On their wedding night, in the middle of the desert, Faye and Tariq have a heated conversation. Faye asks:
‘[…] Tell me, do you only sleep with virgins?’
‘What has got into you?’ Tariq demanded in a shaken undertone.
‘I’m coming to terms with being a concubine. Tell me, do I get sown into a sack and dropped into the Gulf when you get bored with me?’
‘A sack would be very useful right now. You want me to apologise, don’t you?’
‘Oh no, even you couldn’t apologise for the embarrassment of a complete stranger stating that I’m not a virgin in front of so many people. Allow me to tell you that I found that weird and kinky and medieval-‘(The Arabian Mistress, p. 90).
This passage is from a modern popular romance published in 2001, The Arabian Mistress by Lynne Graham. In recent years, many of the negative connotations of the medieval in contemporary culture have been connected, through an orientalist political rhetoric, to a ‘barbaric, backwards’ Middle East, defined by political dictatorship, terrorism and misogyny and located specifically in and around the Arabian Gulf. The labelling of old-fashioned and repressive values as medieval is not new, as Fred Robinson indicated back in 1984. However the construction of the East as ‘medieval’ has received renewed vigour in the past decade: for example in the ‘crusading’ speeches of George W. Bush, or the religious rhetoric of Tony Blair. Modern romance novels might not seem like the locus for these politicised ideas about the medieval, as they generally avoid politics, but we are increasingly seeing a preoccupation with the east as medieval, especially in the subgenre of sheikh romance although, as I will show, perhaps not in the same way as political rhetoric.
In this paper, I will outline three ways in which sheikh romance novels published in the UK over the last ten years engage with this ‘medieval’ rhetoric. To begin, I’ll offer a brief background of Mills & Boon and the subgenre of sheikh romances in the UK. Next, I will consider how the medieval is used in contemporary Mills & Boon sheikh romances to describe custom and architecture. I will examine three major ways in which sheikh romances nuance the existing discourse of the ‘medieval’ east: through geography, temporality and sexuality. I intend to show how sheikh romances construct the ‘medieval’ as something paradoxically appealing and abhorrent, and will consider how this construction of the medieval and of the east impacts upon issues of gender and sexuality.
Mills & Boon and the Sheikh Subgenre
Mills & Boon was founded in 1908 by Gerald Mills and Charles Boon. Although they initially did not focus on romance novels, over the years the Mills & Boon imprint has become synonymous with romantic fiction: the Oxford English Dictionary defines Mills & Boon as a ‘trademark used to denote an idealized romantic situation of the kind associated with the fiction published by Mills & Boon Limited: the Mills and Boon tall, dark stranger’. After a merger with Harlequin in 1971, the company has enjoyed unbounded success: according to the company, a Mills and Boon book is sold in the UK every 3 seconds and it is estimated that romantic fiction accounts for 20 per cent of the fiction books retailed in the UK – that is one in every 5 fiction books sold. The company claims a huge global readership, selling 200 million books worldwide each year, distributing in 109 different countries. To put this in context, all seven of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter titles, including three companion books are estimated to have sold 450 million copies. If Mills & Boon continue to publish at the same rate (and evidence suggests that their sales remain buoyant even in a global recession) Mills & Boon could sell this many novels in just over two years.
Although not published by Mills & Boon, E. M. Hull’s The Sheik (1919) has been widely accepted as the first formula ‘sheikh’ romance. I define sheikh romance as a love story set in the deserts of the Middle East or North Africa, with a sheikh or sultan hero and almost always a western (which is usually British, North American or Australian) heroine. A typical sheikh romance might begin with the forced marriage of hero and heroine following her abduction to his desert kingdom: an experience interspersed with midnight horse-riding in the desert, camping in a Bedouin tent, getting rescued from a sandstorm, bathing and being luxuriantly massaged in the sheikh’s jewelled palace, and enjoying a host of other Orientalised luxuries.
The success of Hull’s The Sheik spawned many more sheikh novels, including the first Mills & Boon sheikh romance, Louise Gerard’s A Sultan’s Slave (1921). Mills & Boon followed this up with Desert Quest by Elizabeth Milton in 1930, Maureen Heeley’s The Desert of Lies and Flame of the Desert in 1932 and 1934 respectively and Circles in the Sand (1935) by Majorie Moore. Sheikh romances seem to decline in popularity during the 1940s, at least in terms of Mills & Boon publication, but return in the 1950s and 1960s. At least three original sheikh titles were published by Mills & Boon in the fifties, six in the sixties, growing to 12 in the seventies, 17 in the eighties and 24 in the nineties. However in the 2000s the growth in popularity was exponential, with over 100 original titles published by Mills & Boon from 2000-2009. Even taking into account the increase in the number of novels published, this is a substantial increase, suggesting a significant contemporary market for these sheikh romances.
