This week I want to talk about the use of captivity in the Romance genre, but before I do, I want to clarify a couple of points that cropped up in discussion of my last post and in other discussions of the genre. In my last post, commenter Katie raised the issue of slave narratives, which are, indeed, a subgenre of captivity narratives. I just want to note that traditional Euro-American slave narratives have some crucial differences from captivity narratives. In the Indian captivity narratives I am focusing on, the captive is someone who has a certain level of social privilege and capital that is of critical importance. Narratives featuring women are more complex in the sense that women have an insider/outsider status, privileged in some ways, marginalized in others. So the power differentials are different than in traditional slave narratives. Despite the presence of Captive Prince and erotic slave fiction of various kinds, I would argue that most often Romance makes use of the traditional captivity narrative device, rather than the historical slave narrative.
Secondly, there has been a great discussion going at Sunita’s personal blog on the issue of names and patriarchy, a discussion that gets to the heart of the tension between institutions and individuals, a tension that I discussed somewhat in my first post, and also one that I think Romance exemplifies. For example, Romance often celebrates and promotes traditional marriage, which has, historically, been a patriarchal social institution, while at the same time often empowering its heroines to make considered, independent personal choices that may or may not track with traditional social expectations. I doubt the genre will ever be able to resolve this tension (nor do I think it should), when we are still struggling with it in a real life social context. However, I think it’s good to keep in mind the sometimes overlapping, sometimes conflicted relationship between social structures and institutions (e.g. marriage as a legal contract & property distribution/inheritance laws) and personal choices (keeping one’s name, the way we still call it a “maiden name.”).
Now, picking up where I left off in my last post, I want to start by pointing out that the massive popularity and production of the Indian captivity narrative extended pretty much through the 19th century, overlapping the growth of amatory fiction (Aphra Behn, Eliza Heywood and others) and the sentimental novel, and butting up against the advent of the 20th century and the so-called Modern Era. During this time, women’s travel narratives also constituted a genre on the rise, and although I have not really talked about them, these narratives drew in part from British captivity narratives of the Barbery Coast, which in turn inspired a tradition of Orientalist fiction that fetishized and exoticized the Near East in ways that filtered through 19th C portrayals of India and the Middle East. From that mix emerges Edith Hull’s 1919 novel, The Sheik, which, among other things, generated the iconic movie image of Rudolph Valentino as the titular character. It’s also important to note that Hull’s novel arrives at the end of World War I, which created a new global awareness, along with near total domination by Britain of the Ottoman Empire, Egypt, and other Arab states.
Set in Algeria, The Sheik features a wealthy, aristocratic, strawberry blonde heroine, Diana Mayo, who is bored of society and wants to explore “wild places” like the desert. Seen as a young woman of “extreme candour” and a “haughty little face,” Diana has no interest in mild-mannered Jim Arbuthnot, who would like to take his friendship with Diana to a romantic level, and who begs her not to take a trip into the desert until he can accompany her and keep her safe. Diana simply does not understand Arbuthnot’s ardor, telling him, “I have never loved any one in my life,” even her brother, who has been the most prominent male in her life, as her mother died in childbirth and her father committed suicide, “made with heartbroken despair.” In rejecting the tame love of Arbuthnot, you can already detect Diana’s potential to end up another Eliza Wharton, especially with her reckless decision to travel into the desert alone (outside of the local men she hires to guide her), and her naïve over-estimation of her own invulnerability:
And this was the desert! It was the expedition that she had dreamed of and planned for years. She could not give it up. The idea of danger brought a little laugh to her lips. How could anything in the desert hurt her? It had been calling to her always. There was nothing strange about the scene that lay all around her. Her surroundings seemed oddly familiar. The burning sun overhead in the cloudless sky, the shimmering haze rising from the hot, dry ground, the feathery outline of some clustering palm trees in a tiny distant oasis were like remembrances that she watched again with a feeling of gladness that was fuller and deeper than anything that she had been conscious of before. She was radiantly happy—happy in the sense of her youth and strength, her perfect physical fitness, happy in the capacity of her power of enjoyment, happy with the touch of the keen, nervous horse between her knees, exhilarated with her new authority. She had looked forward so eagerly, and realisation was proving infinitely greater than anticipation. And for a whole month this perfect happiness was to be hers. She thought of her promise to Aubrey with impatience. To give up the joyous freedom of the desert for the commonplace round of American social life seemed preposterous.
