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Troubleshooting Post-9/11 America: Religion, Racism, and Stereotypes in Suzanne Brockmann’s Into the Night and Gone Too Far
by Kecia Ali

In the years since 2001, the number of “desert,” “sheik,” or “Orientalist” romance novels published has “exponentially increased” (Burge 182).[1] Alongside the greater prominence of soldier-heroes (Kamblé, Making Meaning), including those engaged in a fictionalized Middle East/Muslim world, these romances illustrate the central place of America’s so-called War on Terror in popular fantasies and anxieties. Even though readers, authors, and editors alike deny any relationship between the rising popularity of such novels and U.S. involvement in Muslim-majority nations (Jarmakani, “Sheik” 994, An Imperialist Love Story ix; Holden 3), popular romance demonstrably reflects current controversies (Kamblé, Making Meaning) even if specific geopolitical topics are omitted (Teo 197, 284).

Suzanne Brockmann is among those authors whose work directly addresses United States military and intelligence involvement in the (broadly conceived) Middle East and in the fight against what it considers Islamic terrorism. Brockmann (b. 1960) has published over fifty novels since 1993. Roughly half feature military heroes, mostly Navy SEALs. Brockmann began her career writing stand-alone category romances. Her eleven-book Tall, Dark, and Dangerous series (1996-2003, abbreviated TDD), first published in Silhouette’s Intimate Moments line, centers on the members of SEAL Team Ten. The series has recurring characters but mostly independent plots. Her Troubleshooters series (2000-, abbreviated TS), on which this article focuses, comprises larger single-title romances with intricate suspense plots and deeply interdependent storylines carried out over fifteen full-length novels, a novella, and two anthologies. After a hiatus during which Brockmann worked on other creative projects, another novel came out in July 2017. Troubleshooters follows SEAL Team Sixteen, a group of FBI Counterterrorism agents, and former members of both groups who form a private security firm called Troubleshooters, “the equivalent of a civilian SEAL Team” (TS #6 311). Seven of the books incorporate World War II subplots.

The Troubleshooters books merge “progressive, feminist, and antiracist politics” with “jingoistic patriotism,” according to Hsu-Ming Teo, who writes briefly about Brockmann in her study of Orientalism and romance novels (277). Teo’s claim is borne out by the overlaps and divergences between these agendas in the first two Troubleshooters installments written after 9/11. Published in 2002, Into the Night (TS #5) revolves around an al-Qaeda assassination attempt on the president at a San Diego naval base. A Muslim terrorist, whose identity is revealed in the last third of the book, exploits the disintegrating marriage of SEAL Sam Starrett to smuggle weapons onto the base by tricking his estranged wife Mary Lou. It ends with the attack mostly thwarted, a fall guy badly injured, and the real terrorist escaping because racial profiling casts suspicion on the wrong person. In the 2003 novel Gone Too Far (TS #6), Mary Lou and her young daughter flee, fearing retribution; Sam and his FBI-agent love interest Alyssa Locke track them down while hunting the terrorist, apprehended in the book’s climax. Gone Too Far shifts the focus from anti-Arab bigotry to contemporary anti-black racism, America’s history of white supremacy, and the healing possibilities of interracial relationships. Over the course of these two novels, Mary Lou and Sam, both white, find lasting happiness with non-white partners—in Mary Lou’s case, Ihbraham Rahman, an [End Page 2] Arab immigrant suspected of being a terrorist. This pair of novels focuses intently on stereotypes, race, and what it means to be an American.

This article proceeds in four sections. The first briefly surveys the post-9/11 American climate of ideas about Islam and Muslims. The second shows how Into the Night both draws upon and critiques stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims. The third compares Ihbraham to sheikh heroes, showing that rather than playing into assumptions about race, religion, and liberal (white) feminist savior projects, Brockmann portrays America as in need of reform. The fourth section concentrates on Gone Too Far, shifting the discussion on race, difference, and American identity to anti-black racism and interracial relationships. I conclude that although Brockmann acknowledges the importance of large-scale social change, she concentrates on and values personal transformation achieved via humanizing intimate connection across lines of racial difference.


In the twenty-first century, Islam and Muslims have taken on a new salience in the construction of (white) American identity, with the male terrorist as a frightening embodiment of unassimilable difference. To be sure, Muslims and the Middle East were on American minds long before the September 11 attacks, with the OPEC-driven oil crises of the 1970s, Iran’s 1979 revolution, and the Libyan-sponsored airplane hijacking in the 1980s. However, these events were overshadowed by, and understood within the frame of, the Cold War. So long as it endured, communists were cast as America’s main enemy. During the 1980s, for instance, the United States allied with religious Muslims, funding the Afghan mujahidin who were fighting the Soviet army.

The fall of the communist bloc overlapped with a series of attacks on American targets in the United States and overseas by Muslim extremist groups, including al-Qaeda. The first World Trade Center bombing (1993) was followed by bombings of Air Force housing in Saudi Arabia (Khobar Towers, 1996), East African embassies (Nairobi and Dar El Salaam, 1998), and a Navy vessel (USS Cole, 2000), as well as the thwarted Millennium plot (Oregon, 1999). All helped shift American attention to a new enemy. The 2001 attacks and their aftermath cemented the figure of the Muslim terrorist as the prime threat to American safety—a strengthening of existing pop-culture images of Arab villains (Shaheen, Arjana). U.S.-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, justified on shaky grounds including pursuit of the attackers, punishing complicit governments, possession of weapons of mass destruction, or liberation of oppressed Muslim women, have mired the United States in a seemingly never-ending War on Terror. Intervention has led to hundreds of thousands of direct and indirect civilian casualties in the region, far surpassing the percentage of Americans killed on 9/11.

Most Americans think about this war’s toll less in terms of Muslim deaths and suffering overseas than its impact on American soldiers killed or physically, mentally, or morally injured, and the weight of these deaths and injuries on military spouses and families.[2] Although Brockmann wrote Into the Night and Gone Too Far in the post-9/11 climate of fear of Muslims, her oeuvre is “less an affirmation of predominant political ideology than might be suspected of novels in the warrior romance category” (Kamble, “Patriotism” 160). She acknowledges the messiness of war and the toll it takes on both [End Page 3] American soldiers and on (Muslim) civilians in conflict zones. Moreover, her Troubleshooters bad guys come in many flavors. Some, like al-Qaeda (TS #5, TS #6, TS#7), are explicitly Muslim; others, including Central Asian airplane hijackers, implicitly so (TS #3). Religious extremists collaborate with garden-variety wrongdoers. A non-Muslim mercenary does the bidding of Muslim extremists off-screen, then seeks revenge for personal losses (TS #1 20, 205). Drugs and weapons smugglers who dabble in misogynist violence and pornography are mixed up with Muslim terrorists (TS #11). Other terrorists include the right-wing, patriarchal, white supremacist (and hypocritically anti-Muslim) Freedom Network (TS #8, #13, described [TDD #7 7] as “homegrown terrorists with racist, Neo-Nazi leanings and a fierce hatred for the federal government.”). Other installments feature dictator/drug lords (TS #4, #10), serial killers (TS #9, #15) and human traffickers (TS #16).

In the two books published directly after 9/11, in which Middle Eastern/Muslim terrorists threaten American institutions, Brockmann acknowledges and works to counter anti-Arab, anti-Muslim bias. Her work can be understood as part of a push—supported at least rhetorically by then-president George W. Bush—to refuse the equation of Islam with terrorism. In the decade and a half that followed, culminating in the 2016 election of Donald Trump, the idea that Muslims are necessarily America’s enemies has gained traction. A network of well-funded individuals and groups has deliberately cultivated anti-Muslim sentiment (Center for American Progress, Fear, Inc., Fear, Inc. 2.0); and the idea that Islam is incompatible with American life has moved from fringe to mainstream (Bail). The so-called Muslim bans enacted by executive order in early 2017 build on earlier anti-terrorist immigration restrictions and government surveillance programs, as well as clash-of-civilizations ideologies, as does the administration’s decision to focus its Countering Violent Extremism program solely on Islamic extremism.

These recent alarming developments draw on centuries of ideas about Islam and Muslims (Lyons, Arjana)—mostly but not exclusively negative. Western discourses around Islam, gender, and sexuality have long relied on a sustained tension between attraction and repulsion (Ali, Sexual Ethics, Lives of Muhammad). Building on the work of scholars including Edward Said, Lila Abu Lughod coined the term Islamland to describe the imaginary universe that Muslims inhabit in the mind of many Westerners. In Islamland, women are oppressed, men are patriarchal, and religion determines everything. Timeless and unchanging, Islamland bears only tenuous relationship to actual Muslim or Middle Eastern settings. So, too, Islamland’s shadow: Arabiastan (Jarmakani, An Imperialist Love Story 11-13). Amira Jarmakani’s term Arabiastan names the fictionalized, anonymized Gulf kingdoms in which astoundingly virile, impossibly wealthy, often royal sheikh heroes find their happily-ever-afters in the arms of plucky, usually white do-gooder heroines.

Brockmann navigates between these poles throughout the Troubleshooter series, steering closer to Islamland than to Arabiastan with her portrayal of the fictional Kazbekistan, “nicknamed The Pit” (TS #3 63). There, corrupt warlords rule through violence and women and girls suffer terribly (e.g., TS #7 93-94). Though Iraq and Afghanistan appear, the fictional Kazbekistan looms larger.[3] Notably, though, Brockmann’s depictions of Kazbekistan and its extremists, including the hijackers who take over a plane in the series’ third installment—written before 9/11 but released shortly after—scrupulously avoid making the bad guys piously Muslim or assigning them religious motivations. Still, Islamland tropes remain recognizable: in her 2008 survey of Brockmann’s work, Sarah Frantz describes Troubleshooters’ invocation of “the harsh realities of life in a third-world Islamic [End Page 4] nation” (13) even though religion remains implicit. Brockmann’s immediate post-9/11 Troubleshooters novels blend reticence about and direct engagement with stereotypes about Islam and Muslims even as they imagine terrorism on U.S. soil.


Although most SEAL activity takes place outside the continental United States, Into the Night (TS #5) imagines a domestic target: al-Qaeda plans to assassinate the president when he visits Team Sixteen’s San Diego naval base. The book’s primary romance is between a SEAL lieutenant and a White House staffer. A secondary storyline tracks the imploding marriage of Sam and Mary Lou Starrett and their involvements—past or current—with non-white partners. Mary Lou’s developing relationship with Ihbraham serves as the pivot for key character developments as well as the novel’s action, with inaccurate prejudices playing a key role in both. Sam’s multi-book relationship arc with mixed-race FBI sharpshooter Alyssa finds resolution in Gone Too Far (TS #6), as does Mary Lou and Ihbraham’s storyline.[4]

Mary Lou Starrett, née Morrison, begins as an unsympathetic character. A lower-class alcoholic with a somewhat traumatic past (TS #5 150-54; Teo 276), she and Sam have a hot but shallow affair mostly off page in Over the Edge (TS #3 8, 50). She turns up pregnant a few months after he’s broken things off, putting the brakes on the relationship finally started by Sam and Alyssa; he withdraws from that relationship to do what he considers the honorable thing, marrying Mary Lou (TS #3 374-5, 383-86).

By the time Into the Night opens, their marriage has badly stagnated. Both love their young daughter and Mary Lou remains committed to sobriety. She does her best to please Sam—keeping house impeccably, being sexually available—but cannot or will not acknowledge Sam’s difficult wartime experiences. After realizing that she deplored any show of weakness on his part, Sam “had given up trying to make his marriage work … and started merely to endure” (TS #5 185). Sam came to understand that “she didn’t love him any more than he loved her. She loved the idea of him, sure. She maybe even loved the image she’d built of him in her head—some superman who never doubted himself, never faltered, and never failed” (TS #5 185). Sam believes that Mary Lou “had no real desire to get to know him—especially if the real him deviated from the picture-perfect super-him she held in her head” (TS #5 185). She wanted the fantasy SEAL and the fantasy home-life, not a real man with emotions and vulnerabilities (similarly, TS #6 191). Mary Lou’s “denial” of “the complexity and reality of his character” appears in Into the Night as “what dooms her relationship with Sam” (Frantz, “I’ve tried my entire life” 211).

As her marriage falls apart, two very different men befriend and court Mary Lou. Bob Schwegel is an attractive white man she runs into repeatedly, first at the library and then elsewhere. Mary Lou thinks that he “looked like Heath Ledger’s older, sexier brother” (TS #5 94). She is flattered and a bit surprised at the attention he pays to her and her daughter, such as offering to carry her books and load them in her car’s trunk, until she learns that he is an insurance salesman; she then presumes his attentiveness is designed to sell her a policy. He eventually tries to seduce her. Her other suitor is Saudi-born landscaper Ihbraham Rahman: dark-skinned, bearded, and foreign. Mary Lou had thought, when she first saw him, that “he [End Page 5] looked as if he might spend his free time organizing an al-Qaeda terrorist cell” (TS #5 81). While Bob reminds her of a Hollywood star, Ihbraham looks like a film villain, “the homicidal terroristic Muslim [who] stalks the Western social imaginary” (Arjana 2). The more Mary Lou learns, though, the more Ihbraham does not conform to her mental model of an Arab Muslim. Like her, he is a recovering alcoholic; he explains that though “Muslims have laws in which drinking alcohol is forbidden … many still do [drink]” (TS #5 82, emphasis in original).

As Mary Lou’s marriage deteriorates, she interacts with these two men, flirting with Bob and coming to rely on Ihbraham as a support for her sobriety (e.g., TS #5 294-297). Meanwhile, Husaam Abdul Fattah has been surveilling Mary Lou. Brockmann sets up uncertainty about the terrorist’s identity: the things he does (make first contact with her, use her vehicle to sneak weapons onto the base where she works a menial part-time job) are things that intersect with Ihbraham’s actions, like making a duplicate car key for her.

Brockmann’s misdirection suggests to readers steeped in media portrayals of Arab Muslim terrorists that Ihbraham is leading a double life, deceiving Mary Lou, who remains unaware of the brewing assassination plot. However, readers eventually learn that Bob—actually Warren Canton from Kansas—is the terrorist. Although a Muslim, he is not “really … a religious man” (TS #5 437); his conversion was motivated by the profit to be obtained from smuggling at the behest of al-Qaeda collaborators, and not any sincere belief: “He’d worship zucchini squash if it would help him bring home the kind of money he was earning these days” (430).[5]

Brockmann simultaneously plays to readers’ expectations, by making a Muslim with an Arabic name the villain, and confounds them: the villain is a white guy who goes by Bob while the brown man with the funny foreign name is trustworthy. FBI agent Jules Cassidy, who as a gay man knows about stereotypes, later observes: “We hear a name like Abdul-Fattah, and we automatically think terrorist, we think Arab, we think Muslim extremist. … we certainly don’t think white American using an alias” (TS #6 497, emphasis in original). The “flip side of racial profiling” is the presumption of white innocence (497).

Even as Brockmann manipulates her readers into assuming, or at least worrying, that Ihbraham is a terrorist, she directly addresses the prejudices that led them to do so. Readers are privy to Mary Lou’s changing thoughts as well as to her interactions with Ihbraham. In her “Readers’ Guide to the Troubleshooter Series” (7), Brockmann lists Into the Night’s point-of-view characters (her term). She includes the hero and heroine of the main romantic storyline and the WWII subplot, Sam, Mary Lou, and “the terrorist.” (She presumably refrains from naming Husaam/Bob/Warren to avoid spoilers.) Despite Ihbraham’s centrality, readers learn only what others think about him.[6] Though he has been keeping the neighbors’ yard looking good, Mary Lou thinks, “really, after 9/11, who wanted strange Arabs prowling around their neighborhood?” (TS #5 81). After they have become friendly but long before the relationship turns romantic, Mary Lou is sitting on a neighbor’s step, and he asks whether he can join her. She says, “You don’t have to ask to sit down. It’s a free country.” He responds with an understated commentary on American racism: “Free more for some than for others. I’ve learned never to assume” (124-125). His reaction is not surprising when, as Sophia Arjana observes, “The portrayal of Muslims as the antithesis of good Americans is not only common—it is the norm” (10).

Mary Lou gradually gains enough distance from her initial prejudice to consider what “most people” would “assume, from the color of his skin and from the way he looked”: “that he was dangerous” (TS #5 125). She herself had done so, though her reaction had changed. [End Page 6] Yet she is not immune to powerful biases. Brockmann depicts Mary Lou’s halting, tenuous, partial unlearning of racist stereotypes. Stereotypes are tenacious and undoing them involves reversals and uncertainties. On the one occasion Bob, Ihbraham, and Mary Lou are all in one place, Ihbraham walks away to speak with other Arab men who have come to see him. Bob mentions Ihbraham’s name and his appearance to sow distrust, telling Mary Lou, “He could be the poster boy for al-Qaeda” (TS #5 277). Neither the reader nor Mary Lou yet knows that Bob is actually the al-Qaeda operative, but Mary Lou begins a heated rejoinder— “Well, he’s not, and you’re being racist to assume…”—only to break off, doubting herself, when one of the “darkly complexioned” men attacks Ihbraham (277-78). (She later learns that they are his brothers; the argument is about nothing more sinister than the family car dealership.) When her emotions run high, Mary Lou reacts with racist assumptions. When the novel’s action comes to a head, Mary Lou—who has already declared her love for Ihbraham—wonders whether he is, in fact, a terrorist. The reader knows better, but Mary Lou still worries that Ihraham and his brothers, “all those Arabic faces and voices, dark with anger” (444), might be responsible for the attack at the naval base.

When the attack occurs, both Ihbraham and Bob/Husaam are in the audience. The terrorist mastermind has used his whiteness to enter the base with minimal scrutiny. He reflects: “Despite claims that this country avoided racial profiling, there were far more places he could go with his fair skin and light-colored eyes and hair than could most people who had such an obviously Muslim name” (TS #5 429). He manipulates a group of white bikers to beat up Ihbraham by insinuating that Ihbraham is doing something suspicious. Ihbraham suffer serious injuries. Because attention is diverted to the man who looks like a terrorist, the real terrorist escapes (447), just as he counts on (458).


In American popular culture, the (Arab/Muslim) terrorist and the (white/American) military hero starkly oppose one another (Shaheen, Arjana). However, soldiers, particularly the spec-ops warriors and Navy SEALS who have risen to unprecedented cultural prominence in the last decade and a half (Chelton), are at times problematically like their terrorist opponents. They use secrecy and stealth; they kill without qualms. Jayashree Kamblé argues that the “warrior hero” often presents “a critique of American patriotic aggression” (“Patriotism” 153). As she notes, “many novels waver between expressing a ‘support our troops’ rhetoric and agonizing over the post-traumatic stress and moral impoverishment that soldiers experience as a result of combat” (154). This is certainly true for Brockmann’s novels—indeed, Sam’s sadness and guilt over agonizing choices he has had to make is something that Mary Lou cannot accept.

In addition to the soldier, the terrorist has another shadow: the sheikh. If Islamland sutures negative images of Arabs, Muslims, and Middle Easterners into a fabricated whole, Arabiastan offers the flip side of Orientalist stereotypes: “fantastical kingdom[s]” (Holden 7) and “fairy-tale sheikhdoms superimposed over, and obliterating, the complex geopolitical realities of the Middle East” (Teo 214). Recent scholarship on sheikh romances emphasizes the (white) liberal feminist fantasies they shore up. Stacy Holden (17) suggests that sheikh novels are “a form of socio-political erotica” providing “explicit images and arousing [End Page 7] fantasies in which Arabs and Americans ultimately live together in peace.” Teo likewise observes that they are one of the few positive pop culture representations of Arabs, Muslims, and the Middle East (25-26), though Jarmakani emphasizes more sinister implications of the subgenre (Imperialist Love Story).

In desert romances, the white heroine inspires the sheikh to reform or modernize his (fictional) nation (Jarmakani, “Sheikh”; Holden), or supports him in the face of opposition. Sheikh romances simultaneously draw on and recast stereotypes about racialized Arab/Muslim men. Unlike other violent, backward Arab/Muslim men, the hero rejects despotism, religious extremism, and absolutism. He also rejects passive Muslim women (Teo 14). Unlike the figure more prevalent in “the West’s imaginaire of Islam” of “the Muslim as a frightening adversary, an outside enemy … who, due to an intrinsic alterity, must be excluded from American and European landscapes” (Arjana 2), in liberal feminist-Orientalist desert romances, the sheikh’s transformation at the hands of the white woman renders him acceptable.

Brockmann’s approach differs. Rather than selectively replacing “negative stereotypes” of vaguely Arab/Muslim characters with “exotically upbeat” ones as sheikh romances do (Holden 3), or writing exoticized Muslim-ish characters into military roles as Lindsay McKenna has, Brockmann writes an Arab character who mostly confounds these stereotypes.[7] Troubleshooters storylines treat Arab and Muslim Americans sympathetically while “confirming the dominant narrative … that Muslim terrorists are the enemies of the United States” and “the American military … is justified in waging war on Afghanistan” and elsewhere (Teo 277).

Brockmann never directly confronts the romanticized sheikh. Instead, she displaces the fantasy narrative of racial reconciliation from Arabiastan to America, and flips the script: it is the heroine, not the hero, who undergoes transformation. In the desert novels, with their literal embrace of white women, sheikh heroes metaphorically embrace companionate marriage and liberal feminist projects.[8] The white savior woman is not only their love but also the partner in or catalyst for transforming their societies. In Into the Night and Gone Too Far, on the other hand, it is not the Arab man but the white woman who is transformed, and her society that requires further transformation.[9]

Ihbraham, intermittently exotic and ambivalently American, offers a beta rejoinder to dominant models of heroic masculinity, challenging certain racialized assumptions about Arab/Muslim men. Ihbraham serves as an anti-sheikh without being his terrorist doppelganger. He grew up in California. He lives in a mundane world of family businesses rather than royal politics: a family dispute over an arranged marriage involves a proposed merger with his fiancée’s family’s BMW dealership (TS #5 295, 322-23). He is neither aggressively Westernized nor strictly devout. He resembles neither Harlequin Presents’ wealthy, suave sheikhs nor Brockmann’s larger-than-life and twice as sexy SEALs.

Central to the sheikh genre is its hero: a virile alpha male with money, which symbolizes and grants power (Cohn): “Animalistic yet sensitive, dark and sexy, this desert prince emanates manliness and raw sexual power” (Jarmakani, Imperalist Love Story 1). The sheikh, “largely the descendent of the Byronic hero commingled with the Gothic villain,” has connotations of “irresistible, ruthless, masterful, and over-sexualized masculinity” (Teo 160, 1). Arjana notes that “[m]ale Muslim monsters are typically hyper-masculine—aggressive, overly sexual, and violent—characters that also function as tableaux of desire and fantasy” (11). These constructions of monstrous Muslim masculinity resonate with white depictions [End Page 8] of Black men, including but not limited to African Muslims (Arjana). “Muslim monsters,” Arjana (15) writes, “are not just masculine—they are outrageously so, with superhuman sexual powers, an otherworldly kind of strength, and an unfathomable propensity for violence.”[10]

To be desirable, though, a sheikh hero must be more manly than monstrous. In other words, he must be differentiated from his terrorist counterpart. Readers who cannot separate them—like the reader who insists that “my enjoyment of reading romances with Arab hero’s [sic] and harems … came down with the twin towers”—typically reject the subgenre entirely (Teo 191; also Jarmanaki, Imperialist Love Story 13, 134-37). Sheikh romances partly effect this separation between man and monster by effacing religion: Islam, strongly associated with terrorism in many minds, becomes largely incidental. The Harlequin Presents’ sheikh hero will not be “too Muslim.” He observes no religious rituals. He drinks wines with dinner, signaling not just his breach of religious rules but also his elite sensibility. He probably attended Oxford or an Ivy League school. Thus, although “[t]he sheikh in this post-9/11 novel is ethnically Arab”—unlike earlier iterations where he was proven racially European (read: white)—“he is culturally quite Western in his orientation” (Holden 5).

Though religion in no way dominates Brockmann’s discussion of Ihbraham, neither is it simply ignored. Ihbraham abstains from drinking—but as part of a struggle with addiction.[11] This does not mean a complete rejection of Islam: though his parents “chose to embrace the ways of the West and to serve and drink alcohol … yet we observed Ramadan and practiced our faith in other ways” (TS#5 83). He points out the messiness of people’s religious practice, and rejects simple either/or categorizations.

Ihbraham’s hybrid dress style contrasts with sheikh heroes’ desert robes or bespoke suits; he “dressed kind of the way Jesus might dress if He were alive today” (TS# 5 124). His “loose pants,” “leather sandals,” and “worn-out T-shirt” are hybrid garb rather than the robes that symbolize sheikh heroes’ cultural background and masculine potency (Jarmakani, Imperialist Love Story 158; Holden 9; Teo 237). Rather than display professional status or family wealth, his nondescript clothing suits the manual labor he performs. Yet he doesn’t wear that most American of garments: jeans. And, T-shirt notwithstanding, his skin tone and beard enable others to identify him as Arab and Muslim. His physical attributes and grooming as well as his clothes distinguish him from others. Mary Lou reflects on a meeting with Bob: “His blond hair gleamed in the sunshine, his chin was smoothly shaved, and his shirt was crisply white—obviously freshly laundered beneath his well-tailored business suit” (TS #5 231). These descriptions set up repeated contrasts: Ihbraham is dark; Bob is blond. Ihbraham is bearded; Bob is clean-shaven. Bob wears a pristine white shirt and a well-cut suit, while Ihbraham wears a “worn-out T shirt” and “loose pants.” While both men smell good, Ihbraham scent garners additional descriptions: “like fresh-cut grass and some kind of exotic fragrance—sandalwood” (223). Ihbraham’s clothing contrasts also with the “more expensive” suits and “shiny sweat suit” worn by three of his countrymen, who accost him when they are out together, building suspicion about him (277), and with the uniforms SEALs routinely wear.

Ihbraham differs from sheikh heroes not only in having a different class status, as manifest in his clothing and occupation, but also in the desexualized manner in which Brockmann describes him. His appearance is unusual, even appealing, but not lust-inducing. His accent is “lilting” (TS #5 251) and his voice is “musical, gentle” (341).[12] Ihbraham is “so very foreign-looking” and “dark” (TS #5 125), but this exoticism remains mostly divorced [End Page 9] from sizzle or sex appeal. Unlike most sheikh romances, where if either partner is sexually inexperienced or hesitant it will be the (white) woman (Jarmakani, An Imperialist Love Story 163), Ihbraham is chaste. Though he is attracted to Mary Lou, apart from one “meltingly lovely” kiss in which he proves himself “gentle but in complete command” (TS #5 341), they do not become physically involved in Into the Night. Indeed, Ihbraham’s restraint affects Mary Lou’s modus operandi. The former bar bunny blushes when he complements her beauty. Though “there was nothing remotely … salacious in his eyes, and yet she’d never felt so completely overwhelmed before just from gazing back at a man” (252, emphasis in original). When talking with Ihbraham about accepting a dinner invitation from Bob, she ponders “what it would feel like to kiss a man with a beard like Ihbraham’s. What would it be like to make love to a man with such warm, all-seeing, yet gentle eyes?” And then she chastises herself: “Not that that would ever happen” (252, emphasis in original). Mary Lou later reflects that she “would have [cheated] if he’d have let me. I was that desperate” (TS #6 148). Ihbraham only refers obliquely to his desire for her; when they are committed at the end of Gone Too Far, he still speaks of spending the night together only via “innuendo.” He accompanies it with a sort of marriage proposal, giving Mary Lou the option to defer “our first night together until after we’re married” (476). He does not, however, insist on waiting, although their intimacy remains off-page.

