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M. P. Shiel and the Love of Pubescent Girls: The Other “Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name”

From: English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920
Volume 51, Number 4, 2008
pp. 355-380 | 10.2487/elt.51.4(2008)0028

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“The Love that dare not speak its name” ... is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man.... It is that deep, spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect. There is nothing unnatural about it.... That it should be so, the world does not understand. The world mocks at it and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.1

It does not even chance to be true that I did just what I was “convicted” of, viz. “carnal knowledge” … were there ever such ponderous people? making mountains out of molehills and crimes out of love-toyings?—the lady in question being—not two days or months—but two years past her puberty.… In vain have I screamed to the Home Secretary … that my view of the matter is not a view peculiar to myself … and that if Englishmen elect to make themselves the laughing-stock of the world, that is no reason for putting harmless poor people into their grotesque prisons.2

In 1885 the Criminal Law Amendment Act was passed. Most famously, this law would have consequences for Oscar Wilde when he was convicted of committing an act of “gross indecency” with another male in 1895. The prohibition of homosexuality was, however, but a minor part of an act that was designed primarily for “the protection of women and girls” and “the suppression of brothels.” One of the act’s most radical provisions was to raise the age of consent from thirteen to sixteen, making “carnal knowledge” of a girl between thirteen and sixteen a misdemeanor, and of a girl under thirteen a felony. It was this aspect of the law that would have repercussions for Wilde’s contemporary M. P. Shiel, who was convicted in 1914 of indecently assaulting and carnally knowing Dorothy Sircar, aged twelve years and five months.3 In its legislations against sex between men and sex between adult males and juvenile girls, the Criminal Law Amendment Act, then, engendered two “loves that dare not speak their name”: Wilde’s “affection” for younger men and Shiel’s “love-toyings,” as he called them, with juvenile girls. While homosexual acts had been criminalized under various aspects of English law since the sixteenth century, sex with twelve-year-old females was legal up to 1875 when the age of consent was raised to thirteen.4 Its raising to sixteen ten years later was, then, a significant change, one that, in conjunction with emerging fin-de-siècle sexological discourses, influenced and was influenced by developing notions of girlhood, juvenile sexuality, and child sexual abuse.

This article has two intentions. The first is to situate Shiel’s crime within the context of Victorian and Edwardian cultural, legal, and medical constructions of girlhood and female juvenile sexuality before and after the passing of the Criminal Law Amendment Act and through the rise of sexology in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The second aim is to contribute to biographical and textual scholarship on Shiel. While Shiel scholars and enthusiasts have known about his jail sentence, why he was imprisoned has remained a mystery. That this imprisonment was for the sexual assault of a minor, as is revealed in a recently discovered letter from Shiel to Grant Richards, his publisher, will come as a surprise to those who have speculated that it was for debt or for homosexuality.5 Read in conjunction with the known facts of his life and supplemented by further archival research, this letter contributes significantly to our understanding of Shiel, his sexuality, his relationships with women, and his fictional works.

A Life & a Letter

“Sensible people,” insisted author Rebecca West, “ought to have a complete set of Shiel.”6 This sentiment was shared by his select but devoted readership, which included Dashiell Hammett, Carl Van Vechten, and H. P. Lovecraft. Shiel had a frenzied imagination and a florid, fanciful, fast-paced writing style, appealing, as Van Vechten said, to those with knowledge of the “byways and crannies of exotic literature.”7 Shiel, whose lengthy career spanned from the 1890s to the 1940s, played a role in the fin-de-siècle British Decadent movement and was an innovator in...



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