Stead, Shiel and the Rajah’s Sapphire

Matthew Phipps Shiel (1865-1947) was born on Montserrat in the West Indies. According to legend his father-a merchant, shipowner, and part-time Methodist lay preacher-claimed kinship with the ancient kings of Ireland. This pleasant fancy led him to claim a desolate West Indian rock, the Isle of Redonda, for his newborn son and to have him crowned its king in 1880.[2] Little is presently known of Shiel’s mother, though the latest research suggests that she was at least partially black.[3]

Shiel moved to London in 1885 to finish his education. He flirted with careers in teaching, the Colonial Office, and medicine before turning to literature. “I decided that writing English-my first love-was what was given me to do.”[4]

He sold his first story in 1889, published his first book in 1895, and went on to publish during his lifetime a total of twenty-four novels, five collections of short stories, and one of verse. Of these Prince Zaleski (1895) is recognized as a classic of mystery and detection. The Purple CloudThe Lord of the Sea (both 1901), and The Last Miracle (1906) were a trilogy of science fiction; and at least the first two are considered early masterpieces in the genre.

His other books range from early rousing historical adventure novels such as The Yellow Danger (1898),[5] Contraband of War (1899), Cold Steel (1899), The Man-Stealers (1900), The Yellow Wave (1905), to the later mysteries, How the Old Woman Got Home (1927), Dr. Kraskinski’s Secret (1929), The Black Box (1930), and the final return to fantasy/science fiction in This Above All (1933) aka Above All Else, and The Young Men Are Coming (1937.) These novels, together with the short story collections Prince Zaleski (1895), Shapes in the Fire (1896), The Pale Ape (1911), Here Comes the Lady (1928), and The Invisible Voices (1935) are the best known of Shiel’s works and many have been reprinted.

Less well known are the romantic adventure novels of the middle period: The Weird o’It (1902), Unto the Third Generation (1903), The Evil That Men Do (1904), The Lost Viol (1905), The White Wedding (1908), and This Knot of Life (1909.) None of these have been reprinted and all are largely neglected by the critics, although they contain some of Shiel’s finest writing and as a group may have been intended to make a unified statement about Shiel’s philosophy.

Shiel was more than just a writer of sensational tales of magic and mystery. There is an undercurrent of philosophic seriousness running beneath the finely textured prose of all his fiction. Like his contemporaries George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) and H. G. Wells (1866-1946), Shiel wrote out of the intellectual fervor of his times when the impact of Darwin’s theories and the revolutionary strides being made in the material sciences were shaking to the roots the philosophical and religious underpinnings of the closing nineteenth century. Shiel saw the socialism of Henry George and Herbert Spencer as the answer to the political questions of his time and a curious blend of science and religion as the answer to the moral/philosophical questions.

It may have been an early appreciation of Shiel’s serious underpinnings that led W. T. Stead to suggest their collaboration on The Rajah’s Sapphire. Like Shiel, Stead (1849-1912) was born into a religious family. In 1870 he became a contributor to the Northern Echo, and was made its editor a year later. He moved to the Pall Mall Gazette in 1880, rising to become its editor in 1883. He was a leading proponent of the “new journalism,” including the use of the interview, and launched a number of public policy campaigns, for the dispatch of General Gordon to the Sudan, for women’s rights, naval expansion and other causes. Stead remains best known today as the editor of the prestigious Review of Reviews. He founded this monthly journal in 1890 with the avowed object of providing an organ for the dissemination of “the best thoughts of the wisest,” and some knowledge of “the movement of contemporary history” throughout the English-speaking world.[6] To this end he also founded the American Review of Reviews in 1891, followed by the Australasian Review of Reviews in 1892.

In 1893 Stead planned a daily version called simply The Daily Paper  through which he hoped to reach a wider audience with his message than the 200,000 readers of his reviews. Its title page was to bear the legend “For the Union of all who Love, in the service of all who Suffer.” He issued a specimen copy of the proposed periodical with the November 1893 issue of The Review of Reviews.

