I post from time to time about books that talk about religious ideas, and which are arguably classics in their own right, but which have largely been forgotten. This present contribution concerns one of the truly odd examples of that band of (arguably) lost classics, and it is a strange one indeed. I’ll talk about The Lord of the Sea. For reasons I’ll explain, I won’t say right up front what those powerful religious ideas that the book is exploring actually are. The Lord of the Sea reveals its surprises in its own good time.
The author was M. P. Shiel, Matthew Phipps Shiel (1865-1947), a daring and even stunning author of fantasy and detective fiction. Shiel’s biography attracts both interest and suspicion. Born on Montserrat in the West Indies, he had some African ancestry, and he is regarded as a pioneering writer of color. But before you add him to a syllabus, recall that he also had his demons, and his obsessive interest in underage girls led to jail time for abusing his twelve year old stepdaughter. You always have to look nervously at the precocious young women characters that Shiel scatters through his fictions.
Several of his very diverse writings demand attention, and his The Purple Cloud (1901) is one of the most striking and eerie visions of apocalypse you will ever read. H. P. Lovecraft, who knew a great deal about such things, described Shiel as
author of many weird, grotesque, and adventurous novels and tales, occasionally attains a high level of horrific magic. … In the novel The Purple Cloud Mr. Shiel describes with tremendous power a curse which came out of the Arctic to destroy mankind, and which for a time appears to have left but a single inhabitant on our planet. The sensations of this lone survivor as he realizes his position, and roams through the corpse-littered and treasure-strown cities of the world as their absolute master, are delivered with a skill and artistry falling little short of actual majesty.
(Although Lovecraft didn’t like the second half). The book is absorbing, and obsessive.
Here I will concentrate on a novel with the strongest religious theme, in terms of what it suggests about Christian attitudes to Jews. In The Lord of the Sea (1901) he offers what we might call an ambush text (AND MANY SPOILERS FOLLOW). At first sight, the novel is a nasty anti-Jewish fantasy that the young Hitler might have read with ecstasy. It has been aptly called the first ever alt-Right novel. But Shiel then launches his literary sucker punch, and tells you that most of what you have been reading is totally deceptive. And as to where it goes from there …
Lord of the Sea expounds some curious political theories. It is based on the common late-Victorian radical notion of wealth being derived from land, and a future socialist state being able to generate and control wealth by total land nationalization under a benevolent centralized state. The book tells of a brilliant leader named Richard Hogarth, who adapts this Henry-Georgean theory to find the source of wealth in the control of the sea. By building a series of gigantic marine fortresses, he defeats the world’s navies and establishes a stranglehold on international trade, which allows him to make his “nation of the sea” supreme throughout the world. Shiel uses this framework to express a series of ideas about social egalitarianism and the harm wrought by the notion of absolute property, whether in land or sea.
Thus far, Lord of the Sea belongs in the company of other turn of the century political/scientific romances, most notably by H. G. Wells, but also in the writings of Edward Bellamy, Jack London, William Morris, Ignatius Donnelly, and others. But Shiel’s work differs in one major aspect, in that it is intensely concerned with the fate of the Jewish people, and it is this which makes the book very sensitive to a modern audience.
Lord of the Sea assumes that a Western Christian country has fallen into Jewish hands, and that a resistance war must be fought. The chief evildoers include the “Jew-Liberal Party” which is so strong a power in England. As the novel opens, a debt-laden English nobleman is forced to sell his ancient English estate of Westring to the plutocrat, Baruch Frankl, who is “of the Cohanim, the priestly class – a Jew of Jews.” Frankl is one of the millions of Jews who now flee to England in the wake of anti-Semitic laws passed throughout Europe:
With alarm Britain saw them come! but before she could do anything, the wave had overflowed it and by the time it was finished there was no desire to do anything; for within eight months such a tide of prosperity was floating England as had hardly been known in a country.
The migration brings ten million Jews into England, effectively the whole world population.
Such a passage had contemporary relevance in 1901, at the time of the great English debates over Jewish immigration, which led to a Royal Commission on Alien Immigration in 1902, and a restrictive immigration Act in 1905. These years witnessed the growth of an anti-Semitic populism of the sort that had previously been rare in England. The outbreak of the Boer War in 1899 focused attention on the Randlords whose machinations were said to be driving imperial policy. It was in 1901 that Joseph Banister wrote one of the most vituperative works of British anti-Semitism, entitled England Under the Jews. The same year saw the foundation of the pioneering anti-Semitic organization known as the British Brothers’ League. The first decade of the century was the era of the attack on the Court Jews allegedly surrounding Edward VII, and a series of political scandals culminated in the Marconi affair of 1912-13, in which Jewish Liberals were prominently involved.
