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The Oriental Beast: The Sheik and Fairy Tales


[End Page 1] There is no doubt that the appeal of E.M. Hull’s The Sheik comes from its monstrous hero. Diana Mayo, the stonily independent heroine of this notorious romance, rides into the desert with a headstrong desire to travel without a chaperone and is kidnapped on route. Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan, a fearsome Arab ruler, takes her to his luxurious nomadic tent with the intention to make her his mistress until he grows bored of her. Diana puts up a fight but is powerless against his fierce embraces and alluring presence. In the end, this cruel man is brought to his knees and confesses his love. However, it is crucial the reader understands that he is only partially tamed. Ahmed does not relinquish all his violent qualities and nor Diana does want him to. As he sobs, ‘poor child – you will have a devil for a husband’, the heroine responds with a ‘tremulous’ smile, still frightened but instead now drawing courage from her fear and the Sheik’s love: ‘I am not afraid of anything with your arms around me, my desert lover!’ (Hull, The Sheik 248)(page numbers will be given hereafter).

The half-tamed, devil-husband is widely accepted as a defining pillar of popular romance. He is recognised instinctively as a dangerously alluring man, with the potential to transform into a loving and committed partner, whilst maintaining his frightening qualities. Having existed in various literary forms, he is intrinsic to the emergence and flourishing of love; always ‘brooding, saturnine, nursing injured sensitivities and dark passions’ (Dyhouse 101). Deborah Lutz radically situates this hero as part of a larger tradition in which popular romance exists as one category, creating her own genre called the ‘Dangerous Lover Romance’ and stating that the character ‘has become the conventional way to represent erotic desire and romantic love’. Bringing together Regency dandy, Gothic villain and twenty-first century heroes through the lens of Heideggerian and Freudian philosophy, Lutz boldly exposes a ‘two-hundred-year cultural phenomenon’ of dangerous men and desire (Lutz xi).

I propose that the ‘dangerous lover’ is much older than Lutz argues. He, who I refer to as the beastly lover, has mythical and fairy tale origins as animal or monster. The hero of E. M. Hull’s The Sheik is not only related to these, but forms a new, undefined category. Scholars have confidently observed that romance is a retelling of certain fairy tales, especially ‘Beauty and the Beast’, but without robust analysis (Dixon 61).[1] I put forward two main arguments in this article which develop new ways of thinking about both the beastly lover and romance’s use of fairy tales. First, I argue that The Sheik shares an affinity with ‘Beauty and Beast’ and that the novel builds on the tale’s association with Orientalism. Second, I suggest that there is an unexplored link between the Sheik’s depiction as a beastly lover and as a foreign desert lover.

Contemporary readers would have interpreted the Sheik’s racial difference as part of his seductive and violent character; an obstacle Diana comes to terms with: ‘[she] loved him for his very brutality and superb animal strength. And he was an Arab! A man of different race and colour’ (113). The story exposes a racist mingling between the two identities of animal – beastly lover – and ‘Other’ – desert lover; a movement that can be explained by how the European fairy tale tradition of the eighteenth century developed in tune with the emergence of Orientalist fantasy. This allowed the emergence of a type of hero with which the Sheik identifies more specifically – the ‘Oriental beast’. The following [End Page 2] section outlines the lineage of the beastly lover story and its key themes, from myths to the fairy tale ‘Beauty and the Beast’, to establish how the Oriental beast was born. I will then examine how The Sheik shares these themes but with certain complexities. If The Sheik is regarded as ‘the ur-romance’ of the twentieth century (Regis 115) and a crucial turning point in the development of the genre, it follows that the Oriental beast shares this spotlight.

