Letter from M. P. Shiel to his sister, Augusta Horsford,


June 1885




            ...consider the temptation that your philosophical biped who walks the streets of busy London-town has of becoming Egotistical when he writes others who walk on tiniest West Indies' emphatically not philosophy-engendering.  Or, to put it shortly, one is tempted to write of one's self overmuch. 

            I was even now thinking, whether I might not give you a sketch of any one day in my London-town-life—of this day, for instance,

            Well, I live in such a sweet little castle, so thoroughly all-my-own that you could not possibly imagine it.  A little bed-room with a little sitting-room with sloping-roof looking out on a back-garden; in which former is bed, & presses, wash-stand, fire-place, & utensil or pot or, as we say po or poe; in which latter is table, trunks, chair and easy-chair in which may I not sit perfectly secure all the evening smoking philosophical pipe?  In this latter too, I now write you: it is my palace, or as was said, my castle, home, ain fireside, or whatever comfortable name you choose to give it.  Had it some little, bright, good, loving creature of female persuasion in it to welcome me home, or still better, had it my dear old father in it, you might even name it "earthly paradise."

            In this, then, I sat me last night till late, (I can read without light of lamp till about nine o'clock) and at last went off to bed without hope of sleep, my light burning on into the small hours of morning.  (By the way, if anybody else that I know in the W.I. dies, any ordinary person I mean, you need not bother to mention it in your letters.  A woman called Grace Wheatland used to lock me up in a dark room of Corkhill in Montserrat when I was a boy and my sisters were sick with sore-throat and I am suffering the consequences of that woman's idiotcy & cruelty today.)  Consequently, I sleep late in the morning and am roused by a great knocking at my door: it is the old lady who has brought up my breakfast in a tea-tray, has placed it on a stand just outside my door and has knocked to give me warning of it, Stand quickly on terra firma, though laziest one, heedless of half-opened eyes cast around thy form thy blood-red gown, intrude thy feet into hose whose cleanness is doubtful, pray unto thy Father in secret whose hearing of thee is not doubtful —now mayest thou eat heartily frugal philosophic breakfast composed of limited bacon & unlimited bread, coffee, Devonshire butter, and W. Indian jelly!

            Whither now wilt thou tend?  First, sit down all-radiant in they blood-red and read Dickens, then Longfellow, then the Bible.  Hast thou done this?  Then envelope thee in clothes— not of dandy kind today in high silk hat, maroon gloves, & choking masher—but in humblest pepper-&-salt, ordinary felt, & gloves too doubtful to be put on.  But whither wilt thou tend?

First, sit down all-radiant in thy blood-red and read Dickens, then Longfellow, then the Bible.  Hast thou done this?  Then envelope thee in clothes—not of dandy kind today in high silk hat, maroon gloves, & chocking masher—but in humblest pepper-&-salt, ordinary felt, & gloves too doubtful to be put on.  But whither wilt thou tend?  "Take us thought": a pleasant day is always to be spent in London if you know how.  I walk for 5 mins. to the Haggerston Ry. Station, pay my 1½, and fly thro' air to Broad Street; for I never feel that I have spent a day unless I go into the City.  Broad St: is so called from its extreme narrowness, and is about the same in breadth as the Broad St: in Bridgetown, B/dos, exemplifying an instinct in the English people to call things by their wrong names: what they call the Opera Comique is a theatre—not an opera, what they call Covent Garden Theatre is an opera, not a theatre; what they call "pavement" is not "pavement" but the very opposite—the only part that is a pavement (the middle of the street) they don't call so and so on.  Well we come to "Broad St:" (not the one down Seven Dials: the one near Thread-needle) pouch & pipe in breast-pocket, Longfellow in hand.  What now?  Why, stroll leisurely down towards thy Street—the Strand, having, (before you have gone three paces) a man who leans against a wall looking into thy face & saying with all coolness—"You look well, you do."  As thou passes under it, Bennett's clock with endless hammering and fuss strikes 1.  Bathe today.  Stop before your New Law Courts (thy frequent place of resort by day) ascend a stair in which thou mayest behold thy form with several hats on, and take solacing warm bath.  Be honest, pay thy shilling, & depart.  Now for dinner.  By dint of observation and London-town-experience hast thou not discovered a retreat in the very heart of the City, even down Essex Street before New Law Courts, whither thou mayest go—and get roast beef, potatoes (all new & excellent) bread, half-bitter, apple-pie—all, all for one shilling.  What though the spoon with which thou eatest thy pie be not silver!  Though philosophic Uncle!—is not the pie itself excellent—that which stands upon the torn cloth good?  What carest thou for the outside of a thing, the appearance of it?  Thou thyself art a reality—is it not then thy duty when thou meetest a reality  to open thy arms and embrace it in very friendliness?