Shiel’s nightmare of a Jewish takeover of England and its ancient institutions fits well into the politics of the radical Right. This picture is reinforced by the futile struggle of Hogarth to lead a resistance against Frankl. He is thwarted at every stage. The Jew-Liberals, under “Sir Moses Max,” win the election; and Frankl uses the power of his wealth to destroy the bank in which Hogarth keeps his meager savings. Ultimately, Hogarth is framed for a murder actually carried out by one of Frankl’s oriental minions.
But Hogarth pursues his destiny of becoming the Lord of the Sea, and when he has forced England into submission, he orders the expulsion of the Jews, “Pole and Hungarian, baron and coster, and the little child at the breast, ten millions”. All would be resettled in a new Israel, a Jewish state to be created in the area covering broadly the modern states of Syria, Iraq and Jordan, in addition to Israel and Lebanon.
Thus far, Lord of the Sea seems wildly anti-Semitic in overall theme and in detail, a farrago of bigotry. It would be easy to see this as the definitive novel of English anti-Semitism, written at the flood-tide of anti-immigrant hatred.
I MENTIONED THERE WOULD BE SPOILERS
Firstly, the “Saxon” hero Richard Hogarth is not what he appears. We learn early on that he is, unknown to himself, of noble Jewish blood, a son of the financier Sir Solomon Spinoza. Shiel suggests that it is to this heritage that he owes his titanic genius.
But it is in the last section of the book when the Jewish themes become most startling. By exiling the Jews to the new Israel, Hogarth has created the world’s most advanced and noble civilization. And in so doing, he has fulfilled not only the destiny of the Jewish people, but also of himself, for he is the Jewish Messiah. He marries Rebekah, the daughter of Baruch Frankl, and they form the royal dynasty of the restored Israel.
The new state of Israel is portrayed in extravagant terms reminiscent of the most utopian of the early Zionist theorists. Remember that the first Zionist Congress had gathered in Basel in 1897.
Within a few years of the settlement, great expanses of desert are reclaimed, mighty cities rise, and Jerusalem excels London or New York:
Here was not merely progress, but progress at increasing speed, acceleration, finally resembling flight, as of eagle or phoenix, eye fixed on the sun. Tyre by the fiftieth year having grown into the biggest of ports … while Jerusalem had grown into the recognized school of the wealthier youth of Europe, Asia and America … the University of Jerusalem had become the chief nerve center of the world’s research and upward effort.
Israel literally redeems the world and leads it into a new messianic age, the account of which draws on biblical imagery and thought:
the example of Israel, his suasive charm, proved compelling as sunshine to roots, so that the heart of Spinoza lived to see the spectacle of a whole world deserting the gory paths of Rome to go up into those uplands of mildness and gleefulness whither invites the smile of that lily Galilean. The mission of unbelieving Israel was to convert Christendom to Christianity; and this he did.
Those triumphant, messianic, Zionist, Jews “convert Christendom to Christianity.” But do note that the Jews who return to Israel, who redeem the world, do not themselves turn to Christianity. They are Jews who remain Jews.
The depiction of Jews in The Lord of the Sea is equivocal. In the context of England and other European countries, the Jewish presence is negative, and the language suggests a sinister infiltration. Jews should be expelled or encouraged to return to a Zionist state, which after all was the original solution desired by the Nazis. But this brutal message is qualified by the author’s views of the inherent qualities of the Jewish people, and their enormous positive potential as the redeemers of the world. In the context of contemporary ideologies such as imperialism and evolutionary theory, the Jews stand in the vanguard of civilization and human development, the role that nations like the British so often claimed for themselves.
Lord of the Sea is a classic End Times book, a messianic fantasy, and a Zionist dream. To understand it, we have to recall the very ambiguous place of Jews in British society, in a world absolutely saturated in the Old Testament. If many Christians hated and feared Jews, they also knew the prophecies of return. That dual attitude was the essential background for Anglo-American Christian Zionism, and specifically for the Balfour Declaration of 1917.
Lord of the Sea is a head-spinning book.
I will just end with one of Shiel’s minor pieces that reads very oddly indeed. One of his pseudo-Sherlock Holmes stories from 1895 tells of a brilliant detective who uncovers a secret society that has become a eugenic death squad, murdering the racially inferior and hereditarily diseased in contemporary Britain. But the detective, Prince Zaleski, refuses to go after them because he approves of what they do. The clandestine group is called the Society of Sparta, and that name gives its title to the frightening story: “The S.S.” Make of that piece of weirdness what you will.