M. P. Shiel

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M. P. Shiel
Matthew Phipps & Carolina Shiel 1901 repaired.png
Matthew Phipps & Carolina Shiel 1901
Born Matthew Phipps Shiell
(1865-07-21)21 July 1865
Montserrat
Died 17 February 1947(1947-02-17) (aged 81)
Nationality British
Ethnicity Irish, West Indian
Citizenship British
Alma mater Harrison College, Barbados
Relative(s) Priscilla Ann Blake
Matthew Dowdy Shiell

Matthew Phipps Shiell (21 July 1865 – 17 February 1947) — known as M. P. Shiel — was a prolific British writer of West Indian descent. His legal surname remained "Shiell" though he adopted the shorter version as a de facto pen name.

He is remembered mostly for supernatural and scientific romances. His work was published as serials, novels, and as short stories. The Purple Cloud (1901; 1929) remains his most famous and often reprinted novel.

Biography[edit]

Caribbean background[edit]

Born on the island of Montserrat in the West Indies, Matthew Phipps Shiell's mother was Priscilla Ann Blake; his father was Matthew Dowdy Shiell, most likely the illegitimate child of an Irish Customs Officer and a slave woman.[1] Shiell was educated at Harrison College, Barbados.[2]

Early years in the UK[edit]

Shiell moved to England in 1885, eventually adopting Shiel as his pen name. After working as a teacher and translator he broke into the fiction market with a series of short stories published in The Strand and other magazines. His early literary reputation was based on two collections of short stories influenced by Poe published in the Keynote series by John LanePrince Zaleski (1895) and Shapes in the Fire (1896) — considered by some critics to be the most flamboyant works of the English decadent movement.[3] His first novel was The Rajah's Sapphire (1896),[4] based on a plot by William Thomas Stead, who probably hired Shiel to write the novel.[5]

Serial publication[edit]

Shiel's popular reputation was made by another work for hire. This began as a serial contracted by Peter Keary (1865–1915), of C. Arthur Pearson Ltd, to capitalize on public interest in a crisis in China (which became known as the Scramble for Concessions.)[6]

The Empress of the Earth ran weekly in Short Stories from 5 February – 18 June 1898. The early chapters incorporated actual headline events as the crisis unfolded, and proved wildly popular with the public. Pearson responded by ordering Shiel to double the length of the serial to 150,000 words, but Shiel cut it back by a third for the book version, which was rushed out that July as The Yellow Danger.

Some contemporary critics described this novel as a fictionalization of Charles Henry Pearson's National Life and Character: A Forecast (1893). Shiel's Asian villain, Dr. Yen How, has been cited as a possible basis for Sax Rohmer's much better-known Dr. Fu Manchu.[7] Dr. Yen How was probably based on the Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925), who had first gained fame in England in 1896 when he was kidnapped and imprisoned at the Chinese embassy in London until public outrage pressured the British government to demand his release.[8] Similar kidnapping incidents occurred in several of Shiel's subsequent novels.[9] The Yellow Danger was Shiel's most successful book during his lifetime, going through numerous editions, particularly when the Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1901 seemed to confirm his fictional portrayal of Chinese hostility to the West. Shiel himself considered the novel hackwork, and seemed embarrassed by its success. It was a likely influence on H. G. Wells in The War in the Air (1908),[10] Jack London in The Unparalleled Invasion (1910),[11] and others.

His next novel was another serial contracted by Pearson to tie into the Spanish-American War. Contraband of War ran in Pearson's Weekly 7 May—9 July 1898, again incorporating headline events into the serial as the war progressed. It was published as a book the following year.

