Thursday, January 22, 2015
AND I'D BE THE KING OF CHINA
AND I’D BE THE KING OF CHINA
The Strange Life of Charles Welsh Mason
The astonishing story of the Eighteen Nineties writer who tried to make himself King of China – as a prelude to seizing the throne of the United Kingdom.
“There was such genius in his letters,” a contemporary wrote, “such brooding energy, such hate of life, such an uncanny suggestion of terrific power, that I treasured every word he wrote to me.” He was “fascinating, mysterious and demonic…the most romantic of all men I have met in the spirit”. To this commentator, he was a figure more striking even than D.H. Lawrence, Aleister Crowley, George Bernard Shaw, Frank Harris or Augustus John.
Mark Valentine’s essay tells the story of Charles Welsh Mason, who was thrown out of China for trying to lead an armed revolt, and returned to England to take up decadent literature, writing under three different names. His first book, collecting stories of his Chinese experiences, was compared to Kipling and Conan Doyle. His semi-autobiographical Max, published in 1897 by the modish Nineties imprint of John Lane, caused critics to invoke De Quincey for its descriptions of opium addiction.
The mysteries of Charles Welsh Mason do not end there. He took part in the Yukon gold rush, may have returned to China for the Boxer Rebellion, loved a youthful cup-bearer he called Gazelle Eyes, wrote a now lost book on Chinese torture, was last known as a roadman in the USA, and then vanished – but not before leaving a book of confessions.
This first literary study of an extraordinary character pieces together what is known from his memoirs and his books. A flavour of his work is also offered in a vignette, “A Little Chinese Party”, and there is a checklist of his publications.
Update: the book is now out of print but copies may be available from Mark Ziesing in the USA.