Can’t Find My Way Home
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.
I’ve wondered if Georgette Heyer ever read The Sheik because the heroine of Simon the Coldheart is the hero’s captive and at the end of the novel she submits to him and describes him as “mon maître et mon seigneur.” I’m not sure if there’s an echo there of Diana, but there could be. And then in These Old Shades the heroine is bought by the hero, and tends to call him “Monseigneur.”
I’m curious that you say Ahmed Ben Hassan “forcibly seduces her”: isn’t it rape?
Finally, and most prosaically, in the phrase “the woman who flaunted convention” should “flaunted” not be “flouted”?
I meant to leave a comment on your earlier post on Indian captivity narratives, but I just wanted to tell you I’m enjoying reading this series of posts.
I love this quote and I think you totally nailed the inherent tension in the genre. Reading this, I think I realized why I’ve been so disappointed with recent paranormal romances. They have the potential to be so much more subversive with the male/female power dynamic but they’re usually not.
This is an excellent series! I look forward to reading these every Tuesday. I really don’t have much to contribute to this fascinating look into Romance, except that now I have added The Sheik to my TBR list. :)
Your post makes me wish that I were teaching The Sheikh again in the spring! It’s been too long; I miss it, and the discussions that it always provokes.
Hull doesn’t get enough credit, I think, for the artistry of the novel: it has a solid, symmetrical structure, where the first half of the book is about the “breaking” of Diana (and the metaphor of horse-breaking is central to that part of the novel), and the second half begins with Sheikh Ahmed’s realization that his victory over her is “dust and ashes in his mouth,” or something like that, and his slow progress towards being able to love her, as opposed to break her to his will. (I don’t have the book in front of me.)
Laura, I too have wondered about the Heyer / Hull connection. I believe “Monseigneur” comes up as a term of endearment in Devil’s Cub, and one can read the famous shooting-the-hero scene in DC as a revision–with a crucial difference–of Diana’s attempt to shoot Sheikh Ahmed early in the Hull.
@Laura Vivanco: I’m curious that you say Ahmed Ben Hassan “forcibly seduces her”: isn’t it rape?
You know, I struggled with what to call it. He forces her, no question. But they also have a strong sexual attraction, and he most definitely sees what he’s doing as a sexual act, so while if this were real life, I’d call it rape, I feel it’s more complex given the symbolic economy of the book. I don’t think it would be wrong to call it rape, though. I just felt it was a shade more complex, on both sides.
Finally, and most prosaically, in the phrase “the woman who flaunted convention” should “flaunted” not be “flouted”?
Yup. What can I say; I’m a terrible proofreader of my own work!
@Eric Selinger: More and more I am struck by how definitively this is a genre Romance novel, and how for me it really marks the beginning of the genre as we know it. In some ways it’s so extreme and OTT, but as you say, Eric, there’s quite a bit of complexity, not only in the structure of the novel, but also in the way Hull builds the thematic dimensions of their relationship. Winspear’s version may be softened some, but I think Hull’s is a bit more sophisticated. Just the way she creates this incredibly sexualized connection between Diana and Ahmed from the start is really interesting to me, even as it viscerally tends to disgust me (mirroring Diana’s own struggle, in a way).
@Jules and @Amy: Thank you!
I enjoyed your post very much, as usual. In your timeline you state re Indian captivity narratives that “portrayal[of Indian societies] is often twisted and fictionalized for the colonizing purposes of the narratives.” This appears at the beginning of your timeline, which you admit is very loose, but as far as I can see you might as well use this description at the end of the timeline, ie now in the 21st century, for the type of sheikh/captive romance you are describing. This is a type of romance I very rarely read. Not because of the scenes of “enforced seduction”, but because quite honestly I find them embarrassingly racist and patronising. Last week I was given a copy of The Sheikh and the Bought Bride, by Susan Mallery. Since I’ve heard this author well-reviewed here and on other blogs, I thought I’d give it a chance. The bride is a blonde, blue eyed American, whisked to some fantasy Arabia. She is shocked to find rampant sexism in the running of the desert town and the implicit assumption is that the level of women’s engagement in politics is to be compared unfavourably to that of the US (a country which ironically has never had a female leader in its entire history). Luckily for these poor peasant Arabian womenfolk, the blue eyed heroine is there to introduce them to the benefits of a Western education and engage them in all the benefits of capitalism by teaching them to sell their handcrafted jewellery on the internet. I could go on, but to cut this short I’ll say the worst thing for me was the incident in which the heroine befriends a homeless child. How lucky for this boy that a Westerner is here to teach these poor ignorant people that all children should be educated – as though child poverty, homelessness and illiteracy are unknown in the States (or indeed the UK or any number of other countries in the Western world).
