The Invasion Network at the 2018 Victorian Popular Fiction Association conference

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I think it’s fair to say the Invasion Network successfully invaded the excellent 2018 Victorian Popular Fiction Association conference, and many thanks to the organisers Janine Hatter, Helena Ifill and Jane Jordan for hosting us. From an invasion fiction reading group to two panels devoted to the invasion theme, the network’s key area of interest was well represented.

The Invasion Fiction reading group, 4th July


The invasion fiction reading group, hosted by Beth Gaskell, Andrew King & Ailise Bulfin, selected The Battle of Dorking and The War of the Worlds as the texts to focus on. This pair of texts allowed us to examine the origins of invasion fiction and the broad and long-running range of responses to it, as manifest in Wells’s late-1890s alien invaders. It allowed us to consider questions such as: Why is War of the Worlds so well known, when Dorking isn’t? Is Wells’s protagonist more relatable to readers? Is it Wells’s fame? Does the Battle of Dorking change the perspective to the impact on civilians and the home front – thus changing the imaginative construct from distant, noble imperial wars? Did something similar happen with War of the Worlds, which may have worked against its own anti-militarist perspective by capturing the plight of the refugees under fire so convincingly? Did the genre successfully scaremonger people? Did invasion fiction ultimately pave the way for WW1? I can’t promise that we answered all these questions – but the discussion was enjoyable and certainly had people talking about the invasion scare phenomenon – which was the aim.

Invasion Fiction panel, 6th July

 Robert Dingley, ‘Secular Eschatology: The Guilty Pleasures of Invasion Fiction’

Yael Maurer, ‘Unmanned: H. G. Wells and the Breakdown of Masculinity’

Janine Hatter, ‘Rats as Late-Nineteenth-Century British Invaders’


The second invasion fiction panel opened with Robert Dingley’s shocking revelations about invasion-themed pornography (just when you think you know your subfield…), thereby truly confirming our theories that invasion is a pervasive, trans-media theme. We’ve found it in novels, short stories, pamphlets, journalism, poems, skits, cartoons, songs and plays – and now in erotica! Dingley very convincingly linked the explicit, pornographic sexual violence in the invasion-themed story in The Pearl (‘Frank Jones’ dream of the Sack of London by the Germans after the Battle of Dorking’, Christmas edition, 1881) with the implicit gendered trope in mainstream invasion fiction of a prostrate, feminised Britannia ‘quivering’ under the heel of the hyper-masculine brutish invader and ‘her’ resulting humiliation. He also convincingly tied this to the wider theme of secular apocalypse in fin-de-siècle culture, whereby the invaders paradoxically become the necessary catalyst for regenerating (i.e. re-masculinising) decadent Britain.

Yael Maurer’s paper followed on really well by exposing the representation of threatened masculinity in Wells’s War of the Worlds and The Island of Dr Moreau. Relating it to contradictions in the imperialist discourse that Wells’s was critiquing, she described how these texts expose the submerged fear of ‘unmanning’ at the heart of the impulse for colonial domination – ‘Are we not men?’ as the beast-men ask.

Janine Hatter, fearing initially that she was an interloper in a panel on interloping, ended up tying the whole panel together with her paper on rats as invaders in late-Victorian discourse. She confirmed the pervasiveness of the invasion theme from yet another direction by showing how its tropes were drawn on in reportage on and manuals about rat infestations – ‘the march of an enemy of rats’, etc. In fact, she noted that foreign rats were singled out as being even more insidious than their British counterparts. Her paper disclosed that these publications were additionally drawing on social purity discourse in their depictions of ‘rat revelries’ and the ‘rapacity of rats’ – very much linking the rats with Dingley’s sexual invaders. Ultimately she showed the complexity of this treatment of rat invaders as they unexpectedly function as signifiers of the truth in some of the narratives, bringing to light that which should have remained hidden and exposing the horrific living conditions of the poor.

