughs in its popularity. Several high-profile republications of The Sheik have brought the novel to new generations of romance fans. The Sheik was published in condensed form in the 1970s by the queen of formulaic romance, Barbara Cartland, in her Library of Love collection, and Virago included the title among its Modern Classics in the 1990s.
Hull’s novel keeps returning in other guises also. Novelist Violet Winspear – who infamously remarked that heroes of romantic novels “must be the sort of men who are capable of rape: men it’s dangerous to be alone in the room with” – resurrected Hull’s narrative in her 1969 novel Blue Jasmine. In Winspear’s Tawny Sands (1970) the heroine is told that to venture into the desert alone is tantamount to “asking for a dose of semi-rape, if not the real thing!”
And though Hull’s formulaic narrative is mocked in equal measure, the sheik/sheikh hero recurs in other 20th-century novels with alarming regularity in, for instance, Elizabeth Ashton’s Moonlight on the Nile (1979) and Egyptian Honeymoon (1981), as well as John Derek’s 1984 film Bolero, in which Valentino’s iconic starring role in Melford’s 1921 adaptation is a central theme.
Inside the tent
Victoria Vane’s steamy mashup The Sheik Retold (2013), claims to fling “the bedroom door wide open” on Diana and Ahmed while moderating some of the text’s more problematic aspects. Vane’s novel shifts the power dynamics by converting Hull’s third-person perspective into the first-person, thus giving Diana greater narrative control. At the same time, Diana turns the tables on “the menacing tiger” of the Sheik, making him “her prey”.
And sheik hybrid novels are flourishing too with titles such as Lavinia Angell’s The Sheik of Araby: Pride and Prejudice in the Desert (2010) in which the sheik memorably echoes Mr Darcy’s famous line from Pride and Prejudice: “She may captivate you, Yusef, but she is certainly not handsome enough to tempt me.”
Other recent titles include Vampire Sheikh (2011), Secret Agent Sheikh (2011), Governess to the Sheikh (2016), Sheikh’s Baby of Revenge (2018) and the collection Red-Hot Desert Docs (2019), to name just a few.
A tempered tale
Scholars have long recognised in The Sheik an accessible expression of female sexuality otherwise rare for its time. But it’s hard to deny The Sheik’s immensely troubling narrative whereby Diana comes to fall passionately in love with the “lawless savage who had taken her to satisfy a passing fancy and who had treated her with merciless cruelty”.
Though some problematic racist impulses in Hull’s original novel might have been tempered in more recent incarnations of the narrative, the fact remains that many sheik romances rest on the taming and domestication of the heroine by the awe-inspiring man she encounters.
It is in this context that novelist Kate Saunders’ tagline in her introduction to the Virago edition of the novel, which described it as “pornography so soft you could give it to your grandmother”, seems rather unenlightened. But Hull’s novel (along with its many imitators) has held many a reader and writer captive over the years. A century on, for better or worse, The Sheik is still very much with us.
Prize-winning British novelist Andrea Levy, who died on February 14, will be remembered affectionately for raising awareness of black British writing and the closely intertwined histories of Britain and the Caribbean more than any other British writer of recent times (save perhaps Zadie Smith). In a career spanning 25 years, during which she published five novels (two of which were successfully adapted for television) and a luminous collection of short stories and essays – a significant legacy in itself – Levy garnered an unusually wide readership which crossed literary, popular and academic lines.
Like Angela, the protagonist of her first, semi-autobiographical novel, Every Light in the House Burnin’ (1994), Levy was of Jamaican parentage, her father being one of the original Windrush passengers arriving in Britain in 1948, her mother following shortly after. Levy herself grew up in a working-class household with few books, recalling in characteristically frank terms that “being a working-class girl I mainly watched telly”.
Like Faith, the protagonist of her third novel, Fruit of the Lemon (1999), Levy knew little about her heritage and took little interest in Caribbean history and culture until a startling experience in a Racism Awareness training session at work launched her on a journey of rediscovery. As Faith’s mother says: “Child, everyone should know where they come from.”
