Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Geoffrey Household's Watcher in the Shadows and Dance of the Dwarfs: A Response to Robert Lance Snyder

Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Geoffrey Household's Watcher in the Shadows and Dance of the Dwarfs: A Response to Robert Lance Snyder

Article excerpt

Robert Lance Snyder's recent article on Geoffrey Household in Connotations deserves praise on two counts. Firstly, it helps rescue Household from almost total critical neglect; and, secondly, it opens up helpful new avenues for interpreting his fiction. The discussion which follows is intended as a constructive extension of the analysis presented in Snyder's essay together with suggestions of its limitations.

One of Snyder's main arguments is that Household revises the generic conventions of the Edwardian thriller by removing characters' national features because he regards the latter as anachronistic. Thus, Household narrows down the action to a battle of wits between the narrator and his antagonist. As this battle develops, it gradually becomes evident that the narrator and opponent are in some way mirror images of each other. This doubling is signalled through exchanges of dress, hints of physical resemblance, and other details which suggest such a close relation between the two characters that the action of Household's narratives can be read as a psychodrama quite different from conventional thrillers.

Snyder's argument risks simplifying the action of Household's fiction in such a way that its political resonances and circumstantial detail tend to be lost in the emphasis on doubling. His reading of Household's thrillers as tales of detection similarly understates the generic variety of his fiction.1 Household produced works ranging from horror stories to science fiction and even shifts genre temporarily within individual works. Snyder compares Household's doubling to classics like James Hogg's Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, but the Household's narrowing down of the action connects his novels with a different subset of thrillers, where the conspiracies of supercriminals have to be thwarted by the protagonist. Whether Denis Nayland Smith is pitted against Fu Manchu or Bulldog Drummond against Carl Peterson, the pattern stays of the protagonist engaging in a battle of wits against his opponent. Partly this process involves detection-the uncovering of the conspiracy-and partly strategy in anticipating and thwarting the master-criminal's plot. In Sax Rohmer's fiction, of course, the action is heavily coloured with racial threat as Nayland Smith battles to protect civilization as we know it, but in all these cases the evil genius possesses an unnerving ability to change appearance at will and manoeuvre his way through all levels of society.2 Characteristically in these narratives protagonist and antagonist form an elite whose intellects match each other in reach, but it is crucial for the drama of these novels that the opposition between these characters be maintained throughout.

The popularity of the criminal mastermind in fiction between the wars may have been a factor in Household turning to thrillers in the 1930s. However, a direct influence which Snyder rightly stresses was that of John Buchan. The latter's evocation of suspense through the immediate drama of his protagonists' attempts to outwit their adversaries clearly feeds into Household's fiction, as does Buchan's use of reversals and his detailed attention to setting. What distinguishes his thrillers from Household's is that Buchan's most famous serial hero, Richard Hannay, never works in isolation from his friends in British intelligence and has important connections with the USA and South Africa. For all his versatility, Hannay remains a soldier, and for that reason we never lose our consciousness of national and political issues during the novels describing Hannay's exploits. Buchan's endings regularly signal the reaffirmation of institutional order through the removal of threats to the nation. In that respect, the politics of Bu- chan's narratives contrast strikingly with those of Household, who described himself as a "romantic anarchist."3

Snyder suggests that Household tends to lose this broader institutional dimension by concentrating his action more and more closely on his protagonists' psyche, but it does not follow that the political and social issues are lost as a result. …

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