Review: A Cultural History of the 1905 Aliens Act

William Rothenstein, 'Aliens at Prayer', 1905

William Rothenstein, ‘Aliens at Prayer’, 1905

David Glover, Literature, Immigration, and Diaspora in Fin-de-Siècle England: A Cultural History of the 1905 Aliens Act (Cambridge University Press, 2012)
ISBN: 9781107022812

The Edwardian era, as noted in the catalogue to the recent exhibition Edwardian Opulence, witnessed a ‘colossal torrent of political, social, economic, and cultural change’. Though some of these changes were reflected in the visual examples selected for the exhibition – such as John Byam Shaw’s haunting canvas The Boer War (1900) – other issues, such as immigration, were overlooked. Yet it was during the Edwardian period that the first modern law to restrict immigration into Britain was passed. The 1905 Aliens Act was a highly significant event in British history (one contemporary referred to it as a ‘revolution in national policy’), and is the subject of a recent study by the literary scholar, David Glover.

Though the Aliens Act was ostensibly designed to restrict the influx of all ‘undesirable aliens’, regardless of nationality or cultural background, it was in essence a response to a particular crisis: the substantial growth of Jewish immigrants to Britain following the Russian pogroms of the 1880s and early 1900s. In British culture, the so-called ‘alien’, argues Glover, was almost indistinguishable from ‘the Jew’, and the two must be considered together. In this sense, David Glover’s book follows on from several excellent studies of Jewish immigration and its representations, most notably ‘The Jew’ in late-Victorian and Edwardian culture: between the East End and East Africa (Palgrave MacMillan 2009). The same issue was also covered, albeit in brief, by the 2012 Tate exhibition Migrations: Journeys into British Art, which contained several important art works from this period. Chief among them was William Rothenstein’s Jews Mourning in a Synagogue, which depicts a group of Eastern-European born Jews in the London East End, one of a series of works completed by Rothenstein between 1903-1907, when debate over the Aliens Act was at its height (indeed, one of Rothenstein’s other canvases, above, is aptly titled Aliens at Prayer).

The importance of the Aliens Act cannot be overestimated. As Glover notes: ‘the Act set the precedent for the ever-tightening web of immigration control that it is in place today’, highlighting as it did a series of divisions and anxieties that go straight to the heart of British national identity. By no means the first study of the Act, this book seeks to place it in its wider cultural context, with a particular concentration on the representation of the Jewish ‘alien’ in contemporary literature from Daniel Deronda (1876) to Tono-Bungay (1911). Key Edwardian texts under discussion include Joseph Conrad’s short story Amy Foster, (1901), Violet Guttenberg’s A Modern Exodus (1904), Edgar Wallace’s The Four Just Men (1905) and the work of the Anglo-Jewish novelist and leading Zionist Israel Zangwill, whose 1892 novel Children of the Ghetto (dramatized in 1899) remains one of the most important, and sympathetic, representations of the Jewish East End. Although the Act itself forms the central event, Glover also examines a series of related occurrences, such as the ‘Tottenham Outrage’ of 1909, the ‘Siege of Sidney Street’ (1910-1911), and on-going debates surrounding the Boer War and the Zionist movement, which sought a more constructive, though not always popular, way out of the immigration issue.

The book proceeds in a loosely chronological manner, starting in the 1870s and finishing on the eve of the First World War, comparing and contrasting a wide range of sources – some familiar, others less so – in relation to contemporary debates. Throughout the study, Glover examines the way that novels, plays and historical studies are read, misread and co-opted by politicians, journalists and the wider public, carefully outlining the complex cultural afterlives of texts as Daniel Deronda and Walter Besant’s 1882 All Sorts and Conditions of Men (often credited with creating the East End in the public consciousness). Glover traces national and local tensions, including strains of xenophobia often overlooked by historians. Though Britain had no Dreyfus affair, or recent tradition of systematic persecution, Glover reveals that anti-Semitism was always bubbling away somewhere, often riding on the back of other concerns, such as the culture of ‘sweating’ (i.e. the erroneous presumption that East End sweatshops were a predominantly Jewish invention). The Aliens Act helped bring these tensions into focus, instigating a debate that has raged ever since: should immigration be controlled and if so, how?