Genre innovator[edit]

Around 1899-1900 Shiel conceived a loosely linked trilogy of novels which were described by David G. Hartwell in his introduction to the Gregg Press edition of The Purple Cloud as possibly the first future history series in science fiction. Each was linked by similar introductory frame purporting to show that the novels were visions of progressively more distant (or alternative?) futures glimpsed by a clairvoyant in a trance. Notebook I of the series had been plotted at least by 1898, but would not see print until published as The Last Miracle (1906). Notebook II became The Lord of the Sea (1901), which was recognized by contemporary readers as a critique of private ownership of land based on the theories of Henry George.[12]

Shiel's lasting literary reputation is largely based on Notebook III of the series which was serialized in The Royal Magazine in abridged form before book publication that autumn as The Purple Cloud (1901). The Purple Cloud is a landmark text of early British science fiction, a dystopian, post-apocalytic novel that tells the tale of Adam Jeffson, who, returning alone from an expedition to the North Pole, discovers that a worldwide catastrophe has left him as the last man alive.[13] Demonstrative of the speculative, philosophical impulse that pervades Shiel's work, The Purple Cloud engages with Victorian developments in the sciences of geology and biology, tending to hone in on their dark sides of geological cataclysm and racial decline in keeping with what has been termed the fin-de-siècle 'apocalyptic imaginary', while ultimately putting forward a positive if unorthodox view of catastrophe.[14]

Shiel had married a young Parisian-Spaniard, Carolina Garcia Gomez in 1898, who was the model for a character in Cold Steel (1900) and several short stories. (The Welsh author and mystic Arthur Machen and decadent poet Theodore Wratislaw were among the wedding guests.)[15] They separated around 1903 and his daughter was taken to Spain after Lina's death around 1904. Shiel blamed the failure of the marriage on the interference of his mother-in-law, but money was at the heart of their problems. Shiel was caught between his desire to write high art and his need to produce more commercial fare. When his better efforts did not sell well, he was forced to seek more journalistic work, and began to collaborate with Louis Tracy on a series of romantic mystery novels, some published under Tracy's name, others under the pseudonyms Gordon Holmes and Robert Fraser. The last of their known collaborations appeared in 1911.[16]

Edwardian times[edit]

In 1902 Shiel turned away from the more dramatic future war and science fiction themes which had dominated his early serial novels and began a series which have been described as his middle period romantic novels. The most interesting was the first, serialized as In Love’s Whirlpool in Cassell’s Saturday Journal, 14 May—3 September 1902, and published in book form as The Weird o’It (1902). Shiel later described it as a "true Bible or Holy Book" for modern times, in which he had attempted to represent "Christianity in a radical way." This novel was far from hackwork, and besides apparent autobiographical elements (including a minor character based on Ernest Dowson with whom Shiel is rumored to have roomed briefly in the 1890s), contains some of his finest writing, but it was not reprinted in England, nor formally published in America.[17]

Shiel returned to contemporary themes in The Yellow Wave (1905), an historical novel about the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. The novel was a recasting of Romeo and Juliet into the on-going war with leading families of the two nations standing in for the feuding Capulets and Montagues of Shakespeare's play. Shiel modeled his hero on Yoshio Markino (1874–1956), the Japanese artist and author who lived in London from 1897-1942.[18] In February 1904 Shiel had offered to Peter Keary to go to the front as a war correspondent with letters of introduction from Markino.[19] He may have met Markino through Arthur Ransome who dedicated Bohemia In London (1907) to Shiel and used him as the model for the chapter on "The Novelist."[20]

Faced with declining sales of his books, Shiel tried to recapture the success of The Yellow Danger when China and Sun Yat-sen returned to the headlines during the Chinese Revolution of 1911-1912.[21] Though a better novel in most respects, The Dragon (1913), serialized earlier that year as To Arms! and revised in 1929 as The Yellow Peril, failed to catch the public's interest. As the hero of the story had oddly predicted, Shiel turned away from novels for ten years.

