Edith M. Hull

b. Hampstead, 1880

d. Hazelwood, 1947

Edith Maude Hull was the only daughter of the American shipowner, James Henderson, and his Canadian wife, Katie. In her teens, Edith met Percy Winstanley Hull, eleven years her senior, then a civil engineer. The couple married in 1899, living in Surrey before moving to Percy Hull’s childhood home, the Knowle, in Derbyshire. Alongside his work as an agriculturalist, Percy bred prize-winning pigs. Settling into a quiet and respectable life as a member of the local yeomanry, Edith initially turned to fiction-writing as a comfort during her husband’s absence during the First World War.

The success of her first novel, The Sheik (1919), took her somewhat by surprise. A new English edition and American editions appeared in 1921, coinciding with the release of Paramount’s film adaptation. This cast Agnes Ayres as the imperious, wilfull young Englishwoman, Diane Mayo, against Rudolph Valentino as the ‘devillishly handsome’ despot, Ahmed ben Hassan – himself the long-lost son of an English aristocrat. The sequel novel, The Sons of the Sheik, sets one of Diane’s boys (who has been brought up in England by the Earl of Glencaryll) against another (who has been brought up in the desert and, who in looks and in temperament, takes after his father). Valentino was duly cast by George Fitzmaurice as father and single son, equally ruthless in their subjugation of women, in ‘the sheer force of their brutal mastery’, in The Son of the Sheik (1927). In the novel, German Secret Service agents gesture towards conflicting political interests in North Africa.

Billie Melman has claimed that ‘Hull is … a case of life imitating fiction’ (Melman, 1988: 94). However, in Camping in the Sahara, her account of a trip made made by mule with her only daughter, Cecil (so-called because Edith and Percy had been hoping for a son), Hull recalled visiting Algeria as a child (Hull, 1926: 48). The model for Diane in The Sheik may have been Isabelle Eberhardt – ‘that strange stormy soul who lived for years in Algeria as an Arab among the Arabs’, who lost her life at Ain Sefra in 1904, ‘drowned in saving the life of her Arab husband, who could not swim’ (Hull: 1926: 86). Like Diane, apparently, Isabelle ‘would not have had it otherwise’. Popular interest in the desert was fuelled by the travel-writing of the scholars, Freya Stark and Gertude Bell, and by the war-time adventures of T.E. Lawrence. Lawrence dedicated himself to the political and military cause of the Arabs – in service to British imperial interests. He was subsequently cast by Edward Said as a pre-eminent white Orientalist (Said: 278-9). Certainly, Lawrence’s youthful enthusiasm for Arabia was inspired by medievalism and the romance of the crusades. In 1916, he described ‘the prophet’ Sidi Feisal as looking ‘like a European, and very like the monument of Richard I, at Fontevraud’ (Garnett: 89); in Khartoum, Lawrence took refuge in Morte d’Arthur.

The separation of life from fiction and romance is hardly a simple matter. Angus Buchanan’s documentary,  Crossing the Great Sahara, was released in 1924 (only to be duly spoofed by Adrian Brunel). In the same year, Fred Newmeyer’s Girl Shy featured an aspirant ‘boob’ author (Harold Lloyd) who boasts of his exploits with women in response to women’s attraction to fantasy scenarios of sheiks and so forth (while winding up with a decent girl). On the visit reported in 1926, Hull and Cecil (Hull’s photographer) met the Caid Mohammed Seghir ben Smail, who had been cast to lead the battle charge in Jacques Feyder’s L’Atlantide (1921). A second film from Pierre Benoît’s novel, directed by G. W. Pabst, was released in 1932. Meanwhile Benoît’s 1923 La Châtelaine du Liban was filmed in 1926 (by Marco de Gastyne) and 1933 (by Jean Epstein), with the genre being resuscitated as late as 1943 with Robert Florey’s Desert Song (duly spoofed by Alan Parker in 1971 in a monochrome ad for Bird’s Eye Dinners for One: ‘especially handy for people who aren’t used to being on their own’).

Hull’s novels, and her journal, are characterised by her fascination with the more gorgeous aspects of desert life:

A string of camels, in charge of wild-eyed desert men and hung with heavy,
pendulous sacks stuffed with henna from the south, stalked disdainfully through
the crowd with a soft pad-pad of cushioned feet, on their way to the fondouk.
Crouched in the sand and dust, ragged and filthy hawkers of sweetmeats and
vegetables cursed shrilly when bare-legged boys, clad only in a single garment
open to the waist, drove too close to their little stock-in-trade tiny donkeys
staggering almost hidden under loads of brushwood and greenstuffs. Here and
there the scarlet cloak of a Spahi, the striking black or brown of a chief’s burnous,
the vivid, clinging draperies of some veiled woman, made a splash of colour that
arrested attention (Hull, 1926: 10).

Hull’s desert is exotically sensual, a ‘land of tempestuous love and primitive passions’. Bronzed torsos are bared, breasts heave and pulses throb; stallions are magnificent but intractable; snakes swell and coil or extend themselves rigid. Love-making leaves Diane and the dancing-girl, Yasmin, bruised, aching, moaning and groaning – and asking for more – and Caryll finds that his mother looks no older than when he last saw her, many years previously. As Melman has famously remarked, desert romances irritated critics by being ‘obscene novels for women’, and were frequently parodied in the popular press.

When Valentino’s The Sheik opened at the Empire in Derby in February 1923, the Hulls did not attend: Edith was abroad. She was generally reclusive and did not seek publicity, although in later life she bemoaned the fact that she had not received adequate remuneration for the film rights to her novels. New editions continued to appear through the Second World War. Barbara Cartland bestowed her blessing on Hull in a 1970s edition, with Virago re-issuing The Sheik in 1996.

©Amy Sargeant

Sources
Hull, E. M., The Sheik (London: Eveleigh Nash and Grayson, 1919).
Hull, E. M., The Shadow of the East (London: Eveleigh Nash and Grayson, 1921).
Hull, E. M., The Desert Healer (London: Eveleigh Nash and Grayson, 1923).
Hull, E. M., The Sons of the Sheik (London: Eveleigh Nash and Grayson,
1925).
Hull, E. M., Camping in the Sahara (London: Eveleigh Nash and Grayson, 1926)
Hull, E. M., The Lion-Tamer (London: Eveleigh Nash and Grayson, 1928).

Beauman, Nicola, A Very Great Profession: The Woman’s Novel 1914-39 (London: Virago, 1983).
Garnett, David, The Essential T. E. Lawrence (London: Jonathan Cape, 1951).
Keay, Julia, With Passport and Parasol (London: BBC Books, 1989).
Melman, Billie, Women and the Popular Imagination in the Twenties: Flappers and Nymphs (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988).
Said, Edward [1978], Orientalism (London: Penguin, 1995).
Sargeant, Amy, A Critical History of British Cinema (London: BFI, 2005).

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