From ‘Cupid and Psyche’ to the Oriental beast

The beastly lover tale has a vast literary history. Animal stories are suspected to have emerged in Europe, as Srinivas Aravamudan explains, ‘through complex transformations via Asia and the Levant’ (129). Scholars usually begin with the Indian Jataka collection, which includes more than five hundred Buddhist stories about morality. Whilst it is unknown when the stories were compiled, they found their way into the Sanskrit Pachatantra tales, composed no later than the sixth century, and Aesop’s Fables (Irwin 65–66). The appearance of the beastly lover in Western culture may have begun with Apuleius’ ‘Cupid/Eros and Psyche’, part of his epic romance The Golden Ass (dated 2 A.D), or the Panchatantra tale ‘The Girl who Married a Snake’ (Bottigheimer 5). Both tales are about the desirable, life-saving beast and the courageous suffering of the heroine at the mercy of a more powerful woman. ‘Cupid and Psyche’ begins with a mortal girl called Psyche, whose beauty provokes Venus’s jealousy. She asks her son Cupid to trick Psyche into falling in love with a terrible creature. Psyche marries Cupid, but she is forbidden to look at him or he will die. She is taken to a ‘place of pleasures’ where she makes love with a mysterious creature in the dark, experiencing affection and sexual gratification. Her sisters, jealous of Psyche’s apparent happiness, persuade her that he must be a monster and convince her he must be killed. She lights a lamp during their following night together but is amazed by what she saw: ‘so glorious a body she greatly feared’. However, a drop of oil lands on his shoulders which causes him to flee away. A pregnant Psyche is left unhappy and is tortured by Venus; forced to undertake back-breaking tasks until she is saved by Cupid in his original man form. She is made immortal and gives birth to a baby girl called Pleasure (Apuleius).

In ‘The Girl who Married a Snake’, a common heroine marries a human prince who is also a magical snake. When the Princess finds out about her husband’s identity, she is determined to break the curse by challenging the Queen of snakes, much like Psyche’s struggle with Venus. The heroine succeeds and the Prince is restored to his human form (Lang). Both Psyche and the snake Princess accept their husband’s monstrous identity and are even enthralled by it in Psyche’s case. They willingly struggle for the successful permanence of their relationship and are unhappy when they are apart from their lovers. As many folklorists have asserted, these tales demonstrate that ‘patient tolerance for ugliness is a feminine, not masculine virtue’ (Bottigheimer 8). Their strange partners prove to be the best match for them, whether transformed or not. Certainly, for Psyche, she had already fallen in love and enjoyed sleeping with Cupid before being able to see him.

‘Cupid and Psyche’ wields an enormous scale of influence. At the centre of the story is the ‘divine erotic beast’, as Marina Warner describes, who models the meaning of desirable masculinity (Warner, From Beast to the Blonde 274). From the seventeenth [End Page 3] century, the story was revived and reinvented, settling in the ornate world of the French court. Salon fairy tales often expressed political subversion and utopian fantasy. The tradition flourished under the mantle of female writers, who, as Jack Zipes explains, ‘displayed a certain resistance to male rational precepts and patriarchal realms by conceiving pagan worlds in which the final say was determined by female fairies’ (Zipes 4). From this, ‘Beauty and the Beast’ emerged.

There are two known versions of fairy tales titled ‘La Belle et La Bête’ printed in France. The first, written by Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve (1740), is a long text that includes the Prince’s back story (Zipes 151–230). It begins with a poor merchant who, when lost on his journey home, wanders into the Beast’s deserted castle and decides to pick a rose for his daughter Beauty. The Beast catches him and requests one of his daughters in return for the father’s thieving, which Beauty selflessly volunteers to do. Each night she politely declines his request to marry her (sometimes interpreted as a request to sleep with her) and has a recurring dream about a handsome prince. After some time, Beauty is permitted to return to her family but has a dream that the Beast was dying. This persuades her to return and declare her unrealised love for him, which transforms him into the prince from her dream.

Jeanne-Marie LePrince de Beaumont’s version in 1756 is shortened and simplified. It was published as a conduct tale for courtly young women about arranged marriages (Zipes 231-45).[2] Towards the mid-eighteenth century, literature in France was regarded as a socialisation tool to emit norms and manners, concentrating on children and young women (Zipes 10). Beaumont, who worked as a governess herself, focused on Beauty’s self-sacrifice as ‘an internalized search for a willing and even loving acceptance of a beastly suitor’ (Bottigheimer 8). For both stories, like their mythic ancestors, it is Beauty who learns to see beyond appearances and discover value within her terror to transform the Beast.

If we examine ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and its antecedents, there are two significant themes that work together and are dominant in The Sheik: female sacrifice and pleasurable reward. Another very prominent and problematic point in both stories is that part of the heroine’s reward is discovering the inner goodness and superiority of the beastly lover.

