Workshop & Meeting report for ‘War of the Worlds: Transnational Fears of Invasion and Conflict 1870-1933’, Invasion Network workshop at Lancaster University, 8th September 2017
- Summary of the papers and discussion
Overall the workshop met its core aim of broadening the focus on the invasion scare phenomenon to consider how invasion was represented outside Britain and beyond the 1870-1914 period. Michael Hughes showed that although Russia did not have a comparable body of military invasion fiction to that present in Britain, Germany, France, Australia, America, etc., there was a strand of Russian popular fiction that replicated invasion fiction’s xenophobic treatment of internal and external issues. Within this Hughes identified a ‘Tartar bogey’ based on fears of the Muslim populations of Russia’s conquered territories, ‘yellow-peril’-type fears following the Russo-Japanese war and fears of Russia’s European military rivals. Antony Taylor discussed the key American populist work, Caesar’s Column (1890) by Ignatius Donnelly, which mobilised American fears of immigrant populations (in a comparable manner to that of the Russian fiction discussed by Hughes) and of vested ‘plutocratic’ interests. Taylor showed the text’s influence on both U.S. populism and emergent Labour parties in the British colonies of settlement. Michael Matin discussed the extensive number of propaganda titles issued by the British government during WWI as listed on the covertly circulated Schedule of Wellington House Literature, identifying those of interest to invasion scholars and arguing that the relatively restrained British propaganda campaign during WWI paved the way for the more ruthless campaigns that were to come in subsequent eras.
Questions of definition were raised throughout the workshop, prompted by David Glover’s opening question in his keynote speech as to ‘what kind of cultural object’ an invasion scare story is. Given the propagandistic as well as sales intent behind so many invasion tales, it was agreed that they can be considered to be of a somewhat different order to much of the comparable popular and literary fiction of the period. For this reason, it was agreed that they make an interesting and apt object of study for those interested in gauging the reception and effects of popular fiction, as the Invasion Network’s forthcoming special edition of Critical Survey on William Le Queux has attempted to do. It was agreed that more work could be done in this area, and suggestions were made for a digital humanities project to compile and analyse a database of primary sources, factual and fictional, and to apply techniques such as topic modelling to gain insight into the overall pervasiveness of the fear and its links with the fictional representations. Funding options for this project will need to be investigated.
More specific questions of definition were also asked with regard to the literary genre of the invasion tale, with Glover outlining a spectrum ranging from the ‘hard-core’ military invasion tale to the spy thriller which became more dominant after WWI, as control of information began to overshadow military technology in the tales and the setting of the action migrated from defending the home shores to tracking foreign agents abroad. The hard-core military invasion tale itself partially belongs in several of the following over-lapping categories: imperial adventure, science fiction, political thriller, general potboiler, etc. And taking into account this generic fluidity, Glover offered the concept of conspiracy set out in Jerry Palmer’s Thrillers (1978) as a helpful lens through which to read the invasion tale, as invasion plots by definition require secrecy and the genre is fuelled by paranoia as an ideology.
Glover also noted the overlap between military invasion fears and immigration fears, identifying Walter Wood’s The Enemy in Our Midst (1906) as worth further investigation from this perspective. Daniel Renshaw elucidated this intersection further in a paper that discussed the extreme right-wing view of immigration as part of a co-ordinated foreign conspiracy against Britain, comparable to the xenophobia that underpinned more traditional invasion fiction. Renshaw investigated how this fear was expressed in the form of the monster figure in notable late-Victorian gothic texts including Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) and Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan (1894). A notable finding in this and several other papers, such as Taylor’s and Glover’s, was the marked presence of anti-Semitism in invasion discourse, and the conflation of various racial stereotypes (such as those against Jewish, Chinese and Italian people) in the service of a broad anti-foreign agenda. It was noted that religion and gender continue to be under-researched themes in invasion studies.
Within the more traditional remit of invasion scholarship, Derek Linney’s paper (kindly read out in his absence by Richard Scully) performed a quantitative analysis of the representation of Britain’s enemies and allies in pre-1914 invasion fiction, notably revealing the lack of portrayals of Britain fighting alongside allied powers, despite its growing participation within the real-world system of alliances. Christian Melby argued for the need to nuance the reading of empire in pre-war British invasion fiction and identified three views of empire operating within the genre: empire as weakness, empire as strength and empire as providing a long-term vantage point from which to speculate about Britain’s future; a complex set of views which both reinforced and conflicted with each other. Harry Wood identified the need to systematically interrogate how ‘commonplace’ invasion was as a popular fear in pre-1914 Britain (as opposed to relying on ‘big claims’ that it was ‘a national obsession’) and identified potential avenues of research, notably using oral history records, to obtain information on the reception of invasion fears outside of elite responses. Following on from this, Ailise Bulfin’s case study of the circulation and reception of Le Queux’s The Invasion of 1910 showed that while the ‘big claim’ that the text sold 1 million copies is unlikely to be true, the text sold well in Britain and abroad and produced a strong public reaction, largely from those motivated to dismiss its claims. Thus rather than provoking the fear of invasion, the text arguably provoked an elite fear of the effects of xenophobic demagoguery on a mass readership perceived as gullible. (Abstracts of the papers will be posted soon.)
- Next projects
In the roundtable discussion, there was considerable discussion of the marked similarities between the xenophobic rhetoric that preceded WWI and that circulating currently. In this vein Richard Scully observed that Robert Harris’s Fatherland (1992) could be read as a Europhobic comment on its historical moment rather than on WWII. It was suggested that our next output take the form of a group publication, with the putative title ‘A History of Post-Truth’, discussing this phenomenon and giving some pertinent examples aimed at publication in a more general-audience outlet such as History Today or Prospect.
It was suggested that the group could put together a panel on invasion and war for the 2018 Victorian Popular Fiction Association annual conference, which is on the theme of War and Peace.
It was debated whether the theme for the next Invasion Network workshop in 2019 should be the logical chronological step forward to consider invasion fears during WWII and the Cold War, or one with the wider remit to consider invasion fears post-1933 – i.e. taking in current versions of invasion fears.
It was agreed to continue to use the Invasion Network blog in conjunction with Twitter to further the work of the group.