Although sheikh titles appear in many different series, the majority of recently published sheikh titles in the UK have been part of Mills & Boon’s flagship ‘Modern Romance’ series which began in July 2000. From the beginning of the ‘Modern Romance’ series until December 2009, Mills & Boon published 57 original sheikh titles in the ‘Modern Romance’ series  and these are the texts I focus on in this paper.
Using the Medieval: Shaky Geography
In many of these sheikh romances, the romance nation is usually ‘medieval’ in its architecture, landscape and customs. There are medieval Citadels (The Sheikh’s Virgin Princess, p. 173), medieval towns (The Sheikh’s Ransomed Bride, p. 46), a tent like a ‘medieval pavilion’ (Bedded by the Desert King, p. 16); and a palace which appears to be ‘a medieval jail’ (The Sheikh’s Love-Child, p. 20). Traditional activities involve ‘medieval accoutrements’ (The Sheikh’s Virgin Bride, pp. 151-2) and some countries are ruled by ‘medieval laws and customs’ (The Desert Sheikh’s Captive Wife, p. 131) which particularly emphasise gender injustice. One heroine is sold in marriage to the sheikh to secure mining rights, her father bartering “like some medieval tyrant” with the sheikh’s family (The Sheikh’s Bartered Bride, p. 170). Another states that ‘going back to [the sheikh’s country] was like a time-travel into the dark ages. It was still feudal even barbaric, in its customs, particularly with regards to women’ (The Sheikh’s Wife, p. 58). Women are judged as “they used to do in Medieval times” (The Sheikh’s Unwilling Wife, p. 75) and there is a ‘warped sense of medieval family honour” (Desert Prince, Defiant Virgin, p. 148).
Having been exposed to contemporary political rhetoric about the ‘medieval Middle East’, it is unsurprising that romance readers and authors connect this romance east, which is here explicitly medievalised – with the ‘medieval east’ they encounter in the news. Yet these novels deploy an interesting technique which blurs this connection – the nation may still be medieval, but it is not necessarily the same medieval as that of the Middle East in the news, because of the sheikh romance’s fictional geography.
Mills & Boon sheikh romances of the first half of the twentieth century were usually set in British colonies or ex-colonies in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula (e.g. Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Aden). However since the 1980s, the nations of sheikh romances have been almost entirely fictionalised: created nations invented for the purposes of the novel. By removing their ‘medieval’ attitudes from the context of the contemporary Middle East and situating them in an indefinable, fictional space, I contend that these sheikh romances can effectively sidestep the negative political rhetoric associated with the ‘medieval east’: this is clearly still a ‘medieval’ attitude which is understood negatively, but it is not necessarily the same ‘medieval attitude’ assumed to inhere in the real-life Middle East.
Furthermore, whilst the nations themselves are fictional, all but three of the 57 sheikh romances published in the ‘Modern Romance’ series are very clearly geographically situated in the Middle East, almost exclusively in the Arabian Peninsula and Persian Gulf.
I have mapped these fictional locations as precisely as possible using geographical references from the novels, indicating how many of the nations are located as extended Emirates in a seemingly limitlessly expansive Arabian Peninsula (click the map for a closer look). The model used for Mills & Boon’s fictional east appears to be the hypermodern and western-friendly nations of the United Arab Emirates, particularly Dubai, thus providing the requisite exoticism, with none of the restrictions frequently outlined in the contemporary media. Moreover, most Westerners cannot name all of the United Arab Emirates, indicating the ease with which even the real Middle East can become fictionalised. The geographical shift from old colonial obsessions to a new political geography centred around the United Arab Emirates indicates a particular shift in the political tensions of sheikh novels: a liberal ally in the Middle East, but with the medieval (represented in the media by Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia) always pushing at the edges.
Self-Referencing Romances: Temporality
I will now move to consider how sheikh romances’ temporality works to alter the meaning of ‘medieval’. Mills & Boon is a highly self-referential publisher and authors in genre fiction often pay tribute to previous authors and their works. Furthermore the striking homogeneity of the created east in different sheikh novels suggests that authors are redeploying particular features (the desert, the harem, the luxurious palace) to create an east that is recognised and recognisable. More specifically, sheikh romances evoke the established desert imagery of romance novels and films from the 1920s and 1930s, especially The Sheik, which was made into a film starring Rudolph Valentino in 1921. In fact, the status of Hull’s novel within the desert genre substantiates its position as a point of reference for later novels.
