Some Closing Thoughts on M. P. Shiel

or

The Frustrations of a Putative Biographer

 

By

 

John D. Squires

 

      

 

This article appeared as the Afterword to M. P. Shiel and the Lovecraft Circle: A Collection of Primary Documents, Including Shiel's Letters to August Derleth, 1929-1946, Edited with Notes by John D. Squires (Kettering, Ohio: The Vainglory Press, December 2001), pp. 103-111. Copyright © 2001 by John D. Squires.  Used by permission.

       

 

 

            This is the second collection of Shiel's letters that has been compiled to date, and much the larger of the two.  In rereading them before composing this closing note, I was struck again by how little personal information they reveal about Shiel, the man.  While his letters to both August Derleth and Malcolm Ferguson are friendly and offer some professional comments on their respective writings, other than the return addresses,  they contain few helpful hints about Shiel's life. 

 

            Shiel wrote only a few short autobiographical essays.  The first was triggered by a fascinating review of The Lord of the Sea which was published in Frank Harris' The Candid Friend [1] on July 13, 1901 at page 445:

 

Literary Notes

 

                                    The most mysterious of British authors, M. P. Shiel, is fast

                        becoming the central figure of a cycle of legends.  It is said that

                        his birthplace has never been revealed to mortal man — I do not

                        know about mortal woman: he is married to a Spanish lady —

                        and his race is as great a mystery as his birthplace.  His friends are

                        agreed that he is a blend of two or three of the great races, but they

                        differ utterly as to which two or three of the great races culminate

                        in him.  He is a man of disappearances.  He will have left his

                        chambers for months, and is believed to be in Ecuador or Teheran,

                        when, at five o'clock on a summer's morning, his neighbors are

                        roused by a furious knocking, and a pale and flurried man is crying

                        at their doors, "I've brought Mr. Shiel's horse!  I've brought Mr.

                        Shiel's horse!"  Or he has been lost for a year, and a friend, meeting

                        a dusky brood of gipsies on the Great North Road, is driven by a

                        sudden and inexplicable impulse to say to them, "Can you tell me

                        M. P. Shiel's address?"  And the swarthy crew cry, in one sing-song,

                        "The Paradise, Brondesbury," or "49, the Chiltern Hundred."

                                    His books are in keeping with this man of legend.  He is a

                        genuine stylist in that his writing is the expression of a personality. 

                        Sometimes he writes with extraordinary power, almost with the

                        violence of an inspired madman, and the roaring phrase jostle the

                        violent image: sometimes he writes with a horrible crudity.  His

                        imagination is chiefly busied with great happenings that change

                        the destiny of the human race, and shake the world.  In The Lord

                        of the Sea (Grant Richards), his hero, Richard Hogarth, really

                        Raphael Spinoza, is a young English farmer who realizes, actually

                        realizes as an inspired enthusiast, that the land is the common

                        property of mankind as is the air or sea.  Persecuted by a wealthy

                        Jew, he is wrongfully convicted of murder, and condemned to

                        prison for life.  He makes one of the most ingenious escapes in

                        all fiction from prison; becomes the possessor of immense wealth;

                        and sets about forcing his land theory on the world by making

                        himself  lord of the sea. You can revel in breathless excitement

                        from beginning to end of this rushing book. There is in it a wealth

                        of plot, and an almost luxuriance of incident: Mr. Shiel literally

                        flings his panting reader from astounding event to astounding

                        event, shaving impossibility with a most dexterous skill.  Yet,

                        for all its extravagance, the book gives one to think; and Mr. Shiel's

                        amazing madmen are persons of the most ingenious invention.                                            

This review is significant in a number of respects.  

 

            First, its appraisal of The Lord of the Sea is fairly typical of almost every review of the novel published through 1945.  It was only after WWII that some critics, really beginning with Sam Moskowitz, began to view the book as anti-Semitic.  To Shiel's readers in 1901 it was quite obviously an imaginative critique of private land ownership presented in an astonishing style unlike that of any other "adventure" novelist before or since.  (Recall Derleth's assessment at page 71, above, from Writing Fiction, "...that wildly improbable but magnificently entertaining epitome of all the adventure stories ever written by man.")

