Alright, y’all, we need to have a long, serious talk about late-Victorian, early-Edwardian scifi/fantasy author M. P. Shiel. I had to read his 1901 post-apocalyptic crack-fic The Purple Cloud for work. I don’t think I will ever have the strength to recap that nonsense, but I’ll link you to it here in case any of you fancy reading something that makes you go O_O for 250 pages.
(Highlights? Poisoning drug addicts, volcanoes and the North Pole conspiring to end the world, Orientalism, madness, necrophilia, dropping in weird real-world celebrities who were probably pissed that they showed up in this book, the almost cannibalism of a young girl who the protagonist decides to keep as a pet instead of eating, getting struck by lightning, sleep-overs where they do each others’ hair and pierce each others’ ears, and the most uncomfortably drawn out May-December seduction you’ll ever see.)
After reading the book, I went back to read the introduction by John Sutherland to see what sort of dude could write a book like this. I was shocked to discover that the life of M. P. Shiel was even weirder than the book. Brace yourselves, nuggets, we’re about to go down some dark roads.
I’m just going to bullet point this shit with direct quotations from Sutherland:
-He “was born in 1865 in Montserrat, one of a cluster of small islands in the British West Indies . . . . Both his parents were of mixed race and it is suspected that Shiel’s grandparents (certainly on his mother’s side) had been slaves – something he withheld from public knowledge during this lifetime. His swarthy pigmentation was universally noted. But when asked about his racial origins, Shiel would protest, jokingly, that he was a ‘paddy’. He was, his biographer records, furious when he found a bookseller had shelved him among ‘negro authors'” (xiii). This is going to be important later, when we discover that Shiel wrote some incredibly racist books.
-“Shiel fondly recorded losing his virginity, aged five, to a more experienced eight-year-old, Xena. The pubescent or even prepubescent girl remained a preference throughout his life. It would cause him grief in places less tolerant about such things than Montserrat” (xiv).
I don’t quite know what to say about this? I have . . . questions.
-“Shiel was the ninth (or, by some counts, tenth) child born to his indefatigably procreative mother, Priscilla. He was preceded by a host of sisters, who seem to have mattered less to their father, alongside the last-born prince of the family. Harold Billings plausibly diagnoses Shiel’s ‘vast megalomania’ as originating in his glorious late arrival on the family scene” (xiv).
-“Shiel’s inflated image of himself was confirmed when, aged fifteen, he was ‘crowned’ by his father ‘King Felipe of Redonda’. Redonda is an uninhabitable 200-foot rocky islet, some twenty-five miles off Montserrat. It is used by gulls, principally, as a convenient place to drop guano – bird excrement. This, in the nineteenth century, was traded as a valuable commodity, as agricultural fertilizer. The Shiells [he changed the spelling of his name later in life] had no known legal claim to Redonda . . . . In his late, more eccentric, years, Shiel may or may not have taken his ‘kingship’ seriously. It was a source of high merriment to that majority of the human race who happened not to be his subjects” (xiv-xv).
-“Shiel came to England in 1885, with hopes of finishing his education and, as he fondly expected, becoming an academic, a doctor or something similarly worthy of his abilities. He was precociously clever. He claimed to have mastered Greek by the age of eleven and to have been fluent in half a dozen languages in his maturity” (xv).
-Things were going well for Shiel during his studies in England, but part of his career downfall was not noticing the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Bill with its new sexual indecency provisions (this is the same bill that would have huge repercussions for Oscar Wilde and Shiel alike, years later. For Shiel, it “was not the new prohibition on ‘gross indecency’ between males, introduced by the Labouchere Amendment, but the raising of the age of sexual consent for young women to sixteen. Shiel devoutly believed that the previous threshold of thirteen years was quite sufficient – and acted accordingly when opportunity arose” (xv).
-His father’s business took a turn for the worse, so Shiel’s financial support during his studies dried up. “Shiel fell back on short-term teaching posts. Perhaps, in some cases, he was dismissed – not for incompetence, but moral turpitude. He mentions in one of his surviving letters of the period impregnating a girl known only as ‘Mary’.” (xvi).
-He turned his hand to writing and tried out a wide variety of genres before finding his niche. “His literary god in these early years was Poe (who shared his interest in pubescent girls and married one)” (xvi).
-Shiel wrote a novel in 1898 called The Yellow Danger “which fantasizes about future Chinese world domination. Somewhat improbably, the oriental potentate, Yen How, becomes infatuated with Ada Seward, a Fulham nursemaid, and starts a genocidal war to get her . . . . It is not accidental that Shiel, during this period, was himself in a relationship with a Cheltenham housemaid, Nellie Seward, by whom he would have the second of his children that we know about (she was christened ‘Ada’, in honour of the novel and of his dead sister, the most loved of his siblings)” (xviii).
So much Freud, so little time.
-“A couple of years earlier, Shiel’s eye had been caught by a sixteen-year-old (possibly younger) Spanish girl, Carolina Gomez, ice-skating at the palais de glace in Paris. He laid siege to her and succeeded in winning her hand in 1898. ‘Lina’, as he lovingly called her . . . married [him] in a Catholic ceremony in London . . . . A couple of weeks after the ceremony, little Ada Seward was born in Cheltenham. Shiel, meanwhile, continued both his relationship with Nellie in England and with Lina, who largely lived with her mother, in Paris” (xviii).