You speak of “the stereotypes of Hull’s day”, but to my mind these stereotypes are absolutely alive today, and for that reason this book, like so many other Eastern Sheikh/Western heroine stories, left a sour taste for me and has made me resolve (again) not to read another of these novels.
@Helena Fairfax: I definitely agree with you that Sheik Romances often have problematic elements. I have always been fascinated by the fact that they were still so popular in the wake of 9/11, when there was so much overt Islamophobia swirling around.
Just to clarify, the reason I noted the fictionalization issue with captivity narratives is that most had an *overt* colonizing/imperialist agenda, and they purported to be true accounts (even when they weren’t, or when they were massively hyperbolized), whereas I think fiction is harder to analyze by intent. Although certainly we can see lots of issues in the text, as Hull’s novel demonstrates, and, as you point out, we still see today in a lot of Romance novels that exoticize and fetishize the “Other” (this is still an issue for my in Captive Prince, by the way).
I have read some Sheik Romance novels that challenge the exotic fetishizing, though. Michelle Reid’s The Sheik’s Chosen Wife is one of my favorites (and it’s a captivity story!), and Olivia Gates, who actually lives in Egypt, has some interesting books. There are more, but I’m blanking on them right now. I know I reviewed another one here on DA, but I cannot remember the title or the author. I did not dislike it at all, but I remember not being wowed, either.
Robin – Love your work here. Giving me much to think about. Thank you. Avidly looking forward to the next post.
Just got back from vacation, and now I find a really interesting series of posts! You have certainly put a lot of thought and research into this post. I had never even known THE SHEIK was a book before it was a movie.
The captivity trope can be so ick-making if done badly. One reason I enjoy science fiction and fantasy is that the author can invent societies in which it’s plausible to invert the power structure and make the man the woman’s captive. That can be ick-making, too, though; it has to be well done, no matter which gender has the power.
Keep up the good work!
I have this book in my TBR, but I’ve yet to read it. These excerpts are fascinating. They could have been written in the 1960s, 1970s or even 1980s. No wonder the Winspear tracks so closely.
Robin, I can see why you argue that this should be the “first modern romance novel.” I’m always frustrated by the way the Woodiwiss/blockbuster approach ignores that romance novels were making a ton of money for a publisher, just not an American publisher. And it’s not as if they stopped selling when the Avon etc. lines showed up, in fact they expanded.
@ Eric and Laura: It would make sense for Heyer to have read Hull, given the latter’s popularity, but they don’t have to be connected directly, they could just share a literary background. Both authors would have read French, and “mon maitre et mon seigneur” and Monseigneur were used earlier in French novels of the 19th century; and Monseigneur shows up in Dickens. “My lord and master” is the same kind of romantic address in English, so given the Sheikh was comfortable in French, maybe Hull went with the French version. Plus, it’s romantic and oh so classy.
@Sunita: I think it’s especially notable that Hull writes her book in 1919, and exactly 50 years later, Winspear refashions it for M&B/Harlequin. I know there are genre Romances in between there, but at the very least, the Hull-Winspear connection (for me) breaks right into the Flame and Flower = First genre Romance novel argument.
Also, I want to thank everyone for the encouraging comments. I know this is very different than what’s usually going on (even with me) on Tuesday at DA, and sometimes I feel a little like I’m writing into the black hole, even more so with this series, so I appreciate the positive feedback. ;D
My Mom used to tell me that the reason she and her sisters loved “The Sheik” and “Sons of the Sheik” so much was that the idea that a man could love a woman like that, could want to sexually thrill her until her only thought was she couldn’t live without him…THAT was what they all felt to be missing from their 1950s-60s marriages. She also told me that marrying as a virgin wasn’t what any of them had hoped it would be. The abilities (or lack of them) of their new husbands to provide them with the thrill their romance novels promised proved to be a major disappointment to all of them. As she got older she’d drop-kick books across the room if there weren’t any graphic sex scenes. She started out wanting to imagine them, as she had to do with “The Sheik”, but ended up insisting they be there so she could imagine herself getting to really enjoy hot, erotic sex with an inspired lover.
Needless to say, I didn’t follow their “not until we’re married” path, and I’m all the better for it! And I’m loving this series of discussions.
