In his book on popular 20th-century British fiction, Joseph McAleer explains that “escapism…[was] the principal motive in reading” (1) for working-class adults from 1914-1950. He adds, “Reading as a means of escape intensified in times of adversity such as the war and the depression” (1). While reading E.M. Hull’s popular romance novel The Sheik (1919), I found myself wondering what would’ve made this book appealing to its main audience: working-class women. McAleer cites a passage from The Times (1917) that maintains, “The tastes of the working-girl reader incline to the adventurous and romantic. She wants something that is not wordy and will hold her attention” (14). While The Sheik is a “romantic” adventure—one that takes place in an “exotic” setting that would be likely to intrigue and attract female readers—it is also a deeply troubling story about female confinement and sexual assault. For in Hull’s novel, Diana doesn’t simply fall in love with a charming Arab Sheik. She falls in love with an Arab Sheik who entraps and rapes her.
I found it interesting to learn that in the 1921 silent film adaptation of The Sheik, Ahmed doesn’t rape Diana. But in an entry on the film for Turner Classics, James Steffen explains that this decision was made in order to “preempt the censors” (Steffen), not to revise the novel’s troubling gender politics. In fact, according to a review of the film from Variety, it was actually the omission of these rapes that made the film less successful: “The same novel, preposterous and ridiculous as it was, won out because it dealt with every caged woman’s desire to be caught up in a love clasp by some he-man who would take the responsibility and dispose of the consequences” (qtd. in Steffen). I wonder what other kinds of “desires” Hull’s novel may have elicited from its audience. Would female readers have found Diana’s androgynous identity thrilling? Would they have identified with her longing to escape from her oppressive life and brother? How, though, do such desires manage to exist in a narrative that romanticizes rape?