A Flight of Fancy

One of the most iconic events of the Edwardian period was Louis Blériot’s flight across the English Channel in 1909.  Piloting a craft of his own design, the Frenchman took off from near Calais early on the morning of 25th July, and landed half an hour later near Dover Castle.  Praising Blériot’s achievement, the Daily Mail heralded the event as “the dawn of a new age for man”.  There was also a sense that the flight would have profound consequences for Britain.  The “immense sacrifices” the country had suffered in order to achieve naval supremacy suddenly appeared anachronistic.  Britain, it seemed, was no longer an island.[1]

In the varied responses to this momentous occasion, a sense emerged that Blériot’s flight threw worrying light on British attitudes towards scientific and technological innovation.  The fact that a Frenchman, of all people, had succeeded in this endeavour was particularly galling.  Numerous newspapers, though heartfelt in their congratulations of Monsieur Blériot, expressed the wish that “an Englishman had secured this record”.[2]    For H. G. Wells, himself a pioneer of fictional aviation, this failure was representative of Britain’s disregard for the nuts and bolts of scientific progress:

“…the world cannot wait for the English…In the men of means and leisure in this island there was neither enterprise enough, imagination enough, knowledge nor skill enough to lead in this matter…The French and Americans can laugh at our aeroplanes, the Germans are ten years ahead of our poor navigables.  We are displayed a soft, rather backward people.”[3]

Blériot in the cockpit prior to take-off

Blériot in the cockpit prior to take-off

Such pessimism does a slight disservice to Edwardian aviators.  Though undoubtedly trailing the pack in terms of military aviation, Britain was hardly a backwater for aerial technology.[4]  Yet there were certainly people in Edwardian Britain who approached scientific progress with a mixture of suspicion and contempt.  Such attitudes, moreover, are surprisingly common in contemporary invasion and future-war literature.  Despite warning as a genre of the need for constant vigilance and greater military preparation, some authors were equally fearful of how ‘science’ might detrimentally change British society.  In C. A. Clarke’s novel Starved into Surrender (1904), one character mulls over the impact of widespread tramlines in ever-expanding Manchester, expressing a fear of “going along so fast that we can’t see where we’re going”.[5]  Highlighting the fine line between worthwhile innovation and reckless excess, ‘science’ here possesses no social conscience, having “prostituted itself to Mammon instead of working only to advance knowledge in order to perfect life.”[6]  For Gordon Stables, writing in the preface to The Meteor Flag of England (1905), scientific advance equated to “a real Tower of Babel” that “in the arts of peace, as in the arts of war…is ever, ever rising”.[7]

One writer who might have excited the ire of Wells was James Blyth.  An author of four invasion narratives over the course of the Edwardian period, Blyth’s treatment of ‘science’ was not especially advanced.  This is well-demonstrated in his changing attitude towards the prospect of flight.  Like many contemporaries, Blyth initially saw the pioneers of aviation as misguided fantasists.  In his novel Ichabod (1910), his protagonist Noel Pettigrew, himself a scientific prodigy, argues that “Whether for warfare or peace…the air is no place for man”.  Yet by 1912, perhaps unsurprisingly, Blyth seems to have had a change of heart.  In The Peril of Pines Place, a story that imagines enemy agents stirring up social unrest in Britain, the narrative is based around the success of the Gerfalcon, a prototype aeroplane designed and flown by one of the lead characters.  “Two years ago”, the pilot tells an assembled crowd, “you would have thought that I was talking nonsense in saying I’m going to fly from Essex here tonight”.  Blyth’s lack of foresight is thus explained away as the product of a wider (and perfectly natural) national cynicism.[8]

Louis Blériot’s channel crossing, then, was far more than a moment of aviation history.  It was also a moment for national reflection, and in some quarters, recrimination.  And though the aircraft came from across the channel, it was to the North Sea skies that nervous commentators turned their gaze.  For if Britain had become blinded to science, Germany was, in the words of the novelist Napier Hawke, “the one progressive and scientific country in the world”.[9]

This post was inspired by research on display at ‘When the Lamps Went Out: H. G. Wells and His World on the Eve of War’, the annual conference of the H. G. Wells Society.

https://www.dur.ac.uk/english.studies/events/?eventno=20289

[1] ‘The Meaning of the Marvel’, Daily Mail (26th July 1909), p. 6.  See also B. A. Elliot, Blériot: Herald of an Age (Stroud: Tempus, 2000).

[2] ‘Round the City’, Sheffield Evening Telegraph (26th July 1909), p. 4.

[3] H. G. Wells, An Englishman Looks at the World (London: Cassell and Company, 1914), p. 3.

[4] For a good account of early aerial technology and its relationship with military strategy see T. Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002).

[5] C. A. Clarke, Starved into Surrender (London: C. W. Daniel, 1904), p. 39.

[6] Ibid., p. 199.

[7] G. Stables, The Meteor Flag of England (London: Nisbet, 1908), vii-viii.

[8] J. Blyth, The Peril of Pines Place (London: F. V. White and Co., 1912) , p. 57.

[9] N. Hawke, The Invasion That Did Not Come Off (London: Henry J. Drane, 1909), p. 78.

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