Mary Lou and Ihbraham’s developing relationship provides numerous chances for them to (mis)communicate about gender, race, and double-standards. With their exchanges, Brockmann depicts an America that fails to meet its lofty ideals of racial or sexual equality. In “characterizing inequality as an Oriental practice that should not exist in the West” (Teo 267), Mary Lou occasionally critiques sexist practices and assumptions by figuring them as un-American (e.g., TS #5 374-76). In such conversations, she displays what Joyce Zonana calls “feminist orientalism,” strategies that “figur[e] objectionable aspects of life in the West as ‘Eastern’” to “define their project as the removal of Eastern elements from Western life” (Zonana, quoted in Teo 232). Yet when Mary Lou talks to Ihbraham about how things are “here” in America as opposed to over there, readers should understand that she is not entirely reliable.

Mary Lou is not only an unreliable analyst of gender politics but also a failed feminist: she tried (and failed) to woo Sam by making herself submissive, compliant, and domestically perfect (TS #5 104-106, 319-21). According to Jarmakani, sheikh novels reject the Arab woman who makes herself small and subordinates her opinions, personhood, and desires to make herself agreeable (Imperialist Romance 80-82, 112-115). In Into The Night, this stereotype is displaced onto a white woman. Interestingly, both Ihbraham (TS #5 336-38) and Sam (321-22) agree that a loveless marriage for the sake of security is an unacceptable way for a woman to live. In being or becoming (again) herself, refusing to continue acting like a doormat, Mary Lou reminds Sam of her positive qualities—even as she leaves him. Mary Lou’s internalized sexism is subtly interwoven with her stereotypical ideas about Muslim gender norms. However, rather than make this realization or a recovery from retrograde gender norms the centerpiece of Mary Lou’s character arc, Brockmann prioritizes Mary Lou’s awareness of her own racist assumptions about non-white men, and fear of public opinion about her involvement in an interracial relationship. She must overcome both to have a successful relationship with Ihbraham. [End Page 10]


Mary Lou and Ihbraham’s relationship illustrates a key concern of Brockmann’s oeuvre: the ugliness and harmful effects of stereotypes and the possibility of moving past them. Like Brockmann’s other series, Troubleshooters has a somewhat diverse cast of characters. To a greater extent than most white authors, Brockmann explicitly acknowledges and connects racism, sexism, and discrimination based on sexual orientation. Prejudice plays a role in many of her novels. Harvard’s Education (TDD #5) features an African-American hero and heroine and draws crucial parallels between racist bigotry and sexism. The hero, acutely aware of racism (148-50), is offended when the heroine describes him as a bigot for holding sexist ideas (61). In Troubleshooters, racism and sexism play significant roles as does anti-gay prejudice. Gay FBI agent Jules Cassidy, Alyssa’s partner until she resigns to join Troubleshooters, often remarks on the negative impact of stereotypes. His character arc is the prime, although not the only, place that characters confront stereotypes and assumptions about gay people.[13]

Sam is central to discussions about racism, sexism, homophobia and the parallels among them. Alyssa thinks he’s racist (she’s wrong, as she will eventually learn in Gone Too Far), sexist (she’s not entirely wrong), and homophobic (he starts out that way, but he changes, as he gets to know Jules). In one encounter, Sam complains to Jules that Alyssa’s “expectations” of him get in the way: “She thinks I’m some rednecked asshole … She thinks she knows me, but she doesn’t have a clue. She’s prejudged, prelabeled, and prerejected me. How the fuck do you fight that?” Jules replies, “Well, gee, I couldn’t possibly know what that’s like.” Sam realizes that, “As a gay man, Jules had spent most of his life prejudged, prelabeled, and prerejected by most of society,” including Sam himself (TS #3 309-10, emphasis in original). Sam’s embeddedness in interracial relationships—romance, friendship, and family—is where the Troubleshooters books most engage the questions of race.

Interracial relationships figure in several Brockmann novels, often merely incidentally.[14] In Into the Night and Gone Too Far, however, the interracial dimensions of romantic relationships pose a crucial barrier (Regis 2003) to successful romantic resolutions, whether because of individual prejudice or broader societal racism. In Mary Lou and Ihbraham’s secondary romance, in the ultimate resolution of Sam and Alyssa’s romance, and in the historical WWII plotline interwoven in the latter novel, interracial elements dominate. Unlike in Into the Night, where the primary romance and the WWII subplot feature white couples, of the four engagements/marriages that take place in Gone Too Far, only one is a mono-racial couple: Kelly Ashton and Tom Paoletti, both white, whose perfunctory wedding follows a protracted engagement. Overcoming stereotypes, which pose one barrier to successful interracial relationships, is crucial to the story arc of Into the Night and Gone Too Far, and confronting—however incompletely—her own racism is a “redeeming” character development for Mary Lou (Leapheart).

Into the Night focuses on racial profiling of Arabs; in Gone Too Far, anti-Muslim/anti-Arab bigotry remains a concern (e.g., TS #6 148-49) but it cedes thematic centrality to anti-black racism. The thematic shift in Gone Too Far to anti-black racism suggests new questions about racial identity and categorization in Into the Night – especially as they are gendered and linked to reproduction. Where British romances from the early twentieth century were particularly preoccupied by miscegenation, the hybrid progeny resultant from the union of [End Page 11] Arab male and white female (Teo), in the US context as a whole, anti-blackness has been the central structuring principle of racially-based legal discrimination. Of course, the two are not easily separated. When Mary first kisses Ihbraham she thinks about the fact that anyone could see her kissing someone “black. Or brown. Certainly non-white” (TS #5 341).

Mary Lou mostly thinks about race in black and white terms. If “the specter of the silent and oppressed Arabiastani woman haunts the [sheikh] novel as a compelling absent presence” (Jarmakani, Imperialist Love Story, 113), in Troubleshooters the other woman who haunts Mary Lou’s floundering marriage is black. Her statement that “Alyssa’s black” (TS #5 338) is not precisely wrong; Alyssa sometimes describes herself as a “black woman” though she has mixed heritage (TS #3 47). When Mary Lou thinks of Sam and Alyssa having children, Mary Lou imagines their future son would be black, and that it would be difficult for Sam, as a white man, to raise a black child (TS #5 141, 339).[15] Without disagreeing with Mary Lou’s statement that “It’s way harder for a young black man to succeed in America than a young white man,” Ihbraham calmly confronts her with the genocidal logic of her thinking: “So should all non-white men and women in America therefore stop having children simply because life will be harder for them than it will be for your white children?” (TS #5 339). Much later, when she tells Ihbraham she loves him, he reminds her that she had worried about the well-being of dark-skinned children in a world that disadvantages them and warns that, “My sons may have skin as dark as mine” (TS #5 427). She acknowledges the potential difficulties, but affirms that she’s no longer looking for life to be easy. (Interestingly, both scenarios imagine sons rather than daughters, focusing on discrimination toward men and boys of color and ignoring girls and women of color.)

Over the course of these novels, Mary Lou shifts from working to maintain her fantasy American dream of marriage to a heroic (white) SEAL to being in love with and wanting to build a life with a dark-skinned Arab-American man – despite having once been so strongly opposed to interracial relationships that she’d have refused to marry “Jesus himself” if he came “down from heaven” but “didn’t have the same skin color she had”[16] (141). Despite such acknowledgments of her racism, Into the Night framed the problem with her marriage to Sam as her inability to accept Sam’s full humanity, including his ambivalence about deploying violence. In Gone Too Far, however, readers learn that her racism posed the most significant obstacle to marital harmony. Sam explains to Alyssa that it was when he learned Mary Lou was a racist that he abandoned any attempt to save their marriage: “It made her completely unattractive to me. … I couldn’t get past it. … That was when our marriage ended” (TS #6 366, emphasis in original). Her racism not only posed an obstacle to a liaison with Ihbraham, it had kept her from happiness with a white man.

Three interracial relationships structure Gone Too Far. First is that between Mary Lou and Ihbraham. Although they are apart for most of the novel, the question arises of how Mary Lou might have become involved with a terrorist. As Sam, Alyssa, and the FBI search for her, they consider various possibilities. An extramarital affair seems the most likely explanation for her (unwitting) involvement in the terrorist plot, but Sam cannot believe that she is romantically or sexually involved with Ihbraham. He cannot imagine that she is having sex with “an Arab-American with very dark skin” (TS #6 339) or indeed any “man who wasn’t Wonder Bread white” (340). Eventually, as those searching for the terrorist consider the he may not be Arab, Sam comes to wonder if “Rahman’s not the tango? What if it’s … a white guy, right, so Mary Lou’s okay sleeping with him[?]” (368) Though Sam is unaware, readers know that Mary Lou has slept with neither Ihbraham nor the white terrorist, has gotten past [End Page 12] her aversion to dark skin and her fears of being judged by others for being involved with a non-white man and of having biracial children (TS #5 395, 427).

In the other two relationship plots, which eventually intersect, race and racism play essential roles. In the primary romance storyline, between Sam and Alyssa, a black woman’s knowledge about a white man’s perspectives on race proves essential to her coming to know and trust him. Early in the novel, Alyssa declares, “Sam Starrett was full of surprises, not the least of them being that his best friend from his childhood was black” (TS #6 59). The World War II plot line involves a marriage between a former Tuskegee Airman and a white woman. This woman turns out to be Sam’s aunt Dot, his abusive, racist father’s sister. Her husband Walt serves as a surrogate father to Sam. The childhood friend is actually Sam’s first cousin once removed, Walt and Dot’s grandchild. Alyssa eventually realizes that the cousins resemble each other: “God, Sam, he even looks like you.” Sam agrees, pointing out that “most people can’t see past the different skin tones” (TS #6 286, emphasis in original).

Brockmann here presents skin color as a superficial marker that can disguise underlying similarities or affinities. Perceiving beyond surface appearances is necessary for real knowledge, and real knowledge is necessary for true relationships (Frantz, “I’ve tried my entire life”). In this story arc, interracial relationships require people to dig deeper, overcoming first impressions and socially-generated assumptions, whether positive or negative.

Alyssa, who is open minded about racial difference, must move past what she thinks she knows about Sam to make a relationship work. She stereotypes Sam from their contentious first meeting where she decides he is a “redneck asshole” (TS #1 285). She must reject her original, erroneous view of him before she and Sam can pair up successfully. Mary Lou was unable to get past a fixed notion of the unflinchingly patriotic soldier hero to love Sam as a person with foibles and flaws. Yet she overcomes dehumanizing stereotypes of violent, fanatical, monstrous Muslim men (Arjana, Lyons) to know, accept, and love Ihbraham as an individual. If Into the Night’s lesson is that racial profiling makes Americans less safe, the moral of Gone Too Far might be summed up as: racists don’t deserve happily-ever-afters. And if stereotypes are perilous for national security, the greater danger, Brockmann seems to suggest, is that they prevent real and lasting love.


Romance novels set stories of individual transformation within larger social structures to which they may pay more or less attention as author perspective and subgenre convention dictate. Contemporary novels, including those with suspense storylines, reflect on and engage with ongoing political and social controversies as well as established institutions and norms. In the case of the Troubleshooter novels, one major context is American military and intelligence involvement with the Middle East/Muslim terrorism; another is prejudice and discrimination in American society. Brockmann is less critical about the former than the latter. She does raise questions of moral injury to American soldiers and acknowledges the undeserved suffering of Middle Eastern/Muslim civilians harmed by American attacks. However, she largely accepts the basic framing of the War on Terror and American militarism. She more directly criticizes mainstream racial, religious, and sexual- [End Page 13] orientation-based bias and discrimination within the United States. In addition to characters who confront and unlearn their own prejudices, as Mary Lou does, sympathetic (gay, female, and/or non-white) characters confront others’ biases, often individual and sometimes institutional (e.g., Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the rule barring women from SEAL teams). Brockmann’s portrayal of Ihbraham subverts both contemporary American anti-Muslim discourse and romance genre norms.

Brockmann simultaneously deploys and undercuts stereotypes, holding difference and sameness in tension. In addition to depicting white men who confound assumptions that Southerners will be racist or soldiers will be homophobic, she individualizes and humanizes members of marginalized groups. Amy Burge has argued that Orientalist “romance manipulates its hybrid representations of religious and ethnic difference in order to create successful romantic unions” (7). She finds that “medieval and modern romance[s] require a flattening of difference—and elision of strangeness—rather than an embracing of otherness” (180-81). Brockmann, whose novels draw from and also subvert Orientalist topoi and narrative structures, values difference in part for its instrumental value. Despite the persistence of racist, sexist, and homophobic social structures, her heroes and heroines establish connections with others—family, friends, and lovers—across difference. As Ihbraham and Mary Lou agree, radical transformation of unjust realities will be a long time coming. In the meantime, there is love.

[1] Drawing on the no longer operational “Sheikhs and Desert Love” website, Amira Jarmakani (An Imperialist Love Story, ix) notes that there were 100 sheikh romances when she began her research in 2008, a number which “ballooned to 267” during her writing. Amy Burge’s study of Harlequin Mills & Boon shows a significant rise in the prominence of the subgenre between 2000 and 2009 in one publisher’s output (29). An imprecise measurement shows additional growth: an April 2017 search of Amazon’s “Books” category for “sheikh romance” returned 1490 results; the keyword “sheikh” alone yielded 4233 results. Even if inadvertent duplicates, self-published titles, and non-romance items are included in those counts, a figure closer to 1,000 would still represents an astonishing increase in commercially-published sheikh romances in a relatively short period.

[2] This framing ignores the numerous Muslims who have served in the American armed forces (cf. Curtis). Also note the military romances discussed below with heroes and/or heroines from Muslim backgrounds.

[3] Burge distinguishes among sheikh, pseudo-sheikh, and desert romance in her analysis of Orientalist romances (31-2). In some Troubleshooters novels, Kazbekistan functions, as in desert romances, as the “romance East” (14) backdrop against which American heroes and heroines have adventures and fall in love.

[4] The pair meet in TS #1, have an “explosive sexual encounter” (Frantz, “Suzanne Brockmann” 11) in TS #2, and seem to begin a promising relationship in TS #3, which is curtailed by Sam’s involvement with Mary Lou. Echoes of the relationship resonate, if only in dreams and Mary Lou’s jealousy, in the next two novels (e.g., TS #4 259-61). Sarah S. G. Frantz [Lyons] provides a compelling account of this arc in “I’ve tried my entire life.”

[5] Gone Too Far gives slightly more backstory: from a young age he had a Saudi stepfather, and spent time in the Middle East as a young man; he left Harvard and did a jihadi version of the “Grand Tour” (TS #6 496). If the sheikh’s journey is from Arabiastan to the Ivies, as explored below, “Bob” does the journey in reverse. [End Page 14]

[6] Ihbraham does not become a point-of-view character in Gone Too Far either (“Readers’ Guide” 8).

[7] Since the 1980s, Lindsay McKenna has written scores of romances featuring military protagonists. McKenna’s Taking Fire (2015) features a half-Afghan black-ops Marine sniper “shadow warrior” heroine and a half-Saudi Navy SEAL hero. Although both have “devout” Muslim fathers (330-31), neither main character is observant. Both drink alcohol (133) and eat pork (240). The heroine proclaims herself “spiritual, not religious” (331). Heroine Khatereh “Khat” Shinwari tells the hero, Michael Tarik: “You are an ancient warrior who has stepped into today’s world, in my eyes. You have the heart, the morals and values of the finest of the old guard Middle Eastern caliphs and chieftains of so long ago” (368).

[8] Teo goes so far as to claim that, “The modern sheik novel is nothing if not a vehicle for liberal feminist concerns” (267).

[9] Teo suggests that “the sheik romance (perhaps more so than most other romantic subgenres) is about the white heroine’s empowerment in a variety of ways: sexually, emotionally, financially, and socially” (281). Erin Young remarks on the transformation of heroines (206), but it is their Asian-ness that is transformed by the hero’s whiteness/Americanness. Here, Mary Lou’s racist whiteness must be transformed so that America can become what it ought to be.

[10] Arab-Muslim literature also contains tropes of dangerous black sexuality (Malti-Douglas 1991). Such (racialized) monsters are increasingly familiar in paranormal romances, which features possessive and violent alien, vampire, and shape-shifting heroes.

[11] Another Muslim-ish hero struggling with alcoholism is the half-Italian, half-Iranian Reza Iaconelli from All For You (2014), in Jessica Scott’s “Coming Home” series, which highlights war’s effects on active-duty soldiers and military families. Islam is never mentioned, only ethnicity. A fellow soldier harasses him: “I know that like half of them are your cousins and all but I really fucking hate Iraq.” He responds, “My mom was Iranian, shithead. Not every brown guy from the Middle East is an Arab” (145). Despite this blithe dismissal, Reza later admits to the heroine, Emily: “Let’s just say that there are some members of my family who wanted me to think long and hard about fighting a war against our people.” This sense of religio-ethnic loyalty is not merely an Arab/Persian/Middle Eastern characteristic: it is his father who, by having “married a non-Catholic Persian woman” became “the apostate of the family” (232).

[12] Stereotypes are both powerful and malleable. What is charmingly exotic at one moment can be merely unintelligible, or even strange and threatening, the next. Writing about cinema, Arjana notes that “[t]he language of normative humanity is English; the language of the Other, the foreigner, and the monster is babble” (152). Mary Lou refers to Ihbraham’s spoken language as “gibberish,” “strange language,” and “babbling” (TS #5 277, 278). After Mary Lou and Ihbraham become involved, his speech becomes more intelligible; where previously she “couldn’t understand” (278), now she gets the gist without knowing the words: “She’d never heard Ihbraham curse before, and she wasn’t quite sure she’d heard him curse now, because whatever he said it wasn’t in English. She suspected, though, that it was the Arabic version of holy shit” (TS #6 459, emphasis in original). His accent becomes “musical, faintly British” (458).

[13] All Through the Night, in which Jules weds his partner, was the first romance from a major publisher to feature two heroes. (On Brockmann’s treatment of this character, [End Page 15] consult Kamblé, Making Meaning, 124-27, 128-29.) Homophobia and assumptions also play key roles in TS #8, Hot Target, which Brockmann dedicates to her gay son.

[14] In Taylor’s Temptation (TDD #10), the hero is part Native American, and the heroine Irish-American, but their ethnic differences, treated in a brief meta-commentary (421), pose no obstacle to a relationship. In the Troubleshooters universe, what impedes a relationship between Max Bhagat, who has one Indian grandparent, and Italian-American Gina Vitagliano is not ethnic difference but a two-decade age difference as well as a traumatic past incident (their story is resolved in TS #10). In Vinh Murphy and Hannah Whitfield’s relationship (TS #13), neither their racial differences—she is white, he is mixed-race (TS #7 41-42)—nor her deafness hinders their union; instead, Vinh still grieves the murder of his wife, who was Hannah’s best friend.

[15] In the first Troubleshooters book, Joe Paoletti’s sister says, when her daughter Mallory gets involved with an Asian-American (David Sullivan, who is adopted), that her “babies would have slanted eyes” (TS #1 348-9). Similar themes emerge from an African-American perspective (Foster); Erin Young analyzes one novel’s treatment of undesirable mixing from an Asian perspective (213).

[16] This reference early on to Mary Lou’s (impossible) marriage to Jesus alongside occasional references to Ihbraham as Jesus-like in his dress and calm, desexualized in his manner suggests the possibility of reading his character as a Christ figure. [End Page 16]


Abu-Lughod, Lila. Do Muslim Women Need Saving? Harvard UP, 2014.

Ali, Kecia. The Lives of Muhammad. Harvard UP, 2014.

Ali, Kecia. Sexual Ethics and Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith, and Jurisprudence. 2nd ed., Oneworld Publications, 2016.

Arjana, Sophia Rose. Muslims in the Western Imagination. Oxford UP, 2015.

Brockmann, Suzanne. The Unsung Hero. Ivy Books, 2000. Troubleshooters #1.    

Brockmann, Suzanne. The Defiant Hero. Ivy Books, 2001. Troubleshooters #2.

Brockmann, Suzanne. Over the Edge. Ivy Books, 2001. Troubleshooters #3.

Brockmann, Suzanne. Into the Night. Ballantine, 2002. Troubleshooters #5.

Brockmann, Suzanne. Gone Too Far. Ballantine 2003. Troubleshooters #6.

Brockmann, Suzanne. Flashpoint. Ballantine, 2004. Troubleshooters #7.

Brockmann, Suzanne. Hot Target. Ballantine, 2005. Troubleshooters #8.

Brockmann, Suzanne. Breaking Point. 2005. Ballantine, 2006. Troubleshooters #10.

Brockmann, Suzanne. All Through the Night. Ballantine, 2007. Troubleshooters #12.

Brockmann, Suzanne. Into the Fire. 2008. Ballantine, 2009. Troubleshooters #13.

Brockmann, Suzanne. Harvard’s Education. Mira, 1998. Tall, Dark, and Dangerous #5.

Brockmann, Suzanne. The Admiral’s Bride. Mira, 1999. Tall, Dark, and Dangerous # 7.

Brockmann, Suzanne. Taylor’s Temptation. 2000. Republished in Tall, Dark, and Deadly. Harlequin, 2001. Tall, Dark, and Dangerous #10.

­­­Brockmann, Suzanne. “Reader’s Guide to the Troubleshooter Series.” Ballantine, 2006, Accessed July 18, 2017.

Burge, Amy. Representing Difference in the Medieval and Modern Orientalist Romance. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Center for American Progress (Wajahat Ali et. al.). “Fear, Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America.” Center for American Progress, 26 August 2011, Accessed July 18, 2017.

Center for American Progress (Matthew Duss et. al.) “Fear, Inc. 2.0: The Islamophobia Network’s Efforts to Manufacture Hate in America.” Center for American Progress, February 2015, Accessed July 18, 2017.

Chelton, Mary K. “Readers’ Advisory: There Seem to be More SEALs in Romance Fiction than in the US Navy, and if so, Why Does it Matter?” Reference & User Services Quarterly, vol. 55, no. 1, 2015, pp. 21-24.

Cohn, Jan. Romance and the Erotics of Property: Mass-Market Fiction for Women. Duke UP, 1988.

Curtis, Edward. Muslim Americans in the Military: Centuries of Service. Indiana UP, 2016.

Foster, Guy Mark. “How Dare a Black Woman Make Love to a White Man.” Empowerment versus Oppression: Twenty First Century Views of Popular Romance Novels, edited by Sally Goade, Cambridge Scholars Press, 2007, pp. 103-27.

[End Page 17]

Frantz, Sarah S. G., “‘I’ve tried my entire life to be a good man’: Suzanne Brockmann’s Sam Starrett, Ideal Romance Hero.” Women Constructing Men: Female Novelists and Their Male Characters, 1750-2000, edited by Sarah S. G. Frantz, Katharina Rennhak, and Sarah Ailwood, Lexington, 2009, pp. 200-218.

Frantz, Sarah S. G. “Suzanne Brockmann.” Special issue of Teaching American Literature: A Journal of Theory and Practice, vol. 2, no. 2-3, Spring/Summer 2008, pp. 1-19,

Holden, Stacy E. “Love in the Desert: Images of Arab-American Reconciliation in Contemporary Sheikh Romance Novels.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies, vol. 5, no. 1, August 2015, pp. 1-19,

Jarmakani, Amira. An Imperialist Love Story: Desert Romances and the War on Terror. New York UP, 2015.

Jarmakani, Amira. “‘The Sheik Who Loved Me’: Romancing the War on Terror.” Signs, vol. 35, no 4, 2010, pp. 993-1017.

Kamblé, Jayashree. “Patriotism, Passion, and PTSD: The Critique of War in Popular Romance Fiction.” New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction: Critical Essays, edited by Sarah S. G. Frantz and Eric Murphy Selinger, McFarland, 2012, pp. 153-163.

Kamblé, Jayashree. Making Meaning in Popular Romance Fiction: An Epistemology. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Leapheart, Nicole. “The Best Kind of Trouble: The Top Books in Suzanne Brockmann’s Troubleshooter Series.” Heroes and Heartbreakers, 17 December 2014, Accessed 21 June 2016.

Lyons, Jonathan. Islam Through Western Eyes: From the Crusades to the War on Terrorism. Columbia UP, 2012.

Malti-Douglas, Fedwa. Woman’s Body, Woman’s Word: Gender and Discourse in Arabo-Islamic Writing. Princeton UP, 1991.McKenna, Lindsay. Taking Fire. Harlequin, 2015.

Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. U of Pennsylvania P, 2003.

Roach, Catherine M. Happily Ever After: The Romance Story in Popular Culture. Indiana UP, 2016.

Scott, Jessica. All For You. Hachette, 2014.

Shaheen, Jack. Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People. 3rd ed., Olive Branch Press, 2009.

Teo, Hsu-Ming. Desert Passions: Orientalism and Romance Novels. U of Texas P, 2012.

Young, Erin S. “Saving China: The Transformative Power of Whiteness in Elizabeth Lowell’s Jade Island and Katherine Stone’s Pearl Moon.” Romance Fiction and American Popular Culture: Love as the Practice of Freedom? edited by William A. Gleason and Eric Murphy Selinger, Routledge, 2016, pp. 205-211.

[End Page 18]


Love in the Digital Library: A Search for Racial Heterogeneity in E-Books
by Renee Bennett-Kapusniak and Adriana McCleer

[End Page 1]

Introduction and Background

The romance genre is one of the bestselling genres in the United States (US). It is also the largest genre read in e-book (electronic book) format in the consumer market (RWA). An e-book format, for the purpose of this study, is defined as Adobe PDF, Mobipocket, Adobe EPUB, OverDrive Read and Kindle library downloads (OverDrive). The discovery of e-books and the growth of e-reading is rapidly increasing as more materials become available online and accessible on different technological devices. With this growth in e-reading, the demand for a diverse range of titles in e-book format is increasing. OverDrive, a global digital system that distributes e-books and other multimedia, offers the primary source for e-book library downloads. The Wisconsin Public Library Consortium (WPLC) currently has an OverDrive digital library (DL) of electronic materials for Wisconsin residents.

This exploratory case study examines how Wisconsin public libraries’ digital collections present a range of racial and ethnic perspectives and reflect the racial and ethnic demographics of their service communities by reviewing multicultural romance genre e-book title records in the WPLC digital library. Within this context, the study addresses the following questions: Do public libraries’ digital collections present a diversity of racial and ethnic perspectives and reflect the racial and ethnic demographics of their distinct service communities? What is the accessibility of these e-books within the digital system? This study analyzes the availability (number of titles, copies and holds) of the books as well as their accessibility (language selection and classification of titles) within the WPLC digital library system, determining whether the DL was supplying racially and ethnically diverse romance titles in e-book format and whether the e-books were accessible to potential users. The study also examines whether the DL is increasing the amount of these e-books in the collection to assist in the demand for the popular romance genre.

Romance Fiction and Multicultural Romance Fiction

Romance fiction has developed and expanded as a genre since its early beginnings. It is, by definition, a genre of literature that presents a fictional or legendary love story, tale, or prose narrative, which may include heroism, chivalry, adventure, and mysterious and/or supernatural elements (Merriam­-Webster). Romance fiction writing and leisure reading has been a popular activity for centuries. Subgenres include historical, contemporary, paranormal, suspense, westerns, inspirational/religious, fantasy, and young adult romance (RWA). Romance novels specifically focus on relationships. They may contain varying sensuality degrees, from sweet to extremely hot (Bouricius 3-11). Readers can become involved on an emotional level with the story’s characters, experiencing a journey to a “Happily Ever After” that makes them feel satisfied at the end (Radway 61; Wendell 8). [End Page 2] Romance fiction has traditionally presented homogeneous representations of White, non-Hispanic characters, cultural traditions, and social values.