Great post Robin. I have The Sheikh on my TBR (it was free from Project Guttenberg) but haven’t read it. I didn’t actually know it was a movie! LOL :)
” I have always been fascinated by the fact that they were still so popular in the wake of 9/11, when there was so much overt Islamophobia swirling around. ”
That’s because the ‘sheiks’ have about as much to do with real Arab Muslims as Dumbledore has to do with real high school principles. So long as none of the icky Islamic stuff is involved, then readers are good to go.
Same as ‘I dream of Jeanie’. Here you have (a captive!) Islamic Jinnī complete with harem pants and veil, taking orders and advice from the ‘Great Haji’ (although I don’t think she ever mentions ‘Allah’) in the control of an American (presumably) Christian man (while not being married to him), and the issue of religion is never mentioned, despite the original story being from the *Arabian* nights.
I don’t think ‘Jeannie’s’ Arabic race is ever explicitly mentioned in the series, any more than the decorative use of Islamic dress and terminology is.
This apparently caused no problems for American audiences at the time, or since.
I wanted to say, again, that I continue to love this series and I’d like to see the academic version of it because I think you’re revising the genre boundaries of both the captivity narrative and the romance in interesting ways. I don’t know how/why Woodiwiss became the first romance writer (or Pamela the first English-language novel, Equiano the writer of the first slave narrative, etc.) and why academics, or anyone really, would be invested in that distinction. It makes literary history easier, sure, but it seems to write over a lot of complexity, slippage, hybridity, etc.
@Fiona McGier: First of all, your mom and her sisters sound like a hoot. As much as I find a lot to be frustrated about in terms of the was female sexual satisfaction is still shamed and suppressed, I got a real kick out of your comment. Also, I think there are many women — even today — who feel the same way (IMO the popularity of 50 reflects that).
That’s because the ‘sheiks’ have about as much to do with real Arab Muslims as Dumbledore has to do with real high school principles. So long as none of the icky Islamic stuff is involved, then readers are good to go.
My own experience with Sheik Romances is that it’s maybe more the opposite — in other words, that there are deeply ambivalent feelings about cultural and religious values of the Middle East and that some of those are being worked out in these novels. Not that there aren’t books like you’re talking about in the sub genre; there are. However, as I mentioned in my post, the cultures of the Middle East were not chosen randomly, and even in Hull’s book, there is a deep ambivalence reflected in her portrayal of Ahmed. There are also books by authors like Olivia Gates, an Egyptian physician who lives in Egypt and writes explicitly about mistaken perceptions, cross-cultural misunderstandings, and conflicted sense of identity. I’ve read some Sheik Romances that have made an earnest effort to portray the characters with respect for Islam and for whatever Arab culture is being represented (sometimes in a fictionalized way, sometimes not). Of course there are elements of Orientalism and the exotic erotic thing in many of these books, but even there I think there can be instances of a working through of certain cultural differences and perceptions of “Otherness” within cultures that are perceived from a Western POV to be uber patriarchal.
@Katie: Sometimes I think these origin points are decided by what’s extant at the time of the foundational scholarship. And, like historical research in Romance, those assumptions can spread from one historian to another. And because we all specialize, there’s a certain myopia that can set in if we stop studying in our own — and, perhaps even more importantly, related — fields. Sometimes there is a pattern that emerges in a certain text, accumulated from so many texts and traditions previous to it, that changes the game and kicks off a particular genre in a distinctive or easily recognizable way. I think, for example, that’s very much the case with Mary Rowlandson, and even Equiano. Rowlandson, because hers is really the first narrative we have, in the words of the captive (albeit “edited”), in that particular structure. So I can see the designation there, although I like to talk about Hannah Dustan, too, even though she doesn’t narrate her own story.
I read a book yesterday that surprised and even shocked me a little at how much it mirrored the captivity narrative of the Sheik. It’s Jane’s Porter’s The Sheikh’s Disobedient Bride, published in 2006.
Unlike most current M&B sheikhs, Tair is wholly un-Western in his attitudes and behaviour (despite having an English education). He kidnaps an American woman who had been photographing parts of his country, takes her to a desert encampment and decides to make her his bride. He does so by both force and deception, and admits it. There is very frank encounter when she accuses him of lying to her. He admits it and adds that he has tricked her too. He knows she will find his actions immoral, but for him and his people, they are clever and successful. This reckoning of two cultural standards of morality really struck me as something I don’t see in other romance novels. Everyone, including sheikhs, normally holds to Western morality, but Tair does not. There’s nothing in the book to suggest that Tally’s life with Tair will ever conform to Western standards of freedom and equality for women. Nor that she will be involved in reforms of education or health, or any of the other things that heroines usually bring to foreign countries in romance novels. She is going to have to live a life as an Arabic woman in an extremely isolated and old-fashioned Arabic society.
