Gender, Sexuality and The Sheik

By Laura Vivanco on Wednesday, 30 December, 2020

A special issue of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies appeared earlier in the month, focused on E. M. Hull's The Sheik. In it Jessica Taylor explores

how we might read Diana with a trans lens, unpacking [...] her masculinity [...]. This lens leads me to compare The Sheik to another interwar British novel with a more famously masculine heroine—Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928)—which presents an explicitly queer protagonist (who might today identify as either a butch lesbian, a trans man, or a nonbinary person) who echoes many of Diana’s characteristics, but ends her novel very differently. [...] I want to allow a trans reading that [...] embraces Diana’s attachment to her boyhood, before the plot closes off that possibility.

In my essay for the same issue of JPRS I also contrasted The Sheik with another novel, in my case a well-received romance published in the same year, Berta Ruck's A Land-Girl's Love Story. Since that novel includes a cross-dressing hero (there is an extended sequence in which the utterly convincing nature of his performance is described) who believes that in many respects men should behave more like women, and a heroine who is repeatedly described as being boyish, it seems to me that what Hull closes off, Ruck deliberately leaves open. Taylor is

not suggesting here that Diana was written as a trans man, a non-binary person, or a butch woman (butch being a social category beyond simple masculinity). These are present-day categories which, while they describe a range of practices that were indeed in existence in early twentieth century Britain, were not in use in 1919.

Such categories are, of course, not explicitly present in Ruck's novel either, but it seems to me that Ruck's Elizabeth and Fielding certainly challenge gender binaries and even if that weren't the case, it would be difficult to categorise Elizabeth as uncomplicatedly heterosexual given that

"Heavens!" ejaculated Elizabeth, with [...] fervour and truth in her voice. "How I do loathe what they call 'a manly man'! All lumps and a bull's voice, and irregular features!"
"But," I suggested mildly, "you wouldn't want a man to look like the picture off a chocolate-box lid?"
"I should adore it," declared this exception in girls. "When I was a little girl, once, I was given a box of sweets with a picture on the lid called 'The Falconer.' He wore a golden-brown hunting-dress and he had a hawk on his shoulder, and golden hair and soft eyes, and, oh! such a pretty face! I thought at the time, 'If only I could ever see a young man looking like that Falconer!' And now I have. Colonel Fielding is exactly like that picture. Oh, Joan, I think he's the most beautiful thing I've seen." (194)

Joan, who prefers "manly good looks" (195) cannot find Colonel Fielding, who "could dress up and look exactly like a girl" (195) at all attractive, but "here was the boyish, resolute, no-nonsense-about-her Elizabeth glorying in the fact!" (195). Elizabeth and Fielding get their happy ending, just as Joan and her "manly" man do.


Ruck, Berta, 1919. A Land-Girl's Love Story. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company. [Available online here.]

Taylor, Jessica, 2020. “Garçon Manqué: A Queer Rereading (of) The Sheik.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies 9. [Available online here.]

Vivanco, Laura, 2020. “Let’s Not Get Carried Away by The Sheik. Journal of Popular Romance Studies 9. [Available online here.]

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