Multicultural romance fiction includes works written by authors who identify as Hispanic or Latina/o, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska native, and/or Asian. It also includes romance fiction that depicts characters of color or indigenous characters and culturally diverse narratives, either by authors from that same racial/ethnic group or not (Bostic 214). The representations of characters of color or indigenous characters vary within romance fiction (and among other genre fiction), ranging from one-dimensional, stereotypical characters to characters with three-dimensional depth and realistic characteristics. The range contains problematic stereotyping of women of color and indigenous women as hypersexual, sexually aggressive, violent, or submissive sex objects in contemporary fiction (White 1-3; Gregor xiv). Characteristics of less educated people or those from lower socioeconomic classes have often been used to add “ethnic flavor” to stories (Forster paragraph 10). Narratives that interrupt and challenge such stories introduce more positive, relevant representations, highlighting culture, empowerment of families and communities, and a range of realities (White 7). Multicultural romance encompasses a variety of cultures, with the most frequent emphasis on African American romance (Ramsdell 290).

Authors of color and indigenous authors have been writing and publishing romance works for centuries, but it has only been within the past twenty years that they have benefited professionally and financially from such publications (White). Publishing companies did not publish African American authors’ romance fiction until the 1980s and only began introducing publications representing African American characters in the 1990s (White 6). Before this time, publications with African American and American Indian characters were rare (Osborne; Gregor 175-176). The early 1990s brought a boom in multicultural romance publications, with major publishing companies establishing specific multicultural imprints. In 1991, Ballantine was the first major publishing company to establish an imprint specifically focusing on multicultural books of “African-American, Asian, Latin, and Native American interest” (One World). In 1994, Kensington established “Arabesque Books,” an imprint focusing on African American romances (Osborne; White), and in 1999, “Encanto,” a line of “Hispanic contemporary romances.” The “Arabesque” imprint was sold to B.E.T. in 1998, which prohibited Kensington from publishing competing books. After this limitation was lifted, Kensington launched “Dafina” in 2000 “by and about people of the African descent” (Publishers Weekly, “Kensington Returns to African-American Market,” 1; Kensington Publishing Corp.). Furthermore, Harlequin developed Kimani Press, a division publishing mainstream fiction predominantly featuring African American characters, in 2005. Kimani now includes five distinct imprints (Harlequin; Reid). Harlequin also publishes Spanish translations in their “Bianca” and “Deseo” lines, which are popular romance novels written by White, non-Hispanic authors, featuring White, non-Hispanic characters (Engberg 237). Independent publishing companies have likewise committed to the publication of multicultural romance novels. Genesis Press, established in 1993, is the largest privately owned African American publishing company in the US. It has expanded to produce eight distinct imprints as well as classic and new books that are translated into Kiswahili. Parker Publishing is a small publishing company that was developed in 2005 to create literature for “Black and multi-ethnic readers,” including the Fire Opal line of publications (Parker Publishing). [End Page 3]

Encounters with literature that reflects one’s own experience, familiar settings, or recognizable themes can be empowering and validating. Encounters with literature that portrays a diverse range of representations and narratives can expand individuals’ worldviews. Librarians have the opportunity and the responsibility to facilitate such encounters by developing collections that portray diverse perspectives and representations, regardless of the local community (Bostic 216). Van Fleet in 2003 addressed the lack of diversity in popular fiction library collections by recognizing the failure to understand popular literature’s impact on social and personal validation (70). Library materials need to reflect the diversity of their service communities and present a diversity of ideas. These goals can be fulfilled through the development and maintenance of an e-book DL.

E-Books in Public Libraries

E-books range in format variety and are downloaded on an e­-reader or other technological device (Pawlowski 58). While the first e-book became available in 1971 via the Internet DL Project Gutenberg, e-book commercialization in the late 1990s was a turning point for their current ubiquity and popularity (Galbraith). Downloadable audiobook availability in 2004 helped spur librarians’ interest in providing access to e-books in public libraries (Pawlowski 55). NetLibrary became the first e-book lending platform for libraries in 1998 (Galbraith), while current library e-book vendors include Baker & Taylor Axis 360, EBSCO eBooks, Gale Virtual Reference Library, Ingram MyiLibrary, OverDrive, ProQuest ebrary, and 3M Cloud Library (Blackwell et al. “ReadersFirst” 4). OverDrive is the highest ranked vendor for e-book services in libraries by ReadersFirst, a group of 292 library systems working to improve e-book access and services for public library users (3-6). OverDrive offers the most e-book format options for libraries (Pawlowski 61). Adobe EPUB, or “electronic publication,” is the current industry standard for e-books as developed by the International Digital Publishing Forum (Pawlowski 58-59). These e-books are accessible via e-readers, computers, handheld mobile devices, and tablets (Griffey 8; Library of Congress).

E-book popularity has been increasing in the last few years. There was triple digit growth in 2011 of e-­book discovery and online readers due to the expanding use of digital devices and consumer awareness (Burleigh). E-book collections and overall demand have stabilized, yet a 2013 public library survey reported that e-book circulation in libraries has continued to rise (Enis, “Library E-book Usage,” 3). Keeping note of item usage can show how popular the item has been among users over a period of time (Wolfram 169). A 2012 Pew study of e-book usage illustrated that 21 percent of the American population has read an e­-book (Rainie et al.). The most popular genre read in e-book downloads is romance (Veros 303). In 2011, OverDrive’s data from over five million users indicated romance was one of the top four genres searched in a DL (Reid). Libraries need to understand user habits to connect them to digital content (Menchaca 109).

Library development and maintenance of digital and print collections provides a diverse range of materials and formats for all users. Results from a 2013 PEW study indicates more than half of American participants definitely want more e-books offered as a library service (Zickuhr, Rainie and Purcell). With the increase in e-book availability and popularity, public library collection practices have changed to include print and digital [End Page 4] content (Bailey 57). Findings from a 2013 study showed that 89 percent of public libraries offer e-books to their patrons and a majority (also 89 percent) expect their e-book circulation to increase within the next year (Enis, “E-book Usage Survey,”3). A study tracking e-book circulation from 2004-2010 at the New York Public Library (NYPL) depicts an increase in patrons and e-book usage, with e-book usage disproportionately higher. A 2009-2010 NYPL e-book study showed that usage rose 37 percent and reported that library e-book users read digital content repeatedly (Platt 252). Libraries need to refine e-book services to accommodate users’ interests and needs. Public libraries provide collections of popular digital materials by working with a commercial vendor, rather than through a direct relationship with publishers (Pawlowski 56), which can present a cumbersome user experience (Blackwell et al. “ReadersFirst” 3). A PEW survey comparing e-book and print titles revealed 50 percent of library e-book borrowers feel there are long waiting lists and a lack of novel titles in e-book formats (Rainie and Duggan). While few studies have examined public libraries’ e-book services (Platt; Rainie and Duggan; Zickuhr, Rainie and Purcell), none specifically analyze racial and ethnic diversity within a public library’s e-book collection. This study explores diversity in the popular e-romance genre.

Library Policies and Philosophies

The Wisconsin state legislature’s policy for libraries states that libraries need to provide free access to information, a diversity of ideas, and knowledge, as well as providing electronic delivery of information, in order to maintain eligibility for state aid (Wisconsin Public Library Legislation and Funding Task Force; Wisconsin Statutes 43.00(a-b); Wisconsin Statutes 43.24(f-m)). Local policies and professional ethics drive public librarians’ commitment to providing materials that respond to community interests and needs, including racial, ethnic, and linguistic relevance and format interests.

The American Library Association Code of Ethics provides normative ethical guidelines for library and information professionals, beginning with, “We provide the highest level of service to all library users through appropriate and usefully organized resources; equitable service policies; equitable access; and accurate, unbiased, and courteous responses to all requests” (“Code of Ethics”). This principle recognizes the profession’s commitment to serving all library users with equitable access, without distinction based on race or ethnicity. Librarians have the opportunity as well as the obligation to provide encounters with e-books that reflect their diverse communities’ experiences and portray a diverse range of narratives with the potential to expand their worldviews.

E-book collection development

The WPLC mission is to provide Wisconsin residents with access to a broad, current, and popular collection of electronically published materials in a wide range of subjects and formats (Gold et al. “Collection Development Policy” 2). The Digital Library Steering Committee manages the WPLC digital library, including the development of policy and budget recommendations approved by the Board, decision-making for daily operations of the DL, and the establishment and management of a Selection Committee tasked with selecting materials for the DL. It is led by a member-selected Chair and membership is [End Page 5] comprised of one Board representative and one or more representatives from each partner, based on annual investment (Gold et al., “Members,” 2012).

The WPLC has a Digital Media Vendor/Product Selection Committee of eight members representing public library systems, individual libraries, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, and Wisconsin Interlibrary Services. This committee surveys the marketplace for products to support digital media material distribution in public libraries, develops criteria for WPLC vendor selection and contracts, and recommends a purchasing strategy for digital media to the WPLC Board (Bend et al. “Digital Media Vendor”). In 2011, the Vendor Selection Committee reported an “awareness of the inadequacy of the WPLC E-Book collection to cope with current demand” and a commitment to focus on offering “a rich collection of E-Books to public library patrons” (Bend et al. “Vendor Selection Committee”). The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction Division for Libraries, Technology, and Community Learning organized an E-book Summit in 2012, which spurred WPLC organization of a statewide initiative to pool funds and purchase $1 million of e-books and audiobooks (Gold et al. “Collection Development Policy” 2). As of 26 April 2014, the WPLC digital library collection contains 9,433 romance e-book items, which has steadily increased by 505 items over the past two months.


            The researchers in this study investigated how the WPLC digital library collection presents a range of racial and ethnic perspectives and reflects the racial and ethnic demographics of their service communities by conducting an exploratory case study with targeted searches for multicultural romance e-book authors and book titles in the WPLC digital library. A case study method was chosen to examine and better understand (Stake “Case Studies” 237) this particular DL and was the first phase of a longitudinal examination (Glesne 22). Future phases will include triangulation of multiple sources of evidence to validate findings (Stake “The Art of Case Study Research” 45).

Wisconsin Demographics

            Out of the 5.6 million residents of Wisconsin, 878,000, or 15.5 percent, self-identified as Black or African American, Hispanic or Latina/o (of any race), Asian, and/or American Indian or Alaska native in 2010 (United States Census Bureau). Within this group, 6.3 percent of Wisconsin Census respondents identified as Black or African American, 5.9 percent identified as Hispanic or Latina/o (of any race), 2.3 percent identified as Asian, and 1 percent identified as American Indian or Alaska Native (see Fig.1). Additionally, 2.4 percent self-identified as some other race and 1.8 percent identified as two or more races. [End Page 6]

Figure 1: Wisconsin residents, by race and ethnicity, 2010

Figure 1: Wisconsin residents, by race and ethnicity, 2010.

Wisconsin Public Library Consortium

The WPLC was formed in 2000 as a partnership of eight library systems and now includes 17 libraries and systems, covering almost all public libraries within the state (Gold et al. “For Patrons”; “Members”). WPLC focuses on increasing public access to information technology and digital materials through research, development, public awareness, library staff training, and public library cooperation (Gold et al. “About”). Advantages of consortium partnerships are vendor discounts, access to a larger breadth of titles, and less local spending on bestsellers that may quickly lose interest (Wisconsin Public Library Legislation and Funding Task Force; Schwartz, “OverDrive Data,” 6). The WPLC Collection Development Policy states its intention to “portray different viewpoints, values, philosophies, cultures, and religions in order to serve the varied statewide community” (Gold et al. “Collection Development Policy” 2).

Selection Process

The general descriptors for race and ethnicity by the US Census Bureau that are used as categories for exploration of multicultural romance e-books within the WPLC digital library are Black or African American, Hispanic or Latina/o, Asian, and/or American Indian or Alaska native. The researchers use the term multicultural to represent the collective racial and ethnic groups throughout this paper. The researchers explored a [End Page 7] variety of romance websites, wikis, and books to select a range of racially and ethnically diverse authors and book titles to include in the study.

The Reader’s Advisor Online website is based on the “Genreflecting Advisory Series,” a print book series published by Linworth Libraries Unlimited which is designed to help library staff with readers’ advisory, reference, and collection development in various fiction genres (Maas et al. “About”). The modular tab “Sample Core Collection” provides a recommendation list for basic romance collections, which includes a section for “ethnic/multicultural” authors and book titles organized under headings of “African American,” “Asian,” “Latino,” and “Native American (sometimes called ‘Indian’ in the trade)” (Maas et al. “Sample Core Collection”). The listing includes 31 authors, though the list might be used as a guide to be adapted and expanded to respond to the libraries’ specific needs. The modular tab “Publishers” lists trends in romance publishing and provides detailed information about various publishing companies and imprints, including Ballantine, Fawcett, One World, Genesis, Arabesque and Kensington (Maas et al. “Publishers”). The RT Book Reviews website is based on the RT Book Reviews Magazine that feature reviews of romance novel published along with blogs, news, awards, upcoming releases and themed booklists (Romance, “RT Book Reviews”). The website lists two themed (Asian and Native American) titles and a list of titles by author as recommended reads in 1999 and 2001 respectively (RT Book Reviews Themes: “Asian”; “Native American”). The All About Romance website consists of reviews, blogs, lists and features from readers and romance writers. The website offers a compiled list of Native American titles and authors from 2001-2007 (“American Indian Romances”). The Goodreads website includes options for a reader to find and share books as well as to create an account to keep track of personal books wanted or read (Chandler). Under the modular tab “Genre” is African American Romance, consisting of Most read this week titles tagged African American Romance and Popular African American romance books (“African American Romance”). These books are compilations from reader tags where contributors review books and place information on the website. The RomanceWiki website is based on the premise of Wikipedia, where anyone can contribute to the website., a leading literary blog, produces it. The website contains a range of information, featuring romance history and today’s leading romance bestsellers as well as reviews, books, publishers, authors, and articles of the romance genre (Simpson). Different categories in the RomanceWiki include information on titles, authors and publishers under the different category names. The categories examined on the website were African American, Chica Lit, Cuban-American Authors, Interracial Romance, Latina, Latina Lit, and Multi-Cultural (“Romance Sub-Genres”). The authors and book titles from these resources are categorized for inclusion in this study.


Study results were analyzed by examining the history (Huberman and Miles 436) of the collection, including availability and accessibility of titles within the WPLC. Data was then scrutinized for underlying themes or patterns and clustered into meaningful groups (Creswell 101). [End Page 8]


A total of 151 individual authors in the study identified as Black or African American, Hispanic or Latina/o, Asian, and/or American Indian or Alaska native; or as authors who write multicultural romance fiction. A total of 153 individual book titles were identified as Black or African American romance book titles, Hispanic or Latina/o romance book titles, Asian romance book titles with settings in China, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam, or historical and contemporary American Indian romance book titles. The researchers searched for each author and title individually in the WPLC digital library between 12 February 2014 and 26 April 2014. Keyword searches were conducted for authors’ names and book titles. Search results were limited to e-books, excluding some available audiobooks by selected authors.

Figure 2: Authors searched and findings in WPLC, February 2014.

Figure 2: Authors searched and findings in WPLC, February 2014.

The results of these searches returned records for individual author titles and records for multiple author titles. In some cases, the catalog had multiple records of the same title, such as when WPLC digital library purchased copies of a title and partner libraries purchased additional copies of the same title for exclusive use by their local library cardholders. Additionally, 29.8 percent of the authors had e-book titles (see Fig. 2) and 15.7 percent of the individual book titles were available in e-book format within the WPLC digital library (see Fig. 3). [End Page 9]

Figure 3: Titles searched and findings in WPLC, February 2014.

Figure 3: Titles searched and findings in WPLC, February 2014.

Data for each search includes the number of e-book titles present in the WPLC digital library; the number of copies of each title, the number of holds on each title, and the number of available copies of each title (see Fig. 4). Additional data includes subject headings (e.g., romance, fiction, African American fiction, historical fiction, urban fiction) and e-book format (e.g., Kindle, Overdrive, Adobe EPUB, Adobe PDF).

Racial or ethnic group Author Number of titles Number of copies of each title Number of holds on each title Number of available copies of each title
Black or African American Alers, Rochelle 18 2

Figure 4: Example of monthly data collection.

Additionally, the researchers found that in February 2014, at least 10.3 percent of the WPLC romance e-book collection was multicultural romance e-books, and in April 2014, 10.2 percent of the total romance collection was multicultural romance e-books. The total of multicultural romance e-book records (i.e., individual authors, individual titles, and titles by multiple authors) in the collection in February 2014 was 430 items and 926 copies, which increased by 19 items and 41 copies over the two-month study period. There [End Page 10] were likely additional multicultural romance e-books within the WPLC digital library that were not found in this study because of the limited selection of multicultural romance authors and book titles.

The WPLC digital library provides a range of formats for the multicultural romance e-books. The e-books are available in four different formats, Kindle, Overdrive READ, Adobe EPUB, and Adobe PDF. The findings reveal the first three formats presented balanced numbers, while the lowest availability was in Adobe PDF format. The Library of Congress states that a PDF format is widely used among individuals, so e-books presented in Adobe PDF might be accessible to a greater population. However, there can be limitations with Adobe PDF because the fixed layout can make it difficult to adjust text size. The WPLC digital library provides a balanced number of options, facilitating access to the multicultural romance e-books for current and potential users.

The researchers found that there were an adequate number of copies of multicultural romance e-books available to respond to user interest and appeal to potential users. Most of the multicultural romance titles listed two copies available at a time. One person may check out a copy of the title for seven to twenty-one days, depending on the format. All items are available for at least seven days and Kindle, Adobe EPUB, and Adobe PDF may be checked out for seven, fourteen, or twenty-one days (WPLC). If an item is not available, users may place a hold on the item that prompts the system to send an alert when the item is returned by the previous user and available for checkout. Using NVivo data analysis software, the researchers conducted a text query for all holds and found that 82.6 percent had zero holds on the item, while the next highest holds were one (6.2 percent) and two (2.1 percent). The highest hold was eighty-one, but that was on a single item in one month. This outlier might have affected the results, which show that 78 percent of the holds are on American Indian records (see Fig. 5).


Figure 5: Multicultural romance title copies, availability and holds for February 2014.

Figure 5: Multicultural romance title copies, availability and holds for February 2014.

Data in February 2014 (see Fig. 5) depicted that the majority of the multicultural romance copies are Black or African American romance e-books. This aligns with Ramsdell’s point that there is a current emphasis on African American romances over other [End Page 11] racial or ethnic representations (290). The majority of the multicultural romance e-book titles are Black or African American, which is not proportionate to the percentage of Hispanic or Latina/o residents in Wisconsin. Further, each racial/ethnic category is diverse (e.g., nationality, culture, language, and religion) which may or may not be represented within the findings. For example, the majority of Wisconsin residents who identify as Hispanic or Latina/o also identify as Mexican (72.8 percent), followed by Puerto Rican (13.5 percent) (United States Census Bureau). These findings do not reveal the specific representation of distinct racial and ethnic groups in Wisconsin.

Item availability and holds influence the other, meaning if there are holds on the items, their availability decreases. Within the WPLC, the availability and hold status for each item is quite fluid and can change at any given time because the DL is a consortium of 17 libraries with library cardholders accessing the system 24/7. For example, this study shows a significant difference between the relatively low number and availability of American Indian books and the high number of holds for this category. This may be because of the mainstream popularity of authors who primarily write about White, non-Hispanic characters, and happen to have one or more books with characters who are American Indian. This may also simply be because American Indian stories were particularly popular at the time of the study. Romance readers can be loyal and may want to read everything by their favorite author (Bouricius 29) or might pick up a certain book because it is what they want to read at that particular time. This data is a snapshot of the multicultural romance e-books from February to April 2014. When comparing the three total data sets with the same totals compiled over the following two months, the researchers found there was not a significant increase or decrease in the percentage of total number of copies, item availability, or the number of holds with the percentage range of 5 percent or less for all of the racial and ethnic categories. More research needs to be undertaken to explore the data sets over a longer period to determine if the data remains constant within each racial and ethnic category.


Digital library materials need to be accessible to users with a range of information seeking behavior. A library user’s information needs, interests, and information seeking behavior can vary due to “cultural experiences, language, level of literacy, socioeconomic status, education, level of acculturation and value system” (Liu 124). In addition to exploring the availability of multicultural romance e-books, the researchers conducted advanced searches to investigate the accessibility of multicultural romance e-books. These searches were for all romance e-books available in languages other than English, and all romance e-books under the subject headings, “Multi-Cultural” and “African American Fiction.” Search results were limited to e-books, excluding some available audiobooks.

The WPLC digital library collection offers a minimal selection of romance e-books in languages other than English and the DL interface does not accommodate users that speak languages other than English. In February 2014, the collection contained 11 Spanish romance e-book title records, which increased by four items over the following two months. A German language romance e-book was added in March. While the WPLC digital library also contains materials in Arabic, Chinese, Czech, French, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Romanian, Russian, Swahili, and Swedish, there were no romance e-book titles [End Page 12] found in those respective languages. The DL interface is in English and does not offer any options to change the interface to any other language. The advanced search tools provide access to the limited number of materials in languages other than English, yet access to this search tool is restricted by the tools’ exclusive English accessibility. The records that contain words or names in languages other than English are not consistently precise in their presentation. For example, the Latina author Caridad Piñeiro, a.k.a. Caridad Piñeiro Scordato, is listed as “Caridad Pineiro” and “Caridad Pi¤eiro,” neither record accurately representing the ñ in her name. These factors limit the accessibility for users that speak languages other than English or records for materials containing words or names in languages other than English. At the February 2014 WPLC Digital Library Steering Committee Meeting, members agreed on the future discussion item “Multi language interface: Selecting titles in languages other than English” (Gold et al. “Steering Committee Minutes”). Improvement in this area might make the multilingual materials accessible to users that speak and read languages other than English.

The limited subject headings to classify materials within the WPLC digital library present barriers to accessing racially and ethnically diverse romance e-books. The researchers found an advanced search limited to subject headings “Multi-Cultural” and “Romance” returned zero titles between February and April 2014. Only one subject heading, “African American Fiction,” was used to identify racial or ethnic subjects within romance e-books materials. The only other relevant subject heading, “Multi-Cultural”, was not attached to any of the romance e-books. Print materials need to be physically arranged within a particular section of the library, while digital materials such as e-books do not have such limitations. Additional subject headings might increase the accessibility of digital materials. For example, classifications of the Latina/o romance e-books subject headings were limited to Fiction, Romance, Suspense, Short Stories, Erotic Literature, Fantasy, and Western. There is an invisibility of the range of racial and ethnic diversity represented within the DL collection that is a barrier to the accessibility of multicultural romance e-books.


Access and general issues

System usability is important in the discovery of and access to e-books. If a user is discouraged or disappointed with a search, it can lead to unsuccessful interactions with the system, leaving users unsatisfied (Xie 140). As stated earlier, accessing information from a DL can be challenging for users since some users are familiar with a traditional library of print books on shelves to browse titles (Lesk 204). This poses challenges for libraries to design an accessible system interface since there are many complexities to making digital items available and readily accessible for the online user (Van Riel, Fowler and Downes 244). Further research is needed to examine if the design of the WPLC digital library is a factor in current and potential users’ barriers to e-book access.

There can be additional accessibility issues that hinder users’ interactions with a system. These barriers are not covered in the scope of this study, but are explained briefly [End Page 13] here. Being a novice or expert user can determine the success a user experiences when searching in an online system. Users can have more difficulty finding or retrieving desired information if they have less experience with the system. In addition, a user’s information literacy or digital literacy skills can determine how well the user accesses materials within an online system. The fewer skills users have in understanding how to use a system, the less successful the interaction. Another possible issue is connectivity. Users might not have broadband access at home due to lack of infrastructure or affordability. Internet accessibility issues directly affect users’ access to online systems. If users have limited access to the Internet at home, they might rely on institutions, such as public libraries, to provide the access they need to find information.

Relationships between libraries and vendors

Publishers’ licensing agreements and commercial vendors’ policies limit the number and range of e-books. In 2013, “half of the big six publishers did not allow their e-books to be licensed by public libraries. Since then, Penguin has stated they will begin licensing e-books to OverDrive” (Enis, “Library E-book Usage,” 5). The WPLC Collection Development Policy explains how the selection criteria is based on the availability of titles from vendors (2), since some titles are not accessible for acquisition as a result of publishers’ limitations on digital editions of titles or limited embargos on new titles. The publishers might unexpectedly pull other titles from the collection (3). There are additional limitations on the DL collection from commercial vendors. OverDrive allows independent authors to submit titles for inclusion in DLs only if they have at least ten titles available. If authors have fewer books, it is recommended they work with an aggregator who can represent the independent authors as a collective. WPLC digital library contracts with OverDrive to follow these policies. If a local author wishes to add an e-book to the collection, it must be made available to all OverDrive DLs in the US. This can be beneficial to authors since Zickuhr et al. explained that 41 percent of users who read a library e-book are more likely to purchase their most recent e-book. However, OverDrive’s policies present independent authors barriers to making their works available. The option for libraries to increase their collections with items from individual authors can increase the collection by satisfying the demand for more titles, user-requested titles, and more multicultural romance titles by authors who are not represented by large publishing companies.

Commercial vendors hold the control over DL interface design and subject heading maintenance, which limits libraries’ system management. The vendors determine the options for e-book content and management systems for necessary or optional adoption by the contracted libraries. For example, in 2013, OverDrive announced its multilingual interface options in French Canadian, Simplified Chinese, and Spanish with plans to develop Japanese, Traditional Chinese, and additional language options. It was not possible for individual libraries to provide a multilingual interface before it was available through OverDrive. Additionally, libraries cannot customize the subject headings of their own DL collection records. The options to add or remove subject headings for specific titles through OverDrive is possible, yet it is necessary for OverDrive to receive multiple recommendations for subject heading changes before they make global changes to the record (OverDrive Partners). Collective groups of librarians, like ReadersFirst, work to improve users’ e-book access and public library services by addressing barriers to access to [End Page 14] e-books because of external issues related to publishing companies and commercial vendors.


The greatest barrier to developing or expanding e-book collections has been funding limitations, although there has been a lack of interest in some cases (Enis, “E-book Usage Survey” 3). Ashcroft mentions how licensing and costs are issues that continue to be a problem in regards to library e-books (405). While financial constraints can leave libraries in a dilemma, multicultural fiction might not be considered a “special” acquisition, since these might be the first items omitted during budget cuts (Bostic 210). Multicultural fiction might be a constant component of libraries’ offerings that requires careful selection and maintenance. A 2013 survey of public libraries reports 42 percent of Midwest libraries state they might purchase e-books, but it was not a priority (Enis, “E-book Usage Survey” 23). This data might foretell future barriers in regards to e-book collection development.

