A Traitor to His Class: The Anarchist in British Fiction

By Shpayer-Makov, Haia | Journal of European Studies, September 1996 | Go to article overview

A Traitor to His Class: The Anarchist in British Fiction


Shpayer-Makov, Haia, Journal of European Studies


A plethora of novels published in late Victorian and Edwardian Britain contain anarchist characters. In the great majority of these works the anarchist is featured as a villain of a particularly pernicious kind. He is a master criminal, almost always part of a large-scale anarchist conspiracy whose aim is to destroy civilized society. Whether the anarchist is the protagonist or a minor figure, he represents evil at work. A few novels are written from a sympathetic point of view, containing virtuous anarchists or simply flesh and blood figures with good and bad characteristics. In some literary works, in which the general tenor towards anarchism is negative, one occasionally finds portrayals of anarchists as victims of social circumstances or motivated by humanitarian considerations. But these figures are often surrounded by anarchists who conform to the stereotype of evil spirits.

That the anarchist was chosen by many novelists to be the villain is not surprising. In public discourse, the description and treatment of anarchists as unrestrained criminals was routine.(1) The true nature of anarchism was largely disregarded. In the three decades before the First World War - from the birth of the anarchist movement in Britain to its decline - newspapers, periodicals and encyclopaedias emphasized the violent and destructive nature of anarchist theory and action, and presented the movement as society's worst enemy.(2) The public was thus used to identifying anarchism with violence and unlawful behaviour, and to overlooking its largely peaceful existence in Britain and its emphasis on education of the masses by means of the spoken and written word. The violent characterization of the anarchists in works of fiction drew from this popular but misleading notion. Surprisingly, however, the fictional anarchist, unlike his counterpart in real life and in other media, often belongs to the social elite.(3)

The social backdrop of many of the novels is the big country mansion or the wealthy and fashionable society in the city. The anarchist is either an aristocrat, a possessor of great wealth and power, or an eminent scholar. Contrary to what one might expect, the typical and most dangerous anarchist in literature is not the activist in working-class clubs nor the orator in street corners; neither is he a trade unionist, a harmless intellectual, a social bandit, a petty criminal, or even a bomb-thrower driven to action by passionate beliefs. He is, rather, a character whose links with reality are highly tenuous. True, the Russian prince Peter Kropotkin, who was also a famous scientist, and Errico Malatesta, who came from the upper social levels in Italy, were figures of influence in the anarchist movement in Britain, but most of the activists, particularly among the British anarchists, were manual workers and independent artisans.(4) In the fictional world, however, only a few working people were found among the anarchist leaders. Not only was the genuine anarchist deprived of his class origin, but also devoid of any of the educational and political activities in which he was constantly involved in the real world. He was taken out of his natural milieu and put in a setting populated by his enemies - the social and political elite of Britain. Members of the establishment and the 'genteel' classes assumed the role of a threat to civilized society here.

Common in the world of literature, as well as in society generally at the time, was the identification of criminality with the lower working classes.(5) Upper-class criminals also abounded in literature.(6) A pervasive theme in all sensation novels, which were highly popular in the 1860s, was that crime was the domain of all levels of society. It was the period discussed here that saw the rise of A.J. Raffles, the popular figure of the gentleman burglar created by Ernest William Hornung. Also related in literature were the concepts of crime and revolution. 'Both were threats to the social order, and many people did not distinguish closely between them.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

A Traitor to His Class: The Anarchist in British Fiction
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.