In the late thirties, when my sister married and left home, she left behind a giant stack of film annuals, and a large poster of Rudolph Valentino on her bedroom wall. So, as I learned to read, I became a film fan manque, so to speak. I was reared on Jean Harlow, Nova Pilbeam, Mae West - and above all, Rudolph Valentino. All these sepia portraits of glamorous women played a major part in my life - so much so, that when I finally read that superb read "The Great Gatsby" the characters were immediately brought to life from those old portraits. Oh what glamorous and exciting lives they lived compared with mine - I thought as I got a bit older.
Fast-forward ten years - still in the age when "sex" was rarely, if ever, mentioned and when there was no television and when my reading was confined to books like "Black Beauty" (my friend, Janet, and I used to cycle to her grandmother's farm on our bikes, pretending we were on Black Beauty and another horse - we took it in turns to ride Black Beauty, keeping a careful note so that there was no cheating!) Janet suddenly came up with a bright idea. We had discussed what people did when they were married (?) and I did once ask my mother if you could have a baby when you were not married and when she replied 'no' I pointed out that our next door neighbour's daughter had a little girl - and I had never seen a husband. She said he worked away and when I kept up the questioning she told me to go away and play and not ask silly questions.
Fortuitously, Janet found a book her mother had read and put on the bookshelves. It was called The Sheik and Janet had read it when her mother was away for a few days and her dad was in charge. She said it was all about what people did when they were married - and she thought you could also do it when you were not married because the lady in the book wasn't married.
She duly arrived with said book when my mother was out and we hid it under my winter clothes in the drawer of the dressing table. Each night, after I had gone to bed, I read a few pages under the sheets, reading by torch light. Oh how we gobbled up the romantic nonsense - and spent hours discussing the finer points while riding Black Beauty to Fiskerton and back!
Well, Virago have republished The Sheik (2002) and I have just been lent a copy - how it brought back memories. It is racist in the extreme and sexist in the extreme, but in both cases this would not have been thought odd when it was published in the 1920's.
But the really interesting thing is that it was written by Edith Maude Hull who was the wife of a Derbyshire Pig Farmer. Nobody seems to know much about her as she appears to have spent her life either travelling or being a farmer's wife. All I can say is that she had a very vivid imagination. She also provided Valentino with what was probably his greatest role (which explains why my sister's wall poster showed him in arab dress). I can't help wondering how much EM Hull was paid for the film rights and whether she died a rich woman. The write-up in the front of the reissue says she 'fell silent in 1939.
Did I enjoy it this time round? Not really - it is horribly dated and as the blurb says 'a touchingly artless expression of female sexual masochism' - but it sure brought back exciting memories of clandestine reads. As far as I know my mother never knew anything about it.