Selecting materials for a library collection involves the library, the library patrons, and an understanding of the literature available (Van Fleet 78). The WPLC Selection Committee is comprised of two representatives from each of the partner libraries, divided into 24 selectors for adult materials and 10 selectors for young adult and children’s materials (Gold et al. “Selection Committee”). According to the 2014 collection development policy, selectors refer to reviews in professional journals, lists of recommended or award-winning titles, and other selection resources to inform their decisions (Gold et al. “Collection Development Policy” 3). Similar to recommending books to library patrons, a librarian needs to have knowledge of the literature and know what appeals to the patrons. Talking to the patrons to gain a sense of the community needs in turn guides the policy and procedures in acquiring the content for the collection (Gold et al. “Collection Development Policy” 73). George Watson Cole points out that “the library is in existence by the grace of the public, and it is a duty to cater to all the classes that go towards making up the community in which it is established” (qtd. in Bouricius 36, emphasis in original). Community interest, anticipated interest, individual requests and reports of satisfaction related to authors, titles, or subjects, are considered important to the WPLC selectors (Gold et al. “Collection Development Policy” 2). Libraries need to focus more attention on collaborative community assessments rather than library use studies alone, particularly to improve library services for racially and ethnically diverse communities (Bostic 217; Liu 131; McCleer 271). It is challenging for libraries to make an informed choice about collection development without knowing the interests, needs or concerns of the users (Ashcroft 399). Continued research needs to explore how the WPLC digital library conducts community assessment and analyses to inform their collection development.

With the popularity of the romance genre, more attention needs to be given to digital collection development of multicultural romance e-books. According to PEW in 2012, 56 percent of respondents specified that their library did not carry the e-book they wanted to borrow, which might be because the libraries are still building their digital collections (Zickuhr et al. “Libraries, Patrons and E-books.”). Moyer states libraries need to acquire different types of novels to give options to readers’ varied interests (230). Most romance readers enjoy reading a new book by their favorite author (Bouricius 47), so [End Page 15] varieties of romance novels are important to have in the collection. Beyond the limited availability and limited funds for multicultural romance fiction, acquisitions librarians must also work to select materials that present accurate representations of the diverse realities of individuals and communities of all races and ethnicities, taking care to recognize materials with subtle and overtly racist or discriminatory representations (Bostic 218). These limitations relate to users and systems that are compounded by external barriers, which affect the accessibility of multicultural romance e-books.

Future Research

This study reveals the current multicultural romance e-book titles’ availability and accessibility within the WPLC digital library. Some of the challenges to diminishing availability and accessibility barriers can be addressed by the WPLC digital library. However, there are challenges presented by external sources: for example, the available subject headings can be limited by the OverDrive system and publishing companies can limit the available e-books. An advanced search in the WPLC digital library for the African American independent publishing house Genesis Press, Inc. returns only one listing. Such limited availability can be a barrier for all romance e-books and for e-books in general. Further research will distinguish the sources for such challenges as well as opportunities for improvement. Interviews with WPLC librarians, particularly Selection Committee members, might provide further insight to the barriers to selecting and purchasing multicultural romance e-books for the DL.

The racially and ethnically diverse authors and book titles selected for this study were gleaned from a variety of romance websites, wikis, and books. Data analysis illustrates that some of the included authors are White, non-Hispanic authors who might have only one or two titles that include characters of color or indigenous representations, which is why they are listed in the various websites, wikis, and book resources for multicultural romances. Further research methods need to refine this selection process by removing these outliers from the data sets. The book titles need to be explored, rather than the individual authors’ comprehensive offerings in the DL. The selection in this study includes predominantly female authors. Future studies need to add male authors, such as African American authors Timmothy B. McCann, Colin Channer, Omar Tyree, Eric Jerome Dickey, Jervey Tervalon, E. Lynn Harris, Franklin White, and Van Whitfield (Cook 1; Rosen 38). Gay and Lesbian romance novels appeal not only to the homosexual reader but can also be of interest to heterosexual readers (Maas et al. “Gay and Lesbian Romance”). A search for “Gay/Lesbian” and “Romance” limited to e-books returns one title in the WPLC collection. Future studies need to specifically include the accessibility of various perspectives of sexuality and gender in romance e-books. Another search refinement needs to focus on how well a digital library presents complete book series (e.g., Brenda Jackson’s “Bachelors in Demand” series contains three out of the four titles).

An advanced search limited to the subject heading “Urban Fiction” resulted in 116 titles in February and increased by 13 titles over the following two months. Urban Fiction, also known as “Street Lit”, is set in a predominantly city landscape with plots delving into the realities and culture of the characters. It is traditionally a genre written by and for African Americans, though there are also urban Latino fiction novels and it is branching out into different sub-genres (Morris 2, 43). The search for urban fiction narrowed by the [End Page 16] subject heading “Romance” returned 20 titles consistently over two months. While some of these 20 titles were Black or African American romance titles, not all urban fiction romance can be categorized as multicultural romance. Further research needs to focus on this subject heading specifically within the DL.

Further studies of multicultural romance e-book accessibility needs to explore items found through the process of browsing. In 2012, OverDrive reported that nearly 60 percent of readers rely on browsing practices to encounter new e-books instead of searching for specific titles, and romance is the most popular genre for browsing (Schwartz). In this study, several items were added to the data sets because of the researchers’ browsing within the WPLC digital library, but this was not an intentional research method. A study designed around browsing digital collections might further explore multicultural romance e-book availability and accessibility.

This exploratory study provides a snapshot of the multicultural romance e-book availability and accessibility in the WPLC collection. Expanding studies in this DL can give area libraries a more comprehensive understanding of the WPLC multicultural romance e-book collection and identify specific areas that need improvement or refinement. A continuation of this exploratory study to include data over an entire year will establish a record of increases or decreases of multicultural romance e-books over a significant period. This data will be beneficial to discover patterns in collection development for distinct racial and ethnic groups.


This exploratory study finds that the WPLC digital library provides a foundational collection of multicultural romance e-books, which presents a range of racial and ethnic perspectives and provides a general representation of the racial and ethnic demographics of Wisconsin. In 2010, a total of 15.5 percent of Wisconsin residents identified as Black or African American, Hispanic or Latina/o, Asian, and/or American Indian or Alaska native (United States Census Bureau), and 10.3 percent of the entire WPLC romance e-book collection were multicultural romance e-books. The findings do not precisely align with the specific racial and ethnic demographics of Wisconsin. The multicultural romance e-books in the WPLC digital library present an adequate number and range of formats, which is beneficial to user access and appeal to potential users. The barriers to the accessibility of these items are related to language, subject headings, and system interface. Further research will explore the source of these barriers and opportunities for refinement. Overall, the WPLC has developed a solid foundation for fulfilling their mission to provide Wisconsin residents with access to a broad, current, and popular collection of electronically published materials in a wide range of subjects and formats. Continued development of the multicultural romance e-book collection will enhance their public library services to all of the 5.6 million Wisconsin residents with an interest in romance fiction. [End Page 17]

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[End Page 21]


Georgette Heyer: The Nonesuch of Regency Romance
by Laura Vivanco

Georgette Heyer’s “invariable answer, when asked about her private life, was to refer the questioner back to her books. You will find me, she said, in my work” (Aiken Hodge ix).[1] Although The Nonesuch (1962) is probably not Heyer’s best-known or best-loved Regency romance, there is a great deal of Heyer in this novel. Its eponymous hero, Sir Waldo Hawkridge, is “straitlaced” (234) and Heyer’s son “described her, to her amusement, as ‘not so much square as cubed’” (Aiken Hodge 41). Both Heyer and Sir Waldo were left [End Page 1] fatherless at too early an age: until George Heyer unexpectedly collapsed and died when Georgette was twenty-two he “had been by her side, advising and encouraging her, her closest ally” (Kloester, Biography 85) and Sir Waldo acknowledges that when his “father died, I was too young for my inheritance!” (16). Their fathers did, however, remain important influences on their lives. Sir Waldo’s “father, and my grandfather before him, were both considerable philanthropists” (275) and he followed them in devoting “half my fortune” (275), and a considerable proportion of his time, to charity. As for Heyer, it seems her choice of career was also shaped by family “Tradition, and upbringing” (275): her grandfather “was described by his daughter Alice as being ‘full of little pithy stories […] and very witty’” (Kloester, Biography 10) and Heyer declared that “I inherited my literary bent from my father” (Kloester, Biography, 17). Perhaps, then, Heyer, “the acknowledged Queen of the Regency romance” (Robinson 208), would be better styled its Nonesuch, “first in consequence with the ton, and of the first style of elegance” (Heyer, Nonesuch 20).[2]

As for Heyer’s historical romantic fiction, it could be said to offer her readers pleasures akin to those to be derived from the “book, or some trifle” (Nonesuch 190) which Sir Waldo gives to young Charlotte Underhill. Heyer certainly described her novels as though they were trifles, for she “referred to her own work with a persistent, broadly funny self-mockery” (Byatt, “The Ferocious” 297). She did, however, admit that her writing was “unquestionably good escapist literature, and I think I should rather like it if I were […] recovering from flu” (Aiken Hodge xii).[3] By her own assessment, then, Heyer’s romantic fiction may be considered to resemble the presents Sir Waldo brings to “amuse” (190) Charlotte Underhill during her convalescence.

The book Sir Waldo chooses for Charlotte is Sir Walter Scott’s Guy Mannering and the value of this work is forcefully defended by Miss Ancilla Trent, who is both the heroine of The Nonesuch and “a very superior governess! […] Besides such commonplace subjects as water-colour sketching and the use of the globes, I instruct my pupils in music—both pianoforte and harp; and can speak and read French and Italian!” (87).[4] She is also “intelligent […] and had a sense of humour” (59) and this gives some weight to her opinions. When Mrs Mickleby confesses to being “an enemy to that class of literature, but I daresay that you, Miss Trent, are partial to romances” (190), Ancilla Trent retorts “When they are as well-written as this one, ma’am, most certainly!” (190). Although Heyer’s Regency romances are not “romances” of exactly the same kind as Scott’s, it seems possible that she may have intended Miss Trent’s defence of Scott’s romance to serve as a subtle rebuke to those who denigrated the quality of her writing.[5] According to A. S. Byatt, Heyer’s criticism of her own work “hid a sense that it had more real value than was acknowledged” (“The Ferocious” 297) and Jennifer Kloester has stated that

Georgette was […] prepared to acknowledge her own ability (up to a point), though any hint of self-praise or a suggestion in a letter that what she had written was good was invariably and immediately qualified or contradicted. To have publicly admitted that she thought her writing good would mean committing the unforgivable sin of vulgarity […] to Georgette’s mind a well-bred person never bragged about her own success. (Biography 324)

It would appear that Heyer, like Mrs Chartley in The Nonesuch, believed “A lady of true quality […] did not puff off her consequence: anything of that nature belonged to the [End Page 2] mushroom class!” (125). Nonetheless, Heyer would have been happy to have heard her own romances described as “well-written”: she “remembered with pleasure” that “the critic St John Ervine […] had once written about her ‘seemly English’” (Aiken Hodge 95).

Mrs Mickleby and Miss Trent’s exchange of views about romances is a very short one but it leaves the latter feeling that she has “a score to pay” (191). An opportunity to do so is soon provided by a “dissected map” (190) which, like Guy Mannering, is a gift from Sir Waldo to Charlotte. Since “The Misses Mickleby had not seen one […] Miss Trent […] advised their mama, very kindly, to procure one for them. ‘So educational!’ she said. ‘And quite unexceptionable!’” (190-91). The use of the map to avenge the criticisms made of romances perhaps subtly suggests that some romances should also be considered both “educational” and “quite unexceptionable!” It is certainly the case that in Heyer’s The Grand Sophy (1950) this latter phrase is used to express approval of another of Scott’s novels: Hubert Rivenhall “went into raptures over that capital novel, Waverley” (50) and Miss Wraxton, whose family is “very particular in all matters of correct conduct” (11), “graciously said that she believed the work in question to be, for a novel, quite unexceptionable” (50). Heyer may have been subtly claiming an “unexceptionable” pedigree for her own historical romances by placing them in the tradition of Sir Walter Scott, a respected author of historical fiction. She may also have considered their subject matter “quite unexceptionable” inasmuch as they have “no sex in them” (Laski 285). They are not entirely devoid of either passion or discreet references to sexual activity but Heyer was fiercely determined that they should not be confused with “salacious novels” (Kloester, Biography 278): she was repulsed by a film version of her The Reluctant Widow because “It seems to me that to turn a perfectly clean story of mine into a piece of sex-muck is bad faith” (Kloester, Biography 278) and, angered by some of the covers Pan produced for the paperback editions of her novels, she protested “against any suggestion that a book written by me will be found to contain lurid sex-scenes. I find this nauseating” (Kloester, Biography 346).

In addition to having a claim to be considered “unexceptionable” in both subject matter and literary status, The Nonesuch may also be considered “educational.” Education is an important theme in the novel, and not simply because its heroine is a governess and its hero is a “social mentor” (79) who is quite explicitly described as teaching others: “to Julian Sir Waldo was […] the big cousin who had taught him to ride, drive, shoot, fish, and box; a fount of wisdom” (8). Such things as a conscience and a sense of responsibility are not acquired in quite the same way as these practical skills but Heyer implies that they, too, must be taught and learned. In Cotillion (1953), an earlier novel of Heyer’s, Freddy Standen asked “How the deuce would you know the right way to go on if you was never taught anything but the wrong way?” (266-67). In The Nonesuch, Tiffany and Laurie serve as demonstrations of the negative consequences of a lack of a suitable education. Tiffany has “been ruined by indulgence” (27) and Miss Trent observes that “it is never of the least use to appeal to her sense of what is right, because I don’t think she has any—or any regard for the sensibilities of others either” (42). Laurie can also be considered a case study in how indulgent treatment, no matter how well-intentioned, can spoil a character. As Sir Waldo frankly acknowledges, “I ruined Laurie” (16) by inadvertently “encouraging him in the conviction that he would never be run quite off his legs because his wealthy cousin would infallibly rescue him from utter disaster” (156-57) and “By the time I’d acquired enough sense to know what it signified to him, the mischief had been done” (16). Sir Waldo [End Page 3] therefore feels responsible for “Laurie’s idleness, his follies, his reckless extravagance […]. By his easy, unthinking generosity he had sapped whatever independence Laurie might have had, imposing no check upon his volatility” (156).

Although lessons, particularly in bad habits, can be imparted without much effort, reversing the ill effects of those lessons is more difficult and may require a combination of knowledge and cunning. At the beginning of The Nonesuch we learn that Sir Waldo, now older and more sensible, has attempted to trick Laurie into adopting a new lifestyle by telling him he will no longer pay his debts. Sir Waldo may not mean it, “but […] Laurie thinks I do” (15). Sir Waldo’s plan depends for its success on his knowledge that “Laurie won’t go back on his word” (17) and that “Laurie is no more a gamester than I am!’ […] All he wishes to do is to sport a figure in the world. Do believe that I know him much better than you do” (17).

Another of Sir Waldo’s plans also requires cunning and knowledge in order to succeed: having reached the conclusion that neither Tiffany’s “disposition nor her breeding made her an eligible wife for young Lord Lindeth” (79), Sir Waldo sets to work to teach his cousin the truth about Tiffany’s personality. Since he is aware that “Julian might ignore, and indignantly resent, warnings uttered by even so revered a mentor as his Top-of-the-Trees cousin, but he would not disbelieve the evidence of his own eyes” (80-81), Sir Waldo proceeds to provoke Tiffany into “betray[ing] the least amiable side of her disposition” (78). He does so with such skill that Julian remains unaware “that Waldo’s lazy complaisance masked a grim determination to thrust a spoke into the wheel of his courtship” (78).

Ancilla Trent, who owes “her present position to the knowledge, which had made it possible for her, in the past, to manage the wayward Beauty rather more successfully than had anyone else” (25), employs equally “unorthodox” (43) methods to educate her pupil:

when informed of Tiffany’s determination to marry into the peerage [she] not only accepted this as a praiseworthy ambition, but entered with gratifying enthusiasm into various schemes for furthering it. As these were solely concerned with the preparation of the future peeress for her exalted estate, Tiffany was induced to pay attention to lessons in Deportment, to practise her music, and even, occasionally, to read a book. (28)

In addition, she attempts to teach Tiffany to give at least the impression of modesty by insisting, “without the least hesitation” (23), that “whenever you boast of your beauty you seem to lose some of it” (22-23).

Unlike Miss Trent, Heyer was not the grand-daughter of “a Professor of Greek” (86) but her father was “a natural and inspiring teacher” (Aiken Hodge 3) and her younger brother Frank “became a schoolmaster, teaching for twenty-one contented years at Downside” (Aiken Hodge 4). Heyer herself can perhaps be said to have employed subtle educational methods which “masked” the didactic elements of her novels beneath highly entertaining plots. Jane Aiken Hodge has suggested that Heyer “did her best to conceal her […] stern moral code behind the mask of romantic comedy, and succeeded, so far as her great fan public was concerned” (xi). The comic aspects of Heyer’s novels enable them to appeal to those who, like Tiffany, would be “Bored by the reproaches and the homilies of […] a parcel of old dowdies” (27). Nonetheless, in The Nonesuch there is clear authorial [End Page 4] approval of Patience Chartley, “a modest girl” (21) “so free from jealousy that she wished very much that Tiffany would not say such things as must surely repel her most devout admirers” (22), who is also capable of putting herself in considerable danger to rescue a “slum-brat from under the wheels of a carriage, with the greatest pluck and presence of mind!” (239). She is contrasted with the vain and selfish Tiffany and since both receive their just deserts, they serve as examples of both the right and the wrong way for a young woman “to go on in society” (202). The Nonesuch can therefore be considered “didactic love fiction—romance that has a didactic project, is future-directed, and attempts to represent a moral way of living” (Lutz 2) rather than “amatory fiction” which “cannot be, generally speaking, recuperated morally” (Lutz 2).[6]

It should be noted, however, that the lines between the two types of fiction are somewhat blurred by the ubiquity of “the enemy lover” who, “Contrary to all expectation […] appears in […] didactic fiction” (Lutz 3), albeit when he is the hero of a work of didactic love fiction he is “set up as dangerous only to then be reformed in the end” (3). Heyer divided her romantic heroes into two categories: “her hero, Mark II [is] ‘Suave, well-dressed, rich, and a famous whip,’ as opposed to her Mark I hero who is ‘The brusque, savage sort with a foul temper.’” (Aiken Hodge 49). The Mark I hero is of the “enemy lover” type and, as Heyer made very clear, he is not truly marriage material:

my youthful fans […] seem (from their letters) to be convinced that my Ideal Man is the prototype of what I call the Heyer Hero, No. I pattern—a horrid type, whom no woman in the possession of her senses could endure for more than half a day. (Aiken Hodge 197)

The Nonesuch, with its Mark II hero, is therefore fully didactic in nature since it does not encourage “youthful fans” to hanker after a type of man who, as Cotillion’s Freddy Standen says of his rakish cousin Jack, “wouldn’t make you a good husband” (Heyer 333).[7] Instead it provides the reader with both a youthful and a more mature version of the Mark II hero and outlines the characteristics required in a woman who wishes to be a good match for him. Tiffany is deemed unsuitable because “she hasn’t a particle of that sweetness of disposition which is in your cousin, and nothing but misery could be the outcome of a marriage between them!” (91). By contrast, Julian and “The Rector’s well-brought up daughter” (134) Patience are, in Miss Trent’s opinion, “very well-suited to one another” (134) and Sir Waldo, too, is “much inclined to think that […] Julian had found exactly the wife to suit him” (197-98). Heyer never became as involved in her readers’ love lives as Sir Waldo is in Julian’s, but the owner of one romance review website recounts that

a commenter at the site who goes by the name DreadPirateRachel told me, “The first romances I ever read were by Georgette Heyer. They taught me to hold out for a partner who would share my intellectual passions and respect me for the person I am. I’m glad I paid attention, because I ended up with a husband who is funny, kind, supportive, and adoring.” (Wendell 196)

Clearly Heyer’s novels have helped at least one person find exactly the spouse to suit her.

The most obviously didactic aspect of Heyer’s romantic fiction, however, is her use of historical detail. As Karin E. Westman has observed, [End Page 5]

Her Regency romances […] made Heyer a household name and continue to grant her lasting narrative power within contemporary culture. […] Heyer’s presence on the cultural landscape […] is not even limited to the literary: her name is frequently invoked to conjure for the general reader the Regency period as a whole […], the mention of “Georgette Heyer” guarantees that readers have in mind the leisured upper-class social world of Regency England that Heyer created. (167-68)

Some of those readers may resemble Tiffany, who acquired no more than “a smattering of learning” (Nonesuch 28) despite all of Ancilla Trent’s efforts. Penny Jordan, an author of contemporary Harlequin Mills & Boon romances, appears to have depicted at least one reader of this type in Past Loving (1992). During a scene set at a charity event with a Regency theme,

Holly […] glanced briefly at the outrageously décolleté dress that Patsy was wearing. The chiffon skirt of the dress was so fine that it was almost possible to see right through it.

‘That’s how they wore them in those days,’ Patsy told her defensively […]. ‘They used to damp down their skirts so that they would cling to their bodies.’

‘I know,’ Holly agreed drily. ‘I read Georgette Heyer as well, you know.’ (54)

Other readers have learned rather more: Jennifer Kloester, for example, has acknowledged that Heyer’s Regency novels “beguiled my leisure hours, affording me enormous pleasure, but also giving me a great deal of useful information about the English Regency period” (Regency World xv). It was not until she began to write Georgette Heyer’s Regency World, however, that Kloester realised

just how much accurate and factual information there was in the novels […] and, although I’d always been under the impression that Heyer was meticulous in her communication of the period, I hadn’t appreciated the scope of her research, nor the degree to which she immersed herself in the Regency era. (xv)

Aiken Hodge states that Heyer was

so deeply grounded in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that she could date a book effortlessly by the most casual of references to contemporary events. She hardly ever uses an actual flat-footed date. […] It is almost a game that she plays with the reader. (65)

Dating the novels can thus become an interesting and educational challenge.

The first of the references which helps to date The Nonesuch is to be found in Sir Waldo’s questions to Miss Trent regarding her brother being “engaged at Waterloo” and currently “with the Army of Occupation” (85). Following the defeat of Napoleon at [End Page 6] Waterloo, “Article V of the definitive treaty between France and the allies, signed on 20 November 1815, […] set up a multinational occupation force” (Veve 99) and

The arrangements to end the occupation were signed at the conference of Aix-la-Chapelle on 9 October 1818. All allied forces were to be removed by 30 November […]. The allied withdrawal did, in fact, begin almost immediately, and all British forces were disembarked in England within a few days of the planned departure date. (Veve 106-07)

Since we are told that “the event which started the succession of gaieties which made that summer memorable was Mrs Underhill’s informal ball” (76) which took place on “a warm June night” (74), and the Army of Occupation did not yet exist in June 1815, one may assume that The Nonesuch is set in either 1816, 1817, or 1818. The precise year in which the novel is set can be identified thanks to Sir Waldo’s mention of “Lady Spencer—the one that died a couple of years ago, and was mad after educating the poor” (275). This Lady Spencer is not an invention of Heyer’s but was the wife of the first Earl Spencer and

one of the first in the higher classes to adopt Sunday-schools; and her name will be found among the bountiful supporters of many of the most useful plans originated in her day, for ameliorating the condition of the poor […] she expired, after a very short illness, on the 18th March, 1814, in her seventy-sixth year. (Le Marchant 6)

If Sir Waldo’s memory is accurate, the events in The Nonesuch must be taking place in 1816, a few months and a “couple of years” after Lady Spencer’s death.

Heyer was truly interested in getting her historical details right, had “her own […] library of about 1000 historical books” (Byatt, “The Ferocious” 300) and only occasionally made mistakes.[8] Although in general, when

Reading her books, one remembers with surprise that the post-Waterloo years in which many of them are set were ones of appalling depression and poverty in England, with ex-servicemen begging in the streets and a very real danger of revolution […] in fact […] Georgette Heyer does occasionally look below the smiling surface of things. (Aiken Hodge 88)

Since Sir Waldo’s philanthropic efforts are focused on “collecting as many of the homeless waifs you may find in any city […] and rearing them to become respectable citizens” (275), The Nonesuch is one of the novels in which Heyer looks “below the smiling surface of things.” In it Leeds is presented as both a commercial centre which is a suitable destination for “the tabbies [who] spend the better part of their time jauntering into Leeds to do some shopping” (256) and as a potential source of “homeless waifs”:

Leeds was a thriving and rapidly expanding town, numbering amongst its public edifices two Cloth Halls (one of which was of impressive dimensions, and was divided into six covered streets); five Churches; a Moot Hall; the Exchange (a handsome building of octangular design); an Infirmary; a House [End Page 7] of Recovery for persons afflicted with infectious diseases; a Charity school, clothing and educating upwards of a hundred children […]; a number of cloth and carpet manufactories; several cotton mills, and foundries; inns innumerable; and half-a-dozen excellent posting-houses. The buildings were for the most part of red brick, beginning to be blackened by the smoke of industry; and while none could be thought magnificent there were several Squares and Parades which contained private residences of considerable elegance. There were some very good shops and silk warehouses. (131-32)

The accuracy of this description can be ascertained by a comparison with the details given in John Ryley’s Leeds Guide (1806), John Bigland’s Yorkshire volume of The Beauties of England and Wales (1812), and Edward Baines’s Directory, General and Commercial, of the Town & Borough of Leeds (1817).[9]

Heyer was certainly familiar with works of this type since they are mentioned in the texts of her novels on more than one occasion. In Cotillion Kitty Charing acquires “The Picture of London, and it says here that it is a correct guide to all the Curiosities, Amusements, Exhibitions, Public Establishments, and Remarkable Objects in and near London, made for the use of Strangers, Foreigners, and all Persons who are not intimately acquainted with the Metropolis” (141). Kitty is quoting here from the extended title of a guide which actually existed (Picture) and which was reprinted many times in the early nineteenth century. In Lady of Quality (1972) Corisande Stinchcombe observes that Farley Castle is “a place any visitor to Bath ought to visit, because of the chapel, which is very interesting on—on account of its relics of—of mortality and antiquity!” (61) and she is promptly accused of “having ‘got all that stuff’ out of the local guidebook” (61). Her recommendation and description are indeed rather similar to the ones in John Feltham’s A Guide to all the Watering and Sea-Bathing Places (1815) in which it is stated that “Farley Castle, six miles from Bath, […] deserves a visit; particularly on account of its curious chapel, with some remarkable reliques of mortality and antiquity” (66).

Engraving of the "Dropping Well" from the Yorkshire volume of The Beauties of England... by John Bigland.

Bigland’s work contains an engraving of what he calls the “Dropping Well” at Knaresborough which may have formed the inspiration for the one spotted by The Nonesuch’s Lord Lindeth in Leeds: “A picture hanging in the window of a print-shop caught his eye; he recognized the subject, which was the Dripping Well” (Heyer 136). Heyer’s [End Page 8] “Dripping Well” must be the same as Bigland’s “Dropping Well” since it can be found in Knaresborough (Heyer 91) and Bigland states that

The walk along the margin of the river, from the dropping well to the bridge, is extremely delightful. […] The precipitous rocks which run along the north side of the river, are not less than a hundred feet in height. At the bottom […] are many dwellings, scooped out of the rock, and inhabited from time immemorial […]. The most remarkable of these, is that called the Rock-house, a large cavern, supposed to have been the retreat of some of those banditti, who, in former times, infested the neighbouring forest. (642-43)

Some of this information appears to have made its way into The Nonesuch since Lord Lindeth “told us of the wild, ragged rocks, and the cavern which was once the lair of bandits” (Heyer 91).

