Literary cousins – comparing alternate histories and invasion narratives

“Twelve years have passed since Churchill lost to the appeasers and Britain surrendered to Nazi Germany after Dunkirk.  As the long German war against Russia rages on in the east, the British people find themselves under dark authoritarian rule.”[1]

This intriguing passage is taken from the synopsis of the 2012 novel Dominion.  Written by C. J. Sansom (author of the excellent Spanish Civil War novel Winter in Madrid), Dominion is the latest in a long line of post-war alternate histories.  Famous examples have included The Man in the High Castle (1962) by Philip K. Dick, where the US has been divided between Japanese and German spheres of interest, and the best-selling Fatherland (1992) by Robert Harris, in which Greater Nazi Germany spans much of the European continent.  Set in 1952, the year of the author’s birth, the Britain of Dominion is governed by a coalition of political opportunists and fascist sympathisers.  While an aging Winston Churchill leads the Resistance in hiding, the press magnate Lord Beaverbrook is Prime Minister, Oswald Mosely is Home Secretary, and Erwin Rommel commands mixed levels of respect as German Ambassador.  Gripped by suffocating smog, repressive measures against British Jews and growing political violence, Sansom’s vision of London is a chilling reminder of what might have been.

Having thoroughly enjoyed reading this compelling book, I was struck by its similarity to a much earlier vision of German occupation, H. H. Munro’s short story When William Came (1913).  Written under his literary pseudonym Saki, the plot is centred on Murrey Yeovil, a typically Edwardian traveller and sportsman, returning from Siberia to Britain after a lengthy period of illness.  This convalescence was not helped by ominous reports of war, and ultimately, of spectacular British defeat.  By the time Yeovil arrives home, he emerges from Victoria Station into a post-war, German-occupied London. His detached disbelief quickly turns to disgust on gauging the submissive behaviour of his social circle; as his wife muses to a friend prior to his arrival, “he’ll think we are a set of callous revellers, fiddling while Rome is burning.”[2] Those who could not suffer a Germanised capital had followed the King in his flight to Delhi, or else had retreated to country estates.  As Yeovil attempts to adjust to his new circumstances, the narrative follows a series of events confirming the new order of things, including being fined by a bilingual policeman for walking on the grass at Hyde Park, and inadvertently accepting a lift from the establishment figure Herr Von Kwarl.  Struggling to accept what has begun to be referred to as the “fait accompli”, Yeovil oscillates between anger and bemusement, horrified by his personal and national circumstances yet incapable of mounting effective resistance.[3]

Senate_House_UoL

Senate House, location of the German Embassy in Dominion

One of the key similarities between the two works is the way in which they utilise familiar buildings and locations for dramatic effect.  In Dominion, for example, a huge portrait of Hitler hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, while Senate House has been transformed into the German Embassy, complete with a network of interrogation rooms in the building’s basement.  In When William Came, the eagle standard of Prussia flies above Buckingham Palace, while in Kensington Gardens “the drinkers of larger beer” are served “sausages and potato salad”.[4]  These jarring description of occupied London are often delivered with Saki’s trademark dark humour, such as the following argument between Yeovil and an uncooperative taxi driver:

“‘Twenty-eight, Berkshire Street.’

‘Berkschirestrasse, acht-und-zwanzig,’ echoed the man, a bulky spectacled individual of unmistakable Teuton type.

‘Twenty-eight, Berkshire Street,’ repeated Yeovil, and got into the cab, leaving the driver to re-translate the direction into his own language.”[5]

Picture1

‘Wilhelm the Conqueror in German eyes’, Kladderadatsch, 1910

Both works also include glimmers of hope for a return to British independence.  The plot of Dominion centres on David Fitzgerald, a civil servant masking his Jewish family roots, who joins a Resistance cell.  Involved in a mission to stop an old university friend falling into the hands of the SS, and thus revealing highly significant military intelligence, David’s companions include the Slovakian émigré Natalia, and the indomitable Glaswegian communist Ben Hall.  Attempting to remain one step ahead of both the British and German authorities, large sections of the narrative are reminiscent of John Buchan’s adventure novel The Thirty-Nine Steps.  The hope in When William Came is rather less concrete, but is effective nonetheless. The work’s final scene sees the great and the good of London’s Anglo-German social elite gathered at Hyde Park to observe a symbolic Boy Scouts march, with Kaiser Wilhelm as the guest of honour. Hoping for a moment of significant reconciliation between victor and vanquished, the tale ends with the young Scouts having failed to appear, leaving the waiting Germans on increasingly frustrated tenterhooks.  As Yeovil recognises, while he himself had reluctantly laid down his arms, “there were others who had never hoisted the flag of surrender…young hearts that had not forgotten, had not compounded, would not yield.  The younger generation had barred the door.”[6]

These similarities are all the more interesting when one considers the different literary forms of the two works.  As an alternate history, Dominion engages its readers through a sort of abysmal fascination, describing a world that is both familiar and foreign, helping us to imagine how Nazi-collaboration might have affected British society.  When William Came is, by contrast, a warning of imminent danger.  Published in 1913, Saki used his narrative to criticise contemporary Edwardian society, emphasising that German occupation was not as far-fetched a scenario as it might appear.  While one work reflects on the past, then, the other speculates on the future; one offers historical council, the other contemporary critique.


[1] C. J. Sansom, Dominion, (London, 2012).

[2] Saki, When William Came, p56.

[3] Ibid., p74.

[4] Ibid., p81.

[5] Ibid., p61.

[6] Ibid., p182.

 

Apologies for a certain amount of repetition here, see ‘Be Prepared’, (July 2012).

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One Response to Literary cousins – comparing alternate histories and invasion narratives

  1. Louise Wood says:

    I really enjoyed this post. Have read Dominion but not the other work. You draw an interesting comparison between the two.

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