 

            Second, this may be the only contemporary English publication to mention Shiel's apparently mixed racial heritage.  Though John Gawsworth was a master bookman and literary ferret in amassing Shiel's bibliographic lore, he either missed this reference or intentionally omitted it from the lists he supplied to Reynolds Morse for the original edition of The Works of M. P. Shiel.  It was rediscovered by an Italian student, Giancarlo Binelli,  researching Shiel in the British Museum  in the late 1980s.[2]

 

            Third, even after a century of ebbing and flowing interest in his life and works, Shiel remains the "most mysterious of British authors" and is still "the central figure of a cycle of legends."   Many of the most basic "facts" about his life remain subject to speculation.  For instance, Shiel always said his birthday was July 21, 1865.  There is at least one letter in the HRC collection from Shiel's father that seems to confirm that date, but the birth certificate that Morse obtained on Montserrat in 1978, which asserts that it is based on information supplied by his father,  gives the date as July 20.[3]  Was July 20 a clerical error?  Probably, but Shiel appeared to be delighted with the symbolic significance of July 21.  In Shapes in the Fire his autobiographical figure, O'Malley Phipps, the maker in "Premier and Maker," claims his birthday is "the 21st of July, which, as you perceive, is the Third Seventh day of the Seventh month..." [4]  Could it be that Shiel might simply have adopted what he deemed the more romantic date as his birthday?

 

            Shiel responded to the questions raised in The Candid Friend with his first autobiographical sketch, "About Myself" which was published in the August 17, 1901 issue at page 630.  It is a beautifully written, evocative example of Shiel's style. 

 

                                    My birthplace, as has been remarked in THE CANDID

                        FRIEND, is, like the burial-place of Moses, wrapped in mystery. 

                        To myself the arcanum has been revealed; but it is too sacred for

                        every ear.  Let it suffice that it is an island, a small island, set in far,

                        high regions of sunlight and the palm, remote enough from Europe. 

                        "Knowest thou the land where the orange-blossom blooms?  It is

                        there! It is there!"  I was born at the moment of an earthquake and

                        a storm, or, rather, these were born at the moment of me.  Nature

                        sneezed at my coming.  The sheet-lightning, like a sheeted ghost,

                        came peering into the chamber, winking a million to the second. 

                        And, with lullaby rough enough, this mixture of Heaven and Earth

                        and Hell which I call "I," and sometimes "We," came out, and

                        began to cry.

 

            I have spoken of a storm and an earthquake: feeble words

                        to ears in Europe, where such things are amateur.  There, however,

                        they are more literal.  That little island (it is called Montserrat) is a 

                        very great and holy place, full of passionate woes, the very apex

                        and hub, it seems to me, of the world.  God cannot let it be, but is

                        ever at it, it would appear, to destroy it: indeed, it is foredoomed,

                        like Delos (birthplace of Apollo!) sooner or later to disappear (...). 

                        I have an idea that at the moment of my death it will sink: I do not

                        know if it is true.  I have passed on the calm sea some vast, blazing

                        day, like an Eternity of light (whether in the body I know not), close

                        under its piled augustness of crags, and my eyes have filled with tears

                        of love and pity for it, and all its despondent manias, and wayward

                        Orestian frenzies, and coming doom.  It has souf-fraires (hot sulfur-

                        springs), and sometimes, after one of its tantrums, passing invisible

                        ships many a mile out at sea can smell that fume of Hell it sends.

 

                                    OF SUCH RED EARTH WAS I KNEADED.  No one born

                        in such a place can be quite sane, especially if his father, like mine,

                        happen to be a great poet; nor, from boyhood, have I ever set up any

                        pretence of being responsible for my actions.  When there was a storm,

                        and all men cowered awe-struck, and the bounds of Heaven and Earth

                        were lost, ah, then was my father's heyday!  His heart alone was strong:

                        for the storm was his brother, and own father's son with him.  I, though

                        then very young, can remember him stalking in a loose robe up and

                        down the travailing house, in the very mood of that bellowing throat

                        without, like Lear himself, with "That's right!  How grand!  Crack your

                        cheeks, then — rage! blow!" while we others, and my poor mother,

                        had our hands on our mouths, and our mouths in the dust.

 

                                    NEVER CAN BE EFFACED FROM MY MEMORY that red,

                        heroic figure, as of Prometheus, those outcries of his, those mutterings,

                        and, I should like to add, cursings; but, to tell the truth, my poor father

                        would not curse, though he could not but have wanted to, having the

                        extraordinary taste to be a Methodist preacher, not by profession, be

                        it said, but of that kind they call "local preachers", his trade being that

                        of ship-owner, and many ships he had on the sea, and knew them all

                        by name.