Heyer’s inclusion of Leeds’ charitable institutions in her description of the town hints at the social problems created by rapid industrial expansion.[10] She reveals them even more vividly via a minor character, a “ragged urchin” (136), who steals an apple and has to be reassured by Patience Chartley that he will not be handed over to “the beadle (an official of whom he seemed to stand in terror” (138). Ryley describes the beadle, along with the Chief Constable, as “personages who are, to vulgar thieves, as terrific as the Chief Justice himself” (89). Heyer’s

urchin hails from the slums: either in the eastern part of the town, where the dyeing-houses and most of the manufactories are situated, or on the south bank of the river. […] So far as I am aware there is no epidemic disease rife there at the moment, but most of the dwellings are little better than hovels, and there is a degree of squalor which makes it excessively imprudent for you […] to enter them. (145)

Once again, Heyer’s description is congruent with that provided by contemporary sources. Bigland observes that “On the eastern side, the town falls into a deep valley, through which runs a rivulet, having on its banks a great number of dying houses. […], on the banks of the abovementioned rivulet, the houses are mean, and the streets and lanes dirty, crooked, and irregular […]. The southern edge of the town […] is almost equally disagreeable” (775).[11] For his part Ryley comments that in the families of women who work in the large factories “we find an offensive neglect of cleanliness, a total disregard of frugality, and every appearance of the most squalid poverty; the children are dirty, diseased, and in rags” (102). He concludes that it “remains for the philanthropist […] to apply correctives, and more especially to apply assiduously to the forming of the minds of the rising generation to habits of virtue and religion” (102).

Heyer, like the philanthropic Sir Waldo, has had an effect on “the rising generation.” Pamela Regis goes as far as to claim that Heyer’s “influence is felt in every historical romance novel written since 1921, particularly in the Regency romance novel. Heyer is the mother of this kind of romance” (125). Heyer’s work is in some respects comparable to Sir Waldo’s: he has for many years been engaged in “collecting as many […] homeless waifs […] as I could, and rearing them to become respectable citizens. […] The important thing is to [End Page 9] enter them to the right trades” (Nonesuch 275). As Sir Waldo admits, “we’ve had our failures, but not many” (275) and although Heyer was horrified by instances of blatant plagiarism of her novels, on the whole the authors she inspired might be described as “respectable citizens” of the society of romance authors.[12] Prominent among them are Stephanie Laurens, for whom Heyer’s These Old Shades “is unquestionably the one that has most strongly contributed to, not just what I write today, but the fact that I write at all” (ii) and Mary Balogh, who first encountered Heyer when she picked up a copy of Frederica:

I was enchanted, enthralled. I could not bear for the book to end. I started gathering about me and devouring every other book she had written. Then I discovered that other people were writing the same kind of books—Regency romances. To say that that one book changed my life would not be overstating the case at all. (24)

For Mary Jo Putney, another author of Regency-set romances, Heyer’s influence, albeit exerted indirectly, was also decisive: “discovering the modern Regencies inspired by her books was the first step on my path to authordom” (ii). Directly or indirectly, then, Georgette Heyer’s novels have introduced some authors to what would become, for them, “the right trade.”

To this day Heyer’s attention to historical details sets a high standard for others to follow. Linda Fildew, Senior Editor of Mills & Boon Historical/Harlequin Historical romances, has stated that

Georgette Heyer is known and respected for her accuracy and in our historical line at Harlequin we certainly ask that authors do their research. The process is such an engrossing, enjoyable one that we know the challenge for some authors is what to put in and what fascinating facts to leave out.

Heyer herself left out some “fascinating facts” about the Regency period; as Aiken Hodge observed, “Her Regency world is a very carefully selected, highly artificial one” (87-88). Although Heyer worked hard to ensure her novels were historically accurate, her depiction of the Regency is coloured by her own beliefs. For example, as already mentioned, she did not wish her novels to be considered “salacious.” In addition, it seems highly unlikely that Heyer, who “consistently criticised the feminist stance, and could be vehement in her condemnation of women in business” (Kloester, Biography 134), would ever have considered creating heroines such as those to be found in Paula Marshall’s Dear Lady Disdain (1995) and Michelle Styles’s His Unsuitable Viscountess (2012), who respectively run a bank and a foundry. These two Harlequin Mills & Boon authors had, nonetheless, done their research. As Styles notes, there were

successful Regency businesswomen—women like Eleanor Coade, whose factory made the famous Coade Stone statues […] and Sarah Child Villiers, Lady Jersey, who inherited Child and Co from her grandfather […]. Lady Jersey served as the senior partner from 1806-1867. She never allowed the men in her life to take an active part in the bank, and retained the right to hire and fire all the other partners. […] In 1812 in England fourteen women [End Page 10] literally held licences to print money because they were senior partners in a variety of private banks. The two wealthiest bankers in London in the 1820s were the Peeresses—Lady Jersey and the Duchess of St Alban’s, who was the senior partner at Coutts. (2)

Heyer’s personal views certainly affected her depiction of class and racial differences. It might be said of her that “the mushroom-class” was one which she, like Lord Lindeth, “instinctively avoided” (The Nonesuch 64). In her biography of Heyer, Kloester states that “Georgette’s own view of herself was as someone who was well-bred and most comfortable in upper- and upper-middle-class circles” (133) and “Her notion of class and breeding underpins all of her writing […] she held to the idea of a natural social hierarchy” (132). This was certainly not a view exclusive to Heyer: Helen Hughes, in her study of “historical romances written between 1890 and 1990” (8), observes that one of the “themes which remain[ed] the same throughout the century […] is the portrayal of class. In the texts […] upper-class characters are seen as belonging to what amounts to a different species from lower-class ones” (136-37). In Heyer’s oeuvre the clearest example of this portrayal is perhaps to be found in These Old Shades (1926). Here the cross-dressing heroine’s “gentle birth,” which “One can tell […] from his speech, and his delicate hands and face” (12), is more readily discerned than her sex while the true parentage of the peasant-born boy who has taken her place is betrayed by the fact that he is “A boorish cub […] with the soul of a farmer” (51) who has it as his “ambition to have a farm under his own management” (37). The young man’s supposed paternal uncle does not suspect the deception, but he is nonetheless certain that the youth cannot be the product of pure aristocratic bloodlines: “there must be bad blood in Marie! My beautiful nephew did not get his boorishness from us. Well, I never thought that Marie was of the real nobility” (51). The effects of descent from “good […] yeoman-stock” (47) are noted in A Civil Contract (1961): Jenny Chawleigh tells Lady Nassington that “my mother was a farmer’s daughter” (115), is told in reply that “you have the look of it” (116), and her subsequent enjoyment of country living reveals that she “owed more to her mother’s ancestry than […] she herself had known” (241). The idea that particular personality traits could be ascribed to entire social groups also underpins Heyer’s depiction of “Mr Goldhanger, […] a literary caricature of an avaricious moneylender whose antecedents were undoubtedly Dickens’ Fagin and Shakespeare’s Shylock” (Kloester, Biography 368). Mr Goldhanger appears in The Grand Sophy, in which he is described as “a thin, swarthy individual, with long greasy curls, a semitic nose, and an ingratiating leer” (190) and “The instinct of his race made him prefer, whenever possible, to maintain a manner of the utmost urbanity” (191, emphasis added).

As with the Nonesuch’s gift of a “dissected map […] all made of little pieces which fit into each other, to make a map of Europe” (190), “The impression given of ‘history’ in these novels can be summed up as an imaginative creation, a selective version of the past” (Hughes 139). The nineteenth-century dissected map, “born in the same workshops as its more formal sibling, the imperial map” (Norcia 5), offered children “narratives of power and authority which are incumbent in the business of building both nation and empire” (2). Such maps were not simply neutral depictions of the world: they were “often strategically colored or marked to catalog the resources and opportunities for imperial inscription; titles reflect the moving horizon of imperial ambitions” (10). Heyer’s historical romances are also shaped by ideologies which ensure that, despite the historical accuracy of many of their [End Page 11] details, they will not be universally accepted as “quite unexceptionable.” Mrs Chartley cautioned Miss Trent that

Sir Waldo belongs to a certain set which is considered to be the very height of fashion. In fact, he is its leader […]. You must know, perhaps better than I do, that the manners and too often the conduct of those who are vulgarly called Top-of-the-Trees are not governed by quite the same principles which are the rule in more modest circles. (207)

Heyer is the Nonesuch of Regency romance: like Sir Waldo she led her “set,” conforming to such high standards of historical accuracy that she too can be considered a “paragon” (20). Nonetheless, neither Heyer nor Sir Waldo embodied “perfection” (20) and the manners and conduct endorsed by Heyer’s novels are not governed by quite the same principles as those which are the rule in many more modern circles.

[1] I am very grateful for the assistance I have received from: Linda Fildew at Harlequin Mills & Boon; Louise-Ann Hand, Information Librarian: Local and Family History Library, Leeds City Council, who was a fount of useful information about the streets and inns of early nineteenth-century Leeds; Greta Meredith, Assistant Librarian, Thoresby Society, who pointed me in the direction of useful primary and secondary sources about Leeds; and Harlequin Mills & Boon author Michelle Styles.

[2] Although Lillian S. Robinson qualified the description of Heyer as “Queen of the Regency romance” by adding that “later paperback editions make some such peculiar claim” (208), it is a claim which has persisted down the years: in 1983 Rosemary Guiley observed that “By the time she died […] Georgette had long reigned as the Queen of the Regency romance” (190) and the backcover copy of the Arrow (2006) edition of Jane Aiken Hodge’s biography of Heyer states that “An internationally bestselling phenomenon and queen of the Regency romance, Georgette Heyer is one of the most beloved historical novelists of our time.”

[3] A. S. Byatt and Rachel Law, Lady Ellenborough, have offered support for the last two of these assessments: the former described Heyer as a “superlatively good writer of honourable escape” (“Honourable” 258) while the latter declared that “Georgette Heyer […] was the only reading for a hospital bed” (Aiken Hodge 209).

[4] Jennifer Kloester has noted that Guy Mannering is “the story which so enthralled Mrs Underhill and her family in The Nonesuch” (Regency World 342). Although it is not explicitly named in Heyer’s novel, enough details are given by Mrs Underhill to enable reliable identification. She describes the book that “Miss Trent reads […] after dinner to us” as being “so lifelike that I couldn’t get to sleep last night for wondering whether that nasty Glossin would get poor Harry Bertram carried off by the smugglers again, or whether the old witch is going to save him—her and the tutor” (190).

[5] Regarding the term “romance,” Clive Bloom notes that “Before the First World War there was simply too little popular fiction to need categorising, almost all popular writing being designated with the vague title of ‘romance’, which had not itself become a term used exclusively for women’s fiction” (86). Heyer is known to have used the word to [End Page 12] describe her own work: in 1955, while writing Sprig Muslin, she mentioned her need to “turn out another bleeding romance” (Aiken Hodge 112).

[6] Deborah Lutz acknowledges her debt to Ros Ballaster who, in Seductive Forms: Women’s Amatory Fiction from 1684 to 1740, writes that “The early eighteenth century […] saw a split between female-authored pious and didactic love fiction, stressing the virtues of chastity or sentimental marriage, and erotic fiction by women, with its voyeuristic attention to the combined pleasures and ravages of seduction” (33).

[7] Jack Westruther is very much in the Mark I mould. Freddy himself is a Mark II hero, and Kitty has by this stage in the novel come to recognise their relative merits:

‘I was never in love with Jack in my life! […] I thought I was, but I know now it was no such thing. He seemed just like all the heroes in books, but I soon found that he is not like them at all.’

‘No,’ agreed Freddy. ‘I’m afraid I ain’t either, Kit.’

‘Of course you are not! No one is! And if somebody was, I should think him quite odious!’ (333)

[8] Kloester reports “an uncharacteristic error” (Biography 142) in Regency Buck:

In describing (in loving detail) the minaret-domed exterior and the magnificent Chinoiserie interior of the Pavilion, Georgette described a building which did not yet exist in that form. […]. While it remains the fiction writer’s prerogative to adapt history to suit the needs of a story, this had never been Georgette’s approach. Her mistake in Regency Buck came from her reading of the limited source material […]. Georgette made very few mistakes in her historical novels and the discovery of an error always caused her considerable distress. (142-43).

Another is noted by Aiken Hodge:

When Frederica began to come out in Woman’s Journal a reader pointed out a rare error. Researching Felix’s beloved engineering works at the London Library, Georgette Heyer had been misled by a reference to an iron foundry in Soho and placed it in London instead of Birmingham. (168)

A minor error of a slightly different nature can be found in The Nonesuch. The shopping party made up of Tiffany, Patience and Ancilla “alighted from the carriage at the King’s Arms” (Heyer 131), and they return there to eat “cold meats, fruit, jellies and creams” in a “private parlour” (132) hired by Lord Lindeth. Later in the novel, however, the King’s Arms seems to have metamorphosed into a rather different area of the royal body, for Tiffany coerces Laurence into taking her to “the King’s Head” (248) and they are “ushered into the same parlour which Lindeth had hired for his memorable nuncheon-party” (249). Both the King’s Arms and the King’s Head are listed in early nineteenth-century sources. According to Baines’s 1817 Directory, the King’s Head was to be found in Kirkgate (195). The King’s Arms is one of the Leeds inns (Cooke 33, 40) included in “An Itinerary of all the Direct and Principal Cross Roads in the West Riding of Yorkshire in which are Included the Stages, [End Page 13] Inns, and Gentlemen’s Seats” (Cooke 17). It is also included in Baines’s Directory, in the list of “Inns, Taverns, &c. in the Borough of Leeds” (194) which mentions that it is to be found on “Lower head row” (195) and had as its proprietor an H. Dawson (195). Since “Lower Headrow (today known just as the Headrow) […] was located at the northern/top part of Briggate” (Hand) and “Briggate […] has historically been, and indeed still is, the main shopping street in Leeds” (Hand), the shopping party could easily have left the King’s Arms, walked along “Lower head row” until they reached Briggate, and then “set forth on foot down the main shopping street” (Heyer Nonesuch 131).

[9] Ryley begins his survey of Leeds’s public buildings by describing its “five Churches of the established religion” (20), and “From the description of the edifices approprited to the exercise of religious worship, the transition is natural to those devoted to its best fruit—Charity” (43), including the Infirmary, House of Recovery and Charity School. He also describes the White Cloth Hall (57), the Mixed Cloth Hall with its “six long streets or aisles” (57), the Moot Hall (63), the Exchange, which he deems “a beautiful building, on an octagan [sic] form” (57), the cloth factories (103-04), cotton mills (104), foundries (104-05), squares and parades (67-68). Baines’s Directory, in addition to containing descriptions of the White Cloth Hall (29), the Mixed Cloth-Hall (28), “The Exchange, […] an octagon building, adjoining this Cloth Hall” (28), the churches (24-25), the Moot-Hall (23), the General Infirmary (31), the House of Recovery “intended for the reception of persons attacked by infectious fevers” (31) and the Charity School (35-36), provides a long list of “Inns, Taverns, &c. in the Borough of Leeds” (194). Bigland describes the Mixed Cloth Hall’s “six covered streets” (785), mentions that there are “carpet manufactories,” “cotton mills” and “founderies” (787) and observes that Leeds is “in general well built, almost entirely of brick” (775), although “the western part displays the greatest degree of elegance. In this quarter is a spacious square environed with handsome brick houses […]. Park Square is also composed of elegant modern houses” (777). Bigland also notes that at the Charity School “70 boys are taught reading, writing, and arithmetic, and 50 girls reading, writing, and knitting” (784). Ryley does not give the precise number of children at the school (51-52). Baines’s Directory, published in 1817, a year after Sir Waldo’s fictional visit to the town, relates that the Charity School had “been lately rebuilt, in the Gothic style, and is intended in future solely for the reception of girls. The boys have been removed to the National School” (36). No publication date is given for G. A. Cooke’s Topography of Great Britain but the archive which makes it available online dates it to 1820 and in the text itself Cooke comments that in Leeds “New buildings even in the latter end of the summer of 1819, were erecting, and excited the appearance of a town in a thriving state” (186). This would appear to suggest that Cooke visited Leeds during the summer of 1819. His statement that “The charity school instructs seventy boys and fifty girls in reading and knitting” (183) agrees with Bigland’s 1812 work rather than with the 1817 Directory. His comments regarding the Charity School cannot be regarded as entirely reliable, however, since his description of Leeds often appears to repeat Bigland verbatim. For example, Bigland states that Leeds is “one of the most commercial and opulent towns in Yorkshire” (775) and Cooke uses precisely the same words (179).

[10] Ryley states in his Guide that “Within the last thirty years the town has increased to more than double its number of inhabitants, and it is annually augmenting in its dimensions” (19). According to Cooke, “In 1811 the population of Leeds was 62,534 persons, an increase of nearly ten thousand since the census of 1801” (185). Cooke would [End Page 14] appear to be giving the total for “the town and parish of Leeds” (Bigland 789), not just the town of Leeds itself. Ryley sets the total population of the town in 1801 at 30,669 (118), a figure accepted by Steven Burt and Kevin Grady in their modern history of Leeds: “Its population of 17,117 in 1775 had mushroomed to 30,669 by 1801. By 1811 another 5,000 had been added, and in 1821 the total had reached 48,603” (95). Bigland includes the figures quoted by Cooke and those given by Ryley (789).

[11] This is another passage which Cooke includes almost verbatim in his work (179-80).

[12] Regarding those who are alleged to have plagiarised Heyer’s novels, Aiken Hodge mentions that “In the spring of 1950, a letter from a fan drew her [Heyer’s] attention to a series of books by a successful romantic novelist […]. When Georgette Heyer read the books in question, she found so obvious a debt to her own work that she seriously considered filing a suit for plagiarism” (80). Kloester identifies the author in question as Barbara Cartland (Biography 281). In the early sixties Heyer’s attention was drawn to another suspected case of plagiarism, this time involving Kathleen Lindsay (Kloester, Biography 335) and she wrote that “It makes me feel quite sick to know that another slug is crawling over my work” (Aiken Hodge 139). [End Page 15]

Works Cited

Aiken Hodge, Jane. The Private World of Georgette Heyer. 1984. London: Arrow, 2006.

Baines, Edward. Directory, General and Commercial, of the Town & Borough of Leeds, for 1817, containing an alphabetical list of the merchants, manufacturers, tradesmen, and inhabitants in general … to which is prefixed, a brief but comprehensive history of the borough, containing a variety of useful and interesting information; with a map of the country ten miles round Leeds. Leeds: Edward Baines, 1817.

Ballaster, Ros. Seductive Forms: Women’s Amatory Fiction from 1684 to 1740. 1992. Oxford: Clarendon, 1998.

Balogh, Mary. “Do It Passionately or Not at All.” North American Romance Writers. Ed. Kay Mussell and Johanna Tuñón. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 1999. 24-28.

Bigland, John. The Beauties of England and Wales: or, Original Delineations, Topographical, Historical, and Descriptive, of Each County. Vol. XVI. Yorkshire. London: J. Harris; Longman and Co.; J. Walker; R Baldwin; Sherwood and Co.; J. and J. Cundee; B. and R. Crosby and Co.; J. Cuthell; J. and J. Richardson; Cadell and Davies; C. and J. Rivington; and G. Cowie and Co., 1812. and

Bloom, Clive. Bestsellers: Popular Fiction Since 1900. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

Burt, Steven, and Kevin Grady. The Illustrated History of Leeds. 1994. Derby: Breedon Books, 2002.

Byatt, A. S. “An Honourable Escape: Georgette Heyer.” Passions of the Mind: Selected Writings. London: Chatto & Windus, 1991. 258-65.

—. “The Ferocious Reticence of Georgette Heyer.” Sunday Times Magazine 5 Oct. 1975: 28-38. Rpt. In Georgette Heyer: A Critical Retrospective. Ed. Mary Fahnestock-Thomas. Saraland, AL: PrinnyWorld, 2001. 289-303.

Cooke, G. A. Topography of Great Britain, or, British Traveller’s Pocket Directory; Being an Accurate and Comprehensive Topographical and Statistical Description of All the Counties of England, Scotland, and Wales, with the Adjacent Islands: Illustrated with Maps of the Counties, which Form a Complete British Atlas. Vol. XXI. containing Yorkshire. London: Sherwood, Neely, and Jones. No date.

Feltham, John. A Guide to all the Watering and Sea-Bathing Places, with a Description of the Lakes, a Sketch of a Tour in Wales, and various Itineraries, Illustrated with Maps and Views. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1815.

Fildew, Linda. “Heyer’s Influence.” Email to the author. 7 Aug. 2012.

Guiley, Rosemary. Love Lines: The Romance Reader’s Guide to Printed Pleasures. New York: Facts on File, 1983.

Hand, Louise-Ann. “Re: Briggate.” Email to the author. 13 Oct. 2009.

Heyer, Georgette. 1961. A Civil Contract. London: Pan, 1973.

—. 1953. Cotillion. London: Pan, 1966.

—. 1972. Lady of Quality. London: Pan, 1973. [End Page 16]

—. 1950. The Grand Sophy. London: Arrow, 2004.

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“Historicizing The Sheik: Comparisons of the British Novel and the American Film,” by Hsu-Ming Teo

In 1919 a romance novel by a little-known Derbyshire woman was published, featuring the story of an aristocratic but tomboyish English virgin who, in her travels through French colonial Algeria, is kidnapped by an Arab sheik and raped many times. She eventually falls in love with this “brute” of an Oriental “native” (whom her brother would have equated with a “nigger”) but then discovers—much to her surprise—that her beloved Arab rapist sheik is in fact the half-English, half-Spanish son of a peer of the British realm. As for the sheik himself, the violent and priapic Ahmed Ben Hassan is reduced to repentance and redeemed by his love for Lady Diana Mayo. He reverts to “civilized” standards of patriarchal European gender norms, presumably forsaking rape and promiscuity (though not necessarily his penchant for strangling evil Arab opponents when he deems this justified). The two live happily ever after in the desert, leaving the reader with the final specter of an aristocratic English couple “gone native,”  it is true, but reigning imperialistically over the unruly Bedouin tribes of the Sahara in an area which was nominally under French colonial control. Edith Maud Hull’s The Sheik thus concluded with a reassertion of reactionary patriarchal gender relations as well as the fantasy of proxy British rule extended over French-colonized “natives”—a subtle display of one-upmanship in British imperial rivalry with the French.

2009 marked the ninetieth anniversary of the publication of The Sheik. As is well-known, the publication of the novel and the release of the film starring Rudolph Valentino in the eponymous role unleashed “sheik fever” in the western world. In the U.S.A., the book went through fifty printings alone in 1921, and it was the first novel to appear on the bestseller list for two consecutive years (Leider 153). It was continually reissued in paperback throughout the 1920s to 1960s, while it sold 1,194,000 copies in hardback by 1965 (Blake 67). The New York Telegraph estimated that over 125,000 people had seen The Sheik within weeks of the film’s opening in 1921. It screened for six months in Sydney, Australia, and ran for a record forty-two weeks in France (Leider 167-8). The word “sheik,” originally a term of respect referring to a Muslim religious leader or an elder of a community or family, suddenly took on new connotations of irresistible, ruthless, masterful, and over-sexualized masculinity in the West—before ending up as a brand of condoms in America by 1931 (Edwards 50). The novel made a dramatic impact on the literary genre of Eastern love stories in Britain, reviving the popularity of the early twentieth century “desert romance” pioneered by novelists such as Robert Hichens and Kathlyn Rhodes, and spawning a series of forgettable imitations in other novels and short stories in women’s magazines. In the United States, the Tin Pan Alley hit “The Sheik of Araby” was composed in response to the film and rapidly became a jazz standard before being reworked by the Beatles in 1962. Hull’s sequel, The Sons of the Sheik (1925), and Valentino’s reprisal of his sheik role in the film version of 1926, brought the craze for all things romantically “Oriental” to its zenith in fashion and film.[1]

Sheik fever died down by the 1930s, but its impact on western popular culture was already indelible, particularly as fodder for spoofs and satires. It did not take long for the first mockery to appear. The Shriek of Araby (1923) lampooned the abduction scene in The Sheik where Valentino rides across the desert sands and snatches Agnes Ayres from her horse, throwing her over his saddle and snarling, “Lie still, you fool.” In The Shriek of Araby, a hapless young theater employee daydreaming about The Sheik attempts a comically bungled abduction of a young lady from the back of a mule.

Dick Dorgan, “Giving ‘The Sheik’ the Once Over from the Ringside”, Photoplay Magazine 21 (April 1922):90.

Dick Dorgan, “Giving ‘The Sheik’ the Once Over from the Ringside”, Photoplay Magazine 21 (April 1922):90.

The horseback abduction scene was a rich source of mockery, especially for American cartoonists and illustrators such as Dick Dorgan, who wrote a satirical review of The Sheik for the film magazine Photoplay, accompanied by the above illustration. It sometimes seemed that in some quarters, merely to insert the word “sheik” incongruously into the title was productive of mirth, as was the case with Ukulele Sheiks (1926). The spoofs or sly references to The Sheik continued long after desert romance as a literary subgenre had petered out. In the midst of the Second World War, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Dorothy Lamour and Anthony Quinn were featured in The Road to Morocco (1942)—a film which satirized the fantasy of westerners being kidnapped and incarcerated in harems by featuring American men as the abductees, imprisoned in the Moroccan princess’s harem. Throughout the mid-twentieth century, a number of Bugs Bunny cartoons made ridiculous references to abductions, harems, and even had the “wascally wabbit” dressed as a belly-dancer in one episode. References to The Sheik repeatedly cropped up in numerous comics and television shows as well (Michalak 7, 13-14). In 1984, John Derek’s film Bolero featured his wife Bo Derek playing a young, 1920s American flapper enamored with Valentino as Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan. The film begins with Bo Derek gazing up longingly at a poster of The Sheik. She travels to the Middle East, determined to lose her virginity to a sheik, but her plan goes awry when the sheik who has agreed to deflower her falls asleep instead.

Satires and spoofs, however, were not the only legacy of The Sheik throughout the twentieth century. Although the subgenre of the British-authored “sheik novel” had run out of steam by the late 1930s, the 1970s saw its revival, particularly in the form of the newly emerging erotic historical romance novel, produced primarily in the United States by authors such as Johanna Lindsey (1977) and Bertrice Small (1978). These historical romance novels found their counterparts in films and television shows of the 1980s such as the British television mini-series Harem (1986) or the Brooke Shields film Sahara (1983). By the last quarter of the twentieth century, the modern-day “sheik novel” was being produced by authors from various parts of the British Commonwealth and the United States. Australian and Canadian romance writers joined the British in producing contemporary Orientalist romance novels by the mid-1980s, but the subgenre became Americanized after the First Gulf War in 1991, growing steadily in terms of the output of American-authored publications and sales. The Al-Qaeda attacks on September 11, 2001 saw no diminution in the popularity of these novels about love stories between white women and Arab or Muslim men. On the contrary, 2002 saw the peak of publications so far, with at least twenty-two different contemporary sheik romances published that year, and four historical harem romances. In 2005, an estimated fifty-one million Orientalist romance novels were consumed by readers, prompting ironic comment in some newspapers and Time magazine, while the years since have seen no abatement in the popularity of this subgenre. Indeed, several websites have been set up that are purely devoted to Orientalist romance novels. E.M. Hull’s The Sheik has thus had a remarkably far-reaching impact on western popular culture over the last century; an influence that persists to this day.

