When the issue of immigration exploded across British politics in the mid-1960s, initiating the now-familiar dialectics of fear-mongering, moral cowardice, rightward regrouping, and ensuing legislation, historians understandably turned for illumination to the main earlier precedent, namely the 1905 Aliens Act and the large-scale Jewish immigration that brought it to the agenda. In the meantime, the resulting scholarship on the latter has tracked the shifting historiographical landscape in fascinating ways. First, concurrent with the immigration crisis of the 1960s itself, came the rise of social history: pioneering works by John Garrard and Bernard Gainer were quickly joined by monographs that widened their approach from the parliamentary arena to the social analysis of immigration and its longer-term effects, reaching their apogee with David Feldman's authoritative study of 1988. (1) Yet Feldman's approach was already reaching forward, joining the fine-grained treatment of party politics, government, and the consequences of social change to a critical history of political languages and their grounds of continuity and fracture.
By this time, in other words, historians were starting to respond to what we now call the cultural turn. Contemporary crises of cultural diversity at the end of the twentieth century increasingly challenged conceptions of 'Englishness' and its former stabilities: if anti-racism and 'blackness' assembled the ground of a critical multiculturalism during the 1980s (as the 'empire struck back'), historians working out of cultural studies (in particular those attached to the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies) found the early twentieth-century talk about foreignness to be an excellent means of critical recuperation, showing how national identity had rested on some vital contingencies during the very moment of its modern formation. (2) By getting inside the proliferating fin de siecle discourse around Jews, Jewishness, and 'the Jew', for which the 1905 Aliens Act offered such rich opportunities, historians were able to question the seeming solidities of Englishness in that earlier time while introducing comparative insights. In the best of such analysis the meanings of anti-Semitism and the Jewish difference were harnessed for larger purposes: if 'alien' Jewish immigrants were 'flocking' across Britain's borders, then the Englishness of the nation's integrity was already being challenged from those borderlands--imperial, geographical, cultural, social, sexual--long before the latter-day eruption of postcolonial discontents was to occur. (3)
During the past two decades the literatures dealing with 'England and its others' in this late-Victorian-Edwardian setting have become legion, whether in history or all across the humanities and social sciences, especially in cultural studies, which continues to creatively confuse those distinctions. David Glover's excellent new book pulls these strands together in a tightly organized study using the 1905 Aliens Act as both a watershed moment in the treatment of immigration and a lens through which debates then and now about nationhood and citizenship, borders and belonging, may be focused. At the centre of that discourse was the freshly constructed figure of 'the Jew', the epitome of the 'undesirable alien', into whose racially marked presence multiple anxieties and antipathies were convened. During the 1880s and 1890s, Jews leaving the Russian Empire were entering Britain at a rate of some 3,000-8,000 a year, hitting a peak in 1903-06 in the immediate setting of the 1905 Act, raising the overall Jewish population from 42,000 in 1880 to around 300,000 by 1914 (three fifths of whom lived in London). In the process, older stereotypes were replenished and remade into a new repertoire of negatively shape-shifting representations, whose elements ranged from the 'destitute alien' and 'incurable pauper' to the cynical exploiter of sweated labour, and from the unpatriotic money-making plutocrat to the rootless and dangerously subversive anarchist. The most lurid versions added the manipulator of international conspiracies, the money-grubbing loan shark, and the blood-sucking, plague-bearing parasite.
By the early 1900s, Glover argues, this novel anti-Semitic formation (the term itself only migrated to Britain in the 1880s from Germany, where it was coined a few years before by Wilhelm Marr) had come to deliver the malleable language through which the immigration was now mainly understood, supplanting the older and looser terms like 'Judeophobia' or 'Jew-baiting'. (4) Thus 'anti-Semitism was part of a wide-ranging and deeply contested racial imaginary, with its own distinctive debates, polemics, idioms, and practices'; it 'formed a cultural matrix that allowed the possibility of anti-alien legislation to become thinkable' (p80).