A key portion of the new paper was to be a continuing serial, “The Romance of the World.” This was designed to incorporate the leading events of the world’s history into fictional form. Stead thus hoped to reach those readers who would not read politics unless served “with the sauce” of a story. He claimed to have submitted the proposal to “many of the leading novelists of the day” to their “enthusiastic approval.”[7]

Apparently Shiel was one of those Stead approached. Shiel himself tells us little of his relationship with Stead. In his autobiographical sketch About Myself, he said only “W. T. Stead got to know me, conceived that I ‘had an imagination’ and would write to me invitingly when one of his rapturous ideas in journalism attacked and urged him-he and I even writing a wild little ‘book’ in collaboration.”[8]

Fortunately one of Shiel’s later publishers, Grant Richards, was more specific in linking Sapphire to The Daily Paper:

I find in my diary a note to the effect that on October 7, 1893, I remained at Clowes Printing Office till midnight “sub-editing Daily Paper specimen number.” That was the name Stead had chosen for his daily; it came out, that specimen, as a supplement to the Review, and no one paid much attention to it. A first installment of the serial story that he had planned…was included. I cannot remember who was responsible for that installment, although I do remember that M. P. Shiel had a shot at the kind of thing Stead wanted. Shiel’s effort came to nothing as far as Mowbray House was concerned, but that he made use of it as a short novel, The Rajah’s Sapphire, which he published in a series which Ward and Lock put out. [9]

It is difficult to judge from the published version just how specific Stead’s plot contribution may have been. The Daily Paper failed after only the one specimen issue. Shiel’s tale was not to see print for another three years. There are obvious incidents that could not have appeared in 1893 such as the background details of the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895. For all of that the modern reader may still see beneath the surface of that “wild little book” with “a tremendous lot of go and incident”[10] something of the kind of thing Stead may have wanted for his “Romance of the World.”

The winter of 1893-1894 was particularly harsh and came in the midst of the third definite depression (1890-1896) in the larger period in English economic history known as “the Great Depression” (1873-1896).[11] The plight of the unemployed in this period is specifically mentioned in chapter 5 of Sapphire while throughout a general undercurrent of social consciousness bordering on the socialistic can be detected.

The villain, Ralloner, from his introduction as a person of “no occupation… no fixed abode, … a vagabond…” in a word, “a millionaire,”[12] may be read as a symbol of what is wrong with private ownership of vast wealth untempered by social consciousness. For him, “Sea-water b’longs to me as much as to them, s’pose,” and rules of the road be damned. He was indeed suffering from “the madness which comes of the possession of great wealth.”[13] Ralloner also provides a link to one of Stead’s most famous books, If Christ Came to Chicago: A Plea for the Union of All Who Love, in the Service of All Who Suffer (Chicago: Laird & Lee, 1894.) It was an expose of Chicago’s dens of sin and corruption.

…Ralloner, the High-flyer, was a great sportsman, and one of the sports which he liked best was that of tandem-driving. And he never drove a tandem but he drove it furiously, so that when he held the reins of his glittering turn-out it became under his hand, not a tandem at all, but a Juggernaut. Everything flew and sprayed before it like the foam from a ship’s bows, or else rolled and writhed under it like the clay under an advancing plough. Woe to an old cripple, or a blind man, or a woman with child, when the High-flyer in all his bravery come Juggernauting along! The report was that in Chicago he had sacrificed ten human lives to the divinity of his tandem. The magistrates were, of course, compelled to fine him, but they did it lovingly: their sympathies were mostly on the side of the tandem. They thought it such a pity to check the enthusiasm of headlong, generous sportsman-like youth! And besides, as they said, the thing was common enough. In Chicago not a day passes but an electric car rolls over the agony of some crushed human being; the ear has become accustomed to the shriek of death, and the eye to the spurt of the blood of men. Ralloner was not the only Juggernaut abroad. Juggernauts have grown common and multiplied in the earth till they are past counting. Would you rather die, do you say, than live in such a world? Well, but you must not go and kill yourself, but endure patiently your few days of life, hoping in God who made the world that he will send out His electric chariots of flame to burn up utterly all wrong tandems and cars whatever at the right hour. For there is really, you know, an Eye which sees and reckons up these things, but the fact is, that though the Eye sees, it is not itself seen, and so counts for precious little. The ostrich which pokes its head into the bushes knows that the hunter can see its great awkward body, but so long as it can’t see the hunter it cares not a button for him; and Chicago, which is the most perfect embodiment of the whole spirit of the world as it exists to-day, is as much like an ostrich in nearly every respect as two little twinkling stars are like each other. [14]

Another probable influence of Stead may have been the details and effects of the collision at sea. The aftermath of the collision is strikingly like that Stead described in his 1886 article “How the Mail Steamer Went Down in Mid Atlantic.”[15] The major difference is that in Stead’s article, the great loss of life was due primarily to a lack of life boats. In Sapphire only two of the available boats could be launched due to the inclement icy conditions and the rapidity with which the ship floundered. Whether this difference lay with Stead or Shiel we may never know.