 

                                    HIS CHILDREN, TOO, he knew by name, though it was

                        something of a feat, for there were nine girls, and then, lastly, I.  At

                        each birth of a girl, a prayer-meeting gathered in the house, attended

                        by everybody, for my father was the local "boss", with the sobriquet

                        of "the Governor", the meeting being intended to thank God for the

                        child, but with a mental reservation, a "but" of disaffection, and a

                        hint to Heaven that it would be graceful to make the next a boy. 

                        For many years, no boy would come for I was ever stubborn; but

                        my father, a true Irishman, kept plodding on, like the present Czar

                        of Russia, and by a last effort I was evolved, taken to the lamplight,

                        and discovered to be male.  Then, while the earth shivered, the storm

                        raved, and Heaven's lightning blinked to see me, there was an added

                        grand racket of prayer and thanksgiving: though why they should have

                        been so very thankful, I, "in the light of maturer experience," cannot

                        tell, cannot tell.  But God knows best....[5]

 

            Those five paragraphs certainly evoke a romantic vision of Shiel's island home and his father, but few of the given facts can be confirmed today.  Shiel's father is unlikely to have ever owned more than a small trading schooner or two, rather than "many ships he had on the sea." Towards the end of his life the elder Shiell probably had little more left than a small store in Plymouth, Montserrat, which suffered heavily from increasing competition.  The story of Shiel's  eight or nine sisters is another central tenant of his cycle of legends, but after decades of research, Harold Billings has been unable to identify more than four of them. Unless the others died in infancy, it may well be that Shiel exaggerated their numbers. [6] 

 

            Shiel's second autobiographical essay, again entitled "About Myself," was first published in 1929 in an advertizing pamphlet from Victor Gollancz, Ltd for The Novels of M. P. Shiel.[7]  It contains many more facts than the earlier version, though it is difficult not to suspect a certain amount of puffery in much of it.  In a letter to A. E. Waite dated 28 April 1930, Arthur Machen described it as, "a mass of the most infernal and extraordinary lies."[8]   The most notorious embellishment in the Gollancz version is the story of Shiel's alleged coronation as "King of Redonda" on his fifteenth birthday in 1880.  It was something Shiel may have never mentioned before and rarely mentioned thereafter.[9]   Significantly, the subject doesn't come up in Shiel's letters to Derleth or Ferguson, though Derleth first wrote Shiel in 1929, the year the Gollancz pamphlet was published.  The "Kingdom" was first brought up to them by Gawsworth after Shiel's death.  The Redonda legend was little noted by anyone except John Gawsworth during Shiel's life.  After his death, through the further embellishments of Gawsworth, it would obtain a life of its own.  Whatever factual basis there may have been to the legend, beyond Shiel's fancy, is now lost in the mists of time. 

 

            But if Shiel did not reveal much of himself to his general correspondents, he did write more openly to his family and a few close friends.  Besides the family letters the HRC collection includes around 40 of Shiel's letters written from 1906 through 1946 to the English critic and writer, Wilfred Hugh Chesson (1870-1953.)  Shiel and Chesson were old literary friends and their letters ought to be published, hopefully with Chesson's reviews of Shiel's novels. 

 

            Another interesting collection could be made from his letters to Annamarie Miller in the Morse Collection.   They never met, but carried on a long distance love affair from 1931 until Shiel's death.   It was Miller, a married New York secretary, who introduced Shiel to the works of Charles Fort by sending him a copy of Lo!  Malcolm Ferguson discussed Fort with Shiel in L'Abri during his visit in November 1944.  (See page 41, above.) 

 

            Here are some excerpts from Shiel's letters to Miller:

 

17 June 1931

 

                        My dear Annamarie,

                                    ...I should have been prompter in writing to thank

                        you for all your good things, but for the book, [Lo!] which

                        I wished to look into first.  I have found it extraordinarily

                        interesting for its accumulation of queer facts—the colossal

                        industry of the author; but he has not a trained mind, lacks

                        scepticism, is too credulous of his own fancies, and his

                        ignorance of science about which he so likes to write, seems

                        to be pretty complete.  Still, I doubt if I ever read any book

                        which, on the whole, I have found so full of food for thought. 

                        He too has "a keen mind," like the man whose "bow tie" you

                        tie, making me jealous; but the keenest mind has to learn to

                        think, as one has to learn to ride, to dance, to typewrite, to

                        walk, to talk...

 

21 September 1931

 

                        Annamarie dear,

                                    I can't help considering you a sweet thing, and have read

                        your letter like Scripture, repeatedly, some of it being pretty thrilling

                        stuff: "Consider my frame, remember that I am dust"—dust more

                        than usually responsive to other dust.  I like "darling"—thanks for

                        that!— though "M. P. Shiel, overman" is all nonsense, unless you

                        had in mind "man over me"—but so far off, Annamarie, 4000 miles! 