‘Beauty and the Beast’ continues to attract female creators, which is perhaps why it forms a strong bond with romance. It resurfaced as a trend during Victorian England, when women writers manipulated the story with their own versions, as in the French Salon tradition (Warner, From Beast to the Blonde 277). It is certainly curious that the story is constantly ‘reworked’ and given ‘modern spins’ in recent years, to challenge its didactic origins. Linda Woolverton, the scriptwriter for Disney’s 1991 film, has been praised for her characterisation of a high-spirited and intelligent Belle (Rothman). In 2017, Emma Watson is equally upheld to have ‘feministed up’ the time-old tale in the live action re-make (Williams) – yet at the heart is the same beastly lover, ready to terrify and comfort.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the European appetite for all things ‘exotic’ was swelling in line with the popularity of beast fabula. Antoine Galland’s ‘sophisticated, suavely romanced’ first translation of Arabian Nights’ Entertainments (1704-12), along with the many English variations that followed, unleashed Oriental fever in France and England (Warner, Stranger Magic 15).

According to historian Linda Colley, the noticeable decline of the Ottoman empire during the eighteenth century also saw the emergence of the ludicrously lusty Oriental [End Page 4] character and his monstrous threat to white women. She states that, ‘only when Ottoman and North African power were broadly receding, did such accusations of sodomy become thoroughly drowned out by an emphasis instead on the supposed heterosexual lusts of Muslim men and on their harems’ (130). For example, during the 1720s, Penelope Aubin exploited the unknown Orient world as a setting for her popular amorous novels. She indulges in the theme of the persecuted maiden forever chased and held captive by aggressive Turkish antagonists, who are described as extremely bestial and bloodthirsty. Her heroines are saved by Western forces and Christian virtues, but after experiencing many titillating adventures in foreign lands.

The Oriental beast was born from the inevitable union of fairy tales and exotic vogue; the animal and ‘Other’ simply became one figure. One offspring is the eponymous villain in Charles Perrault’s Bluebeard (1697), who was compared to the Sultan Shahriyar from Arabian Nights and represented as a Turkish man in early artworks. As Warner elaborates, ‘in later redactions of the story, [his wife] is sometimes called Fatima, and he is given an absurd foreign name, like Abomélique’ (Warner, From Beast to the Blonde 242). As it happens, Perrault was an admirer of Galland’s work; they shared the same publisher and their stories were discussed together in the salons (Irwin 18). The Oriental beast inherits the beastly lover’s didactic heritage, as a force that teaches the assumed female reader and is more powerful than a human man. Even though Bluebeard is defeated in the end, he is a tool that warns women against the perils of curiosity. Beauty’s Beast inspires hope and liberation: a trait that the Sheik shares. Aravamudan calls this idea Orientalist ‘theriophily’, in relation to Enlightenment satire that depicts an animal’s innate superiority to mankind (Aravamudan 129). According to Arthur Lovejoy, who co-coined the term ‘theriophily’ in 1933: ‘Beasts were considered just as or more rational than men, or better off without rationality. They are happier and more moral than men’ (Theriophily). This Oriental beast achieves this higher status through his deep connection to nature, which men have become alienated from, resulting in their physical inferiority (Gill 412). This theory also aligns with Michel de Montaigne’s sympathetic words on the nobility of ‘cannibals’; proclaiming that ‘these nations, then, seem to me barbarous in this sense […] are still very close to their original naturalness’ compared to western culture who have “smothered” nature’ (Montaigne 152). Warner also comments on how Disney’s 1991 Beast resembles an American buffalo, symbolising similarly ‘the lost innocence of the plains before man came to plunder’ (Warner, From Beast to the Blonde 315).

As I will demonstrate, the Sheik as an Oriental beast means that he is able to ‘teach’ the heroine, is better than normal men and is connected to the earth. He is a striking example of untampered, masculine primitivism and champions the ‘natural way of life’. Reading Ahmed as Oriental beast exposes the tension between Diana’s sacrifice – at the hands of Ahmed’s violence – and her reward: his effortless superiority as a physically stronger, more attractive and pleasurable suitor. This dynamic plays out through the building of Ahmed’s Orientalist world and the protagonists’ transformations, which raise complex issues concerning race and gender traits. In what follows, I dedicate a section to each and conclude with thoughts on the novel’s ‘happy ending’ and what kind of hopeful, and perhaps educational, message The Sheik gives. [End Page 5]

The desert: danger or freedom?

