Master of Misinformation: William Le Queux, Invasion Scares and Spy Fever, 1880-1930

Trinity College Dublin, 9th June 2015

The inaugural Invasion Network conference ‘Master of Misinformation’ focused on the unusual life, literary output, and cultural legacy of the British author William Le Queux. Held at Trinity College Dublin in early-June 2015, the event was a notable success, and has laid the groundwork for a great deal of future research and collaboration.

Opening the event and welcoming the participants to Trinity College, Darryl Jones provided some valuable contextual remarks on the late-Victorian and Edwardian literary climate. This was followed by Roger Stearn’s keynote address, ‘Still mysterious: William Le Queux revisited’. The foremost modern biographer of Le Queux, Roger’s talk offered an excellent account of Le Queux scholarship to-date, before suggesting ways in which new research might move the field forward.

The first of two workshop panels began with Pete Mills, who introduced the idea of Le Queux as a ‘popular conspiracist’, and emphasised the conspiracy-driven nature of much of his fiction. Pete was followed by Harry Wood, whose paper focused on the politics of Le Queux, and proposed that he is best understood as a product of the Edwardian ‘Radical Right’. Closing the panel was Michael Hughes, whose focus on Russia highlighted Le Queux’s role in demonising the ‘Mad Monk’ Rasputin in British political and literary discourse. The second panel opened with Tony Taylor, whose focus on the representation (and regular destruction) of London in Le Queux’s novels explored an important and little-understood trope. Finally, Michael Matin considered Le Queux’s position in literary history, and addressed his curious lack of involvement with the War Propaganda Bureau on the outbreak of hostilities in 1914.

‘Master of Misinformation’ closed with a discussion session (chaired by Ailise Bulfin) which aimed to tie together the themes of the workshop before establishing concrete plans to move this research forward. The major point of debate that emerged concerned the issues of popular reception and quantifiable cultural and political impact. Most participants accepted that invasion fiction had an effect on the ‘popular imagination’, specifically shaping how the British population related to the dual threats (fallacious or otherwise) of invasion and enemy espionage. All agreed that Le Queux played a role in creating the widespread belief that German invasion was inevitable, and the similarly popular conviction that a hidden network of German spies existed in Britain. Yet as several speakers emphasised, it is very difficult to substantiate these kind of claims, or to create a methodology that accurately captures the influence of fiction on its audience. It is one thing to claim that invasion scares influenced popular opinion, it is another thing to work out whether and/or how this translated into an impact on behaviour.

It was nonetheless recognised that a range of circumstantial evidence exists that can help to measure the cultural and political impact of invasion and espionage anxieties. Various examples explored in past research were raised: the late-Edwardian airship panic (Paris 1992; Holman 2014), the role of Le Queux’s Spies of the Kaiser in the formation of the Secret Service Bureau (Hiley 1996), and the significant political impact of George Chesney’s The Battle of Dorking (Matin 2011; Kirkwood 2012). Several other comparable avenues of inquiry were suggested during the discussion, including the potential of modern cognitive science in assessing the influence of popular fiction on its readers, the importance of analysing the sales figures of invasion narratives, and measuring the impact (if any) of such scares on voting and volunteering behaviour.

Central to the discussion, unsurprisingly, was the position of William Le Queux in these debates. A prolific author with extremely high sales figures, close relationships with influential military and political figures, unprecedented publicity efforts, and a much-debated record in amateur espionage, it was affirmed that Le Queux was worthy of further research. Le Queux was the writer and campaigner around whom many of the socio-cultural forces surrounding invasion scares coalesced, and as such, forms a natural focus for the first project of the Invasion Network.

It was decided that the best way of beginning this process was putting together a special edition journal proposal, which would allow the themes of the workshop to be developed further, and for this reconsideration of Le Queux to be more widely disseminated. While individual articles will pursue specific themes, the key contention of this project is that invasion and espionage scares were far more complex phenomena than previously assumed. Far from a straightforward response to international crises, or a narrowly-focused popular panic, the fear of invasion and enemy espionage in Britain was equally influenced by domestic politics, literary trends, ideological and philosophical debates, and cultural and social upheaval. This principle will be explored from a range of interdisciplinary angles, from recurrent literary tropes and genre boundaries through to the literary marketplace, popular reception, and party politics. Several journals have been contacted in the months following this event, and we are delighted to announce that Critical Survey have accepted our special edition proposal, provisional titled ‘Literature and Propaganda: William Le Queux, Invasion Scares and Spy Fever, 1880-1920’.

The great success of ‘Master of Misinformation’ heralds, we hope, a new departure for the study of British invasion anxieties. It could not have occurred without the help and cooperation of several organisations and individuals. Thanks go to all of the speakers and participants, the Irish Research Council, the Long Room Hub at Trinity College Dublin and the School of English at Trinity College Dublin.

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