-“Shiel’s marriage to Lina, happy enough during the period that The Purple Cloud was flowing from his pen, broke down irreparably in 1903, after five years and one child, Dolores, born in 1900. His incorrigible philandering was one reason for the breakdown. Cash was another . . . . A third reason, which Shiel himself stressed, was mother-in-law difficulties” (xxx).
-“Shiel’s love-life continued promiscuously and, eventually, disastrously. His appetite for casual affairs remained insatiable. Nellie, the mother of his love-child, Ada, had apparently moved to South Africa by this point. Lina was probably dead. Shiel, who evidently liked a little anchorage in his love-life, now entered into two other long-lasting relationships. Being Shiel, he tried to keep them running at the same time, while philandering on the side.
“The first of these relationships was with Elizabeth Price and was begun, as well as can be dated, in 1908. Born in 1880s, ‘Lizzie’ was rather old for Shiel’s taste and his interest initially seems to have been directed towards a much younger sister, Mary Jane, still in her early teens. Three years earlier, around 1905, as Billings calculates, Shiel had been involved romantically with Elizabeth’s elder sister, Kate. It is not impossible that he had sexual relations with all three Price women.
“As Harold Billings suggests, there is also the further possibility that, having been forbidden by her family from anything more to do with Shiel, Mary Jane, the youngest, attempted suicide or a self-administered abortion. At the time the Price family was living at Chepstow and Shiel was a frequent visitor. His welcome must have worn rather thing” (xxxi-xxxii).
-While he was romancing Lizzie and her sisters, Shiel also fell hard for another woman, Lydia Furley. “Their sexual relationship began in summer 1908, after they met at a public lecture in London. As Billings observes, Lydia was the woman Shiel pursued more vigorously than any other in his life. She was, at thirty-six, older than his other women. But she was intellectual, politically radical – a ‘new woman’, and later a Fabian” (xxxii).
-“Lizzie Price, who had adopted the surname ‘Shiel’, became pregnant by him in the summer of 1913 and their child, Caesar Kenneth Shiel, was born in March 1914″ (xxxiii).
OF COURSE HE HAD A SON NAMED CAESAR.
-A month after his son with Lizzie was born, his other mistress, Lydia’s, husband died. She was left a wealthy widow and wanted Shiel to marry her. Lizzie, meanwhile, who was rather poor and now with his newborn child (and her other children from her own marriage to raise) also put pressure on Shiel. He left Lizzie and their newborn son soon thereafter for Lydia.
“She did not, one deduces, take the desertion well. On 26 October 1914, under the name ‘Elizabeth Sircar’, she filed charges against Sheil on the grounds of ‘carnal knowledge’ with her twelve-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Dorothy Sircar. Shiel was arrested and went on trial at the Old Bailey. He chose to defend himself against an array of witnesses to his crime. He did not deny the accusation, but justified it on historical precedent (he cited Napoleon’s mother, among other well-known sexually active juveniles) . . . . An unpersuaded jury found him guilty of ‘indecently assaulting and carnally knowing’ Dorothy. He was sentenced to sixteen months’ hard labour in Wormwood Scrubs. For a man nearly in his fifties, it was not a pleasant prospect'” (xxxiii).
-“Extraordinarily, Lydia had stood by her lover, although she must have known the whole sorry story. Although they did not immediately live together, she submitted to marrying him in January 1919. She was now forty-six; he was eight years older . . . . This second marriage lasted from 1919 to 1929″ (xxxv).
-In 1915, after his release from prison, ‘a peculiarly flagrant plagiarism of a cowboy story . . . had rendered Shiel damaged goods in the London book world. Nothing further of literary significance appeared under his name until 1923, when his writing career entered a minor second phase . . . . One assumes Lydia supported him financially in these authorially fallow years, from the income her first partner had left her” (xxxv).
-“In 1929 the Shiels separated – without fuss, as Harold Billings records. They may just have been tired of each other . . . . He bought [a] cottage with money supplied by Lydia . . . . In these last years it was his habit to sleep by day and roam the hills and write by night. Devotees came to pay him court . . . Shiel, though no immortal, lived to a great age, and became preoccupied with racist fantasies of the Nietzschean ‘Overman’ in his later years. In the context of World War Two, it did not add to his general appeal” (xxxvi).
-“His last work, Jesus, remains unpublished in its entirety. There were a mere thirteen mourners at his funeral (Shiel would have liked the symbolism – a Messiah and twelve disciples)” (xxxvii).
-“Shiel anointed the faithful Gawsworth [a longtime fan and Shiel’s factotum] as his successor to the kingship of Redonda on his death. ‘King Juan I’ reverently kept Shiel’s royal ashes in a biscuit tin on his mantlepiece, dropping a pinch as condiment into the food of any particularly honoured guest. The comedian and scholar of nineteenth-century decadent literature, Barry Humphries, was, as he has told me, one such diner – unwillingly and ‘out of mere politeness'” (xxxvii).
HERE, EAT MY FRIEND, THE KING.
I don’t think I have anything I can add that would make the bare facts any more ridiculous than they are.