The specificities of what changed are broached by Glover's brilliantly nuanced reading of George Eliot's 1876 novel Daniel Deronda, whose complex relation to Jews, Judaism, and modernity establishes the sympathetic ground of secular liberalism and associated philosophical convictions from which the Jewish predicament could previously be addressed, until almost immediately afterward the reverberations of the large-scale Jewish immigration began taking it away. Deliberately set in 1866-68, on the cusp of what had seemed an indefinitely unfolding liberal future, Daniel Deronda used its sympathetically drawn Jewish characters to stage a series of debates 'about the relationship between national allegiance, citizenship, and birthright in a post-revolutionary era, questions that Britain sought to resolve in the 1870 Naturalization Act' (p11). Yet, ironically, Eliot's world of relatively free international movement across borders and accompanying ethics of tolerance was even then coming to an end. The intensifying of mass migration on a global scale now increasingly placed earlier assumptions about freedom of movement under duress, leading quickly to 'a global network of barriers that successfully confined most of the world's population in their countries of birth', presaged in the US Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and with sharp international peaks of anti-alien initiatives in 1894-97 and 1905-08. (5) Glover tracks the 'long and unusually complicated afterlife' of Eliot's novel through the following decades, exploring the 'range of responses and identifications it elicited--from Judeophobic parody, to assimilationist self-justification, to proto-Zionism'--including the translated excerpts circulating widely among eastern European Jews (pp17, 10-11). In the end, though, it was the dissolution and disavowal of Eliot's liberal and broadly humanist view of the world that Glover most wishes to emphasize, for the new outlook behind the 1905 Aliens Act ratified the disappearance of that world--'a world of mobile subjects who can move across Europe and beyond without let or hindrance, a world in which national allegiances might still retain a certain fluency' (p46).
Subsequent chapters take us through the social topography of the East End ('Palaces and sweatshops: East End fictions and East End Politics', pp47-79); the new 'counter-publics of anti-Semitism' (pp80-121); journalistic, literary, and political accounts of the migrant's journey ('Writing the 1905 Aliens Act', pp122-51); the passage and fallout from the Act per se ('Restriction and its Discontents', pp152-89); and a brief 'Afterword' (pp190-200), reflecting succinctly on the paranoid imagination of the invasion fictions of the pre-1914 decade, from James Blyth and William Le Queux to H. G. Wells and Saki (H. H. Munro). The result is a detailed mapping of the reactions to the Jewish immigration as they related to beliefs and assumptions about the nation, its moral authority, and its terms of inclusion and belonging. A particular strength of Glover's treatment is in the diversity of published sources he uses to track those ideas as they circulated through the public sphere. If, in excavating the coherence of the discourse, he privileges literary sources (understandably enough for a literary scholar), then the breadth and vision of his learning keeps this grounded in a wide and dense diversity of other materials and contexts--canonical and obscure literary works, popular fictions and theatrical performances, writings of the anti-Jewish campaigners, newspaper reportage, letters and diaries, travel narratives, Royal Commissions, Parliamentary Reports, and House of Commons debates. The cumulative effects of so much varied and vociferous talking about the nature of the Jews and the consequences of their presence, worked to structure anti-Semitic tropes and figures of thought into the basic languages of national security, national health, and national belonging on the eve of the war. By that time, the 'political myth of national betrayal' had placed the figure of the Jew ('clandestine, devious, and utterly rapacious') at the very centre--'the Jew is everywhere, but you have to go far down the backstairs to find him', in the words of John Buchan's secret agent in The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915) (p14).