Since the 1970s, feminist, postcolonial, literary, and film scholars have paid intermittent attention to Hull’s novel. Anderson’s The Purple Heart Throbs (1974) was among the first to describe the rough lineaments of the desert romance novel epitomized by The Sheik, while subsequent scholars such as Melman, Ardis, Chow, Blake, and Gargano proceeded to analyze different thematic issues woven throughout the book, often reading it against other types of contemporary texts and cultural phenomena such as the New Woman novels, sex manuals, divorce laws, and the 1920s fascination with T.E. “Lawrence of Arabia.” Still others such as Hansen, Raub, Shohat, Caton, Eisele, Studlar and Leider devoted attention to the novel’s translation onto the silver screen, exploring the meaning of Valentino’s masculinity and his sexual and ethnic status, as well as analyzing the manifestation of a particular American-Orientalist discourse in the film. Such readings of The Sheik have insightfully emphasized its sexual and imperial politics, while sketching the historical context for its reception. Apart from Caton’s essay, however, none of the previous studies compares the novel and the film at length, and none takes into account the differences between British and American societies that underlie both the production and reception of these texts. It is important to tease out these differences because the silent film version arguably eclipsed the novel in influence and made the story famous world-wide, not just in English-speaking countries, yet the novel and the film differ in significant ways. This essay considers The Sheik as both a novel and a film, comparing their similarities and differences of plot and meaning through the particular historical contexts of their production and reception. It begins with a brief discussion of existing scholars’ work on the novel and the various historical contexts that they have mapped out before proceeding to look at how World War I shaped the production of E.M. Hull’s novel, and how the British context of a white imperial culture and its fear of miscegenation with colonized “natives” influenced both the production and reception of the novel.

To argue for a direct causal relationship between a text and its historical context is never easy at the best of times, and near impossible where extant documentary evidence is so scarce. Hull’s papers tell us little about what influenced her to write The Sheik, while definitive information about specific readers’ responses to the novel is non-existent because of the lack of reader surveys carried out. However, given the prevailing cultural concerns of the First World War and the 1920s, it is possible to infer the contemporary roots of Hull’s preoccupations in the novel, as well as readers’ likely responses. The same applies to the American reception of Jesse Lasky’s film production of The Sheik, even though more documentary evidence about the film’s production process and its reception exists in this case, and some comprehensive biographies have been written about Valentino that discuss his role in the film. With these limitations in mind, this essay argues that beyond the obvious differences arising from the changes to the plot or from technological considerations of the media of literature versus film, the differences between the novel and the movie arise from Britain’s experience of sexuality, violence, and the First World War; understandings of whiteness and imperialism in both Britain and the United States; the different historical experiences of gender, race, and ethnicity in the two countries—linked to the colonial context in Britain, but to anxieties about immigration, assimilation, and citizenship in the United States; and finally, the different traditions of popular Orientalist discourse in the two countries—anchored to a “realist” mode of representing the geopolitical situation of actual colonies in the case of Britain, and arising from fairground and merchandising fantasies of “Arabian Nights” Orientalism in the case of the U.S.

Feminist responses to the novel

The Sheik elicited a polarized and visceral reaction upon publication in 1919. Billie Melman (90) has claimed that its sales surpassed all other bestsellers at the time; yet while it achieved instant cult status among its mainly female readers, contemporary literary critics and the self-appointed guardians of social morality were appalled, dismissing it as “a typist’s daydream” and condemning it for its overt portrayal of sadomasochistic sexuality—a response that has been repeated by feminists throughout most of the twentieth century (Melman 90). However, the last two decades have seen a growing body of scholarship on The Sheik which have revised earlier hostile opinions, and which have grown increasingly sophisticated in analyzing issues of gender, power, race, and imperialism in the novel.

The earliest responses by feminist scholars to The Sheik echoed its contemporary reviews which condemned it as a “poisonously salacious” novel, in the words of the Literary Review of 1921 (Blake 69). Objections were not made on the grounds of its portrayal of Arabs and the Orient so much as on the grounds of its portrayal of sex and the treatment of white women. In one of the first book-length surveys of the genre of romance fiction, Rachel Anderson declared that:

The Sheik is the most immoral of any of the romances, not because of lewd descriptions of sexual intercourse […] but because of the distorting view Miss Hull presents of the kind of relationship which leads to perfect love, and the totally unprincipled precept that the reward of rapists is a lovely English heiress with a look of misty yearning in her eyes (188-189).

Melman described The Sheik as “a prudishly told tale of masculine dominance and complementary feminine masochism and passivity” (102), while Mary Cadogan argued that the novel was “not only […] an anti-feminist tract in which rapist behaviour is rewarded but a justification of racism” (131).

From the late 1980s onwards, however, scholars began reading the novel within its historical context, paying closer attention to issues of gender and sexuality. Melman’s comprehensive chapter on the “desert romance” in Women and the Popular Imagination in the Twenties was among the first to pay sustained scholarly attention to the novel and, along with Michael Diamond’s detailed discussion in “Lesser Breeds”: Racial Attitudes in Popular British Culture, 1890-1940 (2006), it is still one of the most useful delineations of this subgenre. Melman pointed out that in addition to the “rape-cum-redemption” story, what caused the greatest outrage in the 1920s was not so much the “prurience” or “obscenity” of The Sheik and similar “sex novels,” but the fact that they were for women. These novels were regarded as “pornographic literature, manufactured by female writers for the consumption of a sex-starved mass female audience,” whose work experiences in the First World War and its aftermath had seen an increase in spending-power and leisure opportunities (Melman 92-93, 104). Underlying the outrage was a deep anxiety that traditional gender, sexual, and social mores were being subverted. The happy ending of the novel—such as it is—ultimately championed the idea that “the modern sexually emancipated woman can pursue pleasure without being punished for her presumption”; for unlike traditional novels, Diana does not die and is not destroyed by her rape or her subsequent enjoyment of sex (Melman 93, 102-3). In Melman’s eyes, despite whatever other crimes The Sheik might have been guilty of, it placed discussion of women’s sexual desires and sexual autonomy at the center of popular culture, thus contributing to a modern understanding and conversation about sex in the 1920s.

The exact historical period when women’s sexual desires were legitimated has been a subject of some debate. For Ann Ardis, The Sheik did not so much herald the radical legitimization of female sexual desire in the 1920s as perpetuate an “advanced” view of sexuality that dated back to the New Woman novels of the 1890s (287-296). Ardis focused particularly on the androgynous figure of Diana Mayo. Whereas Melman interpreted Diana as an interwar flapper, Ardis argued that Diana was actually a New Woman and, like so many other New Women in novels of the 1890s, she initially rejects heterosexuality, marriage, and domesticity. The periodization of the novel has received little attention apart from Ardis’s work. As it turns out, however, Melman’s and Ardis’s views are both plausible. Ardis has reason to date the work as an early-twentieth century novel, but this is only made clear in Hull’s sequel, The Sons of the Sheik, where references are made to German espionage in French North Africa and the implications for the coming Great War. In the film of The Sheik, however, the setting, clothing, and hairstyles date it as a contemporary 1920s story. Both authors nevertheless agree on the importance of The Sheik in legitimizing female desire in the 1920s as well as

legitimizing the female adventure plot […] for the operant fantasy here is not just about having an erotically satisfying relationship with an early twentieth-century version of a New Age sensitive and virile man; it is about galloping with him across the desert or hunting wild apes with him in the Sub-Saharan jungles. In the context of post-war efforts to redomesticate women, Hull’s romances insist upon women’s continued access to the public sphere, albeit in an extremely privileged way (Ardis 294).

Feminist critics in the 1990s thus began to move away from reading The Sheik as a reactionary narrative of sadistic patriarchal lust visited upon a masochistic, victimized woman suffering Stockholm Syndrome. Instead, they looked at the radical and potentially liberating aspects of sexual representations and attempted to descry Diana’s empowerment. Although Patricia Raub acknowledged that “in some respects, The Sheik can be read as an object lesson to young women who attempt to be too independent and self-reliant,” she agreed that “Hull was the first to celebrate sex from the perspective of the female partner” and she went on to argue that the novel demonstrates Diana’s access to power (120 and 122). Drawing on Jan Cohn’s Marxist-feminist thesis in Romance and the Erotics of Property (1988), Raub argued that Diana achieves wealth, status, and power over the sheik’s tribesmen via her relationship with Ahmed, while the sheik’s exercise of power over Diana is overturned by the novel’s end: “Almost against his will, the hero is himself captured by the heroine; he acknowledges his love for her. The heroine has been able to ‘remake male sexuality, to subordinate it […] to love’” (Raub 126).

Such an argument is not without its problems. As Karen Chow has noted, although the sheik repents of his earlier autocratic treatment of Diana, he is equally dictatorial and disregarding of her wishes when he decides to send her away in order to make amends. Her attempts to seduce him fail, and it is only when she takes the drastic step of trying to shoot herself that he relents and gives way to her desire to stay with him. Diana may be empowered by forcing Ahmed to love her tenderly, against his will and prejudices, but this is a limited transformation. As he himself admits, and as his actions and the few instances of her fear of him in The Sons of the Sheik demonstrate, he cannot change what he is; indeed, he warns her that “you will have a devil for a husband” (296). For Chow, however, the novel fulfilled its function of empowering women readers and filmgoers, if not Diana herself. Chow argued that “ultimately, it is not Diana the character but the woman reader, writer, and filmgoer in the material world who is liberated by reading these steamy passages and creating a sex symbol in the figure of Rudolph Valentino” (73).

Although these scholars recognized the imperialistic background to The Sheik and mentioned Hull’s seemingly radical transgression of racial boundaries in the sheik’s rape of Diana and her love for an Arab, little was made of these aspects of the novel beyond passing comment. As Melman read it, the revelation of Ahmed’s “real” identity as a European, followed by Diana’s insistence that she cannot think of him as other than an Arab, are “gratuitous” since they occur so late in the novel (102). The work of Susan Blake and Elizabeth Gargano over the last few years, however, has focused more attention on the racial and imperial themes of the novel through postcolonial readings of the plot. Gargano argued that “The Sheik enacts an apparently transgressive erotic daydream, which first questions and then ultimately reaffirms the Englishman’s capacity for domination” (175). For her, the novel explores the crisis of masculinity that beset British culture in the wake of the First World War. Significantly, none of the European or American men are able to woo Diana successfully because they “embody a demoralized post-war passivity” in the face of the masculinized modern woman (176). The hypermasculine, violent, primitive, sexually potent sheik succeeds where “civilized” but emasculated modern western men have failed. But the sheik is of course a European, and Gargano compares his disguise with that of the famous “white sheik” of the war years and its aftermath: Colonel T.E. Lawrence. Both Englishmen are presented as “‘better’ Arabs than the Arabs,” and this serves to underline the fact that “an Englishman, raised under the same conditions of unimpeded freedom, absolute power over his subordinates, and constant physical activity, is still superior,” thus reaffirming Britain’s imperial mission and providing a suggested cure to enervated postwar British masculinity (Gargano 182).

Where Gargano argued that The Sheik was indeed an example of Orientalist colonial discourse perpetuating racial stereotypes, Susan Blake allowed for more heteroglossic and contrapuntal interpretations. Blake’s innovative and sophisticated reading of The Sheik against contemporary issues of race and divorce led her to conclude that the novel presents two competing stories about imperialism, gender, race, and miscegenation—told respectively by Raoul de Saint Hubert (the French novelist who is the sheik’s best friend) and Diana. What readers conclude about these issues at the novel’s end ultimately depends on whose voice they choose to listen to (Blake 75). For Blake, the central puzzle to be solved in the text is how:

[I]n a culture that divided humanity into biologically fixed and hierarchically ranged races, The Sheik creates a character who “is” both Arab and English. In a culture terrified of miscegenation, it permits an English lady not only to fall in love with a man she believes to be Arab, but to continue to think of him as Arab after his “real” identity is revealed and to settle into implied marriage with him in an Arab environment. As a popular novel, The Sheik necessarily supports the prevailing ideology of its time, but the nonconforming facts raise the question of what else it is doing (70).

Blake contended that in Saint Hubert’s story—a story by no means without its own internal contradictions—the understanding of race is biological. Saint Hubert tells the tale of the sheik’s European parentage that permits Diana to love and remain with Ahmed without the taint of miscegenation. This story thus supports conventional ideas about class, gender, imperialism, and race,  because at its close an aristocratic British couple, both performing traditional gender roles, rule over a tribe of Arab “natives”. In Diana’s story, however, the sheik remains an Arab and she loves him for being an Arab. Blake suggested that Diana’s understanding of race is cultural rather than biological, which is why she is able to continue regarding Ahmed as Arab (75-78). Diana needs Ahmed to be Arab rather than English because in this novel, violence is twice associated with the English: first with the sheik’s father, the Earl of Glencaryll, whose abuse led his wife to flee their marriage; and then with the sheik himself, who wreaks vengeance on the English because of his father’s domestic violence. Diana’s story thus subverts two interconnected and strongly-held imperial and patriarchal tenets about race, gender, and sexuality at that time: namely, “that sexual threat comes from the Other and protection from the English,” particularly within the shelter of the family and the domestic sphere (Blake 79). The novel, Blake argued, is “double-voiced” in every way, hinging on the “race” and subsequent identity of the sheik. “Raoul’s identification of the Sheik yields to the pressure of imperialist discourse to identify any Other as inferior […] Diana’s insistence that the man she loves is ‘Arab’—Other and equal, if not superior—resists that pressure and thus functions as a counter discourse” (Blake 78). However, I would argue that Orientalist discourse and the very text of The Sheik itself pose limits to the effectiveness of this counter discourse. Being Arab does not save Diana from domestic violence, for the novel confirms in one incident after another that Arabs are a brutal, cruel people who show a “callous indifference to suffering” (Hull 137).

Nevertheless, this body of insightful scholarship has illuminated The Sheik in many ways and explained both its popularity as well as its widespread appeal. It is particularly important to recognize that readers—both then and now—do not simply respond to a straightforward, univocal, monolithic story whose meaning is predetermined and closed-off to varying interpretations. Different or changing ideas about acceptable gender behavior, sexual curiosity and titillation, fantasies and fears about race and miscegenation, and differing attitudes towards imperialism, can all be accommodated within this text—albeit some more easily than others. Thus far, however, this body of scholarship has focused principally on the reception and cultural impact of the novel in the 1920s. Little consideration has been given to its actual moment of composition. Moreover, there has also been a conflation of British and American attitudes towards The Sheik, and towards imperialism, race, and miscegenation. In what follows, I want to explore more carefully the specific imperial, national and racial histories of Britain and the United States in the first quarter of the twentieth century, and then to compare the British novels with the American films in order to tease out variations in the plots and characters that created different meanings in the British novels and the American films of The Sheik and The Sons of the Sheik.

E.M. Hull’s The Sheik and World War I

Edith Maude Henderson was born in 1880, the daughter of a New York shipowner and his Canadian wife. As a child she traveled widely with her parents, even visiting Algeria—the setting of her sheik novels. In 1899 she married Percy Winstanley Hull in London, and the couple moved to Derbyshire in the early 1900s where Percy Hull became an agriculturalist. After the publication of The Sheik, the press would run descriptions of Hull as “the shy wife of a Derbyshire pig farmer,” because the image seemed so incongruous with the shocking sex and exotic setting of the novel. Percy Hull did indeed breed prize-winning pigs, among his other agricultural pursuits, but he had begun his professional life as a civil engineer. During the First World War he served in the armed forces. It was this absence that prompted Edith Hull to begin her literary career. She began writing The Sheik “not with any idea of it being published, but rather as a means of distraction at a time when I felt very much alone” (Hull papers). The particular circumstances of the novel’s composition—probably in the later years of the war since it was published in London in 1919—are significant in shedding light on certain features of the novel: namely, its focus on sex, violence, and the Middle East.

Many scholars have pointed to The Sheik’s literary heritage of abduction and rape motifs from Richardson’s Clarissa, to Gothic novels and Victorian melodramas. The “Indian Mutiny” of 1857 had also given rise to a spate of rape novels within the British colonial context, as Jenny Sharpe and Nancy Paxton have shown. As Sharpe argued, however, “rape is not a consistent and stable signifier” in either British colonial or metropolitan discourse, “but one that surfaces at strategic moments” of cultural or political tensions (3). In the case of Anglo-Indian writing, as Paxton noted, the rise and circulation of “rape scripts” after 1857 served to consolidate British explanations and justifications for increasing imperial control in the colonies, especially India, as well as to attempt a remasculinization of British domestic politics at a time of increasing female independence (112). Novels featuring violence against women—especially middle- or upper-class women—were few and far between in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The New Woman novels and other sensationalist pre-war “sex novels” such as Elinor Glyn’s Three Weeks (1907) were more concerned with establishing women’s sexual desires and sexual identities, or debating the merits of sex outside marriage when ennobled by love—“the one motive which makes a union moral in ethics,” as Glyn explained in the introduction to the American version of her novel. Glyn’s Slavic “Lady” in Three Weeks certainly articulated the idea of sadomasochistic sexual love found in The Sheik, telling her young lover Paul Verdayne:

[A] man can always keep a woman loving him if he kiss her enough, and make her feel that there is no use struggling because he is too strong to resist. A woman will stand almost anything from a passionate lover. He may beat her and pain her soft flesh; he may shut her up and deprive her of all other friends—while the motive is raging love and interest in herself on his part, it only makes her love him the more […]

However, the lovers in Three Weeks did not actually enact such a scenario, because what the Lady loved about Paul was—in Glyn’s own explanation of the novel—his “straight and true” manhood, while their love influenced him toward “vast aims and noble desires for future greatness” (Glyn “Introduction”).

It was during the First World War that sex, violence, and rape came to the forefront of British culture and consciousness in a most dramatic way. A number of wartime developments was responsible for this: the onset of “khaki fever” among young women at the start of the war; tales of German atrocities in occupied Belgium and France that were used by the British government for propaganda purposes; and the return of war-traumatized veterans which was not only attended by mental illnesses and physical disability, but also by an increase in public and domestic violence.

The first of these occurrences problematized young women’s overt display of sexual desire in British society. As Angela Woollacott has shown, the outbreak of war in Britain was accompanied by an “epidemic of khaki fever” whereby, according to the press, adolescent girls and young working women flocked to military camps, sexually propositioning and harassing soldiers in towns and cities (325). In the nineteenth century, the open display of sexual desire or sexual behavior was associated with prostitutes. When the “amateurs” or “free-lance” girls succumbed to khaki fever in 1914, they were perceived to be sexually aggressive and shameless in their pursuit of soldiers, just like prostitutes. Even more shamefully than prostitutes, however, the “amateurs” did not do it out of a need to make a living. Furthermore, they displayed an independence of mind and spirit that was much deplored. As such, they “threatened a subversion of the gender as well as the moral order” (Woollacott 326). In response to this, the middle-class Women Patrols Committee and the Women Police Service were established to patrol gender and sexual behavior in public spheres. Middle-class women patrolling the streets took it upon themselves to censure and separate “couples thought to be embracing too closely, following those they suspected might be about to embark on unsavory courses of behavior, and warning youngsters of the dangers of overly casual behavior” (Levine 45). Khaki fever died down by mid-1915 when women were co-opted into war work and other forms of patriotic contribution to the war effort, but concern over women’s sexual behavior and the spread of venereal diseases meant that middle-class women continued to police working women’s sexuality in public places throughout the war (Woollacott 331).

If khaki fever brought to public consciousness an uneasy awareness of young women’s dangerous sexual desire and autonomy, then tales of German atrocities trickling back from the continent introduced rape and sexual violence into public discourse. The German invasion of neutral Belgium on August 4, 1918 had been Britain’s ostensible casus belli to declare war on the Central Powers. In making the case for war to the British public, complex legal arguments about obligations incurred by Britain under the 1839 Treaty of London were soon replaced by simpler, sensationalist accounts in newspapers, war pamphlets, and posters of German atrocities—particularly the rape, abuse, and torture of women and children. The raped Belgian woman came to symbolize the violated borders of Belgium itself in many propaganda posters. Artwork in these posters graphically portrayed the “innocent, virtuous Belgian or Frenchwoman violated. Belgium became a frail and ravished jeune fille, weeping and broken on the floor as the uhlan, the helmeted German cavalryman, leaves the bedroom” (Harris 180).

A. Truchel, Les Monstres, “He might at least have courted her...” poster. Source: Harris (1993), 171.

A. Truchel, Les Monstres, “He might at least have courted her…” poster. Source: Harris (1993), 171.

Other artists depicted a female Belgium stripped, bound, and raped. These images acquired more force as stories of rape and violence were amassed in Lord Bryce’s official Report of the Committee on Alleged German Outrages, and they were widely repeated and believed at the time (Gullace 714, and Ward 29). By 1916, the British were compiling documents about the abduction of women and children for forced labor—including sexual labor—in The Deportation of Women and Girls from Lille. The bishop of Lille appealed emotively to a British and American audience, telling them that “promiscuity […] inevitably accompanies removals en masse, involving mixture of the sexes, or, at all events, of persons of very unequal standing. Young girls of irreproachable life […] have been carried off” (Gullace 742).

Even as stories of German sexual atrocities circulated in Britain, the “rape of Belgium” was also used as propaganda to try to persuade the United States to enter the war. When it did in 1917, at least two US war posters (below) referred to the raped Belgian woman, demonstrating just how widely this image had spread in popular culture.

American World War I Liberty Bonds poster

American World War I Liberty Bonds poster

American World War I recruitment poster

American World War I recruitment poster

In all these accounts, violence towards women and children was depicted as typifying the behavior of the German “Other.” The behavior of English soldiers, by contrast, was supposedly characterized by “honour, decency, rightness, and fair play” (Harris 29). This notion of honorable English or British masculinity and the chivalric treatment of women and children became more problematic in the later years of the war and its aftermath because of increases in domestic violence in all belligerent nations (Thébaud 68).

As is well known, the Great War had a traumatic effect on a whole generation of young men. Literature on the war and demobilized soldiers have usually portrayed these men as either shattered, shell-shocked neurasthenics or angry young men nursing bitter grudges against those who sent them to war (Adams 1990 and Fussell 1975). Demobilization was always going to be a difficult experience for men. If soldiers were discharged during the war, it was probably because of physical or psychological injuries. After the war, men had to face the problems of “finding a job, resuming family life, and curbing aggression” that they had been encouraged to develop and display during the war (Nye 430). The effects of the war on men’s lives were visible not only through the large number of amputees in public spaces after the war, but also in the behavior of demobilized soldiers. Men suffering from “shell shock” displayed their trauma through a “shivering, shuddering, fainting, halting, ‘mincing gait’” that distressed those who witnessed these symptoms (Leed 99). Such behavior undermined the “manliness” of shell-shock victims because of the prevailing belief in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Europe that a “true man” was one who was in control of his passions and his body (Mosse 101). If the “shivering” neurasthenic veteran symbolized the trauma of war, so too did the embittered and violent veteran—often said to be of working-class origins—who could not control his passions.

As soon as the guns fell silent in November 1918, members of the ruling classes and the British press began to express fears of “brutalized” working-class soldiers turning to violence and theft. According to The Times in May 1919, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police “feared that a battle-hardened husband might now murder his wife rather than, as before the war, administering ‘just a clip under the ear’” (Emsley 175). Meanwhile, as Clive Emsley has noted, the British war correspondent Philip Gibbs

believed that a significant minority of front-line soldiers had returned seriously altered by their experiences: They were subject to queer moods, queer tempers, fits of profound depression with a restless desire for pleasure. Many of them were easily moved to passion when they lost control of themselves. Many were bitter in their speech, violent in opinion, frightening. They had gone through “an intensive culture of brutality”. Equally, and this he implied had prompted sexual assaults, “sexually they were starved. For months they had lived out of the sight and presence of women” (Emsley 175).

Emsley has argued that by and large, these moral panics about the return of a whole generation of psychologically-scarred, brutalized men failed to materialize, and that the statistics for indictable assaults show no significant increase in the postwar years. It is probably true that the majority of soldiers returned to the private life of what Alison Light has termed “Little Englanders” who eschewed imperial masculinity and politics for the quiet pleasures of tending their gardens, smoking a pipe, and doing crossword puzzles (Light 1991). There is currently insufficient research into the First World War and domestic violence in Britain to warrant any detailed or conclusive statements about the rate of increase in wife and child abuse, and it is certainly worth noting that nations on the losing side experienced the greatest political, social, and domestic violence (Nye 431). However, Susan Kingsley Kent’s work on the increase of violence against British women during the war and Elizabeth Nelson’s work on the First World War and domestic violence in Australia both suggest a correlation between war trauma and increased rates of wife abuse; while Simona Sharoni’s study of gender and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has likewise documented an increase in male violence against women and children during military conflicts which legitimize the brutalization of society. The fact that divorce rates in Britain rose after the war suggests increases in both adultery as well as “cruelty,” or wife abuse, because while men could petition for divorce solely on the grounds of adultery, until 1923 women had also to prove abuse in addition to adultery (Blake 81). An increase in male domestic violence would be unsurprising because as Nye has observed, returned soldiers felt “resentment at those who had stayed behind, including their wives, and the traditional patriarchal obligation to control one’s wife was a particularly exigent aspect of militarized masculinity” (430).

This social and sexual context of wartime and postwar Britain is important to The Sheik in obvious ways. It explains why female sexuality is so fraught with confusion and contradiction in this novel, and why passion is intermeshed with violence. In the New Woman novels of the 1890s and 1900s, the heroines exploring their sexual identities are middle class. In The Sheik, the aristocratic Lady Diana Mayo has an obviously passionate, sexual nature, but for her to be aware of this at the start of the novel would be to degrade her in terms of class as well as sexual morality, since wartime anxieties about young women’s sexual behavior were directed towards working-class and lower-middle-class women. Middle- and upper-middle-class women were the ones who patrolled and tried to regulate young women’s behavior, just as in the novel Lady Conway tried to uphold the rules that governed acceptable British behavior—like the stereotype of the imperial memsahib abroad. As others have pointed out, rape performs the function of permitting Diana to experience sex while absolving her from all responsibility, thus maintaining her status as a virtuous and virginal heroine. Not only does Diana endure rape, she actually comes to enjoy sex and to participate in it, thus transforming rape into consensual sex and even the suggestion of a modern, companionate relationship with the Sheik. As her months of captivity wear on, and despite the Sheik’s occasional reversion to cruelty, she comes to treasure the late nights when Ahmed “told her all the incidents of the day’s visit to one of the other camps, and from his men and his horses drifted almost insensibly into details connected with his own plans for the future, which were really the intimate confidences of a husband to a wife who is also a comrade” (Hull 283). The confused attempt to reconcile romantic, companionate love with sexual passion and violence within the home must have resonated with readers whose male family members had returned from the frontlines traumatized and, unable to cope with the transition to domesticity, sometimes prone to violence.

That Hull should have conceived of abduction and rape as a central plot device in the novel is therefore scarcely surprising, since rape stories were in wide circulation in British society at that time. The problem, of course, was that rape was associated with German wartime atrocities and there was no way that rape in a European context could possibly be anything but horrifying. Not until American troops began arriving at the Western Front in huge numbers after April 1918 did the tide of the war begin to change decisively in favor of the Allies. In fact, it is possible that when Hull was writing the novel, the outcome of the war was still undecided, with Germany tipped to win after the collapse of the Eastern Front following the Bolshevik Revolution of November 1917. Hull side-stepped these problems to a large extent because she formulated her plot within the subgenre of the desert romance novel, and this solved many of the dilemmas created by the war.