The heroine of The Sheikh’s Bartered Bride harbours erotic fantasies that mirror the kidnap plot of Hull’s The Sheik; the heroine’s expectations of a sheikh who rides ‘the desert on a magnificent while stallion’, steals women and makes ‘wild love to them in [his] tent’ (p. 150) reveal the provenance of her expectations. Valentino is sometimes explicitly mentioned; the hero of The Sheikh’s Wife ‘seemed perfect’ ‘like Valentino from the old movies’ (p. 113) and the heroine of Sold to the Sheikh recounts the fantasy of ‘Rudolph Valentino, sweeping the fair lady off to his desert lair to have his wicked way with her’, noting ‘That scenario has turned countless Western women on no end over the years’ (p. 110). There is often a tension between rejection of this stereotype and desire for the fantasy it evokes. In Mistress of the Sheikh the sheikh hero had ‘talked to [the heroine] as if he really were the tottering ghost of old Rudy Valentino…straight out of an outdated Hollywood flick, complete with flaring nostrils, attitude, and macho enough to make a camel gag’ (p. 56). Here, the heritage of Rudolph Valentino is presented as undesirable and antiquated, yet later in the same novel the heroine has ‘a silly dream, something straight out of a silent movie’ (p. 100), during which her attraction to the sheikh and this fantasy is clear. In Surrender to the Sheikh the hero is even described as ‘a Lawrence-of-Arabia-type character’ (p. 55). Lawrence of Arabia, or T. E. Lawrence, was made famous in early 1920 through Lowell Thomas’ exhibition With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia and was an inspiration for Hull’s novel and many others.
So even though the eastern landscape and architecture of these romances is described as medieval, it is also linked to 1920s and 30s cinema: the heroine of Duty, Desire and the Desert King perceives the palace as ‘something from Arabian Nights, or a Hollywood film set’ (p. 54) and ‘the fire blazing high into the sky in front of the ocean, and the musicians beating their Arabian drums and strumming even more exotic instruments, […] was like the setting for a film (p. 51)’ in Desert King, Pregnant Mistress.
So what is the significance of this blending of temporalities and cultural markers from the early twentieth century and the ‘medieval’? Moreover, when sheikh romances use the word ‘medieval’, what do they actually mean? I suggest that when Mills & Boon sheikh novels refer to a historical, mythical east, represented by the ‘medieval’, their heritage in previous sheikh romances mean that they are, to a certain extent, referring to and reusing the tropes of past sheikh romances. Furthermore the ‘medieval’ is associated in ‘Modern Romance’ sheikh novels with abduction, virginity, the desert nation and the forcefulness of heroes which are all significant tropes of early sheikh novels (although Hull does not use the word ‘medieval’ in The Sheik). In fact, these tropes are so integral to the genre that it is conceivable that just as these elements define the genre, so too the ‘medieval’ has started to become an obligatory reference in sheikh romance. Thus, is it possible that ‘medieval’ here is associated not with the ‘medieval’ of contemporary political discourse, but with a different medieval, linked in its association with the cultural tropes of sheikh romance in the 1920s and 1930s, and not directly through modern political rhetoric? This also indicates that representing the east as medieval in sheikh romance is not a kneejerk reaction to recent events, but has a longer history from within the genre.
Romance Resolution: Desiring the Medieval
Finally, I will indicate how sheikh romances negotiate their medieval connotations by finding an eroticism in the ‘medieval’. Many accusations of being medieval are directed at the sheikh himself; One heroine rails “you described me as your woman as though I was a possession! It’s medieval!” (The Desert Sheikh’s Captive Wife, p. 107) and the heroine of The Sheikh’s Wife considers ‘what kind of man handcuffs a woman? A medieval man’ (p. 96). And yet despite his medieval attitude, heroines still desire the hero. In The Sheikh’s Wife the heroine knew that ‘he could seduce her at the drop of [a] hat’ and ‘she responded to him’ as ‘something inside her stirred, hunger, awareness’(p. 26). So in desiring the ‘medieval’ hero, does this perhaps suggest that heroines similarly desire his medieval attitude? Or is this another example of the tension between desire for and rejection of a fantasy?
Returning to the passage I cited at the beginning of this paper, there is one area in which desire for a medieval attitude is fore grounded: virginity. 31 of the 57 sheikh romances I examined feature virgin heroines (54%) and almost every non-virgin heroine is inexperienced and innocent of sexual pleasure. The heroine of The Sheikh’s Bartered Bride recognises the importance of virginity to the hero and his family as ‘had she not been a virgin, she had the awful feeling even a pity date would not have occurred. It was medieval (p. 94). In Possessed by the Sheikh, explaining why he wants to marry her, the hero tells the heroine Katrina ‘It is my duty to do as my brother commands me and, besides, since I took your virginity…’, upon which ‘Katrina protested in a distraught whisper’: ‘You’re marrying me because of that! But that… that’s archaic… medieval…’ (p. 153).
