The great war in England in 1897 the embryonic spy novel

It can be said that the British spy fiction genre emerged at the turn of the twentieth century. There are many authors who can lay claim to authoring the first British spy novel, Erskine Childers, Joseph Conrad or John Buchan but there is also William le Queux or as he was known to his readers the master of mystery. Unlike Childers, Conrad or Buchan Le Queux’s fiction did not last the test of time and he has been largely forgotten. However, Le Queux was an extremely prolific author and in a career which lasted from 1891 to 1931 Le Queux published over 150 novels and short stories of which forty can be described as spy novels. These spy stories were published particularly in the years before and during the First World War. Intelligence historian Wesley Wark has pointed out that in Britain the spy novel emerged from a ‘generic soup’ of different types of popular fiction of the nineteenth century. [1]
One of the most important ancestors of the spy genre was the popular invasion literature genre which appeared in the years after 1871 and depicted Britain being invaded by a variety of foreign nations and Le Queux was among the first authors to combine the invasion literature with stories about spies and secret agents. He did this with his 1894 novel The great war in England in 1897 . This novel focused on the fictional invasion of Britain by a joint Franco-Russian alliance aided by the actions of a Russian spy, Count von Beiltein who gathered intelligence on Britain’s defences as well as information on a secret treaty between Britain and Germany. This novel was actively reflecting the contemporary context of Britain’s relationship with France and Russia in the 1890s. Through the early 1890s France and Russia had become increasingly friendly and there was a growing fear within Britain that these two imperial powers would unite to challenge British global dominance. These two nations would eventually sign a military alliance, on 4 January 1894. In 1909 Sir Edward Grey, the then British Foreign Secretary, remarked that ‘before 1904 we had been constantly on the brink of war with Russia and France’. [2] The great war in England in 1897 can thus, be interpreted as an attempt by Le Queux to depict the worst-case scenario to the British public if France and Russia decided to conspire against Britain. David Trotter pointed out that ‘bestselling literature often sells because it addresses the anxieties aroused by real events’ and thus these fears of invasion and enemy spies active within Britain became a dominate theme in future spy novels which Le Queux would go onto author in the years leading up to the First World War. [3]
The great war in England in 1897 was well received by the British public and was the break though that Le Queux required to become a full-time writer. Before this he had been employed as writer for a number of newspapers based in London such as the Globe and The Times. The great war in England in 1897 has been described by David Stafford as ‘a spy novel in embryo’ and can be regarded as the point from which the modern spy genre in Britain originated from. [4]
[1] Wesley Wark, ‘Fictions of history’, p. 1.
[2] Nigel Bailey ‘Anglo-French rivalry over Siam and Treaties of April 1904’, p. 56.
[3] David Trotter, ‘The politics of adventure in the early British spy novel’, p. 33.
[4] David Stafford, The silent game, p. 15.



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Jonathan Best

I historian of modern British history. In particular my research has focused on the activities of British secret services during the twentieth century, particularly during the two world wars and the early decades of the Cold War. In addition to this my current research has also examined the history of British spy fiction with a particular focus on the British spy novel between the late Victorian era and the 1960s. This interest is fueled by my personal passion for the secret world of espionage, intelligence, clandestine operations both fictional and factual.

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