Now if this were a Hannah Webster Foster novel, Diana would fall into the clutches of some nefarious rake, surrender her “virtue” to him, setting in motion untold misery and social ostracization. Instead, Diana is taken captive by Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan, who becomes obsessed with Diana, forcibly seduces her, and ultimately gets her to fall in love with him and remain in the desert as his bride.
The transition from forced captivity to romance is not easy. Diana curses what she sees as Ahmed’s “Oriental egoism,” and characterizes him as a “beautiful, cruel, merciless beast,” even as his political and personal power fascinates her. He treats her alternately with casual dismissal and fierce protectiveness, and she finds herself more and more invested in his opinion of her. At one point he gives her jade jewelry, telling her, “Pearls are too cold and diamonds too banal for you,” he said slowly. “You should wear nothing but jade. It is the colour of the evening sky against the sunset of your hair.” Diana can no longer stand her own inner struggle:
He had never spoken like that to her before, or used that tone of voice. His methods had been more fierce than tender. She glanced up swiftly at his face, but it baffled her. There was no love in his eyes or even desire, nothing but an unusual gentleness. “Perhaps you would prefer the diamonds and the pearls,” he went on, pointing disdainfully at the box.
“No, no. I hate them! I hate them all! I will not wear your jewels. You have no right to think that I am that kind of woman,” she cried hysterically.
“You do not like them? Bon Dieu! None of the other women ever refused them. On the contrary, they could never get enough,” he said with a laugh.
Diana looked up with a startled glance, a look of horror dawning in her eyes. “Other women?” she repeated blankly.
“You didn’t suppose you were the first, did you?” he asked with brutal candour. “Don’t look at me like that. They were not like you, they came to me willingly enough—too willingly. Allah! How they bored me! I tired of them before they tired of me.”
She flung her arm across her eyes with a dry sob, straining away from him. She had never thought of that. In the purity of her mind it had never occurred to her. She was only one of many, one of a succession of mistresses, taken and discarded at his whim. She writhed with the shame that filled her. “Oh, you hurt me!” she whispered very low, and then anger killed all other feeling. He had loosened his arm about her and she wrenched herself free and sprang to her feet. “I hate you, do you understand? I hate you! I hate you!”
He lit a cigarette leisurely before answering and moved into a more comfortable position on the divan. “So you have already told me this afternoon,” he said at length coolly, “and with reiteration your remark becomes less convincing, ma cherie.”
Her anger ebbed away. She was too tired to be angry. She was humiliated and hurt, and the man before her had it in his power to hurt her more, but she was at his mercy and tonight she could not fight. She pushed the hair off her forehead with a heavy sigh and looked at the Sheik’s long length stretched out on the couch, the steely strength of his limbs patent even in the indolent attitude in which he was lying, at his brown handsome face, inscrutable as it always was to her, and the feeling of helplessness came back with renewed force and with it the sense of her own pitiful weakness against his force, compelling her to speak. “Have you never felt pity for a thing that was weaker than yourself? Have you never spared anything or any one in all your life? Have you nothing in your nature but cruelty? Are all Arabs hard like you?” she said shakily. “Has love never even made you merciful?”
He glanced up at her with a harsh laugh, and shook his head. “Love? Connais pas! Yes, I do,” he added with swift mockery, “I love my horses.”
“When you don’t kill them,” she retorted.
“I am corrected. When I don’t kill them.”
There was something in his voice that made her reckless, that made her want to hurt him. “If you give no love to the—the women whom you bring here, do you give love to the women of your harem? You have a harem, I suppose, somewhere?” she braved him with curling lip and scornful voice, but as she spoke she knew that she had only hurt herself and her voice faltered.
His hand reached out suddenly and he dragged her down into his arms again with a laugh. “And if I have, are you jealous? What if the nights I spent away from you were passed in my harem—what then?”
“Then may Allah put it into the heart of one of your wives to poison you so that you never come back,” she said fiercely.
“Allah! So beautiful and so bloodthirsty,” he said in bantering reproof. Then he turned her face up to his, smiling into her angry eyes with amusement. “I have no harem and, thanks be to Allah, no wives, cherie. Does that please you?”
“Why should I care? It is nothing to me,” she replied sharply, with a vivid blush.
He held her closer, looking deeply into her eyes, holding them as he could when he liked, in spite of her efforts to turn them away—a mesmerism she could not resist.
“Shall I make you care? Shall I make you love me? I can make women love me when I choose.”
