In George Chesney’s story ‘The Battle of Dorking’, serialised in 1871 in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, the British Isles are invaded and conquered by the forces of Imperial Germany.
The story established the new genre of ‘invasion fiction’ that evolved into ‘Imperial Gothic’ – British fiction’s fin de siècle preoccupation with a fall from imperial hegemon into decline, decay, and desolation:
‘Need I tell you the rest? – of the ransom we had to pay, and the taxes raised to cover it, which keep us paupers to this day? … When I look at my country as it is now – its trade gone, its factories silent, its harbours empty, a prey to pauperism and decay – when I see all this, and think what Great Britain was in my youth, I ask myself whether I have really a heart or any sense of patriotism that I should have witnessed such degradation and still care to live!’
The Battle of Dorking ends in a Britain being picked to the bone:
‘The warnings of the few were drowned in the voice of the multitude. Power was then passing away from the class of people which had been used to rule, and to face political dangers… into the hands of the lower classes, uneducated, untrained to the use of political rights, and swayed by demagogues.’
Notwithstanding Chesney’s Victorian contempt for the working class (or, let’s be honest, many Remainers’ contempt for the workers of Sunderland or Swansea), his themes are vivid in contemporary representations of Brexit.
Pre-Brexit, the EU was written as dystopia. Post-Brexit, the EU is shown as a lost utopia.
I argue that this is directly connected to the sacralisation of British politics and the shift from comparatively boring pre-Brexit discussions into inquisitorial accusations that the opposing side was motived by evil. This is fertile ground for fiction.
The power of fiction
Novelist Ali Smith argues that fiction allows us to understand the political fictions of the present, and as Edward Said argued on British popular culture at the height of the British Empire, ‘literary shifts parallel broad social and political changes in British attitudes towards empire’.
The British Empire is gone, but accusations (since 2016) that the EU acts as an empire akin to the Habsburgs or the EUSSR, or that Britain is a colonialist power which itself will soon become a vassal of the Union, indicates that the EU has taken the place of empire in a new era of imperial gothic.
Brexit has colonised British consciousness so deeply, far beyond the point of Brexhaustion, that the EU has become central in public political imaginations, from villain to mourned hero.
Because Brexit is a process of collective trauma for the British nation for both sides – the end of the status quo, uncertainty, profound anxieties on both sides, a reawakening of national and micro-national identities – these combine into a gothic ‘writing of Otherness’.
‘American Imperial Gothic’, obsessed with monsters, zombies, aliens, and total civilisational collapse – reflects the anxieties of an American Empire in decline.
In Britain, fiction may similarly reflect and shape readers’ political beliefs and actions according to what Edward Said called ‘the rhetoric of blame’.
In our toxic atmosphere – which Leavers and Remainers have created jointly – fiction allows blame to be deflected on to the Other by consuming narratives which wash the hands of the Self clean. This is seen in pre- and post-Brexit fiction.
Comedies, conspiracies and caliphates
Before Brexit, the EEC or EU very rarely appeared in British fiction. When Europe did make an appearance, my research finds, it fell into one of three categories:
- Pointless and farcical;
- A neo-Nazi conspiracy;
- Well-meaning but terminally naïve.
The first category is the realm symbolised by the 1970s comedy Yes, Minister, with its famous satire on what the EEC is and what it thinks it should be.
Stanley Johnson’s The Commissioner shows the EEC as headless chickens; Rob Grant’s Incompetence lampoons modern EU law; Robert Harris’ Fatherland, set in an alternate 1960s in which the Nazis won, shows a pointless EEC as a rubber-stamp for Nazism.
In the second category, fiction shows the EU as a Nazi conspiracy. Adam Lebor’s The Budapest Protocol, Andrew Roberts’ The Aachen Memorandum, Brian Aldiss’ Superstate, or Andrew Dodge’s And Glory – all portray the European project as Nazi.
This is not too dissimilar from the third category in which the EU is well-meaning but naïve, whose idealistic politics leave Europe at the mercy of predators.
In the military fiction of DC Alden the EU’s failings are directly responsible for Islamic invasions – epitomised in Tom Krautman’s Caliphate, set in a future in which Europeans are slaves in Islamic Eurabia.
In all three of these (curiously, all-male-author) categories the EU is dystopian. But since Brexit, the tables have turned.
Have the British ever really felt European? Research suggests the answer is no. But my own ongoing research indicates that fictional portrayals of the EU have transformed into sad memories of a lost age.
As one of the defining events of recent British history, Brexit has been portrayed in a variety of ways, from plays and musicals to videogames, parody literature, and even pornography.
Brexlit, which seems to be written exclusively by (and presumably exclusively for) Remainers, shows post-Brexit Britain as bleak, ranging from sad nostalgia as in Ali Smith’s Autumn; or toxic segregation of Remainers and Leavers as in Jonathan Coe’s Middle England; or a dystopian ‘Singapore-on-Thames’ like in Sam Byers’ Albion, in which Britain has succumbed to a level of laissez-faire deregulation that would make the staunchest disciple of Andrew Ryan recoil.
By sympathetically showing the EU with lament, regret, and nostalgia for an imagined arcadian past in which the EU has become a romanticist ‘good old days’, some Remainers’ cultural products are not dissimilar from some Leavers’ nostalgia for their own imagined ‘good old days’. And this raises questions.
Is Brexlit a coping mechanism for Remainers? Because Europhilia is evident in British fiction only after 2016, does this indicate whether British identity has always been distinct from ‘EU-ropean’ identity; or that EU-ropean identity is strongest among those who are not in the EU, such as the UK and Ukraine?
And most intriguingly – does fiction from other EU states show the same pattern?
Scholars will argue for centuries as to whether Brexit was uniquely British, or only one part of a broader Western anxiety. I ask – is Brexlit unique, or only one part of Europe’s own Imperial Gothic 2.0?
By Dr Russell Foster, Leverhulme early career fellow in European Studies at King’s College London.