There are even references to a trope often used in medieval historical romance – that of proving virginity through bloody sheets: the hero of The Arabian Mistress believing the heroine not to be a virgin, states ‘I will cut myself and smear blood on the sheet’ (p. 93) in order to ‘prove’ her virginity.
Yet although heroines label this obsession with virginity as ‘medieval’ in a clearly negative way, there is a concurrent desire for this particular ‘medieval’ trope. The heroine for whom the hero is willing to cut himself considers ‘it was finally dawning on her that virginity appeared to be a major issue on all fronts as far as he was concerned. It was medieval but there was something terribly, strangely, crazily sweet about his equally barbaric solution to this lack he believed she had’ (The Arabian Mistress, p. 93). Here, the heroine is welcoming the hero’s ‘medieval’ attitude while simultaneously rejecting its barbarism: ‘medieval’ virginity is constructed as both ‘weird’ and ‘kinky’ as the quotation from my title suggests. Furthermore, as I noted earlier, many of the heroines are virgins, so even though they might verbally resist this medieval rhetoric, which insists they must be virginal, they simultaneously endorse it precisely by being virgins. A similar desire for a ‘medieval’ attitude can be seen in The Sheikh’s Ransomed Bride as the heroine finds the sheikh’s assumption of ‘a medieval view of a woman’s role?’ appealing ‘to some tiny, primitive part of her subconscious’ (p. 128). Thus this medieval discourse, as it defines attitudes towards virginity, is figured as something which can be simultaneously rejected and desired.
The Medieval and the Idea of Progress
Yet even as they nuance and shift it, sheikh romances do, to a certain extent, reproduce a discourse similar to that in the contemporary media by positioning the western heroine as the harbinger of progress to the desert nation. In The Desert King’s Bejewelled Bride the heroine accuses the hero of being ‘a relic from the Dark Ages’ (p. 142) when he announces that he expects her to give up her modelling career after their marriage. Yet at the end of the novel the hero admits ‘I was wrong to make the assumptions and the demands that I did’ (p. 183), thereby relinquishing his medieval ideals. Yet the heroine replies ‘I don’t want to carry on modelling. But I do want to work, yes. Let me help with the new school […], build others just the same’ (p. 183). So even though she rejected the sheikh’s expectation that she would give up her career as ‘from the Dark Ages’, the heroine does in fact give up her job, replacing it with a scheme of modernisation and development, thus resolving the sheikh’s ‘medieval’ demands, as well as beginning, through development, to modernise the nation.
Similarly in The Sultan’s Bought Bride the heroine protests against the ‘disgustingly barbaric arranged marriage thing’, and argues passionately in favour of ‘the women living in [the sheikh’s country] who might be in desperate need of a helping hand’ (p. 76). She later sets out her plans to encourage girls to stay in education and have a choice to marry or not. Development is defined according to the interests of the western heroine and, consequently, western reader, hence the focus on women’s rights. Moreover, what is labelled as medieval in these romances, and therefore able to be modernised, is invariably gender issues affecting women. So in the romantic resolution of the story, some of the medieval attitudes can apparently be resolved through the heroine’s scheme of modernisation.
Yet this resolution is not without its tensions: here heroines are figured as vehicles of the western world. By advocating education and women’s rights, heroines simultaneously bring about modernity, whilst paradoxically reinforcing the ‘medievalness’ of the desert nation – the fact that it needed modernising in the first place. So whilst the sheikh’s ‘medieval’ ideas about the heroine’s career may have been resolved, by placing plans for modernisation in the future, these romances underscore the medieval present of the east.
So to conclude, I will summarise the ways in which these sheikh romances use the medieval. First, there has been a shift in romance relations with the Middle East in recent times, notably in its movement to a fictional Middle Eastern geography dominated by tourist-friendly locations modelled on places like Dubai. This allows novels to focus on the tourism aspects of the Middle East, like camel rides, and to locate ‘medieval’ attitudes elsewhere. Second, by outlining the continuing use of tropes from earlier sheikh romance and their relation to the medieval, I have indicated that the association of the East with the medieval in sheikh Mills & Boon is not new, but may be a continuation and evolution of a pre-existing rhetoric from earlier sheikh novels and films. Thus, the events of 9/11, so cited as the catalyst for today’s view of the Middle East as medieval, do not perhaps loom as large in romance relations with the east.