Invasion Network panel: ‘Invasion, Empire and Popular Anxieties 1880-1918’, 4th July

This panel show-cased the latest work of the Invasion Network, widening out the way the topic is considered and querying assumptions about the reception of invasion fiction. It shifted the focus purely from tales which depicted large-scale military invasion, considered the strong links between invasion fiction and fictions of imperial surveillance and paranoia, and linked invasion fiction with the propaganda efforts of the First World War.

Chair: Dr Beth Gaskell

Paper 1: Ailise Bulfin, ‘Gothic invasions: Demonising the armed forces of Europe’

Paper 2: Michael Matin, ‘Invasion Fiction and the Late-Victorian Prehistory of the Wellington House Propaganda Project’

Paper 3: Kim Wagner, ‘Sahibs in Disguise: The Trope of Going Native and the British Imagination’

Paper 1 Abstract: ‘Gothic Invasions’: From nightmare visions of revivified Egyptian mummies on the loose in London to hordes of Oriental barbarians sacking Europe’s capitals to armies of brutish Prussians stomping down London’s Strand, the popular fiction of fin-de-siècle Britain was suffused with anxiety about invasion. This anxiety can be traced to concerns about the potential downside of Britain’s continuing imperial expansion – fears of growing armed inter-European rivalry and colonial rebellion, and was frequently expressed indirectly via the gothic mode, in the form of the gothic’s familiar monsters, the vampire, the demon and the mummy. What is less explored is how gothic themes and conventions were also deployed in the narratives that most obviously belong under the heading of ‘invasion fiction’ – those explicitly depicting the military invasion of the island of Britain by the armies of one or more of the European great powers. From their origins in General Sir George T. Chesney’s seminal, admonitory The Battle of Dorking (1871) to their culmination in the paranoid, Germanophobic worldview of William Le Queux in the early twentieth century, ‘invasion-scare’ tales habitually resorted to the gothic in order to adequately describe the brutality of the invading armies they depicted. This paper investigates the demonisation of the armed forces of Britain’s rival European powers in this body of fiction, demonstrating its stylistic and thematic similarity to the gothic tales of invasion. It argues that this gothicisation was tactical, designed to emphasise the threat Europe’s armies posed to Britain’s dominant imperial position and to strengthen the case for British military ‘preparedness’ that many of these military invasion tales were explicitly written to make. It concludes that in this tactical gothicisation, invasion fiction both anticipated and functioned as a rehearsal for the vast quantities of atrocity propaganda produced in support of the British campaign during World War I.

Paper 2: ‘Invasion Fiction and Propaganda’: On September 2, 1914, less than a month after the outbreak of the First World War, an extraordinary meeting of twenty-five of Britain’s best-known writers was secretly convened in London. Attendees included J.M. Barrie, Arnold Bennett, G.K. Chesterton, Arthur Conan Doyle, John Galsworthy, Thomas Hardy, and H.G. Wells. The purpose of this gathering was to enlist in service of the war effort the country’s most accomplished and influential writers. The event had been arranged and was presided over by Charles Masterman, who had been appointed by Prime Minister Asquith to lead the fledgling British propaganda campaign.  Known as the Wellington House project, this became one of the most successful propaganda campaigns of the twentieth-century. This paper examines the way that British national and imperial invasion anxieties were generated by freelance propagandists during the late Victorian years in a way that would pave the way for the later, formal war-time propaganda effort of Wellington House.

Paper 3: ‘Sahibs in Disguise’: [summary given here – abstract to follow] Wagner’s paper examined the one of the paradoxes of imperial rule whereby the ability to maintain order depended on the ability to sufficiently understand indigenous societies. This in turn depended on having reliable ‘native’ sources from whom to obtain information. However, as these could never be fully trusted, the imaginative trope of going native developed in order to produce a comforting set of imperial mediators who could, via their putative ability to successfully disguise themselves, infiltrate native society to provide reliable intelligence – as for instance, in Kipling’s famous Kim (1901). Wagner pointed out that in reality this kind of successful ethnographic impersonation happened very rarely, and ‘sahibs’ tended to adopt disguise only to flee from anti-colonial conflict.

The full VPFA conference programme can be found on the association’s website.

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