Literature, Immigration, and Diaspora in Fin De Siècle England: A Cultural History of the 1905 Aliens Act

By Eley, Geoff | New Formations, January 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

Literature, Immigration, and Diaspora in Fin De Siècle England: A Cultural History of the 1905 Aliens Act


Eley, Geoff, New Formations


David Glover, Literature, Immigration, and Diaspora in Fin de Siècle England: A Cultural History of the 1905 Aliens Act, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2012, x + 229 pp., £53.99 hardback.

When the issue of immigration exploded across British politics in the mid-1960s, initiating the now-familiar dialectics of fear-mongering, moral cowardice, rightward regrouping, and ensuing legislation, historians understandably turned for illumination to the main earlier precedent, namely the 1905 Aliens Act and the large-scale Jewish immigration that brought it to the agenda. In the meantime, the resulting scholarship on the latter has tracked the shifting historiographical landscape in fascinating ways. First, concurrent with the immigration crisis of the 1960s itself, came the rise of social history: pioneering works by John Garrard and Bernard Gainer were quickly joined by monographs that widened their approach from the parliamentary arena to the social analysis of immigration and its longer-term effects, reaching their apogee with David Feldman's authoritative study of 1988.1 Yet Feldman's approach was already reaching forward, joining the fine-grained treatment of party politics, government, and the consequences of social change to a critical history of political languages and their grounds of continuity and fracture.

By this time, in other words, historians were starting to respond to what we now call the cultural turn. Contemporary crises of cultural diversity at the end of the twentieth century increasingly challenged conceptions of 'Englishness' and its former stabilities: if anti-racism and 'blackness' assembled the ground of a critical multiculturalism during the 1980s (as the 'empire struck back'), historians working out of cultural studies (in particular those attached to the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies) found the early twentieth-century talk about foreignness to be an excellent means of critical recuperation, showing how national identity had rested on some vital contingencies during the very moment of its modern formation.2 By getting inside the proliferating fin de siècle discourse around Jews, Jewishness, and 'the Jew', for which the 1905 Aliens Act offered such rich opportunities, historians were able to question the seeming solidities of Englishness in that earlier time while introducing comparative insights. In the best of such analysis the meanings of anti-Semitism and the Jewish difference were harnessed for larger purposes: if 'alien' Jewish immigrants were 'flocking' across Britain's borders, then the Englishness of the nation's integrity was already being challenged from those borderlands - imperial, geographical, cultural, social, sexual - long before the latter-day eruption of postcolonial discontents was to occur.3

During the past two decades the literatures dealing with 'England and its others' in this late-Victorian-Edwardian setting have become legion, whether in history or all across the humanities and social sciences, especially in cultural studies, which continues to creatively confuse those distinctions. David Glover's excellent new book pulls these strands together in a tightly organized study using the 1905 Aliens Act as both a watershed moment in the treatment of immigration and a lens through which debates then and now about nationhood and citizenship, borders and belonging, may be focused. At the centre of that discourse was the freshly constructed figure of 'the Jew', the epitome of the 'undesirable alien', into whose racially marked presence multiple anxieties and antipathies were convened. During the 1880s and 1890s, Jews leaving the Russian Empire were entering Britain at a rate of some 3,000-8,000 a year, hitting a peak in 1903-06 in the immediate setting of the 1905 Act, raising the overall Jewish population from 42,000 in 1880 to around 300,000 by 1914 (three fifths of whom lived in London). In the process, older stereotypes were replenished and remade into a new repertoire of negatively shape-shifting representations, whose elements ranged from the 'destitute alien' and 'incurable pauper' to the cynical exploiter of sweated labour, and from the unpatriotic money-making plutocrat to the rootless and dangerously subversive anarchist. …

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