By Elizabeth Cole
Following a summer working on an Undergraduate Research Scholarship, Elizabeth Cole presents some reflections on archival research with early editions of E. M. Hull’s The Sheik (1919).
The Sheik by E. M. Hull, which celebrates its hundredth anniversary this year, was one of the most successful romance novels of its time, inspiring two hit silent films starring Rudolph Valentino as well as a slew of copy-cats in the desert romance genre. A hundred and eight different editions of The Sheik were published in the Britain between 1919 and 1923, testifying to the novel’s immense popularity. As part of my UGRS project, I was given the opportunity to visit the British Library and examine some of the surviving early editions of The Sheik and its sequel, The Sons of The Sheik, to see how contemporary culture affected the way the novel was presented throughout the twentieth century.
Many of the surviving early editions I was able to see were plain hardcovers with little embellishment or additional detail on the outside in a way that perhaps can be seen to attest to the “pulp” nature of the novel. One such example is the 1924 George Newnes edition, which is bound in a cardboard-like material and has no discerning information on the outside (although it was difficult to tell if this was the original binding or added after the fact.) The first edition published by Eveleigh Nash and Company has a similarly bare cover, although in a nicer blue.
Some editions, however, have designs that allude to the setting of The Sheik; a 1921 edition published by George Newnes has a blue cover with intricate designs embedded into the cover and spine, connecting the physical book to the exoticized Arabian desert where the novel takes place. The American 1921 version and its equivalent 1925 edition of The Sons of The Sheik, both published by Small, Maynard & Co in Boston, features two engraved icons of lotus flowers next to Hull’s name on the front cover, which again alludes to the Middle Eastern setting.
While the covers were plain, the insides held some amazing art. The 1924 edition, while unassuming on the outside, has a very interesting full-colour illustration of Diana and the eponymous Sheik at the back. Perhaps my favourite copy was the 1930 edition printed by the same publisher, which featured another very beautiful picture of the protagonist Diana and the Sheik on the first page. Examining these for markers of difference was very interesting – in the earlier edition, Sheik Ahmed appears almost white, whereas he is clearly darker (although not by much) in the later edition. In both Ahmed is marked as ‘Other’ by his clothing, robes with embellished sleeves that differ greatly from Diana’s western dress.
The 1924 edition also has imagined the desert setting more fully, with a view of cushions with similar embellished designs behind them, and a view outside of the tent into the starry sky. These scenes allow readers to fantasise about the exotic setting, whilst at the same time foreshadowing the ending of the book – that Ahmed is not really foreign, but the son of British and Spanish parents – through his pale skin.
Many editions came with advertisements in the back, some for other novels by the same publishing company, much like modern books, and some that were a little more interesting. The kinds of adverts that appear in the texts demonstrate the target audience of the text, namely housewives, with adverts for things like soap and OXO (at the time advertised as a drink made with hot milk.) Perhaps the most intriguing – and medically dubious – of these was for ‘Dr J. Collis Browne’s Chlorodyne’ a medicine that claims to cure asthma, influenza and gout, amongst other things, and which, according to Wikipedia, contained laudanum, cannabis and chloroform. A slightly overkill approach to curing the flu!
The late 1970s saw a revival of The Sheik and its sequel through famous romance author Barbara Cartland’s ‘Library of Love’ series, which condensed and republished popular romance novels of the early twentieth century for the modern day. Both the paperback and hardback editions had a full-colour illustration of Diana and the Sheik on the front cover.
Despite being fifty years apart, the covers bear striking similarity to the ones previously discussed in the earlier editions, with Ahmed in similar white robes and Diana laying down on faux-eastern pillows and throws. The only noticeable difference is that Diana is perhaps more feminine than in earlier images, which is compounded by the fact that several of the references to Diana’s masculinity in the first chapter were removed in the Cartland version. A discussion about this with the academic leads on the project opened this up as a potential further line of research, especially as Barbara Cartland was born in Edgbaston and so has a connection to the University. The similarities between the images of The Sheik and modern sheik romances is also striking, and was another thing I discussed with the academic leads.
Examining the physical copies of the novel was one of my favourite aspects of the UGRS, and furthered my understanding of how the genre had developed over time.