The Middle East was the only arena where fighting during the First World War in any way resembled glamorized ideas of noble heroes testing themselves on the field of blood. Where the static war on the Western Front diminished soldiers and often left men in the “feminine” position of cowering passively in the trenches, helpless in the face of heavy bombardment before being mowed down by an enemy they could not see, the war in the Middle East—particularly the Sinai and Palestine Campaign, and the Arab Revolt—was active and mobile, and featured cavalry charges that conjured pre-modern images of chivalric warfare. In particular, the Arab Revolt initiated by Sherif Hussein ibn Ali in mid-1916 brought Lieutenant Colonel T.E. Lawrence to prominence as a result of the sensationalist reportage of the American journalist Lowell Thomas. Thomas’s dramatic war film With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia—in which Lawrence featured famously as the “white sheik” who, together with Sherif Hussein’s sons Feisal and Abdullah, led the Arab uprising against the Ottoman empire—debuted in London in 1917 and ran for six months. It is impossible to know whether Hull ever saw this film, or whether the “white sheik” in all his ambiguously-gendered, quasi-feudal, Orientalist glory inspired Hull’s English aristocratic white sheik, but the parallel is certainly there: the Englishman masquerading as an Arab, who alone is capable of uniting and leading the unruly tribes of the desert.

Gender, whiteness, and imperialism in the Middle East

The Middle East not only invoked the plethora of ideas about the Orient that had been circulating in Britain for the last few centuries; in Britain, the North African desert also conjured ideas about noble Bedouin as “true” Arabs (in contrast to their much-derided town counterparts) as well as memories of European women who had found in the desert a space to be free from European conventions and sexual and social behavior. In the scholarship on women’s travel writing, much has been written about the constraints of nineteenth-century femininity upon women’s travel writing and their behavior abroad (Foster, 3-25, and Mills 1991). Despite these well-documented constraints, however, European women traveling abroad were certainly aware of the possibility of sexual liaisons with “Oriental” men. A few women even acted upon their sexual desires and entered into long-term relationships with non-western men.[2] These were not technically illegal relationships. At no time did the British government actually pass legislation forbidding interracial unions within the United Kingdom or in its colonies. This distinguishes interracial relations in Britain from those in the postbellum United States, where miscegenation was prohibited in various states and only gradually repealed state-by-state, until the US Supreme Court ruled such laws unconstitutional in Loving v. Virginia in 1967. Yet perhaps it was because of the porousness of these racial boundaries that British popular literature at the turn of the twentieth century became obsessed with interracial sex, the mysterious and fatal attraction “Oriental” men had for British women, and the horror of miscegenation. Without legislative barriers against interracial unions between white women and non-white men (unions between white men and non-white concubines were tacitly accepted), the full weight of social opprobrium was brought down upon the practice in popular culture. In The Sheik, if Diana will not or cannot save herself and embrace her traditional literary fate—death—resulting from rape, let alone interracial rape, then Hull the author must save her through the timely revelation of the Sheik’s English and Spanish parentage (albeit with an uneasy hint of Moorish blood in his heritage), thus shoring up the boundaries of white racial identity to appease her readers and potential critics.

From the start of The Sheik, readers are reminded that this is both an Oriental and an imperial tale. Diana is a representative of the white race and of British imperial prestige; her gendered behavior is a reflection upon the rival merits of the British and French mission civilisatrice that accompanied and justified colonial expansion in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Intermittently throughout the novel, then, British and French culture and colonial successes are subtly compared. French colonial control over Algeria is shown to be sadly wanting when Diana’s desert party is ambushed by Arab raiders. Moments before she realizes the seriousness of her situation, just before she is swept off her saddle and abducted by the Sheik, “Diana’s first feeling was one of contempt for an administration that made possible such an attempt so near civilisation” (48). It is precisely the feebleness of such an administration that permits the fantastical ending: the British aristocratic couple extending feudal rule over warrior-like Bedouin tribes in French colonial Algeria. In this novel, it seems that the French are mainly lauded for their loyalty to the British protagonists: the Sheik’s faithful valet, Gaston, is French, as is his best friend Raoul de Saint Hubert, who helps the romantic couple realize their love for each other (a fitting role for the Frenchman in the British imagination!), and who chivalrously sacrifices his own love for Diana in order to facilitate her relationship with the English Ahmed Ben Hassan.

Because Diana is cast as a victim through much of this novel, there is limited opportunity for her to undertake the usual role of imperial women in the colonies: as the memsahib organizing expatriate domestic life and policing the boundaries of sex and race (Stoler 2002); as the maternal missionary or social reformer shouldering what Antoinette Burton has called the “white woman’s burden,” rescuing helpless, downtrodden native women from their Oriental plight (Burton 1994); or as the intrepid woman traveler traipsing insouciantly into villages where no white woman has ever been, the amused cynosure of all eyes and the compassionate dispenser of medication and cheap trinkets (Teo 1998). Nevertheless, Diana’s imperial identity is established through the fact that as a white British woman, she has traveled widely throughout the world and even gone tiger-hunting in India. Imperial prestige (and behind it, the threat of imperial violence) enables her to embark on a journey into the desert by herself, unaccompanied by any other European and dressed in “manly” riding clothes without any regard to local custom or sensibilities. Diana’s powerful imperial identity is further emphasized through her intimidating use of her “imperial eye” to subjugate cowering natives—their eyes waver and fall before her haughty gaze (Hull 36 and 212), whether in India or in the North African desert. In fact, Hull is at pains to tell us that there was only one “native” whose gaze did not fall beneath hers—the Sheik, who is of course English. When Diana first stands before Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan—a figure formed in the image of the Gothic villain with “the handsomest and cruellest face that she had ever seen”—his “fierce burning eyes […] swept her until she felt that the boyish clothes that covered her slender limbs were stripped from her, leaving the beautiful white body bare under his passionate stare” (pp.56-57). Since she (and the reader) believes him to be Arab at this point, a clichéd trope of colonial relations is inverted here: the all-seeing, all-commanding gaze of the imperial eye gives way to the predatory, penetrating gaze of the supposed “native,” whose hungry stare consumes her whiteness—here transformed into a sign of her gendered vulnerability.

There are repeated references to Diana’s whiteness throughout the novel: the sheik’s lascivious glances at her “beautiful white body” (Hull 57), for instance, or the villain’s awareness of the “white woman who was Ahmed Ben Hassan’s latest toy” (196). Whiteness scarcely matters to Diana at first, yet although she is careless of this at the outset, her experiences in the novel teach her racial solidarity. Facing a greater danger from the bandit sheik Ibrahaim Omair later in the novel, with only the French valet Gaston at her side, Diana becomes aware of the overriding importance of white identity against the stratifications of class. At the moment when she and the French servant had faced possible death together, “all inequality of rank had been swept away […] they had been only a white man and a white woman together in their extremity” (211). While Diana’s aristocratic British imperial identity is important, therefore, it can also be subsumed within a broader white European identity, within the context of colonization and resistance or danger from non-white “natives.”

If Diana’s whiteness establishes her sexual desirability to all men—white and non-white—it also confirms the significance of her rape, since the only rape which counted in western imperial culture was the rape of a white woman by a non-white man; the far more common historical scenario of non-white women’s rape by white men received little comment throughout this period. If rape has broken her down, it is Diana’s interaction with social and racial inferiors within the colonial context which restores her sense of identity. It is her “childish” Bedouin maid Zilah who “in some indefinable way gave back to Diana the self-control that had slipped from her” (Hull 62). It is the French valet, Gaston, who serves her as devotedly as he serves the sheik, who returns to her a sense of what is due to her as an aristocratic Englishwoman (277). Yet any such sense of recovered status fluctuates. Over the next month of constant rape, she comes to realize that “her life was in [the sheik’s] hands, that he could break her with his lean brown fingers like a toy is broken […] She was utterly in his power and at his mercy—the mercy of an Arab who was merciless” (78).

To understand the full impact of the depiction of interracial desire and miscegenation in this novel, we need to remember that the nineteenth-century British Orientalist writings of men such as James Cowles Prichard and Richard Burton conflated Arabs, Africans, and animals as savage “creature[s] of instinct, controlled by sexual passions, incapable of the refinement to which the white races had evolved” (Kabbani 63). As Michael Diamond has shown, novel after novel from the 1890s to the First World War raised the specter of an Arab man attempting to “compromise” a white woman, only to be strongly rebuffed. In William Le Queux’s The Hand of Allah (1914), those English who “knew Africa, who knew the Arab” hated “the taint of black blood. To such men the sight of their own women introducing their daughters to that oily Egyptian sickened them” (Diamond 77). The heroine in Robert Hichens’s Barbary Sheep (1909) nearly succumbs to an Arab spahi while her husband is engrossed in game hunting, but she realizes in time that the Arab cavalryman is purely mercenary and “the peculiar disgust which so many white-skinned people feel towards the dark races of the earth suddenly rose up in her” (Diamond 78). A.J. Dawson’s Hidden Manna (1902) ends with the heartfelt exclamation: “God save us all from mixed marriages, I say!” (Diamond 78). In some cases British men, rather than God, save their women from mixed marriages; in many other cases women save themselves by drawing back from crossing racial boundaries.

In none of these pre-war novels did an Arab man actually have sex with a white woman. This was why The Sheik was such a bold and subversive novel for its time, despite its reactionary conclusion. Pre-war novels set in the Orient required white women to police their own sexual desires and uphold the imperial, racial, and bodily integrity of the white race. However, The Sheik broke with this convention to depict “proud Diana Mayo who had the history of her race at her fingers’ ends” (Hull 275) refusing this duty of the white race, choosing instead to abase herself before her love and sexual desire for the Arab man she believed the sheik to be. Fortunately for her, then, the sheik is actually European, a British peer of the realm. This racial legerdemain was an important plot maneuver for it excused Diana’s inexplicable attraction to the supposed “native,” dissipated the horrible specter of miscegenation, and provided the means of Ahmed’s repentance and redemption and consequently, the novel’s happy ending. Moreover, it meant that Diana would remain British in nationality, for the 1914 British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act stated that “the wife of an alien shall be deemed to be an alien,” losing the rights and privileges of British nationality. Not until 1948 could women from the United Kingdom retain their own nationality regardless of whom they married (Baldwin 522).

Hull returned to the themes of miscegenation, imperialism, love, and rape in the sequel The Sons of the Sheik (1925); but this time, the strictures against miscegenation were more pronounced, uttered by the sheik himself when he discovers that his son Ahmed has raped a Moroccan woman (who of course turns out to be the daughter of a French aristocratic family). The truly radical moment in The Sons of the Sheik occurs at the end of the novel after the heroine (by that stage pregnant with young Ahmed’s child) is abducted and savagely raped by the German villain. In the final pages of this novel, Ahmed decides that the heroine’s rape does not matter to him because his love for her is worth more than the fact that she has been violated by another man. This must surely be one of the first such episodes for a mainstream novel, whereby the rape of a woman by a man other than the hero is not punished by her death, and which still concludes in the union of raped heroine and hero. Significantly, at the end of The Sons of the Sheik, Hull finally presented readers with the rapist Hun of British wartime propaganda, whose brutality makes that of young Ahmed’s pale by comparison. Yasmin is in fact presented in the typical posture of the raped Belgian woman: “Crouched half naked on the ground, bearing all the marks of a desperate struggle, with her unbound hair streaming over her bare shoulders, she lay moaning and writhing in agony, her face hidden against the crumbling wall” (Hull, Sons of the Sheik, 358).

While Hull flirted with the specter of interracial sex between a white woman and an Oriental man in The Sheik, she would recoil strongly from the suggestion of miscegenation in The Sons of the Sheik and her subsequent novels. What had happened in the interim? If Arabs and other colonized peoples were “noble savage” allies during the war, their cause personified and glamorized by T.E. Lawrence, things changed rapidly after the ceasefire. In 1919—the year Hull’s novel was published in Britain—the Amritsar massacre, in which nearly four hundred anti-colonial protesters in the Punjab were gunned down by the British Indian Army, exacerbated colonial anxieties about race relations in the Indian sub-continent and revived Mutiny-era narratives of Indian rape of English women (Sharpe 123). After the Paris Peace Talks, the Treaty of Sèvres (1920), and the subsequent Treaty of Lausanne (1923) which replaced it, saw much of the Ottoman empire in the Middle East carved up and placed under British and French control as League of Nations mandatory states. Egypt had been a British protectorate since 1914. To Britain’s growing empire in the Middle East was added Palestine, the Transjordan, and Iraq. From the start, the assertion of British power in place of Ottoman suzerainty was strongly resisted in its newly acquired Middle Eastern territories. In 1920, fourteen thousand British and Indian troops stationed in Iraq put down an Arab uprising at the cost of four hundred fatalities. In Somaliland in 1920, the British bombed Muslim encampments when a Muslim leader rose up against British rule. In Iraq, where the British had installed Sherif Hussein’s son Feisal as a puppet king, revolts broke out sporadically throughout the 1920s and were met by Royal Air Force bombings before the British mandate was ended in 1932. Anti-colonial sentiment throughout the 1920s must have reverberated uncomfortably through the Orientalist romantic fantasies of novelists and readers, probably leading to its decline by the 1930s when it was replaced by the growing popularity of adventure stories about the French Foreign Legion inspired by P.C. Wren’s Beau Geste trilogy.

Meanwhile, domestic events in Britain brought home fears about “reverse colonization” and interracial unions. A sizable “black” (including Arabs and South Asians as well as Africans) population had lived in London and other British port cities such as Liverpool and Cardiff for a few hundred years, but these numbers increased during World War I, when colonial workers and seamen were recruited to make up shortfalls in British manpower (Tabili 9). Just as women’s contribution to the British war effort saw them gradually enfranchised after the war,[3] so did colonized men’s contribution lead to a demand for citizenship rights, and a sense of entitlement as subjects who had sacrificed for the British during the war. In such an environment, interracial boundaries began to be breached. The postwar years saw incidents of black men marrying white women. As Lucy Bland has argued, for white Britons this was a case of returned servicemen finding black men in their jobs, housing, and beds, partially contributing to the outbreak of race riots in Cardiff, Liverpool and London in the first half of 1919 (34). Newspapers screamed of “The Black Peril” (indeed, they had been doing so since 1917) and blamed black men for taking white men’s jobs and white men’s women (Bland 35 and 37). In response, the British parliament passed the Aliens Order in 1920, restricting non-white immigration (Caton 111).

Arab men then became a specific focus of concern in 1923 during the murder trial of Madame Fahmy, a thirty-two year old Frenchwoman who had married a wealthy Egyptian prince ten years her junior, and who subsequently murdered him. A connection was made between the trial and the immense popularity of “sheik” romances, as the Daily Mirror’s editorialized regarding the Fahmy case:

Too many of our women novelists, apparently under the spell of the East, have encouraged the belief that there is something especially romantic in such unions. They are not romantic, they are ridiculous and unseemly; and the sensational revelations of the trial […] will not be without their use if they bring that fact home to the sentimental, unsophisticated girl (Bland 47).

Indeed, Fahmy’s defense barrister argued in his summation: “Her greatest mistake—possibly the greatest mistake any woman could make—was as a woman of the West in marrying an Oriental” (Bland 46). Therefore, although Britain had no legislation against interracial unions, public sentiment regarding miscegenation was abundantly clear.

These events, both domestic and foreign, undoubtedly had an impact on both the production and reception of Hull’s output in the 1920s. Her subsequent novels such as The Sons of the Sheik (1925) and Captive of the Sahara (1931)—like those of her fellow desert romance novelist Kathlyn Rhodes—insisted on the impossibility and outright danger of interracial unions between Europeans and Orientals. Prolonged intercourse of any sort was detrimental to one or the other—usually the Oriental. The most dangerous figure in these later stories was the hybrid male: the Arab or Egyptian who was half-white, or who was culturally white. Occupying the status of both hero and eventual villain, the sheik who affected whiteness would inevitably reveal his dark desires and his degenerate Oriental self. According to novelists such as Hull and Rhodes, despite the sheik’s desire for racial and cultural whiteness, he was helpless to control the baser instincts resulting from his biological race. Relinquishing his desire for the white woman, or even sacrificing his life for her, ultimately constituted his one heroic act. In Hull’s Captive of the Sahara, the Bedouin sheik—who falls in love with the English heroine and who invites her to his desert stronghold, the City of Stones, only to imprison her there when she refuses to marry him—ends up dying to protect her. This, and the fact that he (an actual Arab, unlike Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan) never forces himself upon her, are his only virtues in a tragic tale of unrequited love and misguided anti-colonial ambition. The “native’s” love for the white woman threatens her reputation and destroys him. Whatever timorous gestures The Sheik had made towards breaching the boundaries of the white imperial race through the body of the white woman, therefore, the vast majority of English novels in this subgenre during the 1920s and 1930s reverted to the argument that it was the white woman’s responsibility to uphold this boundary and to police ruthlessly her own dark desires for the sake of all “races.” Interestingly enough, however, none of these storylines was ever as popular as the prospect of the taboo interracial union initially played out in The Sheik.

The specific historical circumstances of E.M. Hull’s novels thus shaped the contours of her plot and changed the social taboos she was willing to test or break. Where she was prepared to challenge social attitudes towards women’s sexual desire and the significance of rape for women in The Sheik and The Sons of the Sheik, miscegenation was not a boundary she was ultimately willing to breach. However, when her story of The Sheik was translated into an American film, the permeability of white boundaries—gendered, corporeal, social, and political—was once again challenged, as was the meaning of whiteness itself. Across the Atlantic, on the far side of the American continent, Hollywood began to develop an alternative understanding of whiteness in the desert romance, and of white women’s relationship to non-white, but not-black, men. Through Hollywood, and particularly through Rudolph Valentino’s role as Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan, “ethnic” Americans, who occupied a precarious position within the polity, vaulted over the bodies of Africans and Arabs to consolidate their position as white American citizens.

The Sheik in America

Even before the publication of Hull’s The Sheik in the United States, American popular culture was already well-acquainted with a commodified, consumable Orient that was paradoxically modern in its love of exotic primitivism. As Holly Edwards has shown, American artists began to incorporate Middle Eastern themes into their paintings from the late nineteenth century onwards. Many were no doubt influenced by the French school of Orientalist painting, but in the United States Orientalism served two different purposes in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. It connected American Protestant narratives of a Chosen People in a Promised Land to the biblical landscapes of the Middle East; and it also expressed nostalgia for a pastoral or frontier ideal that was vanishing, replaced instead by an increasingly urban society characterized by the commodification of consumer goods, sexuality, physicality, and the exotic Orient (Edwards 17). The 1893 Columbian World Exposition in Chicago was especially significant in this transition. Not only did the Fair align and affirm American visions of the Orient with European imperial hierarchies of ethnographic difference and cultural inferiority through the condescending display of Oriental villages from Egypt and Algeria, for example, but it also situated the Orient within the modern idiom of salacious sexuality through Sol Bloom’s concoction of the scandalous but popular “hoochy-coochy” Oriental belly dance (Edwards 39).

From the turn of the century onwards, Oriental material culture served as department store and advertising backdrops for selling sensuous luxury items, cigarettes (Mecca, Medina and Omar, and the famous Camel brand), home furnishings, fashion, and film. This was the paradox of Orientalism: exotically primitive and inferior, Orientalism was also a playful discourse through which modern Americans could indulge the pleasure of the senses and experiment with alternative forms of sexuality, gender relations, and mystical rituals. Orientalism was used to explore and transform how Americans related to each other, and this explains the popularity of masquerade balls and the use of Oriental motifs in freemason and other occult male societies at this time. These Oriental role-plays offered “the opportunity to try on surrogate identities and taste illicit pleasures while protected by disguise. People moved across class and ethnic boundaries to dabble in what were perceived to be risqué behaviors” (Edwards 40). Because the United States had no formal sustained imperial relationship with “the Orient” at this time, and because British and French interests successfully blocked the expansion of American oil interests in the region until after World War I (Little 2002), American Orientalism in the early twentieth century was not so much about the justification and extension of imperial power as about the Orient as an imaginary space for American “pleasures, fantasy, and escapism, in the mode of the Arabian Nights.” For Americans, “the Orient represented the option of luxury and self-indulgence, far from the rigors of a humdrum desk job” (Edwards 23). Therefore American Orientalism, as William Leach has argued, “was symptomatic of changes taking place within western society—and especially in cities—that had little to do with imperialism or with the desire to appropriate somebody else’s property, but that symbolized a feeling of something missing from western culture itself, a longing for a ’sensual‘ life more ’satisfying‘ than traditional Christianity could endorse” (105).

This understanding of the Orient as an exotic commodity that could satisfy a more sensuous age was further strengthened by the spectacular use of Oriental imagery in the Broadway production of Hichens’ The Garden of Allah, which premiered in 1907. That the play opened in New York, popularly known as “Baghdad on the Hudson” for its commerce and seedy immigrant life, was particularly apt. The Garden of Allah featured live camels, technological feats producing whirling sandstorms on stage, and meticulously researched recreations of Algerian scenery (Edwards 44). The visual spectacle of the Orient soon overshadowed the play’s narrative content, which was confusing and soon forgotten. It ushered in a pre-war vogue for Garden of Allah tie-ins, with hotels and restaurants being decked out in furnishings reminiscent of the stage play, while all manner of consumables were associated with the phrase “Garden of Allah”—from women’s perfumes to table lamps. As Edwards observed, the “migration of Garden of Allah imagery from story to product epitomizes the process whereby the Orient was constructed and then disseminated in forms that conformed with American dreams and patterns of consumption” (45).

This is distinctly different from Orientalist discourse in Britain at the same time, which was more artistic, literary, and anchored in travel narratives or scholarly treatises on the Orient. This is not to suggest that the British Orientalist discourse was more “authentic” or “true” to “the Orient” than the American variant. As Said has argued persuasively, the discourse of Orientalism was never simply a more or less accurate representation of “the Orient;” it was a discourse which actively “Orientalized” the Orient, investing it with the qualities that made it seem inevitably “Oriental” to Europeans. In any case, as Timothy Mitchell has shown with regard to Egypt, European colonial authorities sometimes restructured the physical space of Orient so as to render it comprehensible within the pre-existing discourse of Orientalism. Villages, army barracks, and towns were reorganized along the lines of the replicas constructed for world fairs or exhibitions, exemplary of certain “political truths” about the colonized (Mitchell 1988). The discourse of European Orientalism was thus not necessarily more “authentic” or “true” than the discourse of American Orientalism.

Nevertheless, despite this active “Orientalizing” of North Africa, the British (and French) relationship with the Orient was still constrained by the geopolitical realities of colonialism: different types of political relations with local rulers; the lucrative provision of financial services; trade, investment, and the building of infrastructure; administration of the civil service; control over the military and containment of anti-colonial activities; and the existence of sizable expatriate European populations in key colonial towns and cities (as well as tourists traveling through lands rendered safe by the assertion of political dominance and military power). To this extent, then, British Orientalism differed from the extravagant and glamorous Orientalist fantasies peddled by American business and the entertainment industry to whet consumer appetite for new fashions, furnishings, and a new, more sensuous “national dream life for men and women” (Leach 107).

It was little wonder, then, that the novel should have enjoyed the same success in America as in Britain, although perhaps for different reasons. Indeed, its fame spread even further afield when the secretary of an entrepreneurial Hollywood mogul, Jesse Lasky (of Famous Players-Lasky, later Paramount), urged her boss to cast Rudolph Valentino in the eponymous role of the film (Leider 152). Hollywood had shown an early fascination with the East, and the Oriental film was one of the most popular genres in the first two decades of the twentieth century, beginning with George Méliès’s The Palace of A Thousand and One Nights (1905). The filtering of the East through the “Arabian Nights” meant that from the start, Hollywood productions of desert romances differed from their British counterparts in terms of the attempts to recreate the “authentic” Saharan desert—something on which British filmmakers often prided themselves. It may have been that British cultural familiarity with the region through the writings of its novelists, travelers, Orientalist scholars, and the realism characteristic of the paintings of artists such as Ludwig Deutsch and John Frederick Lewis, laid a greater expectation of “naturalism” and “authenticity” on British filmmakers.

Famous Players-Lasky was bound by no such considerations. Neither George Melford, the director, nor Lasky were much interested in historical or geographical verisimilitude. Melford certainly took advantage of the setting and the story to film some dramatic long shots of Arabs riding en masse across the rolling desert dunes, while Pathé Company footage of actual Algerian town scenes were spliced into the film for exterior crowd scenes (Leider 155). However, the interior shots made no attempts at realism. They were often staged within arched doorways or framed by opulent draperies and awnings, creating a proscenium-like effect throughout the film that distanced the audience from the action on-screen, forcibly reminding audiences they were watching the elaborately staged realm of Hollywood Oriental fantasy (Caton 116). This was the “Arabian Nights” Orient of advertisements and hotel, restaurant, or department store designs. Melford’s habit of using a “keyhole” effect to frame certain sequences within a black circle reinforced this fantasy, and was also reminiscent of the French artist Gérôme’s tondo of his Orientalist harem fantasy, Le Bain Turc. Again, no attempts at “authenticity” were made with Valentino’s sheik costume or the interiors of the sheik’s tent. Rather, they were the fashionable confections of his partner, Natacha Rambova (Leider 156-158). This, then, was never an attempt to represent the “real Orient” (or what westerners perceived it to be), but to indulge what were clearly American fancy-dress fantasies of the Orient, and the story was filmed in a way to emphasize this (Leider 155-156).

The film of The Sheik differs from the novel in many significant ways, perhaps the most crucial being the characters of Diana (played by Agnes Ayres) and Ahmed Ben Hassan, and the initial encounter between them. In the film, Diana’s first encounter with the sheik is at a hotel casino where the sheik is allowed to display a chivalrous, gentlemanly side to his nature (in the novel, of course, Diana’s first encounter with the sheik is his abduction and rape). The sheik spots Diana as he is entering the casino, which has been closed to other western guests. Diana, angry at being kept out of any public place by “a savage desert bandit” is told by a French officer that the sheik is a “rich tribal prince who was educated in Paris” and in Biskra, “his slightest wish is law.” Like the novel, then, the film downgrades the authority of the French in colonial Algeria. The French permit colonial relations to be overturned, so that Arabs are able to keep Europeans out of a space within a hotel owned and inhabited by Europeans. Diana veils herself, masquerades as a dancer, and gatecrashes the sheik’s party, but her white skin gives her away. In their exchange, Diana is shown to be haughtily rude while the sheik displays an ironic courtesy towards her. She is positioned as an arrogant imperialist, telling the sheik that she intruded because “I wanted to see the savage who could bar me from this Casino.” Unlike the novel where Diana is a passive victim of the sheik’s lust, unwittingly drawing his attention because of her beauty, in the film it is Diana’s own discourteous action in failing to respect social and racial boundaries at the hotel that brings her to the attention of the sheik. She is not without power or agency in their initial encounter either. When he unmasks her in the casino, exclaiming “The pale hands and golden hair of a white woman,” she draws a revolver on him. Her act mimics in miniature the conquest and colonization of the Middle East—at the barrel of a gun, a gun that she loses in the desert at the moment of her abduction and the loss of her power as an imperial subject. The man who abducts her, however, is not a complete stranger to her but one whose attention she has deliberately courted. This is important in ameliorating the shock of the abduction.

