Tiger Skins, Sheiks and Passionate Kisses

By Ellen Micheletti

I’ve always been interested in popular literature – the books people actually did read as opposed to the books they were supposed to read. Books like, or very like modern day romance novels have been popular for a long time. In the early part of the twentieth century, romances went through a burst of popularity. In my article on popular fiction of the 1800’s, I wrote about some of the popular writers of the nineteenth century. I would like to tell you now about three of the more popular writers of the early twentieth century. Elinor Glyn, E.M. Hull and Ethel M. Dell were all British writers whose books were immensely popular in their time. Two of these writers, E.M. Hull and Ethel M. Dell still have books in print. Elinor Glyn goes in and out of print, but she merits a footnote in the history of early silent films. Elinor Glyn was the woman who saw a potential sex-symbol in a young actor named Rudolph Valentino.

Elinor Glyn was the youngest of the two daughters of Douglas and Elinor Sutherland. Douglas Sutherland was related to Lord Duffus of the Scottish nobility and Elinor Saunders was a descendant of exiled French nobility. Elinor Glyn’s younger sister, Lucy Duff-Gordon later became famous as the first British woman couturier, Lucile. Douglas Sutherland died of typhoid fever after four years of marriage and Mrs. Sutherland and her daughters spent several years with her mother, Mrs. Saunders. Elinor was greatly influenced by her grandmother’s aristocratic ways, and became a firm believer in the inherent superiority of the nobility and a supporter of the Divine Right of Kings. Her grandmother’s influence contributed to one of Elinor’s least admirable personality traits – she was a terrible snob. After a few years of widowhood, Elinor’s mother married a man who was considerably older than she was and Elinor and her sister spent a large part of their childhood on the Island of Jersey.

Elinor had a haphazard education, since nannies and governesses came and went in the household. She read widely, but irregularly and was mostly self-educated. When she was still a very young girl, she began to write short little stories for her own pleasure. In appearance Elinor was small and slender with red hair, green eyes and a beautiful complexion. Her mother and step-father thought red hair was ugly, but as Elinor grew up, she found that many of her young men friends thought her red hair was lovely and she basked in their attention. As a young woman, Elinor traveled with friends in Europe and generally enjoyed herself. She was twenty five when she married Clayton Glyn. He was a country squire, handsome, well-to-do and unfortunately, very unromantic. Clayton and Elinor spent their honeymoon in Brighton and one day, Clayton hired the public baths for the day so Elinor could swim naked with her long red hair trailing behind her in the water. That was the first! and the last romantic gesture Elinor ever got from her husband.

Elinor settled down to the life of a country squire’s wife. She and Clayton went to house parties, they traveled extensively, and life was good. But Elinor’s passionate heart yearned for a romantic soul-mate, someone that the practical and bluff Clayton Glyn was not. To pass the time, Elinor began to write. Her first book was The Visits of Elizabeth, a series of letters from a young debutante. The book was quite popular with critics and readers and Elinor wrote several others, all of them romantic comedies. In 1903, Queen Draga of Serbia was assassinated, an event that had a profound effect on Elinor. Several years later, as her marriage was deteriorating, Elinor took this event and poured out all the romantic longings of her soul into her best known book Three Weeks.

Three Weeks is the story of an Englishman, Paul Verdayne who is sent abroad by his aristocratic parents to break up an unsuitable love affair (he has fallen for a parson’s daughter). In Lucerne, he meets a mysterious woman dressed all in black who exudes an hypnotic fascination. Paul and the Lady, who is a Balkan queen on the run from her degenerate and cruel husband, begin a passionate affair. She and Paul spend three weeks together where they make love on tiger skins amid masses of exotic flowers. When the three weeks are up and the Lady leaves Paul, he faints and is ill for a time. Months later, Paul receives a message from the Lady that his son has been born. Still later, Paul finds out that the Lady was killed by her degenerate husband who was himself killed by the Lady’s servants. Paul’s son is now the ruler and the Regent grants Paul permission to go to the ceremony and see his handsome young son proclaimed King.

Three Weeks is written in a full-blown passionate style dripping with purple prose. Here is a sample from the book:

“The light of all the love in the world seemed to flood the lady’s face. She bent over and kissed him and smoothed his cheek with her velvet cheek, she moved so that his curly lashes might touch her bare neck, and at last she slipped from under him and laid his head gently on the pillow. Then a madness of tender caressing seized her. She purred as a tiger might have done while she undulated like a snake. She touched him with her finger-tips, she kissed his throat, his wrists, the palms of his hands, his eyelids, his hair. Strange subtle kisses, unlike the kisses of women. And often, between her purrings she murmured love words in some fierce language of her own, brushing his ears and his eyes with her lips the while.”

The critics hated the book. And the public? Sales figures are incomplete, but it is estimated that Three Weeks sold over five million copies. It inspired a bit of rhyme:

“Would you like to sin
with Elinor Gly
on a tiger skin?
Or would you prefer
to err
with her
On some other fur?”

