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. …