There are many strengths to this important book. First, it provides splendid vindication for cultural studies as an overall approach. If the latter's maximal interdisciplinary constellation contains many differing possibilities, then Glover's particular mix combines an especially rich literary archive, subtly deployed social and cultural theory, and a rich grounding in relevant historiography. If, in principle, the potential archive of published written sources is expanded far beyond any older conventions of literary studies then the interpretive surefootedness presumes all of the historian's contextualizing knowledge and familiarities too. Likewise, the impressive theoretical facility is used deftly and tellingly when needed (rather than beating the reader around the head), whether via Michel Foucault on 'the liberal system of governance' (p39), Giorgio Agamben on 'bare life' and the condition of being 'foreign' under the 1870 Naturalization Act (pp136-37), or the many other instances one might cite. The analysis, in Chapter 2, of the East End, using the writings of Walter Besant (All Sorts and Conditions of Men, 1882), Margaret Harkness/'John Law' (In Darkest London, 1889/1891), and Israel Zangwill (Children of the Ghetto, 1892), owes everything to that same combination, where the persuasiveness of the close readings builds off their author's deep knowledge of the social histories involved. Contextualized readings of this kind are the spine of the book--fictions by Joseph Conrad ('Amy Foster', 1901 and The Secret Agent, 1907) and Rudyard Kipling (Puck of Pook's Hill, 1906), for example; or theatrical stagings of Jewishness in performances like Dion Boucicault's After Dark: A Drama of London Life in 1868 (1868, revived 1891), Paul Potter's adaptation of George Du Maurier's 1894 bestseller Trilby (1895), John F. Preston's Soldiers of the Queen or Briton and Boer (1900), and Arthur Shirley's The Absent-Minded Beggar, or For Queen and Country (1900). The entire treatment of anti-Semitism shows the same strengths, especially the extended accounts of the ideas and impact of Major William Evans-Gordon and Arnold White.
Second, in the early twentieth-century narrative of state formation the Aliens Act amounted to a major institutional accretion. As Glover says in his opening paragraph, it was 'the first recognizably modern law that sought permanently to restrict immigration into Britain according to systematic bureaucratic criteria that were usually administered and interpreted by a new kind of public functionary: the immigration officer' (p1). But this was more than just the invention of a new administrative function. In light of contemporary anxieties about 'national efficiency' and 'degeneration', addressed to some degree via the chapters on anti-Semitic counter-publics and the Act's reception, the anti-alien panic signified far more widely, linking to worries about poverty, demoralization, and the social pathologies of the city. Indeed, the campaign against aliens worked powerfully with the grain of broader social concerns. As Glover says, 'immigration laws create borders --not in the sense of national frontiers or territorial divisions, to take the two commonest meanings of the term, but borders as sites of discrimination, zones in which migrants are granted or denied a provisional legal status' (pp1-2). Amid a much wider set of interventions--from civil servants, journalists and social critics, social investigators and social workers, medical professionals of all kinds, various categories of new expertise--the immigration officer had a key role in constructing the social in that sense.
Third, the discursive complexities surrounding the Act revealed the self-deceptions and contradictions of avowedly liberal politics as it entered the early twentieth century. In the languages of public contestation--whether inside Parliament or in the press and the meeting halls--an acute defensiveness around perceived traditions of British tolerance kept anti-Semitism rhetorically at arm's length as a 'European' (French, German, Russian) but decidedly not a native British current of thought, a nervousness that could on occasion extend even to the avowed anti-Semites. The earliest studies of the Aliens Act--Garrard and Gainer, notably--sought to hold open that space of liberal values of tolerance and their enduring efficacy, pointing to the Act's provisions in formalizing a claim to refugee status and asylum. The case for restriction likewise invoked British freedoms: if the Act's opponents saw it as severely eroding British liberties, supporters found it essential for their preservation. As Glover observes, commentators could be at pains to distinguish between 'alien' and 'Jew', or between 'legitimate' and disreputable anti-Semitism, rhetorical constraints that even figures like White and the British Brothers' League (BBL, formed 1901) tended to observe.