Other details in Sapphire suggest themes that Shiel was to return to in later works. His use of the 1894-1895 Sino-Japanese War displays specific knowledge of contemporary events in Asia. Shiel’s interest here may have been roused when studying for a position with the Colonial Office as a “student interpreter” in the Far East.[16] In 1898 he was commissioned to write a new serial capitalizing on further East Asian troubles that he brilliantly parlayed into his successful The Empress of the Earth, issued the same year in book form as The Yellow Danger.

He returned to this subject briefly in 1905 with The Yellow Wave, an historical novel drawing on the then raging Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. In 1913 Shiel rewrote The Yellow Danger on a more fantastic level with numerous science fictional elements in a serial entitled To Arms!, again issued the same year in book form as The Dragon.

Further, Ralloner’s technique of murder by exposure to disease would be honed to perfection by Shiel in 1929. In Dr. Krasinski’s Secret the victims need not be lured to a place of pestilence. Instead, a charming “Typhoid Mary,” though here a lad who is periodically deadly, is dispatched to them. Finally, the baleful influence of the cursed stone itself may have suggested to Shiel the symbol of the miser’s hoard of gold, extracted from the downtrodden masses in India which casts its curse upon the ancestors of their oppressor in Unto the Third Generation (1903.)

The Rajah’s Sapphire was Shiel’s second published book. Of contemporary reviews, few are known today. H. G. Wells unqualifiedly panned it.[17] Stead gave it a cryptically brief mention in his Review of Reviews which noted his own contribution but not Shiel’s.[18]

Of Shiel and Stead’s relationship thereafter we know little. Stead continued to review the majority of Shiel’s later books, usually favorably and, in at least two cases, at great length as featured “Books of the Month.” The first was Stead’s review of The Yellow Danger against the backdrop of the Spanish-American War and continuing Western involvement in Asia:

Mr Shiel has laid on his paint with a thick brush, and he evidently decided that when he was about to do it he might as well “do it grand,” as the saying is. The consequence is that his story, despite all its vivid realistic sensationalism, has an element of extravagance about it which somewhat relieves its gloom and gives a certain burlesque note to its most horrible passages….

Of naval battles there are no fewer than four described at length and in detail…Mr. Shiel illustrates the story of how these naval miracles were performed by various diagrams, which tend beautifully to confuse the reader and make him believe in the possibility of the impossible. All that can be said by way of palliation or excuse for this exaggeration is that only last month we witnessed the destruction of a high-class fighting fleet off the harbour of Santiago by opponents who only lost one man killed, after which nothing seems to be impossible in this way in naval warfare. The reader therefore is not disposed to reject as incredible even the monstrous marvels of Mr. Shiel… Mr Shiel is a man with a nightmare of an imagination and about his book is just the element of extravagance necessary to redeem it from being absolutely appalling….

As to the morality of the book, it is well to say at once that of morals it has none. The defence that was made for the dramatists of the Restoration, that they described an ideal and a fantastical world in which morality had no place, may be adduced to excuse Mr. Shiel; but what is not excusable is the deliberate effort which he has made throughout to represent the Chinamen as fiends incarnate…It is this element which vitiates the value of the book. Race hatreds are the devil, and any one who develops them consciously or unconsciously, as Mr. Shiel seems to have done, is holding a candle to the devil with a vengeance. Of course, it may be said that it is such an extravaganza that no one should take it seriously; but impressions are often created in this way which influence action hereafter. One thing Mr. Shiel’s book may help in doing in the political sphere, and that is to remind those who are so busy in disposing of the carcase of the Chinese dragon that the dragon himself is by no means defunct, and may yet emerge as a fire- breathing monster to terrify the world. [19]

In the August 1901 issue Stead wrote another extensive review:

The Lord of the Sea is a very remarkable novel which confirms the conviction I expressed when I read The Yellow Dangerby the same author. Mr. Shiel is a man of genius with a great imagination, but he is somewhat of a rough diamond, and he will never realize the full possibilities of success that lie before him until he can take to himself a collaborator who will supplement his gifts, prune down his redundancies, and make the public recognise him at his real value. The Lord of the Sea is an original conception. In The Yellow Danger Mr. Shiel described in lurid colours the possibilities of the overwhelming of the white world by the yellow man, a possibility for the imagining of which he claimed no originality. “The Yellow Danger” has been the bugbear of the Russians since the days of Tamerlane. But it must be admitted that in his new story, The Lord of the Sea, the central idea is brilliantly original.


