By Stephen Basdeo, a historian and writer based in Leeds who has recently “discovered” M.P. Shiel’s works.
The book was a legend … out of space, out of time … he had the character of a poet and a prophet — a prophet, I mean, in the Old Testament sense.
Those words above were used by the poet Edward Shanks (1892–1953) to describe the life and work of the novelist Matthew P. Shiel, who has earned a place in the literary hall of fame for having written The Purple Cloud.
Shiel was born in 1865 at Montserrat, which was then part of the British Empire, and came to the United Kingdom in 1885. He worked as a teacher and translator alongside writing literary works and in 1896 published his first novel: The Rajah’s Sapphire.
Several short adventure stories followed, all of which were set in the British colonies—the titles of his other works such as The Empress of the Earth and The Yellow Danger quite clearly indicate their imperialist settings.
The Purple Cloud
Then in the Royal Magazine in 1901, the first instalment of a curious new novel by Shiel appeared The Purple Cloud. The beginning of The Purple Cloud was similar in tone to some of the many so-called ‘lost world’ novels that were pioneered by the likes of H. Rider Haggard and Arthur Conan Doyle.
The foreword—adapted from some of Sheil’s previous works—reveals that the writings contained within are actually from a series of notebooks, the contents of which are the chronicle of a voyage to the North Pole. As if to cement the novel’s ‘notebook’ credentials, the story is not divided into chapters but is in fact one long, continuous narrative.
But as the Royal Magazine’s serialisation continued readers would soon have realised that this was no ordinary adventure story. The Purple Cloud was actually a story of the End of the World. Demand for the novel was popular enough for the London-based publishers Chatto and Windus to publish a one-volume edition of it after its serialisation had completed.
We are introduced to Adam Jeffson who lives in London and, while going about his daily activities as a medical man, details the excitement and commotion in the press over a planned voyage of discovery on a ship named Boreal.
A rich businessman has died and promised $175,000,000 to anyone, of any nationality, who mounts a successful expedition to the North Pole.
A group of Englishmen have decided to take up the challenge. Among those who are going to undertake the voyage, is going to be undertaken by one of Jeffson’s associates.
Yet not everyone in London is enthusiastic about the voyage, in particular a Scottish preacher named Mackay, who feels that some evil will result from the voyage:
Put simply, what he said was this: That there was undoubtedly some sort of Fate, or Doom, connected with the Poles of the earth in reference to the human race.
If the love of money is the root of all mankind’s evils, clearly religious men like Mackay have reason to be worried about the expedition. Mackay however is dismissed as a crank. Life goes on. The date of the launch is set—three weeks from when Adam began his narrative.
Jeffson is soon visited by his friend Mr Clark who is leading the expedition. Clark asks Jeffson to accompany him on the mission. Jeffson politely declines because he is due to be married to a Countess named Clodagh.
Drawing on a long tradition in nineteenth-century literature of depicting aristocratic ladies as ambitious and highly sexualised femmes fatales, Clodagh is no different. She urges Jeffson to take a place on the voyage because he will receive a financial reward.
Yet unfortunately Jeffson’s place is now taken—the opportunity has passed! Clodagh, however, takes matters into her own hands and poisons one of the crew members. For contemporary readers Clodagh’s crime would have cemented her idea as a Jezebel-like woman, for there were plenty of women poisoners in Victorian fiction, particularly in mid-Victorian sensation fiction. As Cheryl Blake Price remarks:
In broadsheets, penny dreadfuls, newspapers, poetry, sensation stories, detective series, on the stage and even in realist novels, the Victorians actively consumed narratives about poisoners. The popularity of both real and fictional accounts of this criminal was so great that by mid-century the leading article of The Illustrated Times declared poison to be the ‘Crime of the Age.’
Jeffson is called on to care for the sick man while Clodagh volunteers one of her own women to serve as a nurse while the man recovers. The whole thing is a conspiracy and nothing can save the poor poisoned man. The crew member dies and Jeffson takes his place. He knows that Clodagh has committed murder, yet his morals are not strong enough to report his fiancé to the police.
In his depiction of Clodagh Shiel makes a point about the late-stage decadence of the British Empire’s ruling class, who were turning rotten just like the upper classes of the Roman Empire did. Clodagh in fact prides herself on being a master of the art of poisoning, while Jeffson compares her to the infamous Lucrezia Borgia. Could any voyage stained with the crime of murder ever have a beneficial outcome? This is a question that Jeffson ponders and he recalls the words of the preacher which do nothing to set his mind at rest:
And as in the one case, transgression was followed by catastrophe swift and universal so, in the other, I warn the entire race to thenceforth look for nothing from God but a lowering sky.
