Sunday, May 26, 2019

Guest Post - 'Revelations' by R B Russell

Literary research can reveal information about writers that some of them might have preferred to remain hidden. For example, it was recently discovered that Bernard Heldmann (1857-1915) started to use the pseudonym Richard Marsh only after he spent eighteen months in prison for passing forged cheques. (It had previously been assumed that he adopted a pseudonym to hide his father’s German-Jewish origins.)

The conviction doesn’t really affect his posthumous reputation as the author of the Victorian blockbuster The Beetle (1897), but it must now become a part of his biography, and critics will have to bear it in mind when considering his many books. For example, does the author’s experience affect his treatment of crime and criminals? The revelation of his conviction will inevitably alter the way we appreciate the man and his writing, but it does not lessen his achievement in The Beetle. We do not overlook the crime, but, on the whole, it will have little bearing on his work — the prime interest for most readers.

Of course, there is no reason why authors should be any more honest, or dishonest, than any other section of society. A number of great writers have committed crimes and many will have served time, while others, of course, have been convicted for political reasons, or for activities that are not recognised as crimes today. A criminal past may have as much, or as little, bearing on creative writing as the author’s gender, sexuality, political views, etc: after all, we are discussing fiction. But even in composing works of ‘high fantasy’, authors inevitably draw from their own experience, offering viewpoints that are consistent with their understanding of the world.

Fraud might not be too problematic for an author’s reputation (even though they may have caused others anguish through their actions), but other crimes may call for a more uncomfortable revaluation of an author. For example, it has recently been discovered that M.P. Shiel (1865-1947) spent time in prison not for fraud (as had previously been assumed), but for ‘indecently assaulting and carnally knowing’ his 12-year-old stepdaughter. Such a conviction inevitably leads us to question our appreciation and understanding of the man and his writings.

It ought not to make ‘Xelucha’ or ‘The House of Sounds’ any less effective as wonderfully over-wrought tales of horror, but it is understandable that some readers will not want to read fiction by a convicted paedophile. Nobody can now consider The Purple Cloud and not question the author’s thought processes when he describes the relationship between Adam Jeffson and the young girl who appears towards the end of the novel. But despite our new knowledge of the author and the fact that we abhor his crime, The Purple Cloud remains powerful and innovative writing.

It can be difficult for long-time admirers of an author to come to terms with unpalatable revelations. H.P. Lovecraft’s racism, for example, has caused a great deal of debate in the last decade, although his views were always present in certain published stories if one was looking for it. In ‘The Horror at Red Hook’ it is overt, but in other stories such as ‘The Shadow over Innsmouth’ aspects of the story we now find problematic had previously been open to legitimate multiple interpretations. Some commentators have defended Lovecraft, using the ‘man of his time argument’; that he was merely echoing widely-held beliefs of his era, but in the 1920s not everyone was racially prejudiced. Moreover, Lovecraft cannot be excused for ‘unthinking’ or lazy prejudice, because he appears to have considered issues of race in some depth.

Lovecraft’s undeniable racism was a facet of his personality and illuminates both his character and his writing. He was much more a ‘man out of time’ than a ‘man of his time’, suggesting that he would have been far happier as an eighteenth-century gentleman who was able to devote himself exclusively to literature. His inability to come to terms with many aspects of the modern world probably influenced his fiction just as much as it fueled his racism, and there are parallels between both. Lovecraft is an endlessly fascinating subject for study, not least because of the contradictions in his views, and the fact that he may well have been ameliorating them in the years before his early death at only forty-six.

It is entirely natural that some readers will not want to read Lovecraft because of his racism, just as others will shun Shiel. Readers often tend toward writers whose beliefs, attitudes, etc accord with their own, but we can still appreciate the work of those with whose world-view we fundamentally disagree. One does not have to be a High Church Tory to appreciate the writing of Arthur Machen, or a Communist to enjoy Sylvia Townsend Warner’s work. Finding interest, even enjoyment in a writer does not necessarily mean we endorse all of their views. But when one is forced to look again at an author, as Lovecraftians have had to, it makes as little sense to completely turn one’s back as it does to insist that there is nothing to discuss. Admitting to problematic aspects of an author’s biography and allowing for discussion has to be preferable to either censorship or denial.

R B Russell

Illustration: from a dustjacket design for 'The Beetle'.


