Must I paint you a picture?

As a trail through Island Mentalities hopefully shows, the illustrations of invasion-scare fiction offer extremely fertile grounds for research.  Contributing to what has been called the ‘golden age’ of book illustration, such images provided an evocative and highly effective means of communication and representation.[1]  Ranging in form from crude maps and military diagrams through to vivid depictions of battle, these visuals added to the abysmal fascination of this already popular literature.  Put simply, illustrations such as the common scene of a crumbling St. Stephen’s Tower narrowed the gap between literary speculation and reality, horrifying and delighting the fiction’s readership in equal measure.  To explore further I will focus on one particularly significant invasion-scare narrative, namely A. J. Dawson’s The Message, illustrated by H M Brock.


Dawson himself was a Wandsworth-born journalist, author, and imperial enthusiast.  An extensively travelled man, notably in North Africa and Australasia, Dawson served a short term as Director of Information for the Government of Bombay that was curtailed by ill-health, having suffered significant injury in a 1916 gas attack during the First World War.[2]  A staunch advocate of military compulsion, his pre-war work for the pressure group the National Service League included responsibility, so reported The Times, for “the enlistment of thousands of recruits in and around London”.[3]  He also enjoyed a period as editor of The Standard of Empire, an offshoot of The Standard that encouraged closer imperial ties through British emigration to the dominions.[4]


The Message is a highly polemical tale of German invasion that inspires a national and religious revival.  Its lead protagonist Dick Mordan is an ambitious young journalist with socialist sympathies, who takes a job at a maligned radical journal named The Mass.   As the international situation darkens and Germany inevitably invades, Dick interprets his socialism as symptomatic of his country’s decline. While Germany successfully defeats and occupies Britain, Dick joins a resistance group, led by various figures of colonial repute and religious fervour.  Rising in revolt, ‘The Citizens’ cause the Kaiser to abandon his expeditionary force, help forge a new peace with Germany, and set about the reconstruction of Britain and her Empire.  Under the motto of, “For God, our Race, and Duty!”, Britain emerges from invasion with a federated Empire, a system of compulsory military service, and a commitment to the revivalist gospel of “New Century Puritanism”.[5]  Concluding with a lengthy passage from Kipling’s poem Recessional, ‘the message’ to which the title alludes is a shot across the national bows; Britain is not simply ill-prepared, she is deficient in almost every sense.  

The often vitriolic content of Dawson’s work might allow us to dismiss it as the haranguing of a political extremist rather than a legitimate assessment of the national climate.  Indeed, much of the contemporary reaction did just that.  One review in The Bookman praised the literary quality of Dawson’s writing, yet compared the novel to “the fair woman tailing off into a fish – for the Jingo conclusions of ‘The Message’ are fishy to the last degree.”[6] Even the National Service League attempted to distance itself from this unchecked rhetoric, believing Dawson’s rabid attacks on the Liberal government would badly damage an already shaky reputation as a non-partisan organisation. The science fiction scholar Everett Bleiler has described The Message as “imbedded in a full Edwardian Bildungsroman, told from a religious, ultraconservative, jingoistic point of view”.[7]  In concluding this rather negative summary, Bleiler notes that “the illustrations are better than the text.[8]


While this could be seen as a rather backhanded compliment, the illustrations were of unusually high quality.  They were drawn by Henry Matthew Brock, a well-established book illustrator, whose brother Charles Edward Brock was an equally successful artist.  In a glowing biography of the Brock family, Clifford Kelly suggest the brothers “ranked with the very best” of late-Victorian and Edwardian illustrators.  Henry Brock certainly contributed to some noteworthy works, including amongst others various works by Dickens and Arthur Conan-Doyle, The Last of the Mohicans by James Fennimore Cooper, as well as providing over 400 sketches for Punch magazine.  Moreover, his watercolour paintings were exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy and the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool.  In 1907, the same year The Message was published, Brock became a full member of the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours.[9]

