Being a big classic movie fan, I was curious to read this “shocking” 1920 bestseller that became a cultural phenomenon forever entwined with the life and legend of movie star Rudolph Valentino after he brought the title character to life on the silver screen. Because of this novel the word “sheik” made its way into the dictionary as slang for a masterful, dominating, forceful man women find themselves irresistibly drawn to. It led to stream of parodies and copycat movies, books, and plays, and even a brand of condoms. In movie theaters women swooned over Valentino as The Sheik and men laughed out loud and walked out. So here is a review of the book that began it all.
Beautiful Lady Diana Mayo is a fearless young heiress who lives sports and travel. She’s “the coldest little fish in the world” who doesn't even know what love means. Even though all the boys seem to fall for the blue-eyed reddish-blonde beauty, she just can’t understand it. She’s a complete stranger to affection and the expression of it. “When God made me He omitted to give me a heart,” she says. Perhaps it’s because of her upbringing? After her mother died of complications in childbirth, her father shot himself, leaving baby Diana in the custody of her nineteen year old brother, Sir Aubrey Mayo, who just doesn't know what to do with a girl, so raises her as a tomboy instead, to be a companion to him in his travels and hunting and fishing and camping trips around the world. Proud Diana is determined never bend her will to another’s, she sees marriage as a revolting idea, an end to independence, and thus not for her. She’s only interested in men as pals, or chums, to fish, hunt, and ride with, their lovemaking holds no appeal to her at all.
When the novel opens, Diana is poised to leave Biskra and embark on a scandalous month long tour of the desert, alone, without a chaperon, only a caravan full of Arab males and camels. Her own brother calls her “a damned obstinate little devil” when she refuses to change her mind. But Diana obstinately refuses.
As Diana is riding across the desert, a white-robed Arab on a swift steed sweeps her out of the saddle and carries her away to his tent. “Lie still, you little fool!” he snarls to the outraged heiress as he easily overpowers her. For the first time in her life, Diana knows what it is like to be afraid.
In his tent, the cruelest and handsomest man she has ever seen looks at her in a way that seems to burn her clothes away and then introduces himself as Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan. The imperious beauty demands to know why he has brought her here. “Are you not woman enough to know?” he retorts before he proceeds to rape her. This is not graphically depicted, like an old movie fading to black, Diana awakes from her ordeal in the Sheik’s luxurious bed, in a tent that commingles oriental splendor with elegant French décor, castigating herself for her tears and cowardice, for begging to be spared, instead of stoically and silently enduring the assault. The tomboy has at last become a woman, “born with tears and agony last night.”
For months, Diana remains a captive in the Sheik’s tent, being attended by his French valet, an Arab maid, and being permitted daily rides on the fine horses her abductor breeds, awakening to the true inferiority of her sex and at the same time realizing that it is futile to resist this cultured barbarian who refuses to let her go until she begins to bore him. He reminds her of a tiger she shot in
the previous winter, “a
graceful, cruel, merciless beast” she both feared and admired. India
One day she decides to attempt an escape during one of her daily, chaperoned rides. She gallops madly across the desert, ignoring all the portents of death along the way, like the whitened bones of camels and vultures circling overhead, until she spies riders in the distance. She’s hoping for a friendly caravan that will take pity on her and guide her back to polite society, but, as luck would have it, it’s the Sheik. When she resists him, he shoots the horse, his own prized mount, Silver Star, out from under her and sweeps her onto the saddle in front of him. As they ride back to his tent by moonlight, Diana experiences an epiphany. Leaning bqack against the Sheik’s powerful, strong chest, she realizes that she loves him. Yes, she really and truly loves him and life would be meaningless and not worth living without him. She’s “deliriously, insanely happy!” For the first time in her life she knows what love is, and the intensity and immensity of it truly frightens her. Now there’s only one thing she wants, and without it her life will never be complete—she wants him to love her, really love her, not just want her body for lustful purposes.
Now Diana has something new to fear—that the Sheik will get bored with her and send her away from his splendid, barbaric presence, so she forces herself to go on feigning indifference, pretending to hate him. But something’s got to give. When Diana is captured by a rival sheik during one of her daily rides Ahmed Ben Hassan discovers he loves his pretty English plaything and risks his life to save her.
WARNING! SPOILERS AHEAD! SKIP TO LAST PARAGRAPH IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW HOW THE STORY ENDS!
His brush with death makes him realize that he can’t keep Diana in the desert with him, and the right, the noble, honorable thing to do is to send her back to civilization. Because he loves her so much, he is willing to make this sacrifice. Now her worst fear really has come true! So naturally Diana tries to shoot herself. But she doesn't succeed, instead they get married and live happily ever after in the desert. The End…until the sequel that is, Sons of the Sheik, which I haven’t read and I’m not sure I want to.
I recommend reading this only as a curio of the past, to see what constituted a shocking, scandalous bestseller in 1920. The modern reader must keep in mind the era and common beliefs of the time and audience it was written for, otherwise they may find its racist and sexist attitudes offensive. The perceived British superiority over other races is very much in evidence, as is the belief that all women should be tamed and domesticated and devoted to serving the men in their lives. Famed grand dame of romance Barbara Cartland said when recollecting the phenomena of The Sheik which she first read and saw on the screen when she was nineteen or twenty. “We all saw ourselves in the role of Diana Mayo," Cartland recalled, "we all longed to be abducted into the desert and to be forced by sheer violence into obedience by an all-conquering male.” However, it's good to know that some women have taken an opposite view and strenuously objected to its depiction of such a strong-willed, independent woman being tamed and subdued by a man who repeatedly rapes her and then falling head over heels in love with him.