As I said, I was surprised by the book and a bit shocked. I don’t know that I see a happy ending for an American woman who has to make all those sacrifices and an Arabian sheikh who makes no compromises at all.
@Ros: Thanks for that, Ros. I haven’t read the Porter book, but I’m going to pick it up. I have read a number of books that really do struggle with legitimate cultural differences, even if they are not portrayed in a way that I think is realistic to the various Arab cultures and religions. You’ve definitely piqued my interest with this title.
@Robin/Janet Thanks for the mention of Olivia Gates. I’m looking forward to reading her. You mention that in your experience “there are deeply ambivalent feelings about cultural and religious values of the Middle East and that some of those are being worked out in these novels.” I’m not widely read in this genre, but in my experience there’s no ambivalence – all the novels I’ve read come from a confirmed belief in Western cultural superiority. Please take a look at Ros’s comment, where she mentions an Eastern cultural morality that condones – even admires – force and deception, apparently in contrast to Western morality, which must therefore be truthful. Does anyone even question this belief? Is this actually true in real life? Does no-one in the West use force and deception? And if Westerners do lie and use power to win, and succeed, are they not admired? Does the Arab world uniformly condone lying and admire the use of force? These are the sort of cultural stereotypes that are perpetuated and are unquestioned in these novels. Ros also mentions that heroines (always Western) bring health and education reforms with them. Again, this is obviously seen from a position of Western superiority and something I find deeply patronising. I understand that you say feelings are being “worked through” in these novels, but in my opinion a romance novel is not the place to try and “work out” cultural differences. Once a book is printed and distributed, thousands of readers will take the printed word to be the truth and these novels have a great influence. A forum like this is the place to work through these matters and it’s brilliant that you have been the catalyst for this discussion. I still maintain, though, that I won’t read any of these novels as I find them patronising and offensive in their attitude of Western cultural moral superiority.
@Helena Fairfax: I also highly, highly recommend Michelle Reid’s The Sheik’s Chosen Wife. It challenges stereotypes in the genre as a whole AND in regard to the Orientalized East you see in some of these sheik novels. Also Elizabeth Vaughan’s Warprize, which is not a Sheik Romance, but utilizes the desert motif in what I think are really interesting and insightful ways. Another book that directly challenges the “Western supremacy” position. Gates’s To Tempt A Sheik is interesting, too — a lot of misperceptions and necessary belief adjustments that take place there.
The Sheik Romance subgenre is huge, so there’s definitely a gamut of books there, some awful, some great. But even in the awful (even offensive) ones you can sometimes see some interesting dynamics; I’ve personally found that a lot of those books that push toward an extreme position are also often those that show discernible cracks in the “message.” I’m very curious about the Porter book for that reason, especially if it echoes The Sheik.
@Robin/Janet: I would be very interested to know what you make of Porter’s book.
@Robin/Janet Thanks for the Michelle Reid recomendation. I’ve downloaded a copy and am looking forward to reading!
@Helena Fairfax: “I understand that you say feelings are being “worked through” in these novels, but in my opinion a romance novel is not the place to try and “work out” cultural differences. Once a book is printed and distributed, thousands of readers will take the printed word to be the truth and these novels have a great influence.”
Because romance novels aren’t nuanced enough to tackle this subject? Its authors aren’t enlightened enough? If non-Western cultures are off limits, should we also rule out all romances between characters of different skin colors and ethnic backgrounds? It sounds like you’re making that argument.
I haven’t read a sheikh romance in ages, but I remember having a really negative reaction to a book called Not Without My Daughter. I read it as a teenager, maybe a preteen, and even then I could recognize that something was off. It was an offensive portrayal of a culture I wasn’t at all familiar with. I picked up on that as an ignorant girl. Romance readers, who are adults, can recognize some fantasy aspects and inaccuracies for what they are.