The illustration entitled ‘The Roaring City’ marks Dick Mordan’s move to London, described by him as “a very gloomy place”.  Though as yet unaware of the hardships of city life, Dawson’s protagonist was soon to learn “that hundreds of men of far wider experience and greater ability than mine were wearily tramping London’s pavements at that moment, longing, questing bitterly for work”.[10]  Such urban struggle is well captured by Brock, with ashen-faced pedestrians jostling for space alongside horse-drawn carriages and buses, newspaper hawkers and couriers.  Indeed, ‘London’s pavements’ are invisible, entirely obscured by this mass of human and vehicular traffic.  Silhouetted against the bleak, hazy sky are the outlines of “the cat-infested chimney pots of Bloomsbury”, criss-crossed by telegraph wires and dominated by a blurry, half-forgotten church.  This scene and its figures seem to represent what Dawson describes as “the rural exodus”, in which healthy country folk were drawn to the city and its opportunities, only to be trapped by “the hiving streets, with their chances, their flaunting vice, their incessant bustle, and their innumerable drinking bars”.[11]


If this image of ‘The Roaring City’ is one of morose pessimism, Brock’s image of rural England is undoubtedly one of optimistic revival.  It depicts Mordan during a life-changing vision in the Dorset hills.  Having returned to his native village following the successful German invasion of Britain, he experiences a moment of clarity in which images of antiquity and anti-Roman resistance appear across the sky;

“I saw shaggy warriors with huge pointless swords, their hilts decorated with the teeth of wild beasts…I saw rude chariots of war, with murderous scythe-blades on their wheels – and, in a flash then, the figure of Boadicea: that valiant mother of our race, erect and fearless in her chariot…”[12]

This rural scene serves as the genesis of Mordan’s resistance to foreign occupation, and by extension, Britain’s fight-back against German domination.  For unlike the modern and essentially foreign city, “this ancient land was British in every blade of its grass…root and crop, hill and dale, above and beneath”.[13]  Brock’s accompanying illustration of rolling fields with a village nestled in the valley certainly seems typical of the Edwardian rural idyll, an image, as Roy Strong has described it, that “draws it strength from tradition and heritage”, and from a longing for the “pre-industrial world”.[14]  The cloud of mist sitting over the houses draws the village into the spectacular cloud scene unfolding above, as if linking the present to the linear, unbreakable past.  And distinct among her legions with her arms outstretched, Boadicea faces away from this rural scene, as if rousing the nation at large to follow her lead and resist.


The use of illustration within invasion-scare fiction, though varied, I think offers important insight on the thematic complexity of these narratives.  As seen in the case of The Message, such illustrations regularly captured the introspective quality of this fiction, not simply scenes of foreign occupation or invasion.  Whether stressing the dangers of political unrest, the degenerative influence of the urban condition, or the cathartic image of rural, pastoral England, such images emphasise the vehicular nature of the Edwardian invasion narrative.  Clearly not confined to warning against the threat of foreign invasion, such fictions were part of a wider culture of pre-war anxiety.

[1] For a good summary of this era in book illustration see S. Houfe, The Dictionary of British Book Illustrators and Caricaturists, 1800-1914, (Woodbridge, Suffolk, 1978).

[2] S. Kemp, C. Mitchell, and D. Trotter, Edwardian Fiction: An Oxford Companion, (Oxford, 1997) p91, N. Robson, ‘A. J. Dawson, Novelist from Wandsworth’, Wandsworth Historian, No. 91, (2011),  p3.

[3] A. J Dawson Obituary, The Times, (Feb 7th, 1951), p8. 

[4] Edwardian Fiction, p91.

[5] A. J. Dawson, The Message, (London, 1907)p393.

[6] THE MESSAGE, The Bookman (Aug 1907), p179.

[7] E. Bleiler, Science Fiction: The Early Years, (Kent, Ohio, 1990), p185.


[9] Houfe, The Dictionary of British Book Illustrators and Caricaturists, 1800-1914, p245, C. M. Kelly, The Brocks: a family of Cambridge artists and illustrators, (London, 1975), p10.

[10] The Message, p40.

[11] Ibid., p55.

[12] Ibid., p233.

[13] Ibid., p236.

[14] R. Strong, Visions of England, (London, 2011),  p147-152.

Images: E. D. Fawcett, ‘Hartmann the anarchist’ in A. Butterworth, The World that Never Was, (London, 2010).

H. M. Brock illustrations taken from Dawson, The Message, available at the Haithi Trust Digital Library.

This post was based largely on a paper I recently gave at the graduate student symposium Art, Anxiety, and Protest in the Edwardian Belle Epoque, held on March 1st at the Yale Center for British Art.   I am very grateful to Neil Robson for sharing his biographical research on  A J Dawson.  

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