            What now?  Go and spend thy day at Aquarium, Invention Exhibition at South Kensington, Crystal Palace?  Nay—thou hast done this often enough and art quite tired and sick of them.  But canst thou tire of God's sky?  Can'st thou not stroll down to thy St. James Park, thy Green park, and lie thee down flat upon the grass & extend thy arms like Him who was crucified for thee, looking upward into Heaven with philosophic pipe in mouth?  There, peeping through the umbrageous trees is a tower of St. Stephens, there too the Abbey, & St: Margaret's; down yonder thou canst just see the walls of Buckingham Palace & perhaps of Marlborough House, & at thy back is Carlton Terrace.  Art thou not perfectly, perfectly happy?  What more canst thou desire: does not the God give thee meat & water, nay even cause thee to gulp down tea, coffee, guk-guk (or beer), and envelop thee in clouds of tobacco-smoke?  Better still, doesn't He not make thy conscience light, causing thee to feel like a free and brave man, making thee satisfied with his works—thyself inclusive?  Consider, too, how thou, in returning from this same Park, passest the very door (with "To Let" printed on it) behind which that unaccountable Jones sits with long struggling legs stuck crookedly beneath prosiest writing-desk all the day long beholding bare walls, gazing into the face of his fellow-prisoners (called "fellow-clerks",) while thou thyself art free and singing:


"Oh Light and Love! Oh throng
Of thoughts whose only speech is song;
O Heart of Man! Canst thou not be
As light as air is & as free!"


And so walking back looking into girl's faces & smiling with them, stopping at a shop window to gaze at a particularly wicket picture of Mrs. Langtry that by this time I regard as my own, buying ½ lb of Strawberries which I eat as I go along, I reach (by train) my "ain fireside," or house, or castle to sit to write you....                

            Don't think, however, that I have got used to London without meeting some strange things: I remember the first morning I woke up at Wild's ...Hotel.  I had not become quite an Englishman yet, consequently I was not so dirty as I am now—so I wanted a bath.  Call pretty little servant-maid.

            Servant-maid (teeth chattering terribly): Yes, sir, sir, sir, sir.  Please sir, yes sir, sir, sir.

            Half-green West Indian: I want a bath—is there one on the premises?

            Servant-maid (chattering): Oh yes, sir, sir—many.

            Half-green: Will you shew me to one, please?

            S. M.: Oh, sir—I will bring it in to your, sir, please, sir.

            Half-green: (nearly fainting with astonishment) Bring it to me! Oh-ho-oo—in W.I. we usually go to ours, but here they seem to bring 'em to you.  Very well, don't strain yourself.

            S. M.: Hot or Cold, sir, sir, sir, etc.

            H. G. (in an evil moment): Cold!

            What was my surprise instead of seeing her bring up a large stone bath like yours in your yard (not knowing what to expect, I half expected that) to see her bring in a beastly little tin basin with a tea-spoonful of ice-cold water in it, put it on the floor of my bedroom, close the door, and leave me to my horror!  Shall I ever forget the miseries of that bath?  Echo answers, "Shall I," but I answer "No, never."  They charged me sixpence for it in the bill, tho'!

            So too when my old lady first sent me in a plate of shrimps.  "Now what on earth are these things!" thought I; "if they are cock-roaches (as they seem to be) I am not going to eat 'em."  I was perplexed.  I tried one.  Liked it.  It was not a cockroach for it had a shell: but now the question arose in my mind—"do you eat the shell?"  If you do, this stomach won't manage the digestion of 'em: if you don't it will take you some days to pick one out of the shell, & then you will get a piece of flesh approaching in size a pin's head.  So I determined to leave them till I had acquired more experience on the subject of shrimps....



18 Culford Road, Southgate Road, Kingsland N.



[HRC Collection, published in Billings, Harold, "The Shape of Shiel: A Biography of the Early Years, 1865-1895" Morse, A, Reynolds, ed, M. P. Shiel in Diverse Hands, Cleveland:  The Reynolds Morse Foundation, 1983, 90-92.]



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