Scandal[edit]

It had been popularly believed that Shiel had spent time in prison for fraud. However, it was discovered in 2008 that in 1914 Shiel had actually been convicted under the Criminal Law Amendment Act (1885) for 'indecently assaulting and carnally knowing' his 12 year old de facto stepdaughter.[22] Unrepentant, Shiel served sixteen months hard labour in prison, complaining to the Home Secretary about the law, though he assured his publisher Grant Richards in a letter that he had been treated well. Shiel's discussion of his crime is disingenuous; he conceals from Richards the identity of his victim in addition to misleading him about her age. Instead he refers to 'love-toyings' with an older girl on the cusp of maturity. Nor does Shiel mention the fact that he had known both the girl and her mother's sisters long before his conviction, perhaps intimately, as contemporary letters from one of the sisters to Shiel suggests. Court records described Shiel as a 'clerk and metal worker', though one of the witnesses was a metal worker and the records may have transposed some information.[23] He appealed the conviction unsuccessfully.

It is too early to assess whether this new revelation about Shiel will have an impact upon his literary legacy. However, as Macleod argues in her essay, young heroines abound in Shiel's novels, where they are romanticised, idealised and sexualised through the eyes of the male author. She cites the example of the two thousand-year-old Rachel in 'This Above All' (1933), who is portrayed as part “child,” part “harlot,” part “saint”, since she still inhabits the young girl's body she possessed when raised from the dead and thus rendered immortal by the Biblical Christ. Lazarus (also a 2,000 year old immortal for the same reason) is warned ruefully against her: “If Rachel and you co-habit without some marriage-rite, you may see yourself in prison here in Europe, since it cannot be believed that she is as old as fourteen.”[24]

Georgian times[edit]

Over the next decade Shiel wrote five plays, dabbled in radical politics and translated at least one, though probably more, pamphlets for the Workers Socialist Federation.[25] In 1919 he married his second wife, Esther Lydia Furley (1872–1942).[26] They traveled in Italy in the early 1920s, probably living largely off her income, and separated amicably around 1929, but do not seem to have divorced.

He returned to writing around 1922 and between 1923 and 1937 published a further ten or so books, as well as thorough revisions of five of his older novels. Shiel spent most of his last decade working on a "truer" translation of the Gospel of Luke with extensive commentary. He finished it, but half of the final draft was lost after his death in Chichester.

In 1931 Shiel met a young poet and bibliophile, John Gawsworth, who befriended him and helped him obtain a Civil List Pension. Gawsworth talked Shiel into allowing him to complete several old story fragments, sometimes roping literary friends like Oswell Blakeston into helping. The results were largely unsuccessful, but Gawsworth used them as filler in various anthologies with his name prominently listed as co-author.[27]

Redonda: the legend of the kingdom[edit]

Main article: Kingdom of Redonda

As King Felipe, Shiel was purportedly the king of Redonda, a small uninhabited rocky island in the West Indies, situated a short distance northwest of the island of Montserrat, where Shiel was born.[28]

The Redonda legend was probably created out of whole cloth by Shiel himself, and was first mentioned publicly in a 1929 booklet advertising the reissue of four of his novels by Victor Gollancz. According to the story Shiel told, he was crowned King of Redonda on his 15th birthday in 1880. However, there is little evidence that Shiel took these claims seriously, and his biographer, Harold Billings, speculates that the story may have been an intentional hoax foisted on the gullible press.[29] At this late date, either verifying or discrediting the story may be impossible.

On his death John Gawsworth became both his literary executor and his appointed heir to the "kingdom". Gawsworth took the legend of Redonda to heart. He never lost an opportunity to further elaborate the tale and spread the story to the press.[30]

According to John Sutherland's 'Lives of the Novelists', “the excessively minor poet John Gawsworth” kept the ashes of M. P. Shiel “in a biscuit tin on his mantelpiece, dropping a pinch as condiment into the food of any particularly honoured guest”.

