The Sheikh, as hero, burst onto feminine consciousness when, in 1919, E M Hull’s bestselling novel, The Sheik seized the imagination of a generation of women.
Sheik Ahmed ben Hassan is portrayed as the archetypal alpha male. Commanding, driven, set apart from society by his role as leader. Putting himself outside of civilisation when he kidnaps the boyish, aristocratic English girl, Diana Mayo – a symbol of everything he most hates -- raping her, keeping her his prisoner.
What then, for the millions of women who were swept away by Hull’s book, could possibly be the attraction in this character? What was the power of The Sheik?
At the beginning of the twenty century society deemed that sex was something that “nice” women did out of duty, on their back, with their eyes closed and the light off. In The Sheik, Hull gave them – without ever lifting the tent flap -- the fantasy of the forbidden; guiltless, white-hot sex. Diana struggles, screams, declares she would kill herself if Sheik Ahmed had not taken her pistol and, having resisted with every fibre of her being, she is morally off the hook, free from the censure of society. And what happens next, of course, is that the stunningly virile Sheik Ahmed awakens the sensuality in this almost asexual young woman, but awakens it for him alone.
Sheik Ahmed never admits to feeling anything for Diana. Only when she is kidnapped by his enemy does he reveal the strength of his passion, putting his life on the line to save her. Only in delirium, hovering between life and death, are his feelings revealed and, all but destroyed by what he’s done to her, it is Diana who redeems him with her love.
It’s a powerful story and one that romance writers have been revisiting ever since; the Greek ship owner, the ruthless Sicilian, the Italian count are versions of “The Sheik” in an Armani suit. Powerful men brought to their knees by love. Yet of all these mythic heroes, the Sheikh alone carries an air of mystery and romance that was once the prerogative of royalty, the rich.
He is different. Exotic in manner and in dress. Unfathomable. Not just able to live in the desert, but most happy in its empty spaces. Even though the Sheikh may own a penthouse, wear fine broadcloth when the occasion demands, he retains the aura of man not just in command of, but at one with his environment. He is the cowboy in robes and when danger threatens, his strength and protection are absolute.
These are the characteristics that make him, still, a powerful, a compelling hero in the romance genre.
I have had two Sheikh stories published – with two more in production. In my first, HIS DESERT ROSE, published in 2000, I took as my model the classic story. When Prince Hassan al Rachid kidnaps beautiful international journalist Rose Fenton, she shows all the spirit of Diana Mayo, even attempts escape. But Prince Hassan’s motives are political, and Rose has her own agenda. It’s his story that she wants and by kidnapping her, concealing her at his desert oasis, he has played straight into her hands. Despite the fact that this is a complete switch on E M Hull’s The Sheik, as with the beginning, the end has echoes of the original. Hassan kidnaps her, but then Rose, in enslaving him, becomes the hero of her own story.
And that, I suspect, is the secret of the Sheikh romance. The heroine has to be as strong as the hero. Not necessarily one of those feisty females, who gives as good as she gets, but a woman who is strong to the core. Lucy Forrester, the heroine of THE SHEIKH’S GUARDED HEART, is not, at first glance, strong. Her entire life has been dictated by the whims of others and yet, when confronted by difficult choices she never hesitates to do what is right. Even confronted with treachery and betrayal, her only thought is of the innocent. It’s a thought that nearly costs Lucy her life.
Sheikh Hanif al-Khatib, a man mired in guilt and grief, who has put himself out of society, exiling himself in the desert, rescues her in a classic “sheikh” moment, lifting her onto his horse, carrying her away from danger. But this is the twenty-first century and he’s still holding her, keeping her safe, on the helicopter he summons to ferry her to the nearest hospital. At this point he should be able to walk away, hero stuff done. Except that she’s alone, with no one to take care of her and honour demands more.
The hero is, once again, held captive by the heroine, who as her wounds heal, sets about healing his soul.
And, yes, she enslaves him.