James Blyth’s Ichabod

The Edwardian fear of invasion was not simply a popular horror over the threat of military subjugation.  Instead, ideas of cultural dilution, of economic intrigue, and of mass immigration all formed invasion-like themes as things that could threaten a jealously-guarded status quo.  One such manifestation of this tendency within invasion-scare fiction was a low yet consistent level of anti-Semitism.

Though perhaps not continental in its vigour, prejudice against both Jewish nationals and Jewish immigrants was fairly widespread in Edwardian Britain.  Unlike the relative flexibility of ‘Britishness’, the concepts of Jewish identity and national identity seemed to sit uncomfortably alongside one another.  As Lebzelter explains, the Jewish Diaspora was feared to represent “a disintegrating element in the national life”, bucking the trend of stringent geo-political codification.[1]  These fears were by no means confined to invasion-scare fiction, but were endemic of a Britain moving away from traditions of liberal asylum towards a reactionary fear of the undesirable foreigner.  The Aliens Act of 1905, primarily aimed at limiting continental Jewish immigration, seemed to bring once extremist fears onto the statute.[2]  Reaching its farcical apex during the ‘Siege of Sidney Street’ of 1910, in which the police, the Scots Guards, and the then Home Secretary Winston Churchill somewhat fruitlessly besieged a gang of Jewish anarchists, the quasi-racial national confidence appeared to be at an unusually low ebb.

http://www.britishpathe.com/video/sydney-street-siege-aka-sidney-street-siege/query/sidney+street

Yet when compared with the horrors of Russian pogroms and the highly damaging Dreyfus affair in France, British anti-Semitism was both peripheral and less vehement.  Within contemporary invasion narratives such rhetoric appears in the main as fleeting repetitions of well-established prejudice.  Jewish characters thus usually appeared as either reprehensible capitalists or revolutionary immigrants, with few opportunities for social assimilation and a penchant for collaboration with the typically German invader.  For as Saki suggests in When William Came, even naturalised Jews were considered “far more Teuton or Polish or Latin than they were British”.[3]

An exception to this loose rule can be found in James Blyth’s novel Ichabod.  Taking its name from the Hebrew for ‘inglorious’, the work is coloured by an anti-Semitism of extraordinary vitriol.  The origin of Blyth’s unusual bigotry is not altogether clear.   A prolific writer of popular fiction, his output included several other invasion narratives such as The Swoop of the Vulture (1909).  A man of impeccable Imperial credentials, Blyth was public school educated, and enjoyed periods as Vice president of British Empire League and treasurer of the Empire Parliamentary Association.  Firmly rooted on the sensationalist side of the genre, Blyth’s work was unapologetically xenophobic, describing the German enemy variously as “brutalized braggarts“, “contemptible Teutonic abortions” and “jeering Prussian sausage munchers.”[4]

Ichabod, however, is something else entirely.  Tracking the course of a German invasion plot helped by a fifth column of Jewish immigrants, Britain appears to be reaping the harvest of the “sickly sentimentality” of Liberal governance.[5]  Grossly homogenised as a racial category, London’s Jewish population is described in extremely derogatory language as “the foul garbage which besmirched our land”, and as “filthy Semitic aliens”.[6]  The lead protagonist is Noel Pettigrew, a brilliant university student yearning for revenge over the murder of his father by a Russian émigré.  Developing a mind-altering machine through the power of ‘Hertzian waves’, the young inventor forces the Commons to pass an anti-immigration bill, thus achieving, as he describes it, “the fall of Israel”.[7]

Though clearly reprehensible and ridiculous in equal measure, close analysis of Ichabod does present some interesting issues.  Most notable is Blyth’s bizarre understanding of Jewishness.  Despite the homogeneity of description outlined above, the novel regularly refers to political, national, and racial descriptors in a synonymous fashion.  In this way, “Russian and Polish vermin”[8], “Germans”[9], and “anarchist[s]”, are used interchangeably with ‘Jews’, or less desirable equivalent terms.  In many ways this seems an effort to stress Blyth’s view of the distastefully cosmopolitan nature of the Jewish Diaspora.  His hated fictional immigrants are thus both a unitary bloc and a variable body, practising the same faith yet hailing “from Russian steppes or Polish forests, from Roumanian hills and Dutch waterways”.[10]  As Noel’s adoptive father asserts, Jews belonged “in their proper places in Russia, Poland, and…yes, by Moses, in Morocco.”[11]

It is difficult to assess the historical value of Ichabod.  A poor example of a genre hardly famed for its literary value, its overt anti-Semitism caps off a highly unpleasant reading experience.  Yet such rhetoric serves to frame the domestic political concerns of invasion-scare authors in the Edwardian period.  Blyth’s novel displays many of the genre’s common themes, such as German ambition, political revolution, and working class physical degeneration.  Where he differs is in his apportion of blame.  While most authors identify internal decay and foreign intrigue as the primary dangers to British interests, Blyth’s rampant anti-Semitism swamps his interpretation entirely.  Every problem of consequence facing Blyth’s Britain is thus of Jewish origin, a quality that fundamentally separates this work from the wider genre.


[1] Lebzelter, Anti-Semitism – A Focal Point for the British Radical Right, in Kennedy and Nicholls, ed, Nationalist and Racialist Movements in Britain and Germany before 1914, p92.

[2]G. R. Searle, A New England? Peace and War 1886-1918, (Oxford: Clarendon Press 2004), p22 and 339.

[3] When William Came, p72.

[4] J. Blyth, The Swoop of the Vulture, in H. Moon, The Invasion of the United Kingdom: Public Controversy and Official Planning, unpublished PhD thesis, (University of London  1968), p391.

[5] Ichabod, p3.

[6] Ibid., p18 and 4.

[7] Ibid., p124.

[8] Ibid., p6.

[9] Ibid., p77.

[10] Ibid., p208.

[11] Ibid., p127.

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  1. Pingback: Review: A Cultural History of the 1905 Aliens Act |

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