Mr. Shiel appears to be of the school of Dr. Wallace and Henry George, or of some other of the numerous sects of land nationalisers. He is convinced that rent is robbery, and that the millennium would dawn if the rental was paid to the Government, to be disbursed by them for the benefit of the people, instead of going into the pockets of landlords, to be used for the benefit of their families. This idea is not new, neither is it true, for it requires very little thinking to come to the conclusion that if the present Government, for instance, had the whole of the rent-roll of the United Kingdom to play with it would only have a larger sum to waste on wanton war and unnecessary expenditure. The very last thing it would do would be to inaugurate the millennium. Mr. Shiel or his hero appears to have persuaded himself that if land were nationalised and all rents paid to the Government, men would earn enough in one day to keep them in comfort during six; and that sin and sorrow and all the miseries of this mortal world would vanish as an evil dream before the wings of the morning. It is not necessary to argue this question. Mr. Shiel is not a political economist; he is a sensational novelist, and he has a right to choose his own standpoint. All that I want the reader to understand is that this is Mr. Shiel’s standpoint, and that it is because he accepts it that he has written his book. At the same time those who do not care anything about land nationalisation or economic theories, or the inauguration of the millennium, will not find their enjoyment of The Lord of the Sea in the least degree impaired by the theories of its author as to the origin of the mischief of our social system. They will be content to take him for granted, and to hurry on to the story. *** A WASTE OF GOOD MATERIAL It would be unfair to Mr. Shiel to tell the end of the story, which goes on with a succession of thrilling episodes, including an indefinite number of murders, assassinations, kidnapping, and sea-fights, culminating ultimately in the restoration of the Jews to Jerusalem, with Richard Hogarth, now at last discovered to be a genuine Jew, installed as the promised Messiah, and reigning till a good old age over the chosen people… This bare outline of the story is sufficient to show the lavish extravagance with which Mr. Shiel crams his romance with exciting episodes. There is enough matter in The Lord of the Sea to furnish half a dozen ordinary novels, and yet it is somewhat a waste of good material. It is like a basket full of diamonds, none of which are adequately polished and cut. Nevertheless, the reader who wants something thrilling on a holiday will have to go far before he finds any stronger meat than that which is contained in the covers of Mr. Shiel’s book. [20]

In response Shiel wrote Stead:[21]

31, Torrington Sqr. WC. August 15, 1901

My Dear Mr. Stead: I was surprised to see today that you had made my Lord of the Sea one of the “Books of the Month:” surprised, for you had told me that you had made arrangements for Moore’s book, [22] and I did not expect that you would resort to the device of this two. As I cannot help thinking that this was done out of favour to me, I am writing to say how kind and good I think that. But it is nothing strange for you to act in that way, is it?

Yours very truly, M. P. Shiel

P.S. I don’t believe that land nationalization would mean the millennium: but that every act of private or public justice is a step in that direction: and that so great an act of justice would be a great stride in that direction. For such as you and me, isn’t the question this: “is it just?”

P.P.S. If one of the men who help you to run The Review of Reviews die, or take to drink, or otherwise fail you, I shall be always glad, if you will offer it me, to take his place. I am at present reviewing and doing causeries for the Daily News: but have heaps of time.

Shiel never mentioned this late stint of journalism at the Daily News in his autobiographical writings. We have no record that he subsequently worked for Stead, unless that is what he meant in a letter dated 9 May 1946 to Malcolm Ferguson where Shiel wrote, “As to your reference to Stead, I knew him intimately, and our collaboration was more than appears from the one book, whose name I forget. He was essentially a journalist, and everything which he touched turned to gold: If Christ Came… was just journalism.” [23] Shiel boasted on several occasions that he rarely wrote for money, but in truth he was short of funds for most of his career, though he would have hesitated to admit to resorting to “mere” journalism to get by.

During this period Stead, who had long championed the International Peace Movement, became a leader in the anti-war movement which arose in England during the Boer War (1899-1902.) Stead immediately launched a new journal, War Against War in South Africa which ran from 20 October 1899 – 10 August 1900. Stead’s highly moral stance against the war led to a decline in his political influence in England.

In 1904 he founded another Daily Paper. This one lasted five weeks and nearly bankrupted him. He continued to be one of the strongest voices for international peace until his death in 1912. The Review of Reviews continued after his death in one form or another until 1953, but never regained the stature achieved under Stead’s direction.

Copyright © 1981, 2004. John D. Squires

Editor’s Note… My thanks to John D. Squires for allowing me to reproduce his work here. 


[1] Portions of this essay originally appeared as “The Curious Tale of Shiel, Stead and The Sapphire,” an Afterword to the 1981 Highflyer reprint of The Rajah’s Sapphire, and was also reprinted in NewsStead 13 (Fall 1988), 16-18. This version was cut and heavily revised with expanded notes in 2004.

