Sunday, April 25, 2010

Sheikhs, Spinsters, and the Local Standard of Beauty

I'm not sure when Lady Dorothy Mills suffered her 1929 automobile accident returning from Ascot, but by 29 November she was not sufficiently recovered to be permitted by her medical advisors to attend a benefit in London for the King Edward's Hospital Fund and recount some of her African adventures.

A year later, in 1930, she published A Different Drummer: Chapters in Autobiography, a memoir presumably written during recovery from an accident that "
left her scarred for life."

It's unclear at this point whether or not the 'scarring' referred to is literal or not. Either way, we already have seen that Lady Dorothy has some self-image issues related to her body. Those issues are touched upon in this newspaper piece from The Argus [Melbourne, Australia] on Saturday, 8 November 1930, and are almost used as a punch-line after 1600 or so words on the topics of romance, marriage, and divorce.

Lady Dorothy comments on younger women capturing the attentions of older men, and about the lack of faithfulness of "Sheikhs" once a wife, who once had been showered with poetry and promises, finds she has eventually become "old and ugly."

These adventures must have taken place years before, but they may have taken on new meaning to Lady Dorothy as she was convalescing, much of the time probably spent in her home on Ebury Street in London. It was a home she shared with her novelist husband, Arthur Mills. Was she concerned about Arthur, now that she was 41 years of age, had recently suffered serious injuries unlike any of the discomforts she endured on the road, and was still likely far thinner than she knew the men of England at the time would "admire."

[Update: After sleeping on it, I also can't help but wonder how, after a few years, husband Arthur felt about Lady D. repeatedly regaling friends, family, and the public at airshows and the like with tales of these amorous advances in wild but romantic locales, and how she always led on each fellow and evoked more information about his"proposal". I'll admit, if my wife, Janet, came back from a holiday with such tales, I might be a bit jealous, if not utterly miffed.]

Does she sense here that a page has been turned in her life, and that love and/or marriage would never be the same for her again? Her life had once been filled with adventure, danger, and exotic locales; here she spins yarns on behalf of fantasizing spinsters who do not know the "truth" about men.

See what you think. Here's the complete newspaper text plugging her new autobiography:

DITH M. HULL'S novel is almost forgotten; Rudolph Valentino is dead. Yet for many women sheikhs—the sheikhs of fiction—still have a curious fascination. Lay Dorothy Mills, the author and traveller, who is the daughter of the Earl of Orford, has no illusions about them. She has travelled since she was a child. Among her most conspicuous achievements are those of being the first Englishwoman to visit Timbuctoo and of leading an expedition through Liberia. During her travels she has met many sheikhs—she has even been proposed to by two—and she writes amusingly of her experiences with these great lovers in a chapter entitled "Sheikh-Stuff" in her book "A Different Drummer." The title of her autobiography was taken from Thoreau: "And if a man does not keep step with his fellows, it may be that hears a different drummer."

Lady Dorothy Mills begins by describing an incident in a little tourist town of the North Algerian desert. In the dining room of the same hotel were 12 elderly English women under the care of a harassed, flurried looking courier. "They belonged to one of the less expensive tourist agencies which, in 10 days, from door to door, for ₤30 or thereabouts, give their clients a fleeting taste of the Sahara and its thrills." In the middle of the meal there entered the Caid of a nearby douar with whom Lady Dorothy was acquainted. "He was a tall, handsome, black-bearded man of about 40, with lordly deportment, immaculately dressed in embroidered burnous and snow-white turban, and his rank in life corresponded to that of an English country squire." He made a profound impression upon the 12 English spinsters, and Lady Dorothy basked in some reflected glory because the "sheikh" recognised and spoke to her. She had to answer many questions, and, despite the fact that she was disillusioning them, told the truth: "that the Caid had five wives, three living, one dead, and one divorced, that he had 11 children, that he had never killed anyone in his life, in fact, that he considered fighting uncivilised, that he was a peaceable, home-loving soul, chiefly interested in farming.

The Sheikh at His Best.

"And that is what the 'Sheikh' at his best generally is," adds Lady Dorothy Mills. "The hawk-eyed bit of proud, brown beauty that struts the market-place, causing havoc among the more susceptible tourists, is as often as not, but a hen-pecked householder, who spends his days in money-getting, and loves to play with his numerous children after the day's work. That is the 'Sheikh' at his best. At his worst, he may be a lot of other things, but he is rarely romantic."

There was another side of the incident of the 12 English spinsters. The Caid told Lady Dorothy Mills that he had noticed the interest which they had taken in him.

"Who are they?" he asked. "It was told me that it was an English milord, who travelled with his wives."

"When I denied the truth of this typically Arab conclusion," Lady Dorothy Mills says, "he answered with an equally typical one. 'I thought not,' he said. 'Had it been true, he would have chosen them younger and handsomer. That information, out of the kindness of her heart, Lady Dorothy Mills did not pass on.