Finally, the centrality of an erotic desire surrounding the east and the medieval indicates the tensions that drive these romances and are, I would argue, a large part of their appeal. It may be that eroticising the east is a way of exploring the complexity of the erotic tensions at the centre of these romances, and how this conflict echoes our own conflicted relationship with the east. By sidestepping the geographical locus of the medieval Middle East, reworking the meaning of medieval away from contemporary political rhetoric and erotically engaging with the medieval as sexual fantasy, I argue that these romances can offer a way to tame and deal with a scary political situation, giving women an opportunity to negotiate a war they are not a part of.
These romances also reveal how deeply rooted ideas about the medieval are in issues relating to gender and sexuality. While you might not necessarily want to call Mills & Boon romances feminist narratives, although some have argued for the feminist credentials of romance novels, the vast majority of Mills & Boon readers and authors are women and romance novels frequently deal with issues commonly affecting women which are often excluded from public discourse, for example, marriage, relationships, children. Furthermore, these are precisely the aspects of sheikh romances which are described as medieval –female sexuality and the treatment of women. But, then, how ‘feminist’ is it to construct ‘medieval’ sexuality as desirable?
Furthermore, as you may have detected, these are extraordinarily Orientalist texts. Although 3 of the 57 ‘Modern Romance’ sheikh novels have half-eastern heroines, the vast majority centre on entirely western heroines, in line with the tradition established by Hull and her predecessors of a white western heroine and an Arabian sheikh. I contend that the western heroine can locate an enjoyment within medieval sexuality because of her feelings for the sheikh hero: a relationship to which the western heroine enjoys exclusive access. Although the position of sheikha would usually be occupied by an eastern woman, in Mills & Boon sheikh romances, it is the western heroine who assumes this role. Furthermore, the ability of the western heroine to imagine ways in which the medieval east can be modernised is uniquely located in her western identity: by labelling the eastern nation as medieval (and by extension declaring all of its inhabitants bar herself to be medieval subjects) the western heroine relegates her eastern counterpart to a medieval woman’s role – precisely the aspect of the medieval that she so vociferously rejects throughout the romance. As a result, it could be argued that sheikh romances perpetuate a ‘female Orientalism’, whereby the white, western woman speaks for and over the eastern woman, denying her her own voice and agency. This use of the medieval, then, might be the most disturbing of all.
 I have not counted two ‘Modern Romance Extra’ titles, one title from the mini-series The Royal House of Niroli, as well as three titles from the mini-series The Royal House of Karedes which also carry the ‘Modern Romance’ branding, but are usually catalogued separately from the ‘Modern Romance’ series.
Lynne Graham, The Arabian Mistress (Richmond: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2001)
Lynne Graham, The Desert Sheikh’s Captive Wife (Richmond: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2007)
Kate Hewitt, The Sheikh’s Love-Child (Richmond: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2009)
Penny Jordan, The Sheikh’s Virgin Bride (Richmond: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2003)
Penny Jordan, Possessed by the Sheikh (Richmond: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2005)
Sharon Kendrick, Surrender to the Sheikh (Richmond: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2001)
Sharon Kendrick, The Sheikh’s Unwilling Wife (Richmond: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2007)
Kim Lawrence, Desert Prince, Defiant Virgin (Richmond: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2008)
Miranda Lee, Sold to the Sheikh (Richmond: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2004)
Sandra Marton, Mistress of the Sheikh (Richmond: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2000)
Lucy Monroe, The Sheikh’s Bartered Bride (Richmond: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2004)
Sarah Morgan, The Sheikh’s Virgin Princess (Richmond: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2008)
Sabrina Philips, The Desert King’s Bejewelled Bride (Richmond: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2009)
Jane Porter, The Sheikh’s Wife (Richmond: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2001)
Jane Porter, The Sultan’s Bought Bride (Richmond: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2004)
Jane Porter, Duty, Desire and the Desert King (Richmond: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2009)
Fred C. Robinson, “Medieval, The Middle Ages”, Speculum 59.4 (1984): 745-756.
Susan Stephens, Bedded by the Desert King (Richmond: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2006)
Susan Stephens, Desert King, Pregnant Mistress (Richmond: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2008)
Annie West, The Sheikh’s Ransomed Bride (Richmond: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2007)
The first image is the cover of E. M. Hull, The Sheik (New York: Dell, 1947, originally published 1919), accessed at Wikimedia Commons. The second image is a map showing the locations of sheikh romance nations, created by A Burge, not to be reproduced without permission. The third image is an advertising poster for the film The Sheik (1921) accessed at Wikimedia Commons.