Fears that Eastern Europeans, unrestricted by any immigration controls, were taking jobs from British workers caused widespread public unrest and provoked xenophobic bile in the newspapers. One editorial complained of “the dirty, destitute, diseased, verminous and criminal foreigner who dumps himself on our soil,” while prominent politicians supported a far-right group that called Britain “the dumping ground for the scum of Europe.” Eventually the Conservative prime minister took action to shut down the “open door” to foreigners entering the country.
It’s an account not of events over the past year, but of the furore surrounding the 1905 Aliens Act, the first to introduce peacetime restrictions on immigration to the UK. It may come as scant comfort for liberals despairing of Brexit’s toxic atmosphere to know that we have been here before. But it does show that we should not pretend tolerance is some characteristically British virtue we have now lost.
On that earlier occasion there was a strong whiff of anti-Semitism in the opposition to immigration. Jews were presented as bloodsucking leeches who preyed on the vulnerable. There was a suspiciously Oriental strain of blood flowing in their veins and something uncanny about their gaunt appearance. What a terrible thought that this blood might mingle with good English stock and corrupt the race!
Yes, it is all ugly and melodramatic, but perhaps you see too where it is going. With unease about the Eastern European “invasion” at its peak in the late 1890s, who should appear in London but a certain Transylvanian count descended from Attila the Hun? Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) is about many things, and it seems plain that some of them—anxieties about the independent New Woman and an almost delirious terror of homoeroticism—seeped unconsciously from the author’s buttoned-up psyche. But Dracula was also a horror fantasy of an invasion by foreigners from the edge of European civilisation.
The vampiric count prowls Piccadilly, but he also deposits boxes of his vivifying earth in London’s East End, where many of the Jewish immigrants settled around Whitechapel. That, as everyone knew, was a den of squalor and wickedness, where Jack the Ripper perpetrated his crimes in 1888. When Dracula is forced to flee England, he is smuggled out by a Jew—a caricature with a fez and a “nose like a sheep”—who is doubtless part of a network conducting clandestine immigration.
The 1905 Aliens Act was ostensibly aimed at keeping out criminal types from Europe. At the time, a crude Darwinism had instilled the belief that criminality was innate (as were many stereotypical characteristics of race), and that bad character is written on the physiognomy. The notion owed much to the theories of Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso, to which Mina Harker alludes as she pronounces the Count “of criminal type.” That such types were on the rise was the fear of Darwinists like Francis Galton, who advocated eugenics to combat it.
Lombroso’s ideas also left their mark in the other great late-Gothic myth of the age, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886). The retreating forehead and thick-boned skull Lombroso attributes to the criminal fit with the deformities implied of Hyde, who Jekyll attests to having “evil… written broadly and plainly on [his] face.”
In the year of Dracula’s debut, five years before the paramilitary British Brothers League was formed in the East End to demonstrate against immigration, there was another alien invasion to contend with. These loathsome creatures arrived near Woking and laid waste to everything in their path as they advanced on London. This time they came not from the East, but from Mars.
HG Wells’s novel The War of the Worlds, which secured his reputation as the foremost purveyor of “scientific romance,” is in many ways a natural extrapolation of the “invasion literature” that flourished in the late 19th century. The fear expressed in novels like George Tomkyns Chesney’s The Battle of Dorking (1871), William Butler’s The Invasion of England (1882), William Le Queux’s The Great War in England in 1897 (1894) and Erskine Childers’s The Riddle of the Sands (1903) was not racial degeneration caused by immigration but outright conquest by our old foes, the Germans and the French.
These books were often written by soldiers like Chesney, alarmed at the complacent neglect of our armed forces. Some conclude in jingoistic fashion with the enemy repulsed by the plucky Brits. Sometimes, though, we are defeated, as in The Battle of Dorking, in which the Germans make Britain a province and break our empire. Sometimes the Brits turn the tables utterly. George Griffith’s The Great Pirate Syndicate (1899) reads like a Daily Mail wet dream, telling of a British airship fleet blockading Europe and forcing the world to accept an open market for British trade.
There is nothing jingoistic about The War of the Worlds, however. It offers a vision of outright apocalypse brought about by the vast technological superiority of the Martians. We are saved only by sheer luck, as the Martians succumb to terrestrial germs. Wells, far from advocating better military preparedness, was making a critique of British imperialism. He wanted to show what it might be like to be conquered and colonised by a race with overwhelming might, as Tasmania had been by the British in the early part of the century. Nonetheless, the story could easily be seen as a simple nightmare of invasion by the Other.
In Brexit-mired Britain today, the late 19th-century myths penned by Stoker, Stevenson and Wells suggest where we might look for a true glimpse of the national subconscious. Ali Smith’s Autumn is likely to be the first of many Brexit novels—it is hard to imagine that Zadie Smith and Ian McEwen aren’t already sharpening their quills. And it is right, probably vital, that novelists should be responding to the momentous events of our weird times, as Howard Jacobson does too in his “Trump novella,” Pussy.
But we may find that the most lasting literary legacy of the social currents that are fuelling the populist revolt arrives more obliquely, in tales that mine the national psyche with something more akin to Ballardian, Kafkaesque or indeed Wellsian invention. One slightly shudders to think what they will find. As George Orwell said, Wells “knew that the future was not going to be what respectable people imagined.”