"'A queen by night, a beast of burden by day.' Thus, and pretty accurately, has an Arab writer summed up the position of an Arab wife," she says. "The Arab is fond of women as playthings, but he regards the subject of marriage very seriously, and his courtship is a matter of barter. When he finds himself financially able to support a wife and family, his parents search around among girls of marriageable age, that is to say, about 13 or 14, and of suitable requirements, possessing money, virtue, good health and temper, and, if possible, good looks. The girl found, the parents of both young people haggle for days or weeks or months over a dowry, which varies according to her share of the above-mentioned assets. No personal inclination of hers carries any weight, and the young man takes it for granted that his parents have done their best for him.

"They never see each other until the evening of the wedding, though the girl, if she be of the lower classes, may have caught a glimpse of him as, closely veiled, she passed through the streets. In very exceptional cases only can she obtain separation if he is unkind to her, but he on the contrary, can divorce her on any or no ground, providing he returns her dowry, by a few words spoken before the Cadi (town lawyer), for the sum of a few francs. This is certainly not the Koranic law, which is fair and generous in its treatment of women, but it is the custom-made law of the Arabs themselves, in a country where women's lack of education makes it impossible for her to assert her rights and privileges.

Hazards of Married Life.

"The young wife is lucky if her bride-groom is young and amiable; for sometimes he is old and repulsive, with a multiplicity of wives, regular and irregular, who may make her life a burden to her," Lady Dorothy Mills writes. "If she is young, though, maybe it is better for her to be the last wife than the first. For the Arab woman ages early and it is only a question of time, she knows, before her husband takes in marriage a younger, better looking girl, on whom he lavishes his kindness, his endearments, and his presents. As a sad little Arab wife said to me once: 'It is better to be the wife of an old man, the last and favoured one, than that of a young man and to grow despised and neglected in his service.' Luckily for her, the Arab woman is generally too ignorant to be dissatisfied, or to realise that there are greater possibilities of happiness than to simply be well fed and clothed by a husband who does not actively ill-treat her.

"Personally I have met many charming Arab gentlemen, some of whom I am honoured to number among my friends, but I would not marry one of them for all the wealth of the Sahara. And when I have mentioned this fact to them, and we have threshed out the subject; when, more especially, I have enumerated my requirements in a husband, with a grave smile most have admitted to me, from my point of view, to be right! Many Arab wives are happy after their fashion, for they know of no other order of things. But, however she may be beguiled by the imagery of the Sheikh's wooing, or the ardor of his assurances, the Sheikh will treat a white wife—if he can obtain one—just about the same as a brown one, once the novelty has worn off, and the fate of a few white women I have known who have married Arabs has been heartrending."

Although the Sheikh is not as romantic in his wooing, his language is poetic, at any rate to a European woman. Lady Dorothy Mills tells frankly of the two direct proposals of marriage which she has had from Arabs. "Neither flattered my self-esteem," she writes. "The first was from a very beautiful and resplendent creature of Northern Algeria, and his proposal was couched in all the vivid imagery of the 'Arabian Nights.' Among other things, he told me that my hands were like the little pink clouds that race the sky at dawn, and my face like the roses that bloom in a Sultan's garden; all of which pleased me very much! But he came down to earth with a bump when, out of curiosity, I began to probe for practical details."

A Sophisticated Arab.

The following dialogue is recorded:—

"You have already two wives," I told him, "and you know that we Europeans are not in the habit of sharing our husbands with other women."

"I am civilised, madame, I understand perfectly," he assured me. "And if you will marry me I will divorce them."

"But wouldn't you mind that?" I asked inquisitively.

"The elder one I should not mind; she is old and ugly. The younger one I should be a little sorry about, for she is pretty and good-tempered. But if you insisted I would divorce them both."

"But," said I, probing still further, "when my turn comes to be old and ugly, you will divorce me for a younger, prettier woman?" He shrugged his shoulders philosophically.

"Imshallah! If Allah wills!" he said.

"And that, I may add," Lady Dorothy Mills comments, "is what generally happens in Sheikh romances."

The other proposal was from a Caid of Southern Tunisia, "rough and uneducated, sixty and fat, with most of his front teeth missing, but he was a big chief in that wild country. Already he had three wives, two brown and one black, and now he wanted a white one to round off the quartet permitted him by the prophet. His proposal, through an interpreter, was conducted on the most correct lines, and the dowry he offered me was generous in sheep, cattle, and silk. But, he added, though he personally found me charming, I was far too thin to do credit, in the eyes of his people, to so great a chief, and he must make it a condition that I should partake of a local root called khalba, which his other wives would prepare for me, that was guaranteed in a very short time to fatten me up to the local standard of beauty."

It is doubtful, nevertheless, whether all the disillusioning things which Lady Dorothy Mills says in her entertaining book will counteract the romance with which the Sheikh has been invested by fiction and the films.

*"A Different Drummer," Chapters in Autobiography, by Lady Dorothy Mills (London:- Gerald Duckworth and Co. Ltd.); 11/6

No comments:

Post a Comment