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  • Edwardian Spy Literature and the Ethos of Sportsmanship: The Sport of Spying

The Advent of British spy literature at the turn of the twentieth century is often thought to have reflected a shift in the tone of British popular literature, and British culture generally, from optimism to pessimism. International developments such as Britain’s surprising difficulty winning the Boer War, as well as the increasing armament of rivals such as Germany, made Britons less confident in their country’s ability to prevail in international conflicts. Popular literature duly reflected this anxiety with a new focus on the secret plans of the enemy—usually France, Russia, Germany, or a combination, depending on where the public’s fears were focused at the time—to exploit Britain’s weakness by spying on her, invading her, or both. The British public tended to be depicted in such literature as weak, too complacent to see the sinister elements in their midst; this was true not only in works warning of hidden foreign spies, but also in works warning of hidden anarchists and other revolutionaries, most famously Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907). In Michael Denning’s words, where popular literature had once been dominated by “an assertive, confident, and expansionist genre,” that is, the imperial adventure story, this gave way to “an increasingly insular, even paranoid, genre stressing vigilance and protection against invasion”1—the spy story. Increasing literary pessimism continued within the spy genre itself, which as it matured portrayed Britain’s prospects as bleaker and its enemies as more monstrous. Samuel Hynes exemplifies this chronological view when he writes of Erskine Childers’s relatively optimistic spy novel, The Riddle of the Sands (1903), that it “obviously belongs to an early stage” of spy and invasion literature,2 one that would be superseded by darker narratives. [End Page 413]

This timeline of the literary mood is accurate in its broad outline but inaccurate in some of its particulars. No doubt rising tensions in Europe and Britain did contribute to the rise of pessimism and paranoia in popular literature as the Edwardian age progressed. However, simple chronology fails to explain why optimistic spy narratives, though outnumbered by their pessimistic counterparts, continued to be published up until and during the war, some by authors who had previously written pessimistic works. Furthermore, the change in mood from Victorian optimism to Edwardian pessimism was never as linear as these critics imply, since Victorian society contained its share of xenophobic anxiety. For instance, Childers’s novel was published almost ten years after the novel that introduced the foreign spy to British literature, William Le Queux’s decidedly pessimistic The Great War in England in 1897 (1894), and almost thirty years after the story that made the invasion narrative a Europe-wide literary phenomenon, George Chesney’s “The Battle of Dorking” (1871).3 In fact, in his preface to the 1910 edition of The Riddle of the Sands, Childers himself seemed more optimistic than he had been in 1903, not less, as he “express[ed] the hope that nobody will read into this story ... any intention of provoking hostility to Germany, with whom, happily, far friendlier relations have recently been established.”4 It seems that the difference between optimistic and pessimistic spy stories was due to more than a linear change in the national mood.

That difference between the pessimism and xenophobia of some spy stories and the optimism and open-mindedness of others is primarily a difference of genre, one that has thus far gone largely unnoticed in studies of early spy literature. Many critics refer to all fiction about spies during this period as “spy fiction” or some variant, but during the Edwardian period, there were actually two genres of fiction focused on spies: spy stories, which featured British spies operating in foreign territory, and counterspy stories, which featured patriotic heroes striving to expose and thwart foreign spies, preventing foreign invasion.5 The counterspy story, by far the more common of the two genres during the period, was essentially a variant on the invasion story, recounting as it did the enemy’s “secret preparations” for invasion.6 It is this genre that gives Edwardian spy...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 413-430
Launched on MUSE
2010-07-18
Open Access
No
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