The Boreal departs but Jeffson still feels uneasy and he believes that he is haunted by ‘white’ and ‘black’ spirits. The white urges him to do good deeds, the black urges him to do bad deeds. Despite the religious imagery in the novel and the presence of a preacher in the early part, God is absent from the story. Indeed, the ‘white’ and the ‘black’ are not spirits like angels and demons but impersonal forces.
There is no religious message throughout the entire novel, and Mackay’s prophecies are used in the manner that similar predictions from bearded sages and monks are used in gothic texts: they are there to lend an aura of mystery to the voyage and fill the reader with a sense of foreboding. At every step of the way Jeffson knows that he should not be on that voyage—perhaps he knows that any bad consequences occurring from the voyage will be his fault. Yet he ploughs on regardless.
The black spirit manifests itself in Jeffson’s character at several points throughout the voyage to the Arctic as he becomes increasingly paranoid that the crew know the secret of Clodagh and the murder. When the crew die one-by-one due to privations on the voyage, their numbers are seriously depleted by the time they make land. It is on land, trudging alone in the icy wastes, that Jeffson murders the only other expeditioner who aims to reach the North Pole with him.
Thus Jeffson reaches the pole alone. There is a lake with an odd sort of ‘living fluid’ in it. There is an earthquake. He faints. When he awakens there is a strange smell resembling peach-blossom. As he looks over the icy wasteland he sees a purple cloud moving in the distance:
I noticed, stretched right across the south-eastern horizon, a region of purple vapour which luridly obscured the face of the sun: and day after day I saw it steadily brooding there. But what it could be I did not understand.
He begins the long journey back to the boat but when he gets there all of the crew have died. He begins the long voyage back to England alone but even when he’s thousands of miles away from the pole, in the middle of the ocean, he can still smell the scent of peaches.
As he comes across other ships he notices that they are simply adrift and their crews are dead, and the boats are covered in a purplish ash. The purple cloud carried within it a deadly sickness which affected humans and animals.
Return to England
When Jeffson finally reaches London some three years later, the scene is one of devastation. Dead people are everywhere—in the streets, in the cars, in the railway carriages, in shops, and in houses. And the smell of peaches is there as well. Upon reading a newspaper Jeffson finds that this sickness has spread its wings over the entire planet:
The empires of civilization have crumbled like sandcastles in a horror of anarchy. Thousands upon thousands of unburied dead, anticipating the more deliberate doom that comes and smokes, and rides and comes and comes, and does not fail, encumber the streets of London, Manchester, Liverpool … the fields lie waste, wanton crowds carouse in our churches, universities, palaces, banks, hospitals … in several towns the police seem to have disappeared.
Shiel’s Novel and the Decline of Empire
Art and literature are never produced in a cultural vacuum. Such scenes would have had compelling resonance for readers in Britain when the novel was first published.
In the newspaper press there was a widespread feeling that Britain was losing its place in the world. The defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815 had left the British Empire as the virtually unchallenged world superpower. But by the time Shiel was writing that was long ago, however, and by 1900 the British Empire was beleaguered.
On a domestic front the question of Irish Home Rule and emerging Irish nationalism dominated parliamentary politics. The USA was emerging as a rival manufacturing, financial, and military superpower. The Kingdom of Prussia had unified Germany into one state and embarked on its own colonizing quest.
The military might of the British Empire was being challenged, quite successfully, by a rag-tag group of farmers in South Africa. With some justification did Reynolds’s Newspaper in July 1900 describe the British Empire as ‘the Tottering Empire’. This state of affairs was reflected, not only in Shiel’s novel, but in other novels which depicted Britain as a fallen empire.
Richard Jeffries’s After London (1885), for example, gave readers a vision of a London in which there was no manufacturing, no commerce, where nature had reasserted her empire and all that remained were crumbling buildings. H.G. Wells’s The War in the Air likewise depicted Britain as a fallen empire in its depictions of the capital as burnt-out and disease ravaged.
Various reasons accounting for the decline of the British Empire were given by many people; in the figure of Clodagh Shiel also gave us a reason for it—the vice and depravity of the ruling aristocracy.
Regression to “Barbarism”
Yet amidst these scenes of horror and devastation Jeffson becomes desensitized: he has no qualms about raiding people’s houses looking for something to eat and eating meals in the same room as dead bodies.
Soon Jeffson becomes quite mad. Having looked for some years for survivors and finding none, he declares himself to be the world’s monarch who will ‘ravage and riot’ in his kingdoms. With this in mind, he begins dressing like an ‘Oriental’ sultan. He also grows his beard long like that of an eastern potentate.
Contemporary readers, on seeing Jeffson adopt the costume of eastern men, would have interpreted him as a man who was turning into a savage. This was a period in which Orientalism—negative stereotypes of the Orient and its peoples—flourished. Men from the Middle East in particular were portrayed as mischievous and semi-civilised brutes who hated Western civilisation.
