The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins


copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

The last two decades of the nineteenth century were years of anxiety and distress for many Victorians (see: Fin-de-Siècle Unease). One of the largest reasons for this distress was the perceived threat of domestic and international anarchists. One way that many authors dealt with this threat was through the anarchist or terrorist novel.

In one sense the anarchist novel predates the Victorian era. The anxiety many English felt at the end of the nineteenth century was a repeat of what many had experienced at the end of the eighteenth century, when the French Revolution created chaos on the Continent–a chaos many English feared might spread to England–and Jacobin novelists and philosophers like William Godwin took the position that the individual was more important than society. This philosophical position alarmed the upper classes of English society, whose power depended in large part on their rights being given legal justification over the rights of the lower classes. The reaction was novels like Charles Lucas’ The Infernal Quixote (1801), in which the Jacobin philosophy was mouthed by a power-hungry politician who was willing to engage in anarchy to gain his goals. And later in the century the many novels about the 1605 Gunpowder plot, including William Ainsworth’s Guy Fawkes (1840-1841) and Anne Marsh-Caldwell’s Father Darcy (1846), fictionalized the story of Fawkes, a historical anarchist.

But it was in the mid-1880s that the English anarchist novel began appearing in significant numbers. Anarchy as an active philosophical and political movement was not new. In 1840 the French philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon published Qu’est-ce que la Propriete?, which argued that property was theft. During the 1840s anarchism became an organized ideological movement in Europe, and within a few years European and Russian anarchists had begun adopting violence as a method toward the end of the state. In January, 1858, the French Emperor Napoleon III survived an assassination attempt. Two attempts were made on the German Emperor Wilhelm I in 1878, the second badly wounding him. The Russian Tsar Alexander II was assassinated by an anarchist bomb thrower in March, 1881. The Russian General Stretnikoff was assassinated in Odessa in 1882. Colonel Soudaikin, the chief of the Russian secret police, was assassinated in 1883. An attempt on the assembled German princes at the September, 1883 unveiling of the Niederwalddenkmal, the Germania Monument in Frankfurt, was only just detected and stopped. The President of Chile survived an assassination attempt in January, 1885. President Sadi Carnot of France was stabbed to death by an anarchist in June, 1894. King Umberto I of Italy survived two assassination attempts in 1893 and April, 1897 before being killed in July, 1900.

As the frequency and violence of anarchist actions in Europe increased, so did the English concern that anarchist violence would spread to England. This fear was confirmed with the Fenian dynamite campaign of the 1880s. Irish discontent with England and desire for independence from England had grown following the 1801 Act of Union, which united Ireland with England under a single parliament. Ireland’s inability to change the laws controlling its land rights, and especially the grievances arising from English reaction to the 1845-1849 potato famine, created heightened Irish ill-will toward the English. In March 1858 two Irish political activists formed the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood, later called the Irish Republican Brotherhood, an organization dedicated to the overthrow of English rule of Ireland. The Brotherhood was popularly known as the Fenians, after the ancient Irish warriors, the Fianna.

Fenian violence began in Canada in 1866 and in England in 1867, with the bombing of Clerkenwell Prison and an attack on a police-van carrying Fenian prisoners in Manchester. After three men were executed for the Manchester attack, the Fenians called for a more intensive bombing campaign. Alfred Nobel had invented dynamite in 1863, but it was only when the fulminate mercury detonating process was perfected in 1867 that covert bombing operations became a practical possibility. The first Fenian dynamite attack took place at the Salford Barracks near Manchester in January 1881. When a bomb detonated near the House of Commons in March 1883, media coverage of the Fenian dynamite campaign was at a high pitch, although some commentators were dismissive rather than hysterical about the Fenian threat.

The Fenians were generally more interested in spreading terror than causing casualties; they usually targeted monuments and landmarks rather than individuals. This was not always the case; Queen Victoria was shot at in February 1872, and March 1882, and in May 1882 Lord Frederick Charles Cavendish, the newly appointed Chief Secretary of Ireland, was stabbed to death in Dublin’s Phoenix Park. But generally the Fenian attacks were on buildings: Victoria Station in February 1884, Nelson’s Column in May 1884, the uncompleted Parliament Building in Québéc in October 1884, and, most notoriously, Westminster Hall, the Houses of Parliament, and the Tower of London simultaneously, in January 1885.

Such acts panicked the English public, and the frenzied press coverage worsened public opinion. The Fenian dynamite campaign ended by 1887 in the face of increased surveillance and police action, but the English public remained convinced that further attacks were a real possibility. During the 1890s the English press avidly reported the anarchist bombings on the Continent and in Russia. François “Ravachol” Koeningstein’s March 1892 bombings of the homes of a judge and a government official (in response to French military and police attacks on anarchist rallies) received heightened media coverage and began a series of revenge bombings in Europe and, in 1894, London itself. In 1894 a London paper even claimed to have been warned by a Special Branch officer that anthrax had been put into the reservoirs of England’s major cities.

One of the traditional means by which threats (perceived or real) to a culture are dealt with is by displacing them into fiction where they can be defeated to the satisfaction of the audience. But it was primarily the English who addressed the anarchist threat through fiction. The Continent and Asia had always been more threatened by anarchists, and there were some anarchist novels written by Europeans, including Dostoyevsky’s The Devils (1871), Alphonse Daudet’s Tartarin sur les Alpes (1886), and Stanislaw Przybyszewski’s Satan’s Children (1897). But most anarchist novels were by English authors rather than European authors.