The abduction scene proceeds according to the novel, but the rape scene is again different. For one thing, rape is deferred a number of times. The sheik forces Diana to change out of her riding clothes and dress for dinner, then she tries to escape by running out into a sandstorm. She is brought back by the sheik who then kisses her. This kiss, which leads to the rape in the novel, is interrupted in the film when the sheik himself has to head out into the sandstorm to rescue the men’s horses. When he returns, he sees Diana on her knees beside the divan, her hands clasped in desperate prayer and a jeweled cross displayed prominently on her chest (in the novel there are no references to Diana’s Christian religion). He approaches her stealthily, one hand outstretched and ready to debauch her, but he is conscience-stricken at the sight of her weeping prayers. Head bowed in dejection and perhaps in remorse or pity, the sheik then leaves the bedroom and sends the Arab maid Zilah to comfort and tend to Diana. What happens next is open to interpretation. Those who were familiar with the novel inferred the rape because the following caption, “Through the dull slumber of despair—until morning tempts back a desire to live” seemed to suggest the same plot as the novel, as did Diana’s subsequent costume as a subdued Arab woman. In Kansas City, the widespread understanding that Diana had been deflowered led to the film’s ban locally (Leider 166). However, other audiences concluded that Diana was not raped.

This ambiguity in interpretation was very much due to the fact that Lasky wanted the film to evade the censors so that it would be as “mainstream” and popular as possible (Leider 162, 167). As Steven Caton has argued, the film can be interpreted as a shift from rape to romantic courtship. Caton noted that the scene where the sheik leaves Diana sobbing in the maid’s arms is in fact full of symbols of phallic detumescence: the sheik’s upraised right hand drops in dejection as he leaves, and the lit pipe or cigarette that the sheik habitually holds in his hands are nowhere to be seen. Moreover, both the sheik and Diana are fully clothed the following morning, Diana wakes alone, and the sheik places a rose on Diana’s breakfast tray, signaling an intent to court her in the traditional western manner. Leider noted that:

Many of the original reviewers of The Sheik complained that the movie, in toning down the rape, changed what had originally been the story of a woman overpowered by a man into one about a woman having her way with a compliant male. They argued that Hull’s tale had lost its spine in the process of being adapted from book to screen. […] Woundingly, they used the language of castration, speaking of the movie version as “mealy, emasculated” (167).

A review in a film magazine, for example, castigated the censors for “patting ‘The Sheik’ into a decorous mood mild enough for the most tender mind. His fierceness—which so delighted the gentle spinster readers—is all gone […] and his attitude toward the kidnapped heroine is that of a considerate and platonic friend rather than the passionate, ruthless lover” (Pictureplay 1922).

The sheik’s emasculation is complete at the film’s conclusion. Where the novel ends with the sheik wresting a pistol away from Diana’s grasp before she shoots herself, the film ends with the wounded sheik waking from a coma to hear Diana offering her life to God in return for his recovery. The two are reconciled in a way which emphasizes the vulnerability of the sheik. While Diana is upright, watching over him and playing nurse, the sheik is weak and bedridden. It is a final image not dissimilar to a World War I Red Cross poster featuring a nurse as “the greatest mother in the world,” cradling a wounded soldier whose head is bandaged. By the film’s end, the sheik’s turban—symbol of his Oriental Otherness—has been replaced by a stark white bandage around his forehead, while the clothes he wears seem no different from a European man’s. The transformation that his love for Diana effects in him—from savage Bedouin sheik to wounded white European man—is encapsulated in his final words: “the darkness has passed and now the sunshine.”

Under Melford’s direction, Diana reprises the role of the white woman in the imperial mission, bringing Christianity and European civilization to the Orient, and rescuing Ahmed from his racial and cultural apostasy at the film’s end: “Pray God, dear friend, to save his life,” she says, “Oh, if He would only accept my life in exchange for his!” Even prior to this, she brings civilizational “light” to the Oriental tents of the sheik: dressing for dinner, reading books, and engaging in “cultured” behavior, especially when the French novelist Raoul de Saint Hubert visits. These activities—the upholding of ruling-class European standards of behavior—are by no means insignificant. From the mid-nineteenth to early twentieth century, any white woman who immigrated to the colonies and married a white man was deemed to have fulfilled her duty to the empire. This was because white women—especially middle-class women—were seen as civilizing influences who would prevent white men from “going native,” taking indigenous concubines, and undermining the hierarchical racial structure on which British colonialism was based. As Adele Perry has shown with the case of British Columbia in the 1870s, for example, the population was considered to be lacking in white women’s influence of culture, gentility, morality, and piety. Without white women’s presence, white Canadian men were dangerously exposed to the temptations of “all the evils of heathendom” and “risked becoming a disgrace to the English race itself” (Perry 501). English literature set in the colonies around this time similarly emphasized that the role of an Englishwoman was to marry and be a helpmeet to an earnest Englishman whose life was dedicated to the service of the empire—whether in the form of involvement in the colonial bureaucracy, the army, or in public works such as building railways or dams. After marriage, a wife’s service to the empire took the form of creating a pleasant home environment for her husband and serving him (Teo 2004).

The film thus follows the novel’s imperial agenda, as did many other Hollywood films of the interwar years. So many Hollywood films were based on British imperial adventure novels, that in 1939 The Daily Express praised Hollywood for “glorifying Britain’s empire” and noted that “the British empire need not worry for propaganda while Hollywood does its imperial publicity” (Webster 63). Where the novel of The Sheik emphasized the role of white men in extending and controlling the empire in the Middle East, however, the film gives equal emphasis to Diana’s role as a white woman within this imperial project. Moreover, because of the film’s ending, Diana retains her spirit and sense of agency—tempered by love and tenderness—whereas in the novel she is crushed and driven to self-destruction. Where the British novel condemns and destroys the New Woman, replacing her with a more traditional “womanly” woman—passive, submissive, helpless, and even suicidal—the American film applauds modern, feminist-influenced femininity. Indeed, a few years earlier Jesse Lasky had requested Cecil B. De Mille and Jeannie Macpherson to “write something typically American that would portray a girl in the sort of role that the feminists in this country are now interested in […] the kind of girl that dominates […] who jumps in and does a man’s work” (Leider 165).

The imperial civilizing mission, and the role of the white woman as enlightened as well as enlightening in every sense of the word, is visually expressed through the aesthetic use of film lighting technology to “privilege and construct an idea of the white person” (Dyer 84). Diana’s whiteness is first emphasized when she enters the sexualized space of the Oriental casino where the sheik and the other Arabs are engaged in the “marriage gamble where brides are won on the turn of a [roulette] wheel.” She stands out from the other veiled women and is unmasked because of her whiteness. When the sheik takes her hand, his hands are colored and shown to be much darker than hers. Film is of course a technology of light, and in these films light is literally used to convey stark messages about the civilizational light brought by western women into the benighted lands of the East. As Dyer has explained, early film stock tended to show white people as dark-skinned unless lighting was used strategically to highlight skin and to eliminate shadows. During the 1920s, Hollywood developed a convention of using the key light, the fill, and backlight to keep the white figure “separate from the background as well as creating, when wanted, the rim and halo effects of heroic and glamour lighting” (Dyer 87). In The Sheik, the whiteness of the heroine’s skin, and the effect of light on her, around her, or flowing from her to the hero, is carefully created. Although Agnes Ayres —like Diana in the novel—is not blonde in this film, her clothing often reflects the light, and her hair is backlit in such a way that she is radiant with light. This accorded with the developing traditions of cinema lighting, whereby “idealized white women are bathed in and permeated by light. It streams through them and falls onto them from above. In short, they glow” (Dyer 122).

In the era of black and white silent films, colors and clothing were crudely symbolic. The villains in American Westerns wore dark clothes and a dark hat, whereas the Western hero was symbolized by his white hat. The same symbolism can be seen in The Sheik. When Diana is abducted, she wears light-colored riding clothes and a topee—the costume of European imperial authority that is also worn by Raoul de Saint Hubert. Forced by the sheik to change into a dark evening dress, the symbol of her white European, Christian identity then rests in the large cross that is seen prominently around her neck. However, clothing is more ambiguous for Arab men, particularly the sheik. In the opening scenes, he and the other Arab men are dressed in white robes. By the time he has Diana in his power, however, his white robes have given way to darker, multi-layered, richly textured striped or patterned garments of white, black, and other shades. In the final sickbed scene, when the sheik, through Diana, reclaims his whiteness and literally sees the light, he is simply dressed in a nondescript pale shirt and breeches. Without his characteristic turban, he is indistinguishable from a European man.

The scenes of conflict between Ayres and Valentino in The Sheik emphasize the contrast between his darkness and her light. Valentino’s hands were artificially darkened so that they would stand out against her skin and her clothing whenever he held her. Although his face is darker than hers—as was the tradition for all white men juxtaposed against white women in film at the time—his face nevertheless appears white when he is not in close proximity to Ayres. Leider noted that as a southern Italian, “Valentino’s dark complexion might have been highlighted as an asset, since he was playing a hot-blooded, charismatic Arab chieftain.” However, given widespread racial fears of miscegenation and nativist sentiment about white purity, and given the fact that the Ku Klux Klan was on the rise in the 1920s, “the producers played it safe: only in the posters and lobby cards, especially those in color, does Rudy’s skin look tan or even black. On-screen, his face appears white, but his hands show darker” Leider 159). This schizophrenia of lighting and coloring reflects the ambivalence of Americans towards racial and ethnic others, and towards citizenship and even whiteness itself.

The Sheik was produced in a context of increasing white American concern over immigration from southern and eastern Europe that eventually resulted in the Immigration Act of 1924—the Johnson-Reed Act—which included a “national origins quota” system for Europeans, limiting immigrant numbers to 2% of the existing population group in the 1890 census. As Matthew Frye Jacobson has argued, the period of mass European immigration from the 1840s to 1924 “witnessed a fracturing of whiteness into a hierarchy of plural and scientifically determined white races,” dominated by Anglo-Saxons. The response of newly arrived European immigrants—Irish, Italians, Poles, and Slavs—or their descendants was to scramble for inclusion into and consolidation of a catch-all white “Caucasian” identity, constructed at the expense of black Americans then migrating from the agrarian South to the urban and industrial North and West (Jacobson 7-8). The crucial test for belonging was, of course, naturalization and citizenship, restricted since 1790 to “free white persons,” and later amended in 1870 to include “aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent.” Rather than challenging the racial basis of citizenship, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries instead saw a raft of legal attempts to have certain marginal groups declared “white” (Gualtieri 52-53).

Significantly, in contrast to Britain—where Arabs were associated with “blacks” until the Second World War—in the United States, Arabs, Syrians, Lebanese, and Turks were declared a “white” race under the landmark 1915 Dow v. United States ruling by the Circuit Court of Appeals. The “fact” of Levantine whiteness was established in a series of naturalization cases heard in federal courts between 1909 and 1915. Syrians such as George Dow and his supporters deliberately constructed themselves as white, appealing to a shared sense of Christian entitlement, their ancient civilization, and the Semitic roots they shared with Jews who were considered racially white (Gualtieri 42-46). For the new immigrant groups, however, whiteness was unstable and precarious. To southern Americans, the Mediterranean, Eastern European, Jewish, and Levantine immigrants were “in-betweens,” occupying a status between true whites and blacks. Inclusion into white identity and white society was provisional, dependent upon their occupations, associations, and behavior. They were only white as long as they upheld the “white man’s code.” It was possible for these groups to slip into blackness if, like Italians in Louisiana, they worked alongside blacks, maintained business relations, or even intermarried with them—in which case they would be treated as blacks (Jacobson 57). In New Orleans, eleven Italians were lynched by the White League in 1891 while in Tallulah, Louisiana, five Sicilian storekeepers were lynched in 1899 (Jacobson 56-58). Levantine immigrants were not exempt either. Syrians were the targets of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia, while in Florida, the lynching of Nicholas Romey shocked the Syrian community, who were not only outraged but “bewildered” that he had not been recognized as a white man. In the words of the Syrian-American newspaper ash-Shaab:

The Syrian is not a negro whom Southerners feel they are justified in lynching when he is suspected of an attack on a white woman. The Syrian is a civilized white man who has excellent traditions and a glorious historical background and should be treated as among the best elements of the American nation (Gualtieri 47).

Valentino’s role as the pseudo-Arab Ahmed Ben Hassan in The Sheik must be contextualized within this history of competing versions of whiteness and citizenship in the United States, as well as within discourses of American Orientalism. Rudolph Valentino, born Rodolfo Guglielmi, emigrated from southern Italy to New York in 1913, where he worked at a number of odd-jobs and made a living as a “taxi dancer”—a professional dance partner in popular dance halls—before heading west to Hollywood in 1917. As Leider has observed:

He didn’t set his sights on romantic or heroic roles. Physical traits determined casting choices and he knew he looked foreign, which meant he would be typed as a villain. Ethnic and racial stereotypes were still rigidly fixed, and moral qualities attached to skin tone and hair color, as well as nationality. Blonde women tended to be cast as virgins, brunettes as vamps. To American directors and producers, and much of the audience, dark skin implied contamination. The most popular leading men of the moment were all clean-cut, square-jawed, all-Americans […] like Douglas Fairbanks, Harold Lockwood, and Wallace Reid. (87)

Films featuring Italians—such as The Criminals (1913), which focused on the Mafia kidnapping of a child, or D.W. Griffiths’ Italian Blood (1911)—pathologized them and called their whiteness into question (Leider 50). Griffiths dismissed Valentino as “too foreign looking” for anything but villainous roles, and Valentino, accepting the inevitable, advertized himself in Motion Picture Studio Directory as “a New Style of Heavy.” In the end, it was white American women—actresses like Dorothy Gish and Carmel Myers, or screenwriter and Metro executive June Mathis—who persuaded male directors to cast Valentino in leading roles. Through these women’s assistance, Valentino became Hollywood’s first swarthy romantic hero, helping to “redefine and broaden American masculine ideals. Only after Valentino could a blonde leading lady accept and return the ardent kisses of a screen lover with dark coloring” (Leider 4). Even so, he did his best to stay out of the sun, recognizing that he had a propensity to tan and fearing that he would become “like a Negro” and “too black for pictures” (Leider 162).

In The Sheik, then, the spectacle of Valentino the Italian immigrant representing Ahmed Ben Hassan the Arab raised questions about white identity, civic belonging, and social acceptance—represented by the right to marry a white woman. In the context of contemporary debates over whiteness, immigration, and citizenship, Caton has argued, the revelation of Ahmed’s mixed parentage “has a precise correlate in the contested notions of whiteness and non-whiteness […] Could Italians in America (Valentino, for example) claim to be white?” (Caton 114). Could, then, the Jewish Americans who flocked to and dominated Hollywood’s burgeoning film industry? Caton contended that the “immigrant who is neither white nor black but confusingly in-between could become a ‘bourgeois’ citizen of the country with the helping hand of the patronizing white woman. […] Libidinal attraction to a dangerous type is justified and legitimated for the sake of a national melting pot, paid for by the exclusion of the black man” (116).

Originally non-white-but-not-black, Valentino/Ahmed Ben Hassan can become white through his love of a white woman, who tames and redeems him through Christian courtship and marriage. This process of conversion and redemption is in direct contrast to the novel, where it is Diana’s feminist-inflected, modern femininity which is tamed and crushed by Oriental rape. In the film, Diana’s second abduction and attempted rape by the evil robber Sheik Omair takes place after Ahmed Ben Hassan, under the Frenchman Saint Hubert’s influence, has reluctantly agreed that because he loves Diana, he must send her back to her own people. From this point on, Valentino/Ahmed’s transformation into a white man takes place at the expense of darker others. His initial “otherness” is now displaced onto the villainous Omair, who is not only much darker in complexion but who also associates with Africans, in contrast to the Frenchmen with whom Ahmed surrounds himself. Sheik Omair is guarded by a giant Nubian and surrounded by the classic Hollywood iconography of African otherness: nearly-nude dancing girls and tom-toms. In the act of rescuing Diana, Valentino/Ahmed survives a near-fatal attempt on his life, whereas black-affiliated Omair and his Nubian guards die. Valentino/Ahmed’s transformation into a white man thus takes place at the expense of villainous black men. In the final scene, as I have mentioned before, he is stripped of the outward symbols of Oriental otherness—his thobe and his turban—and left only with his shirt and breeches, while Diana kneels by his side and lays her head on his wounded breast. As Caton remarked, this is “allegorically significant in the context of American race relations,” for “it offers the dream of a partnership between white and ethnic other, implied by the handclasp of Diana and Ahmed before the final fade-out” (Caton 116). To American women, the film thus offered a potentially different message of racial, ethnic, or cultural incorporation than did the British novel.

However, Valentino’s—and, hence, other ethnic heroes’—acceptance as a white man was gendered and conditional. While many women idolized him as the “perfect lover,” for some others, as for a Photoplay reader, he looked “wicked […] maybe because he is not an American” (Studlar 299). In point of fact, Valentino never became naturalized as an American citizen because he was torn between his roots as an Italian and the country which had made him famous but which also consistently questioned his masculinity and his racial heritage. He was famously reviled by American men who “feared that American women, duped by immigrants—especially those, like tango pirates, who achieved a masquerade of good breeding—would bear offspring who would inherit the ancestry of their dark foreign fathers, an ancestry that was considered to be tainted” (Studlar 299). Just as Arabs could be represented and displaced by a more acceptable “white ethnic” like Valentino, in time, swarthy but romantic ethnic heroes in Hollywood would be represented and displaced by “Anglo-Saxon” actors such as Ronald Colman (The Night of Love), John Gilbert (The Cossacks), Douglas Fairbanks (The Thief of Baghdad and The Gaucho), and Richard Barthelmes (The White Black Sheep). As Studlar has noted, “such stars could temporarily satisfy female desire for erotic exoticism without threatening either American men or the nation’s Nordic/Anglo-Saxon purity” (Studlar 301). This sequence of the colonization and displacement of the exotic ethnic/Arab figure by an indisputably “white” man echoed uncannily the displacement of the Arab Ahmed Ben Hassan by the white Earl of Glencaryll in The Sheik, but it also served to emphasize that these white heroes were at their most erotically charged when masquerading as non-white men. This is of course the paradox of Orientalism: a discourse which creates and propagates images of inferior “others,” it simultaneously expresses the consciousness of a lack on the part of the western self/culture, and a yearning for the exotic other.


The Sheik was one of the most important popular cultural artifacts produced in the twentieth century, a text whose influence is still evident today in countless songs, romance novels, films, television series, comics, cartoons, and in the very transformation of the connotations associated with the word “sheik” itself. Today, however, what remains of the text in popular memory is the image of a white woman abducted by a swarthy Arab man in flowing robes, perched on a galloping steed thundering over desert dunes. Meanwhile, the Arab-turned-English sheik himself has become inextricably intertwined with, and perhaps even lost in, the image of the Italian-turned-Arab-turned-American matinee idol Rudolph Valentino, whose death soon after the completion of The Son of the Sheik denied him any opportunity to sever his eternal association with the sheik by playing other subsequent roles. Both images—the horseback abduction and Valentino as the sheik—simultaneously evoke fun and fantasy, ridicule and romance; and perhaps that is why relatively little attention has been paid to both the novel and the film in comparison to other popular novels and films throughout the twentieth century.

Scholars in film and literary studies have certainly redressed this neglect over the last two decades, but apart from Caton’s work, discussions of the film and the novel do not generally overlap. Furthermore, although Hull’s novel, in particular, has been read within a plethora of different historical contexts pertaining to the 1920s, the circumstances of its production in the midst of World War I and its subsequent reception arising from the different imperial, ethnic, racial, and Orientalist contexts of Britain and the US have received little mention. This is not to suggest that the film and novel did not overlap, or were radically different in meaning and reception in Britain and America respectively. This is clearly not the case. The foregrounding of Diana’s desire for adventure, passion, and the exotic Orient is shared by both novel and film; as is her arrogant confidence arising from her position as a white imperial subject who has the power, ultimately, to rescue the European male “gone native,” and restore him to his white self. Where the novel crushes her and reduces her to submissive passivity to the sheik, however, the film celebrates her spirit and shows her triumphant over a somewhat debilitated sheik at the end. Still, the Hollywood film shares the novel’s imperial assumptions and obligingly confirms the novel’s insinuation that the French are weak colonizers who are best cast as adjuncts to the plot and to the British protagonists, even though the setting is in French colonial Algeria. Both novel and film condone the role of violence in romance—even though the film subsequently cloaks the novel’s rape scene in coy ambiguity—and, of course, both exalt the figure of the sheik as a menacing, mesmerizing, sexually potent, Oriental romantic hero. These things, and many other lesser details, the two texts have in common.

Yet the differences are equally significant. The first point of differentiation between Hull’s novel and Lasky’s film is the tradition of Orientalist discourse incorporated into each text. Like many of her fellow “desert romance” novelists in the first quarter of the twentieth century, Hull drew from a tradition of Orientalist literature concerned with historical accuracy, “authenticity,” naturalism, and verisimilitude, seemingly conscious about how well her descriptions of notable tourist destinations—Biskra or the North African desert—matched the descriptions in British travel accounts. Indeed, she herself would go on to write a travel book, Camping in the Sahara (1926). Moreover, British Orientalist discourse in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was grounded in concerns about colonial matters in the East. Said is surely correct in arguing that during this time, Orientalism served to justify European domination of its colonies. Hull commented on, or wrestled with, actual or potential colonial or racial problems in The Sheik and her subsequent desert romances. The justification and extension of British imperialism, especially in contrast to the French, is a significant part of the novel.

However, coming from a specifically American tradition of fairground and department-store Orientalism, Lasky’s film was less concerned with verisimilitude or the depiction of actual geopolitical regions, and more absorbed in creating a fantasy “Arabian Nights” space which emphasized the visual, spectacular, commoditized exotic: Oriental curtains, rugs, draperies, cushions, lamps, furniture, clothing, headwear and cigarettes. In this and subsequent sheik or desert romance films, Orientalism and “Arab-face” offered American men a way of experimenting with alternative masculinities that indulged the senses and reveled in “feminine” commodities such as exotic clothing, while combining this with a dangerous and violent ideal of the heroic lover. This ideal, first propagated by the British novel, had a very particular and poignant resonance for British audiences in the 1920s.

Hull’s novel was produced during a period of trauma: the constant reports of defeats, stalemates, and heavy casualties arising from the First World War—a war in which her own husband was involved; the stories of German atrocities trickling back from Belgium and amplified by the British government; the upheaval of social and sexual mores on the home front; the trauma of returned soldiers—often shell-shocked, neurasthenic, or embittered—trying to adapt to civilian life; and the domestic violence meted out against both strangers and loved ones that sometimes ensued. This must have influenced Hull to conceive the violent rapist hero whom the heroine could still fall in love with, because his Oriental otherness, brute strength, arrogance, confidence, and sexual prowess—part of his hyper-masculinity—were no doubt attractive in an age dominated domestically by what Sonya Rose has called the “temperate hero” (2003).

The Sheik was then received within a context of backlash against women. Although women over thirty received the vote in 1918, this limited victory for female suffrage was offset by the retrenchment of women from the workforce to make way for returned soldiers, and by hostility against young working-class women for taking men’s jobs or, in large port cities, for consorting with other men, especially “black” men. Women were certainly not passive in the face of this backlash. Many young women defiantly celebrated what gains were left to them after the war: access to the public sphere and to the new forms of consumerism and public entertainment that swept Britain in the 1920s—shopping, dancing, and movie-going, where they consumed Hollywood fare such as The Sheik. These were entertainments which celebrated and gave expression to female sexual desire, including the desire—fulfilled in fantasy if not reality—for dangerous “black” men, among whom Arabs and South Asians were included. In the end, Hull indulged women’s sexual desire but firmly reined in their interracial fantasies, diverting them instead to the figure of the heroic British man in “Arab-face.”

In many ways, the United States shared the same historical memories as the British; after all, Lasky’s film was released merely two years after the publication of Hull’s novel. However, the historical circumstances, and therefore the meaning, of these events differed in small but significant ways for Americans. For example, the American experience of the war was signally different from the British. The same motif of German atrocities in Belgium was used as American propaganda after the US declaration of war against Germany in April 1917, but the American public had not been bombarded with such stories for years as had the British public. For the Americans, the war was of a far shorter duration and lesser impact in terms of the war-wounded and the dead. Four million men were immediately mobilized but the first troops only made it to France a year later, at the end of March 1918, and these troops only experienced one victory after another from then until November 1918. The casualty rate for mobilized American soldiers was eight per cent, compared with forty-four per cent for the British. Whatever the war traumas experienced by individual soldiers, American society as a whole was not traumatized by World War I. Consciousness of the war was not part of the context in which the film was either produced or received.

The same broadly shared attitude towards race which nonetheless masked significant variations can also be seen in Britain and the US, which were both hostile to interracial relations between white women and non-white men. Despite the lack of any legal prohibition against interracial relations in Britain and its colonies, such unions between white women and non-white men were treated with deep revulsion and condemnation, because the boundaries of the imperial race and its inferior colonized subjects were being breached—something that British society strongly objected to especially after the 1857 Indian “Mutiny.” Arabs were generally placed on the same footing as Africans in this imperial hierarchy of race. In the US, however, anti-miscegenation laws were aimed squarely at African Americans and sustained by the myth of the black man raping the white woman (while ignoring the actual reality of white men raping black women). Arabs, while not quite securely “white,” were nevertheless differentiated from African Americans, and in the early 1910s, consolidated their citizenship rights as Americans on the basis of not being “black.” Here, the history of immigration plays into the construction of racial and white identity. For the British, racial questions held their greatest significance in the empire; within Britain itself, apart from the pockets of non-white populations in port cities, subjects were white precisely because they were British. In the US, however, European immigration from the postbellum era onwards raised the question of who could be considered white and, therefore, a potential citizen. The boundaries of “whiteness” were gradually extended to include the Irish, eastern and southern Europeans, Jews, and eventually Arabs—all of whom combined to form a “Caucasian” race which again differentiated itself against black Americans.

When George Melford directed The Sheik, the same process of incorporating the Italian/Arab Valentino into white society can be seen. Arabs are “white” enough to be played by Italians who, in turn, have become “white” enough to represent Englishmen (albeit with a hint of Spanish-Moorish blood). “White” Arabs associate with white people like the French. Unlike the degenerate bandit Omair, the white sheik distances and differentiates himself from indisputably “black” people like Nubian slaves. The racial and white ethnic logic of this film only makes sense within the context of the history of American racial, immigration, and citizenship policies of the early twentieth century: a history in which black people are constantly represented in servitude of some sort, but where non-white/not-black people can be assimilated into the body politic as citizens if they distance themselves from blacks.

In the end, we cannot determine how many readers and film-goers were attentive to the various nuances and differences between Hull’s novel and Lasky’s film. Contemporary reviews of the film in magazines such as Photoplay or Pictureplay seemed to latch on to one overwhelming difference: the emasculation of Ahmed Ben Hassan in the film. This they blamed, not so much on Valentino for his portrayal of the sheik, as on the producer and director for choosing a film that would inevitably “give the censor’s knife full play” (Pictureplay 1922). Regardless of how cognizant audiences were of these differences, they are important because they show the various ways the Orient became “Orientalized” for two different audiences in the early twentieth century, and they indicate the different purposes that a heteroglossic Orientalist discourse could serve: as escapist entertainment, certainly, but also as an intervention by a previously unknown woman writer into British imperial matters as well as into the wartime and postwar debate about women’s sexual desire, and as a medium of exploring American racial identity and inclusion into full citizenship. Finally, whatever else The Sheik did or did not do, it placed women at the center of Orientalist discourse as both producers and consumers of the novel and the film, thereby making them complicit in its legacy throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

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[1] This essay assumes that “the Orient” is a Western discursive construct rather than existing geopolitical reality but, for ease of reading, will omit scare quotes from the terms “Orient” or “Oriental” in subsequent references.

[2] For example, Lady Jane Digby and Margaret Fountaine.

[3] Women over thirty were given the vote in 1918. It would be another decade before they were enfranchised on the same terms as men.