The King of Redonda

M.P. Shiel is the unlikely answer to an improbable question.

The question is, what links 1890s Decadence with 20th century science fiction? The answer is a West Indian who moved in Bohemian circles in London and claimed kingship of a guano-rich Caribbean outcrop.

Born Matthew Phipps Shiell on the island of Montserrat to mixed-race parents in 1865, Shiel moved to London at the age of 20 where he adopted his pithier pen name. His first works were heavily influenced by Edgar Allan Poe, though they were even richer in fantasy and already straining at the bounds of the Decadent movement with which Shiel was associated.

As instrumental as Poe was in inventing detective fiction, so was Shiel in the early development of science fiction. It’s not that Shiel set out to invent a new genre, more that his imaginative gifts were such that they couldn’t be constrained by the past, the present or the planet Earth, bounding recklessly into imagined worlds and speculative futures. Shiel’s highly mannered prose style, teeming with arcane references and quotations in a number of languages, won not just the praise of numerous contemporary writers but also a large readership, with The Purple Cloud being his most popular and influential novel (and someone better acquainted with science fiction than I could probably trace a direct line of descent from Shiel’s Purple Cloud to Avatar’s blue creatures).

Besides numerous short stories, Shiel wrote 25 novels, most of which are now out of print and by the time of his death on this day in 1947, his reputation had sunk into an obscurity from which it has never emerged. However one of Shiel’s most enduring fantasies belongs not to the page but to the sea, and to the imaginations of his companions.

In the late 1920s, Shiel established the myth, earnestly at first, that he was heir to the kingdom of Redonda. Despite its suspiciously sci-fi name, Redonda is a real place, an island near Shiel’s native Montserrat first discovered by Columbus. Claiming that his father had been the first king, Shiel subsequently designated the writer John Gawsworth as his heir and Redonda became something of a Bohemian in-joke, the line of succession so confused in drunken revels that there are now up to eight claimants.

The recollections of a correspondent who met Shiel late in his life can be read here, and the claims of one of the Redondan pretenders here.

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4 comments

  1. Harold Billings

    Nice to see the entry on MPS as well as a reference to a residence of his on your map. Actually, I believe you will find more interest in both his life and works these days than what you suggest. Three new dissertations on him almost complete. –HB

  2. Harold Billings

    I forgot to mention that all the Redonda stuff was made up by Shiel, and then promoted by Gawsworth.

  3. Pingback: At home with Prince Zaleski « Strange Flowers

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