Legacy[edit]

Excluding the collaborations with Tracy, Shiel published over 30 books, including 25 novels and various collections of short stories, essays and poems. Arkham House issued two posthumous collections, Xelucha and Others (1975) and Prince Zaleski and Cummings King Monk (1977). The Purple Cloud remains his most famous and often reprinted novel. It has been variously described as both a neglected masterpiece and the best of all Last Man novels.[31] It was credited as the loose inspiration for the 1959 MGM film, The World, the Flesh and the Devil, starring Harry Belafonte, Inger Stevens, and Mel Ferrer.[32] Stephen King cited it as an influence on his novel The Stand.[33]

A number of the short stories continue to be reprinted,[34][35][36][37][38] but many of his other novels, including the middle period romantics, have been nearly forgotten.

Under UK copyright law his works will enter the public domain in 2017.

Bibliography[edit]

Novels[edit]

Short story collections[edit]

  • Prince Zaleski (1895)
    • "The Race of Orven," "The Stone of the Edmundsbury Monks," and "The S.S."
  • Shapes in the Fire (1896)
    • "Xélucha," "Maria in the Rose-Bush," "Vaila," "Premier and Maker (An Essay)," "Tulsah," "The Serpent Ship" (poem), and "Phorfor"
  • The Pale Ape and Other Pulses (1911)
    • "The Pale Ape," "The Case of Euphemia Raphash," the three-part "Cummings King Monk," "A Bundle of Letters," "Huegenin's Wife," "Many a Tear", "The House of Sounds" (revision of "Vaila"), "The Spectre Ship," "The Great King," and "The Bride."
  • Here Comes the Lady (1928)
    • "The Tale of Hugh and Agatha," "The Tale of Henry and Rowena," "The Tale of Gaston and Mathilde," "No. 16 Brook Street," "The Tale of One in Two," "The Tale of Charley and Barbara," "The Bell of St. Sépulcre," "The Primate of the Rose," "The Corner in Cotton," "Dark Lot of One Saul," and "The Tale of Adam and Hannah."
  • The Invisible Voices (1935)
    • "The Panel Day," "The Adore Day," "The Rock Day (The Vulture's Rock)," "The Diary Day," "The Cat Day," "The Lion Day," "The Place of Pain Day," "The Vengeance Day," "The Venetian Day," "The Future Day," and "The Goat Day."
  • The Best Short Stories of M. P. Shiel (1948)
    • "The Race of Orven," "The Stone of the Edmundsbury Monks," "The S.S.," "Xélucha," "Vaila," "Tulsah," "Phorfor," "Huegenin's Wife," "Monk Wakes an Echo," "The Bride," "Dark Lot of One Saul," and "The Primate of the Rose."
  • Xelucha and Others (1975)
  • Prince Zaleski and Cummings King Monk (1977)
  • The Empress of the Earth; The Purple Could; and Some Short Stories (1979)
    • The Works of M. P. Shiel Vol. I, Writings -- offprints of the original periodical editions, with period illustrations; The Empress of the Earth was the original serial version of The Yellow Danger; stories from 1893-1911: "Guy Harkaway's Substitute," "The Eagle's Crag," "A Puzzling Case," "Huguenin's Wife," "The Case of Euphemia Raphash," "Wayward Love," "The Spectre Ship," "The Secret Panel," "A Night in Venice," "The Battle of Waterloo," "Ben," "The Bride," "Many a Tear," "Miche," and "A Good Thing."
  • Xélucha and The Primate of the Rose (1994)
    • Xélucha, The Primate of the Rose
  • The House of Sounds and Others (2005)
    • Xélucha, The Pale Ape, The Case of Euphemia Raphash, Huguenin's Wife,The House of Sounds, The Great King, The Bride, The Purple Cloud, Vaila

Short stories[edit]