@Jill I knew when I wrote that last comment that I hadn’t expressed myself properly. I’ve got a temperature, and not thinking straight, but I’ll try again! What I mean by it is writers, if they’re writing about a fantasy culture which is still obviously Arabic and Middle Eastern, should try and understand that culture first, before putting pen to paper, and that we can’t excuse that lack of understanding by saying writers are using their novels as a way of working out how they feel. People do believe what they read, and I include myself in that, or they are at least unconsciously influenced, especially if something’s said enough times by enough writers. I definitely don’t mean romance readers are any more gullible, just that the pen is mightier than the sword. And I’m definitely not saying non-Western cultures are off-limits, just that writers should try to get them right. And if even a pre-teen can pick up that there’s something wrong with these novels, then that says it all.
@Helena Fairfax: I am of two minds about this.
OTOH, I totally agree with you that authors who seek to represent other races, cultures, religions, etc., should endeavor to do so from a position of knowledge, even if it’s gained from books and not real life experience (I would extend this to any world building, really, from historical context to protagonist professions, etc.).
OTOH, I can see how Romance is based on certain archetypes that lend themselves to the symbolic representation and consideration of various themes and issues, and I think you can really see that in some of these books that violate the principle of the first hand. And even when I feel frustrated, offended, or otherwise horrified by aspects of some of the books that do violate that principle, I often find them fascinating, precisely because the distortions can be very revealing, often in a way that reflects deep ambivalence or conflict. I think one of the places you see that readily is in the forced seduction/forced sex device, where you can have a forced sex act that is reconceptualized in a way where it doesn’t track with RL rape, but it does implicate some of the same issues.
@Janet/Robin “Romance is based on certain archetypes that lend themselves to symbolic representation ” I think I understand what you mean by this and I can also understand your ambivalence. A “symbolic representation” to my mind is the same as a story, but I don’t think it’s OK to say “well, they’re only stories and readers are intelligent enough to know this”. I know that many people do understand they are stories, as Jill Sorensensen has pointed out, and to suggest that romance readers can’t grasp this is patronising. But to my mind accepting that these are “only stories” is the same as accepting that racist/sexist jokes are “only jokes”. I really wish I could share your dispassionate fascination, but really I feel so strongly that these cultural (mis)representations are so insidious and damaging, that I can’t stand back and look at them dispassionately. As regards the forced seduction/forced sex device, in my opinion (and I may be wrong, plus I’m writing in a nutshell what should be a whole long essay), these stories work because basically the heroine wants to have sex with the guy but knows it’s somehow “wrong” (for reasons depending on the story), so if the guy forces it, that’s fine – the decision’s out of her hands and she can get on and enjoy the sex without taking responsibility. For some reason I can look at this dispassionately and even enjoy this type of story. They don’t wind me up so totally as the eastern/western theme. Now I’ll have to go away and analyse why
@Helena Fairfax: Not Without My Daughter is a true story, not a romance. I’ve never read a romance I found so offensive. From my experience, romance tends portray other cultures in a positive (if unrealistic) light, to romanticize foreign men as sexy/dominant or wise/noble, that sort of thing. Not the same as a racist joke. And, as Robin/Janet has pointed out, there are books and authors who subvert stereotypes.
@Helena Fairfax: I don’t think I’d describe my response as dispassionate; I think it’s more that I have different registers on which I engage with books. First, as a reader (and this is the most superficial level), I want to positive engagement by my mind and my emotions. Then, as a person, and implicated with my interests as a reader, I respond to appropriation/fetishization/etc. and I do this both intellectually and emotionally. Then there are my responses as a scholar, which are more about finding even things that offend me as a person and a reader interesting to think about and analyze. Sometimes I am engaging with a book on all three levels at once, which is often the case with books that I find personally problematic and yet fascinating to analyze because, IMO, they may present issues and conflicts that are more complex than the texts themselves. I can intensely dislike a book as a reader but enjoy the process of analyzing it as a scholar. In fact, that’s pretty much the only way I could make it through Fenimore Cooper’s books, lol.
Because I see Romance as — broadly speaking — about gender and cultural power negotiations, a book that’s not realistic and perhaps not even respectful of the object it’s representing, can be among the most interesting to analyze, because deviating from that type of realism has many implications and consequences, within the text and beyond it. And (as I hope this series demonstrates), I’m pretty passionate about the task and purpose of analysis and the fact that I don’t consider these “just stories.” But for me to get to the “not just stories” level of engagement, I have to step back from my pure emotional response to a book and see if there’s anything else there of interest. Sometimes it’s tough for me to do that, too, and I have to wait for a while for my intellectual curiosity to get the best of me. ;D