Tiger Skins, Sheiks and Passionate Kisses

by Ellen Micheletti

I've always been interested in popular literature - the books people actually did read as opposed to the books they were supposed to read. Books like, or very like modern day romance novels have been popular for a long time. In the early part of the twentieth century, romances went through a burst of popularity. In my previous article for the Historical Cheat Sheet, I wrote about some of the popular writers of the nineteenth century. I would like to tell you now about three of the more popular writers of the early twentieth century. Elinor Glyn, E.M. Hull and Ethel M. Dell were all British writers whose books were immensely popular in their time. Two of these writers, E.M. Hull and Ethel M. Dell still have books in print. Elinor Glyn goes in and out of print, but she merits a footnote in the history of early silent films. Elinor Glyn was the woman who saw a potential sex-symbol in a young actor named Rudolph Valentino.

Elinor Glyn

Elinor Glyn was the most flamboyant of these writers. She was a beautiful woman with red hair and green eyes who was in the news constantly and courted the press. Unlike Ms Dell and Ms Hull, Elinor really cared about what the critics said about her books. Elinor Glyn was married to Clayton Gly, a country squire. They lived a life of ease filled with parties and travel. But Elinor's passionate heart yearned for a romantic soul-mate, someone that Clayton Glyn was not. Elinor began to write books to pass the time. Her first book was The Visits of Elizabeth, a series of letters from a young debutante. The book was quite popular with critics and readers and Elinor wrote several others, all of them romantic comedies. In 1903, Queen Draga of Serbia was assassinated, an event that had a profound effect on Elinor. Several years later, as her marriage was deteriorating, Elinor took this event and poured out all the romantic longings of her soul into her best known book - Three Weeks.

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Three Weeks is the story of Englishman Paul Verdayne, who is sent abroad by his aristocratic parents to break up an unsuitable love affair (he has fallen for a parson's daughter). In Lucerne, he meets a mysterious woman dressed all in black who exudes an hypnotic fascination. Paul and the Lady, who is a Balkan queen on the run from her degenerate and cruel husband, begin a passionate affair. She and Paul spend three weeks together where they make love on tiger skins amid masses of exotic flowers. When the three weeks are up and the Lady leaves Paul, he faints and is ill for a time. Months later, Paul receives a message from the Lady that his son has been born. Still later, Paul finds out that the Lady was killed by her degenerate husband who was himself killed by the Lady's servants. Paul's son is now the ruler and the Regent grants Paul permission to go to the ceremony and see his handsome young son proclaimed King.

Three Weeks is written in a full-blown passionate style dripping with purple prose. Here is a sample from the book:

The light of all the love in the world seemed to flood the lady's face. She bent over and kissed him and smoothed his cheek with her velvet cheek, she moved so that his curly lashes might touch her bare neck, and at last she slipped from under him and laid his head gently on the pillow. Then a madness of tender caressing seized her. She purred as a tiger might have done while she undulated like a snake. She touched him with her finger-tips, she kissed his throat, his wrists, the palms of his hands, his eyelids, his hair. Strange subtle kisses, unlike the kisses of women. And often, between her purrings she murmured love words in some fierce language of her own, brushing his ears and his eyes with her lips the while.

The critics hated the book. And the public? Sales figures are incomplete, but it is estimated that Three Weeks sold over five million copies. It inspired a bit of rhyme:

Would you like to sin
with Elinor Gly
on a tiger skin?
Or would you prefer
to err
with her
On some other fur?

Elinor received gifts of tiger skins from several admirers. She was bewildered by the fuss the critics raised about the "immorality" of Three Weeks. Elinor, despite her passionate purple-prose writing style, was not really interested in sex. She thought sex too earthy and animalistic - downright unromantic in fact. There is lots of kissing, caressing and writhing around on the tiger skin in the book, but there are no descriptions of sex. A large part of the book is devoted to the Lady's lectures to Paul to be true to his race and heritage, but according to most critics, an adulterous affair, especially one the author seemed to condone, was not acceptable subject matter for a novel in 1907.

After Three Weeks was published, Elinor found out that her husband was practically penniless. She supported the family by her writings for the rest of her life. Elinor made a lot of money, but was a very poor business woman and was often in financial straits, especially after her attempt to start her own movie production company. Elinor Glyn continued to write books and magazine articles for almost her entire life. She remained in the public eye and her books were popular with the public (if not with the critics), for her entire life.

Ethel May Dell

Ethel May Dell was born in a suburb of London, England in 1881. Her father was a clerk in the City of London and she had an older sister and brother. Her family was middle class and lived a comfortable life. Ethel was a very shy, quiet girl and was content to be dominated by her family. Ethel began to write stores while very young and had many of them were published in popular magazines. Beneath her shy exterior, Ethel had a passionate heart and most of her stories were stories of passion and love set in India and other British colonial possessions. They were considered to be very racy and her cousins would pull out pencils to try and count up the number of times she used the words; passion, tremble, pant and thrill.

For several years, Ethel Dell had been working on a novel and between 1910 and 1912, it was rejected by eight publishers. Finally the publisher T. Fisher Unwin bought the book for their First Novel Library, a series which introduced a writer's first book. Ethel Dell's book, titled The Way of an Eagle, was published in 1912 and by 1915 it had gone through twenty seven printings.