Miscellaneous works[edit]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ MATTHEW DOWDY SHIELL (1824-1888)
  2. ^ Billings, Harold (2005). M.P. Shiel: A Biography of His Early Years. Roger Beacham. ISBN 0-9766044-1-8. 
  3. ^ Brian Stableford, Introduction to Tartarus Press reprint of Shapes in the Fire.
  4. ^ Georges T. Dodds, review of The Rajah’s Sapphire
  5. ^ John D. Squires, “Shiel’s Collaborators I: William Thomas Stead (1849-1912)”
  6. ^ Harold Billings, M. P. Shiel : The Middle Years, 1897-1923, 54
  7. ^ Precursors of Fu Manchu, The Page of Fu Manchu
  8. ^ Sun Yat Sen, Kidnapped in London, Bristol: J. W. Arrowsmith & London: Simpkin, Marshall (1897).
  9. ^ John D. Squires, “The Dragon’s Tale: M. P. Shiel on the Emergence of Modern China,” in Morse, ed, M. P. Shiel in Diverse Hands, 267-268.
  10. ^ Squires, “The Dragon’s Tale,” 299.
  11. ^ Yorimitsu Hashimoto, "Germs, Body-Politics and Yellow Peril: Relocation of Britishness in The Yellow Danger," Australasian Victorian Studies Journal (Vol. 9, 2003,) 56.
  12. ^ R. D. Mullen, review of Arno Press edition of The Lord of the Sea, Science Fiction Studies, July 1975, 186-187.
  13. ^ Ailise Bulfin, “One Planet One Inhabitant: Mass Extermination as Progress in M. P. Shiel’s The Purple Cloud,” Trinity College Dublin, Journal of Postgraduate Research, (2008) 7 JPR, 101-118.
  14. ^ Ailise Bulfin, ‘“The End of Time”: M. P. Shiel and the “Apocalyptic Imaginary”’ Victorian Time: Technologies, Standardizations, Catastrophes, Trish Ferguson (ed.), (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 155
  15. ^ Billings, M. P. Shiel : The Middle Years, 1897-1923, 84
  16. ^ John D. Squires, "A Whiff of Collaboration: The Tracy-Shiel Connection".
  17. ^ Squires, "A Whiff of Collaboration".
  18. ^ Squires, “The Dragon’s Tale,” 276.
  19. ^ Billings, M. P. Shiel : The Middle Years, 1897-1923, 173.
  20. ^ Roger Dobson, "Arthur Ransome's Bohemia in London", Lost Club Journal.
  21. ^ Cantlie & Jones, Sun Yat Sen and the Awakening of China, NY & London: Fleming H. Revell Co, 1912.
  22. ^ 'M. P. Shiel and the Love of Pubescent Girls: The Other “Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name”' - Kirsten MacLeod, University of Alberta
  23. ^ Billings, M. P. Shiel : The Middle Years, 1897-1923, 285.
  24. ^ MacLeod, page 370
  25. ^ Billings, M. P. Shiel : The Middle Years, 1897-1923, 307-308
  26. ^ Billings, M. P. Shiel : The Middle Years, 1897-1923, 300
  27. ^ Steve Eng, "John Gawsworth . . . Pioneer Collaborator."
  28. ^ John D. Squires, “Of Dreams and Shadows: An Outline of the Redonda Legend with Some Notes on Various Claimants to its Uncertain Throne.”
  29. ^ Billings, M. P. Shiel : A Biography of the Early Years, 83-85.
  30. ^ John D. Squires, The Redonda Legend: A Chronological Bibliography
  31. ^ R. D. Mullen, Review of The Purple Cloud, Science Fiction Studies, November 1977.
  32. ^ John D. Squires, "Rediscovering M. P. Shiel (1865-1947)",The New York Review of Science Fiction, #153, Vol. 13, No. 9 (May 2001), 12-15.
  33. ^ Playboy Interview: Stephen King, June 1983, 236.
  34. ^ William P. Simmons, review of the Tartarus Press omnibus edition of Prince Zaleski.
  35. ^ William P. Simmons, review of the Tartarus Press edition of The Pale Ape.
  36. ^ William P. Simmons, review of the Hippocampus Press edition, The House of Sounds and Others.
  37. ^ Greg Beatty, review of the Hippocampus Press edition, The House of Sounds and Others.
  38. ^ skullsinthestars, review of The House of Sounds and Others.

External links[edit]