Moreover, not only did the Act finally pass only after repeated earlier setbacks, but it was also immediately followed by the Liberal landslide of 1906. Yet, the ground of liberal practice had now decisively shifted. If the tolerant nation was still a shibboleth for a Liberal Government now taxed with implementing the new Act, liberals had long struggled to make sense of 'difference' and this was a challenge posed by the Jew/alien in especially troublesome ways. 'Liberal' and 'illiberal' assumptions about foreignness and immigration now inhabited common discursive terrain. This is where Glover's argument about the anti-Semitic counter-public becomes so important. For 'those members of the political class who were disillusioned with the policies of the Conservatives and Unionists' now functioned 'as a loose oppositional network aiming to bring about a decisive shift in the climate of opinion, working through a variety of campaigns and forums', an incipient Radical Right, for which Joseph Chamberlain, Leo Maxse, and Rudyard Kipling became voices in their respective ways. If that project remained 'incomplete or only partially successful', it was nonetheless effective in remaking the political ground (p12).
If liberals and anti-liberals were now converging around the bases of racialized understanding, finally, they were doing so under the emergent circumstances of a freshly forming and institutionally elaborate mass democracy. In the early twentieth-century context, this was less a matter of the franchise per se than the coalescence of new popular publics brought into being via schooling, literacy, railways, urban sociability, new forms of associational life, and a mass-circulation commercial press, who were constantly invited to see themselves as citizens of a far-flung global-imperial project. On the one hand, anti-Semitism 'belonged to a new moment in national-democratic politics when a new calculus for winning electoral and extra-parliamentary victories came into being using the emotive and aggressive appeal of racial fantasy' (p86). On the other hand, Bill Schwarz reminds us, those same processes worked by 'inventing structures of inclusion and exclusion. Enmities are part of the necessary dynamic of a popular politics. In the classic age of empire, the idea of the frontier was one which was active in holding the line between "us" and "them". Yet this was never simply a matter of the frontier "out there", but of interiorized frontiers which criss-crossed the domestic polity, and held the modern citizen in place'. (6) The most vociferously inventive of the anti-alien agitators, Arnold White, failed parliamentary candidate first for the Gladstonian Liberal Party in Mile End (1886), then for Liberal Unionists in Tyneside (1892, 1895), made his first anti-Semitic foray with English Democracy: Its Promises and Perils in 1894, just as the BBL chose the People's Palace for its inaugural rally in 1902. Mutatis mutandis, Glover's rendition of White's purposes has obvious resonance for today: his 'ambition was to produce a kind of racial common sense that would alter the climate of opinion in which immigration and pauperism were discussed, nudging it closer towards the putative sciences of race' (p86).
(1.) John A. Garrard, The English and Immigration 18801910, Oxford University Press, London 1971; Bernard Gainer, The Alien Invasion: The Origins of the Aliens Act of 1905, Heinemann, London 1972; David Feldman, Englishmen and Jews: Social Relations and Political Culture 1840-1914, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1988.
(2.) See especially Centre for Contemporary Culture Studies (eds.), The Empire Strikes Back: Race and Racism in 70s Britain, London, Hutchinson, 1982; Paul Gilroy, 'There Ain't No Black in the Union Jack': The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation, University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1987.
(3.) See here Janet Wolff, 'The Failure of a Hard Sponge: Class, Ethnicity, and the Art of Mark Gertler', New Formations, 28 (Spring 1996), 46-64; David Feldman, 'The Importance of Being English: Jewish Immigration and the Decay of Liberal England', in David Feldman and Gareth Stedman Jones (eds.), Metropolis London: Histories and Representations since 1800, Routledge, London 1989, pp57-58.
(4.) See Moshe Zimmermann, Wilhelm Marr: The Patriarch of Anti-Semitism, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1986.
(5.) Aristede R. Zolberg, 'Global Movements, Global Walls: Responses to Migration, 1885-1925', in Wang Gungwu (ed.), Global History and Migrations, Westview Press, Boulder 1997, p303.
(6.) Bill Schwarz, 'Politics and Rhetoric in the Age of Mass Culture', History Workshop Journal, 46 (Autumn 1998), p132.
Geoff Eley is Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
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|Title Annotation:||Literature, Immigration, and Diaspora in Fin de Siecle England: A Cultural History of the 1905 Aliens Act|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2015|
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