                        What shall we do?  How abolish that four-thousand fold fact?  Am

                        I to take myself up, throw off me the things I am at, and be away to

                        America, just to touch a particular Annamarie when there are millions

                        near me?  I have had the impulse, in looking at your photo; but, after

                        all, faut être sérieux, as girls say in France when they don't feel that

                        way.  Anyway, understand that I thank you a lot, you distant sister-thing,

                        fellow-traveller, for the gentleness of your friendship: I have the impulse

                        to give you something—something solid.

                                    I also got the postcard...and hoped that you were enjoying your

                        holiday from being a "secretary."  It appears that you are literary too,

                        having been "always with editors," and you write as if writing was your

                        habit.  It requires some practice!  I agree with you in not thinking much

                        of those first books of mine like Shapes in the Fire.  I was more or less

                        under the influence of Poe, of whom I don't now think much.  My next

                        is to be rather startling, because I have discovered a physical fact which

                        throws quite a new light on the nature of gravitation, a contradiction of

                        Newton's and Einstein's notions, this of mine not being a theory, but a

                        fact discovered by experiment in my laboratory; and I think of announcing

                        it first in my next book, but am not decided yet.  It isn't finished!—but

                        nearly.  My publishers have announced it for October; but I doubt. 

                        Anyway, you don't buy a copy: I will send.  It is called This Above All....

                                    I repeat, "don't forget me."  I think of you a good deal—too much. 

                        "Don't forget," even in St. Peter's.  That pleases me, the picture of you

                        going in there to "think holy thoughts."  I myself think them when I see

                        the sun, and the moon moving pridefully in her diadem; but better St

                        Peter's than nowhere.  Never go into St. Anthony's: you'll seduce him ...

 

 

23 November 1931

 

                                    ...You write wonderfully interesting letters—to me

                        anyway, and I cannot read them without a throe.  So this one

                        I found myself saying to myself, "She is certainly a dear, and

                        good to me, so that if I had her, by heaven, I'd continue to wring

                        some cry of joy out of her entrails"—yes, and by "joy" I mean

                        something that cannot be uttered, an astonishing thing, such as the

                        Power that made me grants me some bleak morning, after I have run

                        some miles in high winds, and I see a thing that I cannot tell of.  Joy is

                        an astonishment, and what makes Life (with a capital L, like Teddy's)

                        nice to me is the certainty which I have that it is hardly yet known,

                        and will grow like a gourd, as we go on: the earth is 7000 million

                        years old, and is likely to last double as long, with mad dancings

                        on it....I don't know what "an apartment house" is—sounds horrid,

                        and I think you had better run away and come to me.  Or are you

                        married?...Tell me everything: I will forgive you seventy times,

                        for I love you a lot.

                                    Another time I will tell you about myself when I was a boy,

                        since you ask.  I was crowned king when I was fifteen, but my

                        kingdom was only a great rock (named Rodundo); at five I had

                        a lover of ten, whom I taught how to love; and I could climb like

                        a monkey, and run... As to my new book, did I say that I would

                        publish this year?  I don't think so.  There are two pages that I

                        can't write till I finish some experiments, and I am keeping it

                        back for that.

                                    Meanwhile, don't forget me.  Every now and again I

                        think of you with an unaccountable tenderness.  Phipps Shiel

 

January 15, 1933

 

                        My Nance—

                                    ...more than ever thinking of you: for I love you,

                        dear, you know—though, really, it isn't pretty of me to say

                        it; only as I seem to have said it before, the milk is already

                        spilled!  What you say about your relations with my photograph

                        is deucedly agreeable to me.  I confess, and I am sure the

                        fellow reciprocates, giving back more than he gets.  I am just

                        getting the second one of you framed.  I think I'd like a little

                        one, with the curls, to see, you sweet.  I have read your last

                        thrice—even the political part, which brings the uproar near

                        to me: I call the Roosevelt "L'Homme qui rit," since he

                        constantly does what the Hoover makes me do—laughs.  But,

                        my dear, what is all that about headaches, bromo-seltzer?  One

                        mustn't have headaches! That isn't good enough: one must

                        find out what to do, and do it.  First of all, do you know, or not,

                        that sugar (manufactured) is a poison (slow)?  I tell you so.  I

                        shouldn't let a grain enter my dear little body for thousands of

                        dollars.  Natural sugar is good (in honey, dates, prunes, fruits.) 

                        Try this for a month, and tell me the result.  If you don't do

                        what I say, I shan't have wet dreams of you.