  1. One could argue that an author should be problematic rather than safe, that literature ought to leave us feeling off-kilter rather than confirming what we already believe, even that Lovecraft's racism and Shiel's paedophilia might make them more interesting writers than they were before. Remember that Kafka quote about a book being an axe for the frozen sea inside us? A literature of power can't be wholly comforting. This isn't to say that one shouldn't condemn racism and paedophilia in real life. One should. The real question is how much slack we cut people of the past. In general, the more distant in time from us, the more forgiving we tend to be. For more recent times, we just need to be discriminating: Celine's Journey to the End of Night and Death on the Installment Plan aren't obviously anti-Semitic (as his odious later writing is): He simply despises everyone, while both are linguistically innovative masterpieces. Just think what dull books we would write if we wrote to please our mothers--or Dr. Bowdler. --md

  2. There is no excuse for paedophilia and racism and to imply that somehow the paedophilia and racism of Shiel and Lovecraft is somehow OK because it makes them "more interesting writers" is not only offensive but absurd. I know you might easily now reply to say that your meaning was more nuanced than that, but it isn't really.

  3. Not turning your back entirely on Lovecraft is easy if you live a totally white life. Because it doesn't affect you directly. You can sit in an armchair and pronounce on matters that have no bearing on your everyday life. "Oh, that bad Lovecraft, let's slap his wrist but no more, because ultimately the issues involved are only theoretical to me."

    At least the words "convicted paedophile" are used when referring to M.P. Shiel as that is exactly what he was (rather than just being involved in an 'underage romance' as his defenders often claim).

  4. Thanks to Ray for a thoughtful essay.

    Shiel's crime and Lovecraft's bigotry are real. There's also, though, the phenomenon in which readers perceive problems that aren't necessarily there.

    For example, readers conditioned by university educations and the mass media to suspect racism, colonialism, and sexism everywhere in the writing of white men, have supposed that C. S. Lewis was revealing an imagination tainted with these when, in one of his lesser-known works, the protagonist has an erotic encounter with a seductive naked "brown girl."

    Lewis almost certainly was thinking of a white girl who is suntanned, like Birdalone, the heroine of William Morris's The Water of the Wondrous Isles. For example, in Pride and Prejudice, one of the female characters makes a catty remark about Elizabeth bennet being coarse and "brown," and Darcy indicates he thinks she looks rather nice. You can find plenty of additional examples of "brown" to mean "sun-tanned" in books Lewis certainly read or may have read.

    Again, Lewis is, notoriously, charged (by an elderly white male author!) with misogyny in his reference to Susan as missing out on eschatological Narnia (so far! her story isn't over) because she has become interested in "lipstick and nylons." They key to this passage in The Last Battle is in a book Lewis wrote about the same time, Surprised by Joy, his autobiography, in which he writes about a period in his adolescence when he took to putting oil in his hair (cf. lipstick) and wearing trousers revealing eye-catching socks (cf. nylons). Where Susan was preoccupied with getting invitations to parties, Lewis was obsessed (at her age) with knowing all the latest jokes and songs so as to impress other kids. The Surprised by Joy passage is a striking, self-understanding, and rather funny parallel with the Last Battle one.

    So -- what to do when one becomes aware of stains in an author's (or artist's) life is a real issue, but, also, one wants to be careful about assuming stains are there when better information may indicate they are not. I think this is particularly the case today with regard to sexism, racism, etc. because these are so eagerly and persistently looked for by people who assume they are there.

  5. As a person who has frequently been on the receiving end of racism ( for reasons of brevity i shall not elaborate upon the myriad reasons i have to decisively describe these instances as racism and not as perceived racism ) i must say i seldom find myself eagerly looking for further instances of it; in fact, the truth is rather to the contrary: one often finds oneself eagerly and persistently looking for the absence of racism.
    A fact of life for ( too ) many, i’m afraid.

    Now, i would absolutely agree that anyone not reading Loveydoveycraft or Shakespeare for fear of encountering racism or sexism there, is missing out on a pivotal cultural experience ( well, with the bard at least- Lovecraft is still sufficiently marginal to be not a great loss when unread ) but the equal holds true for reading Shakespeare’s work with eyes closed to some of its cultural meanings and connotations; we should be able to approach our reading without excuses or apologies in hand for their authors’ ideas.

  6. Ai yi yi. Talk about your can of worms. I wrote at length about this here but discarded it. Maybe someday I’ll come back.