The anarchist threat took on symbolic proportions for many English. The anarchists were against capitalism, a creed believed in by the English with an almost religious fervor. And although there were many peaceful anarchists, those who committed terrorist acts were seen as representing all anarchists in their willingness to sacrifice innocents for political or symbolic goals with a ruthlessness which frightened the English. The English public’s objection was of course primarily because civilians were targeted, but beyond that because such acts fell below the standards expected in war; when English soldiers exercised a similar ruthlessness, whether in killing wounded Mahdists during the campaign to avenge Gordon’s defeat or in the burning of Boer farms and imprisoning Boer civilians in concentration camps, the English public was outraged. Even the use of the Maxim gun at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898, when the British killed 11,000 Dervishes and lost only forty-eight men, drew objections, such as Winston Churchill’s, who saw the use of the Maxim as an “unfair advantage.”1

Even during the Fenian campaign anarchism was primarily associated with foreigners rather than the Irish, especially foreign asylum seekers. For most of the nineteenth century any refugee from the Continent who claimed to be a victim of persecution was allowed to enter England, and many–hundreds of thousands at least, although their numbers were not counted–did just that. While the English were happy, in the abstract, to welcome refugees who they saw as fighters against European tyranny, in practice the influx of so many foreigners exacerbated English xenophobia, especially antisemitism; there were an estimated 150,000 Jewish immigrants living in England at the turn of the century. This also increased friction between England and the Continental governments. Asylum seekers in England could not be extradited for political crimes committed outside of England, which in practice meant that any crime, even murder, which was claimed to have a political motive would be ignored by the English government.

This, understandably, angered the governments of Europe, who saw many of the anarchists who attempted to kill their leaders escape to safety in England. (A recurring motif in anarchist novels is the secret police of a foreign power, usually Russian, covertly hunting anarchists in London with an eye to kidnapping them). In the 1850s the European governments tried and failed to get Britain to modify her asylum laws, and in 1898, at a conference in Rome designed to coordinate action against the anarchists, the issue was raised again. The English government refused to follow any of the conference’s recommendations.

While the English public was ready to think of foreign refugees, as an abstract concept, as freedom fighters, their preferred choice of fictional anarchist was foreign. The majority of anarchist acts on English soil were committed by the Fenians, and the English press played up the American support for the Fenians and decried the American refusal to extradite Fenians to England (something which only Guy Boothby dealt with, rather than the anarchist novelists; see: A Prince of Swindlers). But in the anarchist novels the anarchists were never Irish (unless the author was Irish, in which case the Irish anarchists were heroes and defeated the English; see: A Modern Dædalus). The fictional anarchists were Russian (despite Tsarist Russia being widely, and correctly, seen as the most barbarous and cruel of the European governments) or some belonged to a nebulous international anarchist or nihilist conspiracy. As some critics have argued, this indicates a wish to avoid confronting, even fictionally, the issue of Ireland.

Finally, there was a class element to the anarchist novels, a result of the increasing social unrest of the end of the century (see: Fin-de-Siècle Unease).

While the most prominent of the anarchist novels of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is Henry James’ The Princess Casamassima (Atlantic Monthly, Sept. 1885-Oct. 1886), James’ approach–indeterminate, ambiguous, and ambivalent–was not that of most turn-of-the-century authors of anarchist novels, who

more commonly offered scenes of voyeuristic scenes of backroom deals and conspiratorial agreements as a means of resolving uncertainty. In more conventional novels, the author appears to be capable of guiding readers into the workings of terrorist secret societies and the police operations charged with shutting them down...

The typical plot of the terrorist novel at the turn of the century featured an uninitiated protagonist such as a dabbler in socialist politics or a policeman finding him/herself caught in the crossfire of a secret war between a highly organized secret society and law enforcement. Many of these works included actual sermons, political speeches, and news articles within the pages so as to suggest a close correspondence between the day-today workings of the nation and the hidden activities of the various terrorists, secret agents, and other individuals caught up in the plot. This is not to say that the more conventional treatments of conspiracy are devoid of the process of speculation that James describes in his preface. However, they eventually move toward a confident and clear revelation of the terrorist’s operatives, offering a comfortingly clear vision of forces driving the course of history together with their authors’ social judgments.2

Anarchist novels continued to appear in the years leading up to World War One, but they became more focused, combining anarchy and the Future War scenario in the way of George Griffith (see: The Angel of the Revolution) and stressing the dangers of aliens, especially Jews, in England.


For Further Research

Haia Shpayer-Makov, “Anarchism in British Public Opinion 1880-1914,” Victorian Studies 31, No. 4 (Summer 1988), 487-516.

Haia Shpayer-Makov, “A traitor to his class: the anarchist in British fiction,” Journal of European Studies 26.3 (Sept. 1996), 299-325.


1 Winston Churchill, My Early Life (London: Thornton Butterworth Ltd., 1930), 246.

2 Alexander J. Beringer, “The Pleasures of Conspiracy: American Literature: 1870-1910” (PhD diss., University of Michigan, 2011), 76-77.

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