The components of the Sheik’s world map out the contradictions between sexual danger and ideal living. Firstly, his world is presented as a dangerous and fantastical confusion – like Cupid’s ‘place of pleasures’ and the Beast’s castle, the desert is treated as a time-forgotten and mystical realm, away from any geographical and physical certainty. It is described with racial stereotyping that contemporary readers would have associated with ‘the East’, bestowing it with an untouched, atavistic status (Jarmakani 903). There are camels, palm trees and an indefinable sense of difference, ‘mysterious with the inexplicable mystery that hangs always in the Oriental night’ (16). Despite having visited Algeria in her youth, Hull employs generic, misty-eyed terms which create a frightening lack of clarity and backwardness (Teo 94). The desert’s sweltering and sandy instability makes it the perfect place for the loosening of the heroine’s mind and body, so she can withstand and even accept sexual violence. When Diana is carried on horseback to the Sheik’s land, she begins to drift into dream state, losing sense of herself. She later calls her captive experience as an ‘ugly dream’ (243), not knowing ‘if it was minutes or hours that passed as they still galloped swiftly through the night’ (46).

Secondly, Diana is confronted with unnervingly soft textures that allude to the presence of her strange captor. The Sheik’s lair is ‘a big lofty tent, brightly lit by two hanging lamps’, with ‘soft cushions’ and a ‘wide, luxurious bed’ (48). It invites the heroine to relax, languish and threatens her with sex. The flying bed, flying carpet and sofa were associated with the fantasy of Eastern hedonism; ‘the oriental sofa becomes a nesting place for dreams and pleasure, a daybed, a low-lying couch for reclining and abandoning oneself, alone or with others’ (Warner, Stranger Magic 409). The dual space of tent and sand conform to these loose elements, being unstable and temporal. As there are no formal barriers, there is a lingering feeling of anticipated exposure. The Sheik flits in and out of curtains, eerily and without warning – ‘he came, silent, noiseless to her side’ (50) – while Diana waits without the safety of a lock, knowing that ‘behind the curtains near her was the man who wants to claim what he had taken. Any moment he might come; the thought sent her shivering’ (50). Yet Diana finds a new state of freedom in her prison, seeing her landscape lie open before her with unlimited possibilities; as a ‘a big oasis – bigger than any she had seen. In front of the tent there was an open space with a thick belt of palm trees beyond’ (58-59). The tent’s lack of commitment suggests endless movement, perhaps playfulness, but also a great sense of liberation, a point which Hull praises in her travel memoir Camping in the Sahara (1926), describing nomadic tribes who ‘always in the open, knowing no other home than the tents in which they are born and live and die’ (Hull, Camping in the Sahara 48).

Finally, despite the idea of simple freedom against the backdrop of nature, there exists the temptation and comfort of materialism. Diana struggles with her rich surroundings, which she initially rejects as foreign greed or ‘barbaric luxury’ (77). At the same time, this splendour aims to impress the reader and help them fantasise a tolerable life. Diana’s eventual succumbing means that her Western integrity cannot compete: ‘with a bitter cry, she dropped on to the floor, her arms flung out across the wide, luxurious bed’ (49). Both Beauty and Diana bask passively, mindlessly in the luxury of the unknown. Beauty is pleasantly surprised at the most beautiful of castles, where there is a library for [End Page 6] passing the time and spells cast for every whim: ‘As night approached, all the apartments were illuminated by scented candles placed in candelabras either of crystals or diamonds and rubies’ (Zipes 177). Villeneuve’s version of the Beast’s home is particularly rich and exotic with birds and monkeys (Zipes 173). The fairy tales’ comforting decoration is in tune with how the Sheik’s servants act, serving Diana with silent swiftness and emerging from the shadowy partitions like magic: ‘His movements were as quick and as quiet as his voice, and in a dream Diana found herself in a few moments before a lunch that was perfectly cooked and daintily served’ (55).