[2] It is difficult to determine at this late date the extent to which the legend of Redonda is grounded in historic fact. Though not mentioned in print by Shiel until 1929, the kingdom has generally been accepted as true by the press and continues to this day under a number of rival claimants. See generally Squires, “The Redonda Legend: A Chronological Bibliography,” and Squires, “Of Dreams and Shadows: An Outline of the Redonda Legend with Some Notes on Various Claimants to its Uncertain Throne” due in 2004.

[3] Shiell, Richard and Anderson, Dorothy, “Possible Origins of Matthew Phipps Shiell”

[4] Shiel, “About Myself” at page 419 in vol III of The Works of M. P. Shiel, by A. Reynolds Morse, Cleveland, The Reynolds Morse Foundation, in four volumes, Volume I, Writings, 1979 [offsets of The Empress of the Earth, The Purple Cloud and 15 short stories], Volume II, The Shielography Updated, part one, 1980, Volume III, The Shielography Updated, part two, 1980, Volume IV, M. P. Shiel in Diverse Hands: A Collection of Essays, 1983; hereinafter cited as “Works I, II, III or IV”, etc. Works II & III is an extensively revised and expanded edition of Morse, The Works of M. P. Shiel, an Experiment in Bibliography (Los Angeles: Fantasy Publishing, 1948.)

[5] The Yellow Danger, first published serially as The Empress of the Earth, is most often classified as science fiction under the “future wars” or “yellow peril” subclassifications but is deeply rooted in contemporary events and peopled with Shiel’s real life contemporaries. See Squires, “Some Contemporary Themes in Shiel’s Early Novels,” Works IV, 249-326. The serial version was offset together with the serial version of The Purple Cloud and 15 short stories in, Works I.

[6] Review of Reviews 1 (January 1890) 14-20.

[7] Review of Reviews 8 (November 1893) 464-67.

[8] Morse, Works III: 419-20.

[9] Richards, Memories of a Misspent Youth, 1872-1896, (London: William Heinemann, 1932) 282.

[10] Stead noted “The Rajah’s Sapphire (Ward and Lock, 2s 6d), ‘from a plot given to the author vivâ voce by W. T. Stead,’ has a tremendous lot of go and incident in it” (Review of Reviews 13, March 1896, 375.)

[11] For information on “The Great Depression,” see W. Stanford Reid, Economic History of Great Britain (New York: The Ronald Press, 1954) 344 et seq. Another Shiel collaborator, Louis Tracy (1863-1928), was credited in The Bookman for September 1904 as having fed “three and one-half million starving Londoners in the winter of 1894. For six weeks he ran twenty-three soup kitchens unaided, and expended $45,000.00” (Works III: 743.)

[12] Shiel, The Rajah’s Sapphire (Kansas City: Highflyer Press, 1981) 32.

[13] Ibid, 36.

[14] Ibid, 33-35.

[15] Pall Mall Gazette, No 6557, Vol XLIII, (22 March 1886); reprinted NewsStead 5 (Fall 1994) 1-3; also reprinted as “The Sinking of a Modern Liner,” Review of Reviews 14 (June 1912) 635-37.

[16] See Shiel, “Long Tots and Languages” in Works III: 422.

[17] “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, #2126, Vol 82 (25 July 1896) 96. Since Sapphire was published at least three months before Wells’ dismissive review appeared, it may have provided the inspiration for Wells’ story “The Rajah’s Treasure” in Pearson’s Magazine (July 1896), which deals humorously with a situation similar to Shiel’s description of the origin of the curse on his sapphire. 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, #2058, Vol 79 (6 April 1895) 453. For background on these reviews see, Philmus, Robert M., “H. G. Wells as Literary Critic for the Saturday Review,” Science-Fiction Studies, #12, July 1977, and Parrinder, Patrick and Philmus, Robert, editors, H. G. Wells’s Literary Criticism, Sussex: The Harvester Press, New Jersey: Barnes & Noble Books, 1980.

[18] See note 10, above.

[19] The Review of Reviews (London), Vol XVIII (August 1898) 194-196. Curiously, the author’s name was misspelled as “Sheil” throughout the review.

[20] The Review of Reviews (London), Vol XXIV (August 1901) 201-203.

[21] W. T. Stead papers, Churchill Archives, Cambridge.

[22] Sister Teresa by George Moore, London: Fisher Unwin, 1901 was also a “Book of the Month” in the August, 1901 Review of Reviews. Normally only one book would be given such extensive treatment.

[23] Squires, ed, M. P. Shiel and the Lovecraft Circle (Kettering, Ohio: The Vainglory Press, 2001) 75.