She went very white and her eyes flickered. She knew that he was only amusing himself, that he was utterly indifferent to her feelings, that he did not care if she hated or loved him, but it was a new form of torture that was more detestable than anything that had gone before it. It infuriated her that he could even suggest that she could come to care for him, that she could ever look on him as anything but a brutal savage who had committed a hideous outrage, that she could ever have any feeling for him except hatred and loathing. That he should class her with the other women he spoke of revolted her, she felt degraded, soiled as she had never done before, and she had thought that she had felt the utmost humiliation of her position.
The colour rushed back into her face. “I would rather you killed me,” she cried passionately.
“So would I,” he said drily, “for if you loved me you would bore me and I should have to let you go. While as it is”—he laughed softly—”as it is I do not regret the chance that took me into Biskra that day.”
Over the course of her captivity, however, Diana becomes aware of Ahmed as a gifted politician, a natural leader who has the loyalty of his people, a man in natural alignment with the often harsh conditions of the desert, and wild in spirit, like herself. She hates her growing feelings of attachment to him, even though they disprove her belief that she has no heart. And Hull uses numerous devices to shift the reader’s sympathies to Ahmed. At one point, Diana is captured by a “robber sheik,” whose physical and moral ugliness, and his threat of rape, put Ahmed in the position of Diana’s rescuer and protector. Isolation in a sandstorm and the possibility that both might die produces a cathartic moment of emotional intimacy that bonds Diana and Ahmed, changing the dynamic in their relationship to one of mutual passion and interest.
It is, in fact, at this point that the nature of Diana’s captivity changes. Once her emotional loyalty to Ahmed becomes secured, she becomes terrified that her obvious love for him will mean the end of their relationship. It is also at this point that Ahmed no longer wants to keep her as a captive and, believing she wants to leave, basically tells her to go home, which plunges Diana into her own despair, to the point where she picks up a gun to shoot herself in the head (as her father did):
There had been no sound to betray what was passing behind him, but the extra sense, the consciousness of imminent danger that was strong in the desert-bred man, sprang into active force within the Sheik. He turned like a flash and leaped across the space that separated them, catching her hand as she pressed the trigger, and the bullet sped harmlessly an inch above her head. With his face gone suddenly ghastly he wrenched the weapon from her and flung it far into the night.
For a moment they stared into each other’s eyes in silence, then, with a moan, she slipped from his grasp and fell at his feet in an agony of terrible weeping. With a low exclamation he stooped and swept her up into his arms, holding her slender, shaking figure with tender strength, pressing her head against him, his cheek on her red-gold curls.
“My God! child, don’t cry so. I can bear anything but that,” he cried brokenly.
But the terrible sobs went on, and fearfully he caught her closer, straining her to him convulsively, raining kisses on her shining hair. “Diane, Diane,” he whispered imploringly, falling back into the soft French that seemed so much more natural. “Mon amour, ma bien-aimee. Ne pleures pas, je t’en prie. Je t’aime, je t’adore. Tu resteras pres de moi, tout a moi.”
She seemed only half-conscious, unable to check the emotion that, unloosed, overwhelmed her. She lay inert against him, racked with the long shuddering sobs that shook her. His firm mouth quivered as he looked down at his work. Gathering her up to his heart he carried her to the divan, and the weight of her soft slim body sent the blood racing madly through his veins. He laid her down, and dropped on his knees beside her, his arm wrapped round her, whispering words of passionate love.
Gradually the terrible shuddering passed and the gasping sobs died away, and she lay still, so still and white that he was afraid. He tried to rise to fetch some restorative, but at the first movement she clung to him, pressing closer to him. “I don’t want anything but you,” she murmured almost inaudibly.
His arm tightened round her and he turned her face up to his. Her eyes were closed and the wet lashes lay black against her pale cheek. His lips touched them pitifully.
“Diane, will you never look at me again?” His voice was almost humble.
Her eyes quivered a moment and them opened slowly, looking up into his with a still-lingering fear in them. “You won’t send me away?” she whispered pleadingly, like a terrified child.
A hard sob broke from him and he kissed her trembling lips fiercely. “Never!” he said sternly. “I will never let you go now. My God! If you knew how I wanted you. If you knew what it cost me to send you away. Pray God I keep you happy. You know the worst of me, poor child—you will have a devil for a husband.”
The colour stole back slowly into her face and a little tremulous smile curved her lips. She slid her arm up and round his neck, drawing his head down. “I am not afraid,” she murmured slowly. “I am not afraid of anything with your arms round me, my desert lover. Ahmed! Monseigneur!”
