Some men just won’t stay defeated

One of the best ways of appreciating the unusual quality of Edwardian invasion-scare fiction is through the case-study approach, whereby one example of the fiction is considered in significant detail, while still framed contextually by the genre at large.  A good example through which to begin is a 1906 novel by Coulson Kernahan, entitled The Dumpling: a detective love story of a great labour rising. 

The son of a biblical scholar, Kernahan had initially hoped to become a scientist, before discovering a talent for writing.  Enjoying success in the late Victorian period as a popular novelist and religious commentator, his material circumstances declined during the Edwardian years.  This was in no small part thanks to a fanatic commitment to the campaign for compulsory military service.   Gripped, as were many of his contemporaries, by a belief in the inevitability of European war, he spent much of the pre-war period preaching the message of the National Service League, the pro-service pressure group presided over by the military hero and former Commander in Chief Lord Roberts.  Adamant to the point of stubbornness over the need for military reform, Kernahan even refused remuneration or basic expenses for his efforts, “his principles dictating that he could not receive money for religious or patriotic services”.[1]  While his literary work “has not stood the test of time”, Kernahan’s entry in the Dictionary of National Biography asserts that “as a type of man, sensitive and spiritually questing but without the slightest doubt as to his military obligations, he is representative of an early twentieth century generation of his countrymen.”[2]

At first, The Dumpling appears to have little to do with the notion of imminent foreign invasion.  The reader is introduced to the journalist protagonist Max Rissler as he is sent by Charing Cross Magazine to report on the problem of opium dens then abroad in London.   Managing to locate the location of his nearest den, he is nearly killed by ‘The Dumpling’, a political agitator and champion of the beleaguered, starving working classes.   With his suspicions surrounding The Dumpling going unheeded by Scotland Yard, Rissler decides to launch his own private investigation, a luxury confined, it seems, to the Edwardian gentleman of independent means.  Following a trail to No. 5, Taunton Square, Rissler catches The Dumpling forcing his way into the garden of the property, and is bludgeoned in the head for his troubles.  Yet in the resulting tête-à-tête between detective and detected, the true identity of The Dumpling emerges…

“I who stand before you am he – not Labour’s Napoleon only…but Napoleon the Corsican, Napoleon the First Consul, Napoleon the Emperor himself!  In me you see not only Napoleon re-incarnate, but Napoleon’s very self – the conqueror of Europe, the Caeser of France…I who stand before you am he!”[3]

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Not simply a native rabble-rouser, then, The Dumpling is that great enemy of Britain, about to enact the invasion, or seizure of power, that had stalled over a century before.  Managing to elude Rissler having declared his identity, The Dumpling’s preparations continue, organising the British masses into an army of insurrection, while foreign mercenaries pour into Britain to assist in its overthrow.  As this army begins its rebellion, The Dumpling kidnaps King Edward VII, intending to extract a ransom for his release.  However, Rissler learns of his plot, discovers his royal captive in a dank cellar, and stabs The Dumpling for good measure.  Portrayed as “the truest gentleman in Christendom”, Edward emerges from his subterranean cell to address a rebellious crowd of his “blinded, duped, and misled” subjects[4].  Returning to loyalty as quickly as they had abandoned it, the rebellion is quashed, and the threat of Napoleon is once again averted.

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The novel’s critical reception was, as you might expect, mixed.   Though recognising Kernahan to be in his literary capacity “a sort of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, The Bookman praised The Dumpling as “brilliantly unconventional both in matter and in treatment.”[5]  Other reviewers were, by contrast, far less generous.  The Saturday Review dismissed the work as “quite impossible”, before suggesting that even “the most insatiable lover of sensation could hardly find satisfaction in it.”[6]  As a final review concluded, “It is possible that there is a public which demands such books; it is a thousand pities that Mr. Kernahan should condescend to cater for it.”[7]

Clearly then, The Dumpling is a work of mixed value to the modern reader.  Sensational, impracticable, and in parts poorly executed, the novel appears as the aberration of an otherwise respected author, leading us to ask why Kernahan penned it at all.  Arguably it was a product of his commitment to compulsory military service, alongside his fear of the spectre of socialism and working-class rebellion.  Combined together through the unlikely vehicle of a resurrected Napoleon, the mass populace of Britain appears as both a blessing and a curse.  Effectively harnessed and trained they could bring down a regime.  Neglected, they might well bring down the wrong one.


[1] [1] J. Adams, ‘Kernahan, (John) Coulson (1858–1943)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/52461?docPos=1, accessed 8th May 2012.

[2] Ibid.

[3] C. Kernahan, The Dumpling: a detective love story of a great labour rising, (London, 1906), p186.

[4] Ibid., p337-339.

[5]The Bookman’,3, 182, (November, 1906), p95.

[6]Saturday review of politics, literature, science and art’,102, 2664, (November, 1906), p618.

[7]The Academy’, 1798, (October, 1906), p399.

Images: both taken from the digitised version of The Dumpling available at the Haithi Trust Digital Library –  www.haithipress.org
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