Jeffson too begins to manifest a hatred for European civilization, evident when he gleefully burns the city of London to the ground in ‘the mood of Nero and Nebuchadnezzar’. He has come to hate the West. He burns down Paris—another centre of western culture—just like he burns down London. Far from respecting the dead, he desecrates their bodies, like he does to that of a young girl:
I have taken a dead girl with wild huggings to my bosom and I have touched the corrupted lip, and spat upon her face, and tossed her down, and crushed her teeth with my heel, and jumped and jumped upon her breast, like the snake-stamping zebra, mad, mad!
He then retreats to the east—for Sultan he now is—and settles for a time at Constantinople, which at the time that Shiel was writing was the capital of the Muslim Ottoman Empire. He has truly abandoned Western civilization.
Yet it is at Constantinople that he meets another survivor—a girl of perhaps 17 or 18 years old. He spies on her at first and wants to rape her:
‘the earth was mine by old right: I felt that: and this creature, a mere slave upon whom, without heat or haste, I might perform my will’.
Luckily for the girl, the ‘white’ evidently gets the better of him. She may be above the age of consent, but in all things she has the mental age of a child: she was imprisoned in the sultan’s cellar—which, when the cloud struck Constantinople, was near-enough airtight so as to not let any of the vapour in—and hence she has survived but was never educated. She was only freed from the (very well-provisioned) cellar when Jeffson set fire to one part of the ancient Byzantine capital.
Shiel’s Real-Life Misdeeds
Jeffson’s ogling of this childlike woman was probably Shiel’s own ‘confession’ of the fact that he was himself a paedophile and a pervert. In 1914 Shiel was convicted under the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act for ‘indecently assaulting and carnally knowing’ his 14-year-old stepdaughter.
This fact was only discovered in 2008 by the literary critic Kirsten MacLeod, so contemporary readers would not have known about it (although they might have felt that Jeffson’s perving on a childlike woman was a bit suspect).
Although some literary critics of the so-called school of ‘New Criticism’ long ago trumpeted the alleged ‘death of the author’—a theory which posits that a text can be judged independently of its creator—in Shiel’s case, we cannot divorce his paedophilia from our interpretation of Jeffson’s voyeuristic spying on the ‘childlike’ woman.
When the girl sees Jeffson, she begins following him. At first he is unkind to her and beats and whips her. Yet there are moments of kindness. He teaches her to read and write. He teaches her to cook. She becomes thoroughly westernised as he makes her wear ‘Western dressing’.
Despite the fact that he personally has fallen far from the standard of civilisation by becoming a murderous brute and pervert, with the girl he is embarking on his own imperialist civilising mission. She even begins to believe in God, much to Jeffson’s chagrin.
Jeffson begins to act less harsher towards her and, as she is progressing in all that he taught her, he begins to look on the girl as his creation—using religious imagery again Adam declares that the girl is ‘a rib from my side’; he is Adam and she is Jeffson’s Eve. At the end of the novel he acknowledges the girl as his wife and declares that the ‘white’ has won him over.
Yet Jeffson’s brutality surely forces the reader to think: Is this the type of man anyone would want to serve as the ‘seed’ of a future human civilization? A man who had few scruples about the crime of murder—what right had he to start the human race anew?
These are questions which Jeffson himself ponders. But when the couple do decide to restart civilisation they do not stay in the ‘backward’ east but return to Europe. Jeffson returns to more gentlemanly and civilised ways. The symbolism is clear: even though Europe is ravaged by death and destruction—some of it from Jeffson’s own hand—the centre of ‘civilisation’ is still Europe.
Jeffson casts off his ‘barbarous’ eastern ways and even professes a belief in God once more. The final line of the novel sees him exclaim: ‘Yet will I trust in him’.
 Edward Shanks quoted in John Sutherland, ‘Introduction’, in M.P. Shiel, The Purple Cloud, ed. by John Sutherland (London: Penguin, 2011), p. xxxvii.
 M.P. Shiel, The Purple Cloud, ed. by John Sutherland (London: Penguin, 2011), p. 11.
 Cheryl Blake Price, ‘The Subtle Art: Poison in Victorian Literature’ (Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, 2021), p. 1.
 Shiel, p. 10.
 Shiel, p. 24.
 Shiel, p. 42.
 Shiel, p. 80.
 Reynolds’s Newspaper quoted in Stephen Basdeo, Heroes and Villains of the British Empire: Their Lives and Legends (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2020), p. 182.
 See Edward Said, Orientalism, rev. edn (London: Penguin, 2003).
 Shiel, p. 132.
 Shiel, p. 133.
 Shiel, p. 187.
 Kirsten Macleod, ‘M. P. Shiel and the Love of Pubescent Girls: The Other ‘Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name’, English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920, 51: 4 (2008), 355–8-.
 Shiel, p. 238.
 Shiel, p. 239.
 Shiel, p. 261.