How a Bizarre Work of Apocalyptic Fiction Simultaneously Typifies British Anti-Semitism and Philo-Semitism

August 28, 2023 | Michael Weingrad
About the author: Michael Weingrad is professor of Jewish studies at Portland State University and a frequent contributor to Mosaic and the Jewish Review of Books. 

The West Indies-born English author M. P. Shiel’s work earned the admiration of his fellow writer of horror and fantasy H.P. Lovecraft, as well as of such mainstream writers as Eudora Welty. His 1901 novel The Lord of the Sea—which displays the “extreme style and apocalyptic themes” that, in Michael Weingrad’s words, characterizes much of his work—imagines a Jewish takeover of Britain based on the most absurd anti-Semitic assumptions about Jewish power and villainy. At the same time, Shiel describes this terrifying invasion as the result of an eruption of European anti-Semitism that, from a 21st-century perspective, seems almost prophetic. Shiel then introduces a plot twist that turns his hero into a perverse counterpart of the title character of George Eliot’s Zionist novel Daniel Deronda. Weingrad tries to make sense of this bizarre blend of anti-Semitism and philo-Semitism:

The Lord of the Sea is very much a novel of its time. Jews were on the mind of the British empire: as immigrants swelling the poor population of London’s East End, in the persons of wealthy financiers in Europe and some of the rand lords of South Africa, as victims of shocking mass violence in tsarist Russia, as reminders to Christians of millenarian hopes, and as one of the world’s national minorities seeking independence and sovereignty through the recently launched Zionist movement. Shiel’s novel was contemporary with anti-Jewish polemics such as Joseph Banister’s England under the Jews (1901), and the claims by the economist J. A. Hobson in War in South Africa (1900) that Jews were behind England’s involvement in the Boer War that had broken out in 1899.

It was also contemporary with evangelical Christian hopes for Jewish conversion, growing British sympathy for the Zionist movement, and the 1903 proposal to create a Jewish homeland in British Africa. What is most notable about Shiel’s novel is its packing in such extremes of Jewish representation, from the bestial to the messianic, in one place.

English attitudes and standards of accepted behavior towards Jews involve a mix of often contrary tendencies. The long span of English literature has of course produced memorably monstrous representations of Jews in the works of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens, and others, exercising an outsized influence on the demonization of Jews in literary culture and beyond. In general, however, modern English literary culture featured a range of anti-Jewish prejudices and malicious expressions, sometimes taking extreme verbal or written form, but usually leavened by an English sense of decorum or notion of “fair play,” and in some cases counterbalanced by pronounced philo-Semitism or at least social sanctions against stark expressions of anti-Jewish hostility.

Shiel’s novel reflects the extreme ends, pro- and anti-Jewish, of British attitudes in its messianic, conspiratorial fantasy, to a great extent reflecting the particular sociopolitical moment in which it was written, when anti-Jewish expressions were at a pitch.

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