As explored, the Oriental world symbolises the beast and depicts the tension between sacrifice and reward, indicating the romance’s connection to fairy tale. As the Sheik’s glorious yet unreal space unfurls, the heroine struggles with the superiority of the world’s inferior backwardness. The fear she has of her captor is both heightened and mollified by the overwhelming temptation of his soft, unstable and luxurious territory. The raw, earth-bound desert promises much in the way of beauty, freedom and comfort, if the heroine submits to it. The following section presents tensions that are less clear-cut.

Transformations: real or pretend beast?

It appears that through Ahmed’s violence, Diana learns to be rightly and appropriately feminine and she is later bestowed a slightly tamer version of him and a confession of his love. As a ‘bonus’, Ahmed is revealed to have noble European heritage. This final transformation may have been added to appease contemporary readers. However, despite this revelation, Ahmed’s Arab identity remains dominant and triumphant, but ambiguously so – which begs the question: what exactly is Diana’s reward?

It is clear for the reader that the lovers’ transformations are represented as the embrace of their real identities. Diana is described at the start as a stubbornly unfeminine character and ‘not a very human girl’ as a result (2). Raised by her older brother, she is independent, athletic and detests marriage. Her androgynous body is rigid and arrogant, with hint of childlike vulnerability: ‘very slender, standing erect with the easy, vigorous carriage of an athletic boy, her small head poised proudly. Her scornful mouth and firm chin showed plainly an obstinate determination’ (3). After meeting the Sheik, her hard demeanour melts away and becomes more compliant to authority. To match the climate and texture, Diana’s body wilts and softens. The reader notices a disappearance of her rigid contour and cliché feminine behaviour emerges: ‘the clasp of his hands, the close union with his warm, strong body robbed her of all strength, of all power of resistance’ (49). The Sheik relentlessly tames and teaches the heroine to be a ‘real’ and natural woman, more ruthless than Villeneuve’s and Beaumont’s beasts, who ask politely for sex and marriage. However, the narratives share a message that persistence will encourage the heroine to ‘give in’ to her suppressed desires. This power struggle involves the transference of physical strength and becomes an essential formula in popular romance which Tania Modleski calls the ‘revenge fantasy’. The overwhelming control the hero achieves over the heroine is in fact the gradual passing of power from the hero to the heroine, until the hero is ‘brought to his knees’ (Modleski 43). When Diana is later kidnapped by a rival Sheik, Ahmed wields his power to save her and sobs when he confesses his love at the end. His [End Page 7] physical strength is transferred to the heroine, because it is now devoted to protect her rather than wielded to control her.

During this process, Ahmed is revealed to be half-English, half-Spanish and the son of an Earl: almost a ‘handsome prince’. However, it is his perceived Arab identity that is foregrounded and is perhaps preferred by Diana, as she confesses herself, ‘she did not care’ (113). However, at the same time, his Arab-ness is stressed as a lifestyle choice – a costume. Ahmed’s mysterious appeal comes from manipulated racial markers, especially his hypermasculine figure covered by ‘effeminate’ Eastern clothing, making him the human form of his luxurious tent: ‘tall and broad-shouldered, dressed in white flowing robes, a waistcoat embroidered in black and silver’ (48). The robes seem to highlight his masculine body even more, confusing and cementing gender binaries: ‘[he] not only look[s] “exotic” and “mysterious”, but supremely masculine’ (Burge 83). Significantly, with a ‘clean-shaven’ face, ‘close-cut hair’ and ‘white gleaming teeth’, he never appears as a ‘real’ native (43). These groomed aspects supposedly point to his undiscovered Western heritage, especially when compared to Ibraheim Omair, the rival Sheik who kidnaps Diana and who is a ‘true’ Arab, described as a ‘gross, unwieldy figure […], his swollen, ferocious face seamed and lined’ (184).

Elizabeth Gargano sees the hero as part of a phenomenon she names ‘English Sheiks’: ‘The implication is that English blood is superior and, according to this skewed logic, an Englishman raised by Arabs makes a “better” Arab than the Arabs themselves’ (182). Therefore, Diana’s ‘reward’ of a European noble man is at odds with how the story concludes. Does this mean Ahmed merely performs the part of an Oriental beast, and if so, is that preferable and pleasurable for the heroine and the assumed female reader? Is Diana rewarded with a European man who ‘acts’ as an Oriental beast or an Oriental beast who is safely European?

