Tsara and Commissars: W. Somerset Maugham, "Ashenden" and Images of Russia in British Adventure Fiction, 1890-1930

By Neilson, Keith | Canadian Journal of History, December 1992 | Go to article overview

Tsara and Commissars: W. Somerset Maugham, "Ashenden" and Images of Russia in British Adventure Fiction, 1890-1930


Neilson, Keith, Canadian Journal of History


W. Somerset Maugham is generally recognized as one of the fathers of modern spy fiction.(1) His novel Ashenden: or the British Agent (1928), is acknowledged as the work that broke spy fiction out of the mould established by romantic works of the pre-1914 era.(2) It has been praised for its realism and its "antiheroic vision" of both the spy and of his work.(3) It has generally been assumed that the realism of Ashenden is due to the time that Maugham spent, mostly in Switzerland and Russia, as a member of the British secret service during the First World War.(4) What is not known or appreciated is the fact that Ashenden is also a seminal novel in another sense.

It was not surprising that Maugham utilized Russia as the setting for many of the Ashenden stories. Spy fiction had its roots in nineteenth century adventure fiction and Russia was a central feature in the novels created just before the First World War by men like John Buchan. The new-style spy story that combined the nineteenth century adventure novel and the "war prophecy" novel into slick thrillers that captured the public's imagination, often featured the Tsarist empire.(5) As a threat to Britain's imperial holdings, as part of a European coalition intent on the invasion of Britain, as home to political reaction or as the source of anarchism, Russia thus represented a number of things in the minds of Englishmen prior to 1914.

In Ashenden, Maugham challenged these images of Russia. In doing so, wished both to create a more realistic school of adventure fiction and to contest many of the established literary beliefs concerning the significance of Russian literature. By recasting the conventional images of Russia, Maugham forced his readers to re-think their accepted beliefs: of Russia, of Russian literature, and of the nature of the spy novel. But to appreciate Maugham's efforts properly, it is important to be aware of the context; of the popular sterotypes about Russia promulgated in the contemporary spy and adventure fiction that Ashenden was designed to supplant. Only by so doing can the reader appreciate Maugham's intent and the humorous way in which he achieved it.

British popular views of Russia were not created only after 1890.(6) Indeed, the Russian theme in English literature goes back to at least the sixteenth century. In the last portion of the nineteenth century, however, increased literacy and the rise of a popular press meant that the images of Russia used in popular fiction and newspapers reached a larger segment of the population than ever before. Given that the era before 1914 was one of heightened nationalism, often imbued with the threat of war, it is not surprising that one of the first concerns about Russia expressed in popular fiction dealt with her military prowess.

The study of pre-1914 literature dealing with imaginary wars is not new.(7) However, the focus of such work has been largely on what sort of war was anticipated, how it would be fought and what its results would be. Not much attention has been paid to which countries would be involved in these wars and to what each country was like.(8) One reason for this is obvious: with the benefit of hindsight it was evident that Germany was to be Britain's enemy and so most work was focussed on the German menace. But a look at some of the novels dealing with imaginary wars provides some interesting views of Britain's other possible opponents. From at least 1894 and the signing of the Franco-Russian alliance until the warming of relations between Britain and these two states early in the twentieth century, Britain's most likely opponents were seen as France and Russia. As a result, novels written in the generation before 1914 dealing with war and rumours of war are populated as much by Russians and Frenchmen as they are by Germans.

The Russia that emerges from these novels is a true, latter-day evil empire. In William Le Queux's The Great War in England in 1897 published in 1894, Britain is savaged by a Franco-Russian invasion. …

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