                                    Love, love,

                                                Phipps

 

 

Whit-Monday-1934

 

                                    So you want to know how to picture my day?  Well,

                        picture me getting out of bed after an orgy of sleep—twelve,

                        sixteen hours—sometimes in the evening, in the morning, at

                        midnight; then naked for an hour—open windows, summer

                        or winter—doing gymnastics, cold-bathing, anointing with

                        olive-oil, like a Greek (velvet skin), then for a run, four miles,

                        and, if there's wind, a little drizzle, I may be pretty happy,

                        saying, "O, happy day!", enjoying my painlessness, conscious

                        that I shall soon be dead, and this is my day, brief like a wink

                        of lightning in the night.  After two hours I eat—a blow-out—

                        oranges, pears, apples, honey (comb), prunes, dates, brown

                        bread, nuts, lettuces, 12 or 14 "courses," not much of any one

                        thing, sometimes two eggs, a little butter.  Eight hours later

                        another run and feast; and, between, some writing, smoking

                        a long pipe in a velvet dressing-gown, and if it is winter, and

                        there's a fire, and outside, winds sounding what thing winds

                        sound, I have a cosy time, and like those travelers of Jules

                        Verne traveling in a box away and away among the worlds...

                       

           

            There may still be more to learn about the ever mysterious Mr. Shiel than we yet know for sure, but the study, which started for me with Lovecraft's Supernatural Horror in Literature, has been an interesting one so far.   And there are many leads yet to follow.

 

       

 

 

  

 


Footnotes

            [1]  In his Memories of an Edwardian, London: Richards Press, 1937, Edgar Jepson (1863-1938) recalled that he contributed many articles to The Candid Friend.  He doesn't mention Shiel except presumably in a curious footnote at page 242, "Only a few weeks ago, on his attention being called to the beauty of my writings by the young poet, John Gawsworth, Matthew I, the exiled King of Rodundo, created me Duke of Wedrigo."   (The first Realm of Redonda State Paper issued by Gawsworth after Shiel's death disclosed that Jepson's "dukedom" was actually bestowed by Gawsworth, acting "as Regent," rather than Shiel.  See page 86, above.)  Gawsworth also contributed 34 pages of "Appendices" to the book, though the Appendices, as well as the footnote on page 242, were omitted from the "new and cheaper edition"  published by Martin Seeker in 1938.   The Candid Friend folded after only a year of publication.

            [2]  See Binelli's thesis, Matthew Phipps Shiel:"The Purple Cloud,"Considerations Su Una Distopia Catastrofica ["Considerations upon a catastrophic dystopia"] written in 1992.  Copies in the original Italian, as well as an English translation by E. F. Bleiler, are in the Morse and Squires collections.  

            [3]  See Morse's The Quest for Redonda , Cleveland: The Reynolds Morse Foundation, 1979, reprinted as chapter 9 of Works III, at 605-606. 

 

            [4]  Shapes in the Fire, London: John Lane, 1896, 126 (page 90 of the Tartarus Press edition.)  Shortly after first reading this book in 1931 Shiel's American pen pal and platonic love interest, Annamarie Miller, wrote him that she had enjoyed "Vaila," but had been confused by other stories in the collection.    She later mentioned the character from "Premiere and Maker" to the author, who responded by letter dated 4 August 1932, "And who by the way is Mr. 'Phipps O'Malley'?  I don't know him, though July 21st is my birthday.  When is yours?  Though I always forget — even my own.  I have a sister, and every year she has to tell me hers..." (Morse collection.)  

            [5]  The complete text was reprinted in Works III at pp 667-668.

            [6]  "The only children that ever get mentioned [in the family letters at the HRC] are Ada, Augusta, Sallie, Harriett and Phipps — never, ever another."  Billings to JDS e mail dated 3 August 2001.

            [7]  The pamphlet was reprinted in Works III at pp 669-674.

            [8]  Arthur Machen: Selected Letters: The private writings of the Master of the Macabre, ed by Roger Dobson, Godfrey Brangham and R. A. Gilbert, Wellingborough: Aquarian Press, 1988, 50.

            [9]  In the hundreds of Shiel letters I have personally read, I have noted only two references to Redonda.  On 23 November 1931 he mentioned it to Annamarie Miller, (see page 109, below.)   On 23 October 1937 he thanked Gawsworth for sending a clipping on the "King Novelist," which had drawn two newspapermen out to interview him.  (HRC Collection.)


      

Copyright © 2001, 2004 by John D. Squires

Used by permission.

  

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