The SheikMay 26, 2011
If you’re triggered by discussions of rape, please don’t read this book, and consider giving this post a pass as well.
Every single time in the past five years that I’ve read a book where the relationship between the hero and the heroine was kind of abusive, or a man failed to treat a woman as a person with a life of her own, or rapist-like behavior was meant to be cute, or a woman was punished for being attractive or for acting like a man, I’ve though, “Well, at least it’s not The Sheik.”
The Sheik is all of those things and more. Basically, if you can think of a gross thing early 20th century authors do to women, it’s here — except, to be fair, that thing where any woman whose virtue has been impugned in any way must die. It’s pretty awful.
The heroine of The Sheik, or the author’s punching bag — whichever way you want to look at it — is Diana Mayo, a young Englishwoman whose parents died when she was a baby. Her older brother Aubrey, who was in his late teens at the time, had to raise her all by himself, and he decided that the best way to do that would be to treat her as if she were a boy. Aubrey is pretty deeply self-centered, and much more interested in what’s easy for him than what’s good for her, so Diana learns to ride and hunt and be generally outdoorsy (lest you suspect for even a minute that her name is a coincidence) but doesn’t acquire a whole lot in the way of social skills. She’s also, inevitably, gorgeous, and there’s a lot of stuff about men falling in love with her and having her coldly tell them that she doesn’t understand love.
She’s clearly heading for a fall, and yet I don’t sympathize at all with these men in her social circle. We’re introduced to one in particular who has apparently been friends with her for a number of years, and as someone who is supposed to know her pretty well, I really feel like he ought to know better. The fact that his love for her doesn’t come with any understanding makes me believe that it isn’t love at all, and the implication that he’s unable to restrain himself when faced with her beauty sounds uncomfortably like the idea that scantily clad women are asking to be raped. Anyway, he’s a tool, but we’re meant to like him. Also he provides us with some handy exposition: Diana is about to take an unchaperoned trip into the desert while Aubrey goes to America to find himself a rich wife. Everyone is intensely disapproving, but Diana is pretty headstrong, and no one really has a right to dictate to her anyway.
Of course, now we have a problem, because Diana is strong and independent and capable, and therefore she must be punished. I just wish she didn’t have to be so punished. It’s frustrating, because so many authors — not just when Hull was writing; now too — are so good about creating strong female characters and so lousy at having them actually do anything.
Diana has barely been in the desert on her own for a day before she’s kidnapped by an Arab chieftain named Ahmed ben Hassan, the leader of a tribe that raises horses that are apparently worth gushing about at great length. And then he rapes her. Articles I’ve read that refer to this book seem to prefer the word “ravish,” but let’s not be coy: this is sexual assault.
Nothing in this book would be considered graphic by today’s standards, but Hull does dwell kind of a lot on Diana’s feelings of fear and powerlessness and shame as he repeatedly forces her to have sex with him, and in spite — or perhaps partially because — of the fact that it’s all written in romance novel language (he “crush[es] her against him,” etc.), it’s pretty upsetting. She settles in as well as she can, but she’s continually subjected to new examples of her captor’s cruelty. Finally she takes an opportunity to run away, but Ahmed tracks her down and shoots her horse out from under her. She rides back with him on his horse, and it is at this point that she realizes that she’s in love with him. I don’t know much about Stockholm Syndrome, but I’m pretty sure that’s textbook. What’s worse is that this is all accompanied by Hull going on and on about how Diana couldn’t go on being athletic and independent forever, and how she had to succumb to her femininity sometime. Is falling in love with one’s rapist a necessary part of being a woman? Hull sort of seems to think so.
Diana can’t reveal that she’s in love with Ahmed, for fear that he’ll get bored with her and send her away, so she pretends to hate him still. There’s also some implications that she enjoys sex with him now, and has to restrain herself from responding to him physically, and it’s certainly not the least interesting thing in the book. That would be Raoul de Saint Hubert, Ahmed’s boringly perfect best friend, who is a writer, a doctor, and an explorer, and who manages to work Ahmed into a jealous frenzy even before he (inevitably) falls in love with Diana. He’s there for three purposes: to make Ahmed jealous, to save Ahmed’s life, and to tell Diana all about Ahmed’s past, which pretty much boils down to, “It’s okay that you slept with him: he’s really white!” Apparently his English father abused his Spanish mother, and Ahmed is now taking his hate of the English out on Diana. None of this actually makes any sense, but I think all Hull really wants us to know is that he’s not really an Arab.
Then Diana gets kidnapped by an enemy of Ahmed’s whose only in purpose in life is to create a situation from which Diana needs to be rescued. He also intends to rape her, and apparently it’s much worse to be raped by someone who isn’t attractive. At this point in the book, everything is just off-putting in a tiresome sort of way. You know Ahmed’s going to get there on time, you know he’s going to rescue her, etc. You don’t know that he’s going to be badly injured in the rescue (except that now you do), but it’s a nice surprise. I mean, by now it’s clear that Ahmed is going to get the happy ending he doesn’t deserve, so inflicting an enormous amount of pain on him is the least Hull can do.
The whole kidnapping episode convinces him that he’s in love with her, too, and after some waffling where he sort of tries to be nice for a change and fails miserably, they get their happy ending. And I guess that’s supposed to make everything okay, but…it really doesn’t. I mean, are we supposed to read this book and think it’s okay that he raped her, since they fall in love later? Because it’s not. We’re definitely supposed to think that it’s okay for them to be together because it turns out he’s not actually an Arab. And, even aside from being massively racist, that makes everything else worse: when he’s raping her, Diana thinks about how he comes from a culture where they do things differently, but when they’re heading toward their happily ever after, he has to be white. It’s a case of having one’s cake and eating it too.
This book just makes me so angry. I don’t understand how anyone could ever consider any of this okay.