Shiel & Wells: A Look Back After 21 Years


An excerpt from

“Some Contemporary Themes in Shiel’s Early Novels:

I: “The Dragon’s Tale: M. P. Shiel on the Emergence of Modern China”


John D. Squires

[Morse, A. Reynolds, ed,

M. P. Shiel in Diverse Hands:

A Collection of Essays on M. P. Shiel,

Cleveland: The Reynolds Morse Foundation, 1983, 299,

With Notes added in 2004.]




            What impact did Shiel have on the genre? [1] The clearest direct influence would appear to be on The War in the Air by H. G. Wells.  This was serialized beginning in the January, 1908 issue of Pall Mall Magazine and appeared in book form the same year both in England and America.[2]

            In broad plot it is a rewrite of Empress [Danger] [3] without Yen How.  Asia takes advantage of a suicidal Western war to attack the West.  Shiel’s novel had ended on a vision of a new age of man drawn together by the coming age of flight.  Wells inverts Shiel’s optimistic ending to show civilization destroyed by the coming age of air warfare.  (Wells seems to have similarly borrowed and inverted an idea from Shiel’s The Rajah’s Sapphire in his short story, “The Rajah’s Treasure” published in Pearson’s Magazine the same month Wells’ caustic review of Sapphire appeared in The Saturday Review.[4]  The full impact of Shiel and Wells on each other has yet to be assessed.)

            Besides the obvious similarity of broad plot and the inversion of Shiel’s closing vision from Danger, The War in the Air includes several other apparent allusions to Shiel and his work.  When Wells’ hero, Bert Smallways, returns to war devastated England he lands at South Shields to find the populace further ravaged by a new pestilence, The Purple Death.  While “South Shields” may be a coincidence, “The Purple Death” seems an unmistakable allusion to Shiel’s most famous novel, The Purple Cloud [5] which Wells was later to praise in his The Discovery of the Future (1913.) [6] 

            Finally, in Chapter XI Bert learns that his home town has fallen under the sway of some local bullies who had formerly been led by a Shielesque figure (then missing and presumably killed by his former followers.) 


                                    There had been a strain of advanced philosophy about

                                    the local nobleman, and his mind ran to “improving the

                                    race,” and producing the over-man, which in practice took

                                    the form of himself especially and his little band in moderation

                                    marrying with some frequency. (P 372 of the Grosset &

                                    Dunlap edition.)


            This may have been a parody of Shiel himself.  His “kingdom” of Redonda could well have been known to Wells.[7]  The over-man concept was a consistent one through many novels.  Though Wells should hardly have been one to poke fun at another’s morals, Shiel had apparently fathered at least three children by 1908, only one of which was legitimate.  If this was a conscious barb at Shiel, it may well have been the inspiration for Shiel’s “murder” of Wells in “The Primate of the Rose.”[8]  It also may be the earliest succinct critique of the political naďveté many have found at the core of Shiel’s socialism.




                                                            Notes added in 2004


[1]. Yellow Peril sub-genre of Future War fiction.

[2]. Wells, H. G., The War in the Air, ills by Eric Pape, Pall Mall Magazine, Jan - Dec 1908.  Also in Pearson’s Magazine, NY, Vol XIX, April-June, 1908, Vol XX, July-Dec 1908.

[3]. The Empress of the Earth by M. P. Shiel, ills by Lawson Wood, serialized in Short Stories, C. Arthur Pearson Ltd, London, Vol 4, # 475 - # 494, February 5, 1898 - June 18, 1898.  Cut by 1/3 it was published in book form by Grant Richards as The Yellow Danger in July, 1898.  The serial version was offset with other material in Writings, ed by A. Reynolds Morse, Volume I of The Works of M. P. Shiel, Cleveland: The Reynolds Morse foundation, 1979.

[4]. “The Rajah’s Sapphire has not even the excuse of good English or good intentions.  It appears to have been written by a lunatic, and as it is avowedly inspired by Mr. Stead, there is no need to mention that it is vulgar.  The caricatures of ladies and gentlemen in the book are equally grotesque, and the fact that it is printed on cardboard with gold tops and ragged edges is not a sufficient passport to our indulgence.”— H. G. Wells in The Saturday Review, vol 82, # 2126, 25 July 1896, 96.  Wells’ review of Shiel’s first book, Prince Zaleski, London: John Lane, 1895, had been equally scathing: “This, we sincerely hope, is the low water-mark in ‘Keynotes.’  We doubt if Mr. Lane in his short but brilliant career has ever published anything half so bad before...The style of the book is inimitable, a veritable frenzy of impure English....But the book is too foolish even to keep one laughing at it.  We fail to see where the ‘Keynote’ comes in.” The Saturday Review, Vol 79, # 2058, 6 April 1895, 453.

[5]. The Purple Cloud by M. P. Shiel, ills by J. J. Cameron, was serialized in The Royal Magazine, Vol V, #27-#30, Vol VI, #31-32,  January - June, 1901, in an abbreviated form over Shiel’s objections.  The complete text was published in London by Chatto & Windus in Autumn, 1901.  Shiel revised the text in the 1920s for reissue in London by Victor Gollancz in 1929 and in New York by Vanguard Press in 1930.  A new edition of the complete 1901 text was issued by Tartarus Press in 2004 with the illustrations from The Royal.

[6]. “ one can dispute that some great disease of the atmosphere, some trailing cometary poison, some great emanation of vapour from the interior of the earth, such as Mr. Shiel has made a brilliant use of in his Purple Cloud, is consistent with every demonstrated fact in the world.” Wells, The Discovery of the Future, London: Jonathan Cape, Ltd, 1925, 54.

[7]. Since writing this in 1982 my further research has failed to uncover any public statement by Shiel or anyone else about his legendary coronation as King of Redonda prior to the publication of Shiel’s autobiographical essay, “About Myself” in March 1929 in Victor Gollancz’s promotional booklet for the Gollancz reissues of the Novels of M. P. Shiel.  Unless Shiel had mentioned the story to Wells personally, (which would suggest a previously undisclosed personal relationship) it now seems highly unlikely that Wells could have known of the Redonda legend when he wrote The War in the Air.

[8]. Though a prior periodical publication is suspected, the first known appearance of “The Primate of the Rose” was in Shiel’s Here Comes the Lady, London: Richards Press, Ltd, 1928.  E. P. Crooks, the villain of the story, is generally considered to have been modeled on Wells.  See, George Hay, “Shiel versus the Renegade Romantic,” in Morse, M. P. Shiel in Diverse Hands, 109-112.


Copyright © 1983, 2010 by John D. Squires

Used by permission.


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