Levy’s meticulously researched fictions interrogate the human experience of migration to and from the Caribbean in different periods. In Small Island (2004), Levy explores the ways in which Caribbean people were racially “othered” and made to feel unwelcome outsiders in Britain, despite being invited to migrate as British subjects in the post-1945 period.
In her final novel, The Long Song (2010), Levy harnesses fiction to, in her words, “go farther” – imaginatively excavating the human experiences of slavery from a variety of perspectives. Later on, in a twist stranger than fiction, Levy discovered that she herself, like her fictional character Miss July, was descended from a mixed-race liaison between a slave and a white overseer.
Although happy to be termed a black British writer, Levy importantly always saw the long historical connection between Britain and the Caribbean as a profoundly British concern, rather than a niche interest only relevant to those of Caribbean heritage. Indeed, reading her nuanced and inclusive explorations of what it is to be British and of Caribbean heritage might be seen as more urgent than ever in these heated times of Brexit and the Windrush scandal.
A British story
Levy started to write only in her 30s – but her writing achieved that rare thing: critical acclaim and commercial success (notably after Small Island which won the Orange Prize for Fiction, the Whitbread Book of the Year and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize). Her texts now have a place on academic curricula across the globe but also – crucially – a huge popular readership as her books fill a permanent place on ordinary peoples’ bookshelves.
As the many tributes from her readers, those who worked with her and from prominent black British figures such as Sir Lenny Henry testify, it is clear that Levy’s writing played a hugely important role in helping many readers learn about, connect to and make sense of the complex, brutal and often hidden nature of Britain’s slave history and its lasting legacies. As Levy always made clear: the history of her heritage was also a British story.
Small Island is Levy’s hugely significant contribution to the fictional retelling and exploration of West Indians’ migration to Britain in the Windrush era. Levy’s compelling neo-slave novel, The Long Song, is a historiographic metafiction, a playfully self-conscious probing of the nature of narrative and the telling of history, this time from a slave perspective in an attempt to imaginatively reenter the harsh world of plantation society and give voice, agency and humanity to the enslaved.
Levy’s earliest novels, Every Light in the House Burning (1994), set in 1960s London; Never far from Nowhere (1996), set on a North London council estate in the 1970s; and Fruit of the Lemon (1999), set in the Thatcherite Britain of the 1980s (as well as Jamaica), document domestic experiences of black British life and the particular manifestations of racism – National Front attacks, skinhead violence – prominent in British society during these periods. Later short texts, such as the short story Uriah’s War (2014), return to an earlier period and remind us that Britain and the Caribbean have long been closely connected and that West Indians – as British colonial subjects – also fought valiantly for “King and Country” in both world wars.
Growing up black
Levy seems to have been driven by a strong ethical imperative to tell these stories of West Indian arrival in Britain, of later generations “growing up black under the Union Jack”, to address the widespread British amnesia about its colonial history and the relative silence about Caribbean slavery in so many British institutions, including the school system.
The Small Island of Levy’s title is, of course, both Jamaica and Britain, two islands intimately and often violently yoked together by more than 300 years of shared history and culture. While Levy’s novels are set during different periods, they are all part of a longstanding, shared British-Caribbean history.
Thus, Small Island shows how the experience of the Windrush generation was marked by many of the same attitudes, inequalities and tensions found in the earlier period of plantation slavery in Jamaica, as explored in The Long Song. Levy’s 2014 essay Back to My Own Country, meanwhile, is a moving and powerful account of family, racism and her turn to writing. All are part of the largely forgotten history of Britain’s deep relationship with the Caribbean – a history which Levy’s texts show us is not just “out there” but “here (in Britain) too”.
Ultimately, what links all Levy’s texts is their deep humanity. Fittingly, Levy herself said that: “None of my books is just about race … They’re about people and history.” She described Miss July, the protagonist and chief narrator of The Long Song as “human, very smart, feisty”. There could be no better way of describing Levy as a writer.