The Way of an Eagle is still in print and is very characteristic of Ethel Dell's novels. There is a very feminine woman, an alpha male to rival any of Linda Howard's heroes, a setting in India, passion galore liberally mixed with some surprisingly shocking violence and religious sentiments sprinkled throughout. The book opens in a fort under siege on the frontier in India. Muriel Roscoe is the fort commander's daughter. The constant stress of being under seige has caused her to take refuge in opium. Muriel's father has chosen Nick Ratcliffe to take care of her and Muriel does not like him. Nick is big and strong and overpoweringly masculine. They are forced to flee the fort, have adventures in the desert where Nick kills a man, and when they reach the garrison town and safety, Nick proposes to Muriel (they have spent a lot of time together unchaperoned). Muriel agrees to the marriage, but changes her mind and becomes engaged to another man who is smooth, suave and polite but lacks Nick's sheer sexual magnetism. Muriel is not happy and when she sees Nick again she realizes that he is "the one," but her pride prevents her from telling him. Muriel does break her engagement and goes back to India where she languishes around missing Nick dreadfully. Back in India, Nick has seemingly vanished, but he has disguised himself as a beggar and has been hanging around so he can keep watch on Muriel. Nick reveals himself when, still disguised as a beggar, he foils an assassination attempt on a high ranking officer. All of Muriel's doubts are swept away:

The tumult of her emotions swelled to sudden uproar, thunderous, all-possessing, overwhelming, so that she gasped and gasped again for breath. And then all in a moment she knew the conflict was over. She was as a diver, hurling with headlong velocity from dizzy height into deep waters, and she rejoiced - she exulted - in that mad rush into depth. With a quivering laugh she moved. She loosened her convulsive clasp upon his hand, turned it upwards, and stooping low, she pressed her lips closely, passionately, lingeringly upon his open palm.

As for Nick, he is quite blunt with Muriel:

"I warn you Muriel, you are putting yourself irrevocably in my power, and you will never break away again. You may come to loathe me with your whole soul, but I shall never let you go. Have you realized that? If I take you now, I take you for all time." He spoke almost with violence, and, having spoken, drew back from her abruptly, as though he could not wholly trust himself.

But nothing could dismay her now. She had fought her last battle, had made the final surrender. Her fear was dead. She stretched out her hands to him with unfaltering confidence. "Take me then Nick," She said.

Readers adored Ethel M. Dell's novels, critics hated them with a passion, but she did not care what the critics thought. She considered herself a good storyteller - nothing more and nothing less. Ethel M. Dell continued to write novels along the same lines as The Way of an Eagle for a number of years. She made quite a lot of money, from 20,000 to 30,000 pounds a year, but remained quiet and almost pathologically shy. Pictures of her are very rare and she was never interviewed by the press. She married a soldier, Lieutentant-Colonel Gerald Savage when she was forty years old, and the marriage was happy. Colonel Savage resigned his commission on his marriage and Ethel became the support of the family. Ethel's husband devoted himself to her and fiercely guarded her privacy. For her part Ethel went on writing, eventually producing about thirty novels and several volumes of short stories. Her readers remained loyal and the critics simply gave up. Ethel M. Dell died of cancer when she was fifty eight.

A modern day critic, Nicola Beauman, in her book on women's fiction, A Very Great Profession has this to say about Ethel M. Dell and The Way of an Eagle: "Most modern readers will greatly enjoy The Way of an Eagle, for it remains the best kind of read for anyone wishing to curl up in an armchair...and wallow unashamedly in a book that is entirely timeless...I love to imagine my mother and grandmother sobbing over books like this."

E.M. Hull

E.M. (Edith Maude) Hull, was so shy and retiring that no picture exists of her. Historians are not even sure of her date of birth or when she died. E.M. Hull was the wife of a gentleman pig farmer in Derbyshire. During World War I, she began to write to amuse herself and produced a book that is still in print and has influenced romances ever since. The Sheik is the story of a spoiled English girl, Diana Mayo, who will not listen to anyone. She refuses offers of marriage and wanders out on her own in the Egyptian desert. While she is out in the desert, Diana is kidnapped by Sheik Ali Ben Hassan and is ravished again and again and again and again (you get the picture). She puts up a token protest at first, but later learns to love her ravisher (who turns out to be the long-lost son of an English nobleman). Here's a passage from The Sheik:

The flaming light of desire burning in his eyes turned her sick and faint. Her body throbbed with the consciousness of a knowledge that appalled her. She understood his purpose with a horror that made each separate nerve in her system shrink against the understanding that had come to her under the consuming fire of his ardent gaze, and in the fierce embrace that was drawing her shaking limbs closer and closer to the man's own pulsating body. "Oh you brute! You brute!", she wailed, until his kisses silenced her.

Talk about purple prose! Critic's jaws dropped and they quickly proclaimed the book pornography. Readers bought it by the cartload and Mrs. Hull went on to write several more books, all set in Egypt and all featuring masterful men and masochistic women. Some of her other titles were The Sons of the Sheik and The Desert Healer. The movie version of The Sheik starring Rudolph Valentino was a world-wide smash and made the desert sheik the number one sex-symbol of the day. Sheiks have gone in out of favor ever since, but have never totally faded away. As a matter of fact, the first romance I ever read was Johanna Lindsey's Captive Bride - essentially a re-telling of Hull's story with the same basic plot elements and more explicit sex scenes.

So here are some of the writers whose books our grandmothers used to read. These writers were not considered to be respectable and their books were savaged by the critics, but loved by the reading public. It doesn't seem as though things have changed much, does it?

 

Ellen is the editor of the Historical Cheat Sheet and an AAR Editor/Reviewer - you can email her via the link here
Find links to all of Ellen's Historical Cheat Sheet articles at the end of Servants



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