The Sheik was an instant best seller when it was first published in 1921, and it gave Rudolph Valentino his best known movie role. It also spawned a multitude of imitators – sheik books are being published even now – and it was the grandmother of all the sweet/savage romance novels where a feisty, proud woman is ravished and humiliated until she learns to love the man who tames her. There is no explicit sex in The Sheik but there is lots of tension and tons of suggestion! This was really hot stuff for our grandmothers and great-grandmothers.
Diana Mayo is beautiful and boyish. She has been raised by her indifferent brother and is cold and very, very proud. The thought of marriage or even kissing fills her with disgust – she will bend her will to no one. Diana plans to take a safari in the desert before she goes to America to join her brother. Some of her aquaintences try to talk her out of it, but Diana is a Mayo and she will go on with her plans.
The first day out, Diana is kidnapped by a tall, dark and handsome man with cruel eyes and a savage air. When he takes her to his luxurious residence, we are treated to a passage that was hot stuff for the time.
Diana: “Why have you brought me here”?
The Sheik: “Are you not woman enough to know”?
The man is Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan. He is going to keep the proud Diana captive and ravish her “until I tire of you.” And he does, although all the ravishing happens between chapters. When we see Diana, she is hurt, ravished, and angry as much because of the bending of her will as for the breaching of her body. Ahmed is so Alpha Male, he makes Wolf Mackenzie (of Linda Howard’s Mackenzie’s Mountain) look mild. He has absolute power over his people, and at one point, Diana sees him beat a servant almost to death. Why? Because he can.
Ahmed’s tribe is well known for their magnificent horses and there is much description of how he breaks the horses will and becomes their master. In the same way, he subdues the proud Diana until she longs for his love, but he does not realize this until she is kidnapped by the robber Sheik Ibraheim Omair.
Readers who are politically correct are going to be rather appalled at The Sheik. The characters casually utter racial slurs that are verboten today. Die-hard feminists will also not like how the feisty and totally independent Diana submits her body and will to Ahmed. But there is another side to the book. The author makes it clear (albeit through suggestion) that Diana has been awakened sexually and enjoys it. At the time this book was published, women were coming out of years of pronouncements by “experts” that they were creatures who ought not to take pleasure in sex. That Diana Mayo did, was one of the reasons this book was called pornography by some when it was published.
The Sheik is a hard book to rate. By virtue of the fact that it is one of the books that is a direct ancestor to the modern historical romance, I suppose it should rate DIK status. As a matter of fact, the literature that accompanied the book from the University of Pennsylvania proudly notes that, “according to Jayne Ann Krentz, this was the book that inspired her to be a romance writer.” But it is so lush and so over-the-top that it is almost funny in places where it ought to be passionate. The Sheik simply is not a book that I would go back and re-read for pleasure. Still, if you get a chance you ought to read it. Despite the overheated atmosphere and the sometimes distasteful attitudes of the characters, you will discover themes that are still to be found in the modern historical romance.