This is hard to discern, but what is certain is the power of Ahmed’s masculinity, which is essentially entwined with his Otherness, or interpretation of Otherness. Confronted with it, Diana’s androgyny fades away as if it were an illusion, allowing her real femaleness and unknown desires to flourish: ‘she felt that the boyish clothes that covered her slender limbs were stripped from her, leaving her beautiful white body bare under his passionate stare’ (48). The emphasis on Diana’s ‘whiteness’ indicates that Ahmed’s masculinity is racialised. His strength surpasses the numerous English suitors who had proposed to Diana; implying that ‘the collective failure of the community of “civilised” men to attract Diana […] reflects the contemporary fear that the modern “civilised” man lacks the “manliness” of his forefathers’ (Gargano 177). We can also propose the same statement about Diana’s fervent rejection of femininity as another ‘corruption’ of Western culture. Compared to Ahmed, Diana’s suitors are faceless and bodiless; blushing and stammering in her presence (6); whereas Ahmed, with his ‘superb animal strength’ (113), has chosen to belong to an ancient, foreign troupe of men who have maintained an uncontaminated masculinity that is presented as better for the heroine (and all women). His influence restores the division of gender roles and thus its pure, true and natural order.

The Sheik suggests that the fulfilment of desire is the restoration, acceptance and admittance of how men and women ‘should be’. To ‘put right’ and to make Diana ‘give in’ are actions that Ahmed as Oriental beast is capable of as he proves to have a deeper, primal understanding that defeats ‘normal’, modern men. The couple’s decision to remain in the wildness of the desert together indicates a radical shunning of ‘Western-ness’ (Jarmakani [End Page 8] 903), choosing a long-lost relationship, where the man is truly ‘manly’, and the woman is ‘womanly’. Therefore, the adoption of perceived foreignness is preferred to as a happily ever after.


As examined, The Sheik has a strong affinity with the beastly lover fairy tale, both in its use of space and the Orientalised form of the hero, stemming from Orientalist influences during the eighteenth and nineteenth century. By exploring these two links, we can see how the romance is dominated by its antecedent ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and its key themes; the only way Diana can experience pleasure and love is through her sacrifice. Firstly, we see this through her struggles living in the Sheik’s world. The sexually threatening, fantastical desert rages with excess and instability, but also the liberation that the heroine yearns for.

Secondly, the Orientalised figure of the hero presents himself to Diana as both her expense and prize. Ahmed as the Oriental beast is, not only cruelly animalistic and didactic, but profoundly different. Whether or not he is authentically foreign, his idea and performance of it, his potent and curative racialised masculinity, is Diana’s (and perhaps the reader’s) true source of pleasure. The Oriental beast has dictated a form of masculinity, lurking in the shadows of what defines the romance hero and has been difficult for the genre to escape. Embedded in loose, racist interpretations of Otherness, it is a force comprised of all the descriptions above, as well as fantastical, primitive, ancient and far-away. The text could be even seen as an Oriental beast itself; threatening, undefeatable and controlling the assumed female reader’s thoughts and reactions.

It is curious, for a novel that continually stresses ideas of the ‘natural’ way of life, that it was considered degraded and scandalous in its time. D.H. Lawrence warned readers to resist the ‘throb of the Sheik’ and described it, and other popular novels, as ‘baking powder’: a scorn about their cheapness and repetitive style (116). Mocking its tolerated ‘backwards’ violence, he criticised its sneaky effect on intelligence, like a disease or even an invasion. Modernist anxieties about the romance reader, which exist today, lie in the realisation that they are drawn, not to something new, but to something very old and very familiar.

[1] jay Dixon states that Mills & Boon novels have the same plot as ‘Cinderella’ and especially ‘Beauty and the Beast’, including parallels with Greek and Roman myths; however, these comparisons are not elaborated further. Maryellan Hains draws parallels between ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and popular romance novels during the late twentieth century. Hains, and later Jennifer Crusie Smith, argue that fairy tales have been given a feminist twist through contemporary romance. Expanding on Hains and Smith, Linda J. Lee explores how fairy tale motifs have been reworked and eroticized, with attention to ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and the paranormal novel Lair of the Lion (2002).

[2] Quoted in Zipes. Original Source: Prince de Beaumont. First published in 1756 in France and translated into English in 1757. [End Page 9]


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