Comic Relief

The prospect of invasion in Edwardian Britain, imagined so regularly and vividly in contemporary invasion literature, is generally considered to have been no laughing matter.  In his entertaining book Don’t Mention the War, John Ramsden suggests that the invasion genre was “beyond parody”.  With ostensibly ‘serious’ books having “already hi-jacked the improbable”, no room was left, in Ramsden view, for authors who wished to satirise the fear of invasion.[1]  Yet a detailed look at Edwardian invasion literature highlights that satirical works were far more common than once thought.  Examples include Allen Upward’s The Fourth Conquest of England (1904), a vision “of the re-union of the Churches of England and Rome” in which C. B. Fry is appointed Secretary for Sport, and the Vatican declares the non-existence of the Antipodes.[2]  A similarly absurd work is The North Sea Bubble (1906) by E. J. Oldmeadow.  Described by the Manchester Courier as “a good wholesome mixture of rollicking farce, gallant deeds, and a capital love story”, the work imagines an army of German immigrants fighting for the British, hoping to avoid court marshal by the invading forces for evading conscription in Germany.[3]  The satirical magazine Punch also took aim at the invasion genre.  In a 1909 column entitled ‘The Invaders’, the prolific author William Le Queux and the editor of the National Review Leo Maxse were depicted as British agents, ‘invading’ Germany to deliver some much-needed retaliation.[4]  Evidently, then, some authors and publishers believed that a market for invasion satire existed in one form or another.

Fritz Fleischmann of 'The North Sea Bubble': waiter-turned-General, and leader of a German fifth column fighting against the German invaders.

Fritz Fleischmann of The North Sea Bubble.  Waiter-turned-General, and leader of a German vigilante force fighting against the German invaders, Fleischmann is a parody of the pronounced British fear of immigrant fifth columns.

By far the most famous of these satirical narratives is The Swoop! or, How Clarence Saved England, written in 1909 by a young P. G. Wodehouse. The Swoop! sees Britain simultaneously invaded by nine separate aggressors, including Germany, Russia, the Swiss Navy and “a boisterous band of Young Turks”.  This situation is “rendered still more disquieting” by the fact that “England’s military strength at this time was practically nil”.  With the Army undermined by egalitarian socialist reforms (whereby every man in the Army has been promoted to the rank of General), and the recently-established Territorial Force finding “the strain of being referred to on the music-hall stage as Teddy-boys was too much for them”, Britain is left defenceless, save for Clarence and his indomitable Boy Scouts.[5]  The British population, largely unconcerned by the unfolding invasion disaster, appear far more interested in the county cricket scores.  Orchestrating a covert campaign of resistance (which includes persuading Grand Duke Vodkakoff of Russia and Prince Otto Saxe-Pfennig of Germany to produce rival music-hall shows), Clarence, “the Boy of Destiny”, emerges as the saviour of England.[6]

C. Harrison's much-reproduced illustration from The Swoop!, where country cricket scores appear more important than news of the German invasion.

C. Harrison’s much-reproduced illustration from The Swoop!, where country cricket scores appear more important than news of the German invasion.

Despite being considered in detail by most analyses of British invasion literature, The Swoop! was not a major success.  Selling relatively few copies (certainly in comparison to William Le Queux’s Spies of the Kaiser, published in the same year), the work remained out of print until 1979.  In a critical analysis of Wodehouse and his “conspicuously unpatriotic life”, Norman Longmate highlights that The Swoop! was a commercial and literary flop. [7]  This lack of success has been interpreted as further evidence that the invasion genre was not a suitable subject for parody.  The literary historian I. F. Clarke, for example, has argued that this indifferent reception was hardly surprising.  “After such a heavy diet of war stories and appeals to join the Territorials”, the Edwardian reading public, in Clarke’s words, “was not likely to be amused by such frivolity”.[8]

A trawl through contemporary newspapers, however, suggests that such satire was welcome in some quarters.  The Dundee Courier praised the work as “a clever and amusing skit on the invasion stories which are the vogue just now.”[9]  Going into more detail, the Aberdeen Journal described The Swoop! as “a combination of burlesques”:

‘An Englishman’s Home,’ [Guy du Maurier’s highly-successful invasion-scare play, first produced in 1909] the apprehensions of a German invasion, the zeal of the Boy Scouts, the English absorption in games, the music-hall craze, the heroics of the ‘Daily Mail,’…all being satirised in turn.[10]

The most outspoken voice of approval came from the Manchester Guardian.  In an article entitled ‘A Breath of Sane Humour’, the reviewer condemned a recent and controversial case of theatrical censorship.  Praising The Swoop! as excellent satire, the review concluded that “sincere movements or respectable institutions have not much to fear from good-natured parody.”[11]

Critical and popular reception, of course, are quite different beasts.  This collection of positive reviews does not change the fact that The Swoop! failed to achieve the level of success many ‘serious’ invasion narratives enjoyed.  Yet perhaps, after all, humour did have a place (however small) in the Edwardian invasion-scare.

[1] J. Ramsden, Don’t Mention the War: the British and the Germans since 1890 (London: Little, Brown, 2006), p. 73.

[2] A. Upward, The Fourth Conquest of England (London: Tyndale Press, 1904)

[3] Manchester Courier (16th November 1906), p. 9, E. J. Oldmeadow, The North Sea Bubble (London: E. Grant Richards, 1906), p. 92.

[4] ‘The Invaders’, Punch (17th March 1909)

[5] P. G. Wodehouse, The Swoop! or, How Clarence Saved England (Rockville: Arc Manor, 2008),pp. 18-19.

[6] Ibid., p. 64.

[7] N. Longmate, Island Fortress: The Defence of Great Britain 1603-1945 (London: Hutchinson, 1991),p. 420.

[8] I. F. Clarke, Voices Prophesying War: Future Wars 1763-3749 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 127.

[9] ‘An Amusing Skit’, Dundee Courier (28th April 1909), p. 7.

[10] ‘Miscellaneous’, Aberdeen Journal (26th April 1909), p. 3.

[11] ‘A Breath of Sane Humour’, Manchester Guardian (21st April 1909), p. 6.   The censorship case in question was over a skit on An Englishman’s Home by Harry Pelissier, which was refused licence by the Lord Chamberlain.  See N. Hiley, ‘The Play, the Parody, the Censor and the Film’, Intelligence & National Security, 6.1 (1991), pp. 218-228.

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