Elinor received gifts of tiger skins from several admirers. She was bewildered by the fuss the critics raised about the “immorality” of Three Weeks. Elinor, despite her passionate purple-prose writing style, was not really interested in sex. She thought sex was too earthy and animalistic – downright unromantic in fact. There is lots of kissing, caressing and writhing around on the tiger skin in the book, but there are no descriptions of sex. A large part of Three Weeks is devoted to the Lady’s lectures to Paul to be true to his race and heritage, but according to most critics, an adulterous affair, especially one the author seemed to condone, was not acceptable subject matter for a novel in 1907.

After the success of Three Weeks Elinor took a trip to the United States. She was not impressed by the eastern cities, but the further west she went, the more she liked it. Elinor was charmed by the courtesy shown her by some Nevada gold miners and this decreased her snobbery somewhat although it never totally went away. While she was in the United States, Elinor met an American writer who had read and loved her book, Three Weeks. Mark Twain was a big fan of her writing and they had a pleasant meeting.

When Elinor returned from the United States, she was hit with a bombshell. Her husband had spent his money so recklessly, that for all intents and purposes, he was penniless. From now on, Elinor was the chief breadwinner in the family.

Elinor had made some friends among the Russian nobility. They asked her to come to Russia for a visit and she eagerly accepted. While in Russia, Elinor stored up notes and impressions for a new novel. His Hour was the story of a love affair between a young woman and a Russian Duke. Elinor’s grandson, who wrote her biography thinks that His Hour is the best and most characteristic of her books. It combines a love story with some excellent descriptions of Imperial Russia and the critics liked it very much. It was about this time that Elinor began her long love affair with Lord George Nathaniel Curzon, the former Viceroy of India. Under his starchy exterior, he had as passionate a heart as Elinor and his love somewhat compensated her for the disappointment of her marriage.

Elinor Glyn spent the rest of her life writing and traveling. Her husband died in 1917 and her romance with Lord Curzon ended when he married a wealthy American widow. Her books and magazine writings sold well and she should have had no more financial worries especially when Hollywood beckoned and made her famous. But Hollywood ended up ruining Elinor financially when she tried and failed to run her own movie production company.

In Hollywood, Elinor Glyn became a popular figure. The American public eagerly bought her books and magazine articles in which she gave her opinions on love, beauty, romance, youth, fashion and everything under the sun. She became most famous for her writings about IT. IT was some mysterious something which some people had and some did not. Elinor wrote a lot about IT but never really defined IT. What IT was, was good old-fashioned sex-appeal (a term Elinor disliked) and according to Elinor, Rudolph Valentino was brimming with IT. So was a movie starlet named Clara Bow, who went on to fame as “The IT Girl”.

Elinor Glyn lost a lot of money in the movie business and retired from making films. She continued to write books and articles for the rest of her life. She died in 1943.

Ethel May Dell was born in a suburb of London, England in 1881. Her father was a clerk in the City of London and she had an older sister and brother. Her family was middle class and lived a comfortable life. Ethel was a very shy, quiet girl and was content to be dominated by her father, who chose all her clothes and her sister, who was just plain bossy. Ethel began to write stores while very young and had many of her stories published in the popular magazines. Under her shy exterior, Ethel had a passionate heart and most of her stories were stories of passion and love set in India and other British colonial possessions. They were considered to be very racy and her cousins would pull out pencils to try and count up the number of times she used the words; passion, tremble, pant and thrill. When Ethel’s father had to quit his job because of ill health, her magazine sales brought in a little money to the family.

For several years, Ethel Dell had been working on a novel and between 1910 and 1912, eight publishers rejected it. Finally the publisher T. Fisher Unwin bought the book for their First Novel Library, a series which introduced a writer’s first book. Ethel Dell’s book titled The Way of an Eagle, was published in 1912 and by 1915 it had gone through twenty seven printings.

The Way of an Eagle is still in print and is very characteristic of Ethel Dell’s novels. There is a very feminine woman, an alpha male to rival any of Linda Howard’s heroes, a setting in India, passion galore liberally mixed with some surprisingly shocking violence and religious sentiments sprinkled throughout. The book opens in a fort under siege on the frontier in India. Muriel Roscoe is the fort commander’s daughter. The constant stress of being under siege has caused her to take refuge in opium. Muriel’s father has chosen Nick Ratcliffe to take care of her and Muriel does not like him. Nick is big and strong and overpoweringly masculine. They are forced to flee the fort, have adventures in the desert where Nick kills a man, and when they reach the garrison town and safety, Nick proposes to Muriel (they have spent a lot of time together unchaperoned). Muriel agrees to the marriage, but changes her mind and becomes engaged to another man who is smooth, suave an! d polite but lacks Nick’s sheer sexual magnetism. Muriel is not happy and when she sees Nick again she realizes that he is THE ONE, but her pride prevents her from telling him. Muriel does break her engagement and goes back to India where she languishes around missing Nick dreadfully. Back in India, Nick has seemingly vanished, but he has disguised himself as a beggar and has been hanging around so he can keep watch on Muriel. Nick reveals himself when, still disguised as a beggar, he foils an assassination attempt on a high ranking officer. All of Muriel’s doubts are swept away:

“The tumult of her emotions swelled to sudden uproar, thunderous, all-possessing, overwhelming, so that she gasped and gasped again for breath. And then all in a moment she knew the conflict was over. She was as a diver, hurling with headlong velocity from dizzy height into deep waters, and she rejoiced – she exulted – in that mad rush into depth. With a quivering laugh she moved. She loosened her convulsive clasp upon his hand, turned it upwards, and stooping low, she pressed her lips closely, passionately, lingeringly upon his open palm.”

As for Nick, he is quite blunt with Muriel:

“I warn you Muriel, you are putting yourself irrevocably in my power, and you will never break away again. You may come to loathe me with your whole soul, but I shall never let you go. Have you realized that? If I take you now, I take you for all time.”

He spoke almost with violence, and, having spoken, drew back from her abruptly, as though he could not wholly trust himself.

But nothing could dismay her now. She had fought her last battle, had made the final surrender. Her fear was dead. She stretched out her hands to him with unfaltering confidence. “Take me then Nick,” She said.

Readers adored Ethel M. Dell’s novels, critics hated them with a passion, but she did not care what the critics thought. She considered herself a good storyteller nothing more and nothing less. Ethel M. Dell continued to write novels along the same lines as The Way of an Eagle for a number of years. She made quite a lot of money, from 20,000 to 30,000 pounds a year, but remained quiet and almost pathologically shy. Pictures of her are very rare and she was never interviewed by the press. She married a soldier, Lieutentant-Colonel Gerald Savage when she was forty years old, and the marriage was happy. Colonel Savage resigned his commission on his marriage and Ethel became the support of the family. Ethel’s husband devoted himself to her and fiercely guarded her privacy. For her part Ethel went on writing, eventually producing about thirty novels and several volumes of short stories. Her readers remained loyal and the critics simply gave up. Ethel M. Dell died o! f cancer when she was fifty eight.

A modern day critic, Nicola Beauman, in her book on women’s fiction, A Very Great Profession has this to say about Ethel M. Dell and The Way of an Eagle:

“Most modern readers will greatly enjoy The Way of an Eagle, for it remains the best kind of read for anyone wishing to curl up in an armchair…and wallow unashamedly in a book that is entirely timeless…I love to imagine my mother and grandmother sobbing over books like this.”

E.M. (Edith Maude) Hull, was so shy and retiring, that no picture exists of her. Historians are not even sure of her date of birth or when she died. E.M. Hull was the wife of a gentleman pig farmer in Derbyshire. During World War I, she began to write to amuse herself and produced a book that is still in print and has influenced romances ever since. The Sheik is the story of a spoiled English girl, Diana Mayo, who will not listen to anyone. She refuses offers of marriage and wanders out on her own in the Egyptian desert. While she is out in the desert, Diana is kidnapped by Sheik Ali Ben Hassan and is ravished again and again and again and again (you get the picture). She puts up a token protest at first, but later learns to love her ravisher (who turns out to be the long-lost son of an English nobleman). Here’s a passage from The Sheik:

“The flaming light of desire burning in his eyes turned her sick and faint. Her body throbbed with the consciousness of a knowledge that appalled her. She understood his purpose with a horror that made each separate nerve in her system shrink against the understanding that had come to her under the consuming fire of his ardent gaze, and in the fierce embrace that was drawing her shaking limbs closer and closer to the man’s own pulsating body.

“Oh you brute! You brute!, she wailed, until his kisses silenced her.”

Talk about purple prose! Critic’s jaws dropped and they quickly proclaimed the book pornography. Readers bought it by the cartload and Mrs. Hull went on to write several more books, all set in Egypt and all featuring masterful men and masochistic women. Some of her other titles were The Sons of the Sheik and The Desert Healer. The movie version of The Sheik starring Rudolph Valentino was a world-wide smash and made the desert sheik the number one sex-symbol of the day. Sheiks have gone in out of favor ever since, but have never totally faded away. As a matter of fact, the first romance I ever read was Johanna Lindsey’s Captive Bride which is essentially a re-telling of The Sheik with the same basic plot elements and more explicit sex scenes.

So here are some of the writers whose books our grandmothers used to read. These writers were not considered to be respectable and their books were savaged by the critics, but loved by the reading public. It doesn’t seem as though things have changed much, does it?

Ellen is the editor of the Cheat Sheet and an AAR Editor/Reviewer – you can email her via the link hereFind links to all of Ellen’s Cheat Sheet articles at the end of ServantsE-mail me with your thoughts on this page