“Dabbling in Delicate Drugs”: Aristocracy, Darwinism, and Substance Abuse in M. P. Shiel’s The Purple Cloud

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Shiel’s post-apocalyptic novel, The Purple Cloud (1901), offers Darwinian commentary on the suitability of upper-class socio-political rule, depicting the aristocracy’s struggles for basic survival despite their privilege and supposedly superior breeding. Through characters’ recreational use of narcotics, Shiel interrogates “survival of the fittest,” adaptability, sexual selection, and hierarchies in the animal world as they are perverted by human class structures. For Shiel, class is a product of luck or chance: aristocracy largely results from the right bodies existing in the right environment at the right time. This discussion triangulates Shiel’s thorny points of substance abuse, survival, and class and, in that triangulation, finds a more cohesive if pessimistic argument regarding the role of luck in the origins and future of humanity, and in the class structures that organize society.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)65-84
JournalVictorians: A Journal of Culture and Literature
Publication statusPublished - 14 Dec 2022

Bibliographical note

Copyright © 2022 by the Ohio State University. This is an accepted manuscript of an article published in Victorians: a Journal of Culture and Literature. The published version is available at: https://doi.org/10.1353/vct.2022.0008


  • Shiel
  • The Purple Cloud
  • Substance Abuse
  • long Nineteenth Century
  • post-apocalyptic fiction
  • class studies
  • Darwinism
  • evolution
  • aristocracy
  • Medicine and science in literature
  • addiction


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