I included these lengthy citations from the novel because I want to highlight the way in which the emotional dynamics between Ahmed and Diana are echoed in so many contemporarily written genre Romance novels. Violet Winspear’s 1969 Blue Jasmine is a very, very close adaptation of Hull’s book, which I would categorize as both the first Modern Romance novel and the most influential source of the sheik romance narrative.
Note, for example, how Ahmed’s initial savagery has been turned around; now he declares himself the devil while Diana promises her loyalty and her lack of fear. Ahmed has been “tamed,” in certain ways. He falls in love, which he swore he would never do; he is revealed to be the son of a European nobleman, which gives him a “civilized” pedigree; and he willingly sacrifices his own autonomy and personal happiness for Diana. The rake, in other words, becomes the perfect husband. And the woman who flouted convention and then paid the price with her virginity, gets both the wildness she seeks and the European pedigree to keep her from becoming a complete outsider (something likely more important for Hull’s readership than the society of the novel). Symbolically, it is a return to “civilization” without having to abandon the aspects of desert life and Arab culture that Ahmed, and ultimately Diana, embrace, creating a sort of cultural hybridity that promises something new, even as it retains a connection to Western cultural values. And in terms of Diana and Ahmed’s courtship, it is one that continues to test and shift the boundaries of power between the two. Moreover, it contemplates different types of power: physical captivity, sexual force, emotional dependence, romantic captivation, sexual attraction, mutual respect, etc.
Although I’m sure it’s obvious at this point, I still want to point out that Hull’s novel continues to perpetuate a lot of the problematic Orientalist rhetoric and stereotypes of her day. She also perpetuates the “noble savage” and the “bloody savage” dichotomy captivity narratives often employed, and she exploits the stereotype of the desert as a wild, untamed place to reflect and represent the dynamic, almost violent, sexual attraction between Diana and Ahmed. But the novel also challenges stereotypes, namely those perpetuated in sentimental and sensational fiction that women needed to play by certain rules to find happiness and love. Although she shies away from creating Ahmed as a full-blooded Arab, she creates a somewhat complex picture (albeit not necessarily realistic) of Arab cultures, especially in Ahmed’s conscious rejection of his European blood in favor of his mother’s cultural heritage. And through their marriage, Diana and Ahmed create a somewhat hybridized cultural space, one that does not fully default to Western cultural values and membership.
Beyond all that, Hull’s novel really reflects the intersection of romance, captivity narrative, sentimental novel, and travel narrative, among other literary influences, and the immense popularity of The Sheik, and particularly of Valentino’s blockbuster infamy playing that part, have all shaped the evolution of 20th and 21st C genre Romance novels. I would very roughly (and with great simplification) construct the timeline this way:
- Indian captivity narratives gain popularity for the ways in which they provide a sensationalistic read of “Otherness,” while allowing the reader to remain safe and yet experience a certain moment of transcultural exchange and identification. The colonization and then Westward expansion of the United States keeps Native American societies the focus of these narratives, even as their portrayal is often twisted and fictionalized for the colonizing purposes of the narratives.
- British captivity narratives of the Barbary Coast, Amatory Fiction, and other fiction produced in England, both of the sentimental/sensational tradition and also focused on the “exotic East,” parallels the growth of American (including colonial American) produced narratives and novels.
- The sentimental novel, published simultaneously with captivity narratives, draws on the moral and domestic “lessons” of many of those narratives and applies them to female heroines, providing guidance examples of virtuous womanhood, while sensational novels (which I would argue are really a subspecies of sentimental fiction) often showed young women in physical and/or social peril.
- With the advent of the 20th C and World War I, focus shifted to the former Ottoman Empire, and sheik “Otherness” joined and to some degree exceeded the popularity of Native American “Otherness,” with Hull’s novel massively popularizing the sheik hero. As women began producing more and more travel narratives, many of them to so-called “exotic” locations, the distinction between sentimental and sensational “lessons” kind of blurred, with romanticism of the “exotic Other” blending into an overtly romantic narrative.
- As genre Romance develops, it continues to borrow heavily from its literary ancestors, utilizing plot and character devices and thematic concerns that related popular genres made famous. And because these devices and themes reflected broader social, cultural, and political issues that persist in various forms today, they persist in genre Romance.
This post is already much longer than I anticipated, so I’m going to stop here. Next week I will delve into some contemporary Romance novels, and I’d love it if you would continue to share any books that come to mind as you’re reading along.