The book is meticulously researched, and points the way to a host of other relevant studies (although there is, alas, no bibliography). The topic is a sensitive one at times, and Glover does well not to rush to conclusions, drawing out the contradictions within texts, and examining difficult statements within particular social and political contexts. Other scholars might not be quite so generous to figures such as Arnold White – a leading journalist behind the Aliens Act – but Glover is rightly keen not to dismiss anyone too hastily. The history of anti-Semitism in Britain is not an easy one to untangle, and there are great dangers in trying to lay out the threads with too much emphasis. As Israel Zangwill once observed, anti-Semitism, particularly in its British manifestation, was ‘an indefinite thing’; as easy to pin down, or protest against, as ‘the fog and the rain’. Glover, to his credit, is very much alive to these dangers, and to the subtleties of arguments from all sides of the political spectrum.

Of course, indefinite subtlety was not always the keynote when it came to representing Jews in literature, or broaching the ‘alien’ question. In the third chapter, for instance, Glover analyses the rather crude depictions of Jewish characters in such Edwardian melodramas as The Hand of Iron (1902), Saturday Night in London (1900) and, most obviously, the stage adaption of Du Maurier’s Trilby, in which the role of the Jewish Svengali was significantly boosted and imbedded within the popular imagination. He also outlines some of the more extreme events of the time, such as the 1902 demonstration of the British Brother’s League in 1902, the start of a so-called ‘anti-alien crusade’ that formed the backdrop of the 1905 reform. Turning away from theatrical melodrama, Chapter Four explores two works that deal more directly with the Act itself, even if they doubt its ultimate authority: Guttenberg’s unsettling fantasy A Modern Exodus (1904) and Edgar Wallace’s best-selling thriller The Four Just Men (1905). Guttenberg’s novel is, by this account, a fascinating and greatly undervalued text, one which seeks to show, via a somewhat complicated plot, that ‘Anti-Semitism doesn’t answer in England in England, and it never will’, all the while conceding that some sort of immigration control may yet be necessary. Guttenberg’s novel also feeds into discussions of Zionism in the Edwardian period, of which Glover provides an especially useful summary, focussing on the increased interest in the ‘East-African’ solution (the founding of a Jewish state in Uganda) initially promoted by Zangwill, whose Ghetto Comedies, published in 1907, offer an updated take on Anglo-Jewish identity.

Amongst the major post-Act texts Glover focuses on is James Blyth’s 1910 Ichabod, a firmly right-wing invasion scare story which gives mythic status to the 1905 Aliens Act, and its supposed failure to properly deal with the issue of immigration. In so doing, Blyth conflates the Jewish threat with that of the Germans, and the on-going threat of socialism. All this leads, as Harry Wood has recently pointed out, to a ‘highly unpleasant reading experience’; one we might not associate with Blyth’s more illustrious contemporary H. G. Wells, in whose Tono-Bungay Glover finds equally disturbing evidence of anti-Semitism. What Wells does, Glover argues, may seem less extreme than Blyth, but it is equally pernicious. Where Blyth’s text excepts assimilated Jews, focussing his frustrations on recent immigrants, Wells makes it clear (through the voice of George Ponderevo) that even the settled Jews do not belong:

These Lichtensteins and their like seem to have no promise in them at all of any fresh vitality for the kingdom. I do not believe in their intelligence or their power – they have nothing new about them at all, nothing creative nor rejuvenescent, no more than a disorderly instinct of acquisition; and the prevalence of them and their kind is but a phase in the broad, slow decay of the great social organism of England. They could not have made Bladesover, they cannot replace it; they just happen to break out over it – saprophytically. [Tono-Bungay, 1909, p.54]

Glover’s comments on Wells seem fair to me, though representations of assimilated Jews are not, it seems, central to this study, which is much more concerned with perceptions of Jewish immigrants. For a two-hundred page study this makes sense, although an extended discussion of the variations within the Jewish communities in Britain at the turn of the century would have been welcome.

As it stands, however, this book serves as a great introduction, both to the Aliens Act itself and to cultural representations of Jews and Jewish life at the turn of the century. Glover combines political detail and cultural analysis very well, and balances his sources neatly. The length of the book means that some aspects of the discussion feel a little rushed, though the author must nonetheless be praised for managing to fit so much challenging and complex material into a relatively small space. Clearly this is a rich topic – and it would be unfair to expect one book to answer all the questions. The strength of this study is that it sends you back to the sources themselves, leaving the reader in no doubt as to the significance of the 1905 Aliens Act in the context of Edwardian culture.

Samuel Shaw, June 2013

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