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Historical Fiction

Fascism Fictionalised: Inter-war British Fascism in Popular Culture, 1932 to Present

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Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF)[1] never won an election or parliamentary seat and, from its foundation in 1932 to its proscription in 1940, struggled to break into the political mainstream. Though in the mid-1930s it had around 50,000 members and enjoyed the support of Daily Mail proprietor Lord Rothermere, it remained a vocal but politically isolated organisation. And yet, over the last few years, the stage and the small screen have played host to a series of new depictions of interwar British fascism. What lies behind the renewed interest in this abhorrent political failure? And, moreover, what does the return to British fascism’s past say about the present?

In answering these questions, it’s necessary to first look back over the history of depictions of British fascism on the page, stage and screen. The earliest fictional depictions of British fascism occurred in interwar literature. In the work of a number of liberal and left-leaning novelists, characters based on Mosley and his followers appeared as figures of fun or dire warnings of the shape of things to come. Classic comic depictions include Nancy Mitford’s Wigs on the Green (1935) and P.G. Wodehouse’s The Code of the Woosters (1938). Alongside these, Naomi Mitchison’s We Have Been Warned (1935), Margaret Storm Jameson’s In the Second Year (1936), and H. G. Wells’ The Holy Terror (1939) took the threat of fascism more seriously. However, these authors were less concerned with Mosleyite fascism as an immediate threat and more concerned with visions of a British fascist dystopia or Wellsian utopia situated in the near future.

The war changed the way fascism was depicted. It was reimagined solely as an exterior threat, perhaps aided domestically by traitorous collaborators, as in the 1942 Ealing Studios’ film Went the Day Well? This depiction of fascism as an invading foreign force continued in post-war alternate history films and novels such as It Happened Here (1964), Guy Walters’ The Leader (2003), and C. J. Sansom’s Dominion (2012). Works in this genre are conservative in their anti-fascism. They dismissed fascism on the basis of its un-Britishness, characterising it largely as a German import (or, rather, imposition).

The more recent depictions of Mosleyite fascism differ from earlier examples in the sense that they regard fascism as an urgent and indigenous threat rather than a foreign import or a subject for dystopian or utopian speculation. In BBC’s 2018 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders and the most recent series of Peaky Blinders (now available via Netflix), fascism appears as a danger on Britain’s streets.

The recent adaptation of The ABC Murders diverges from Christie’s 1936 novel. In this version, we find an older Hercule Poirot, a faded relic of murder mystery parties, haunted by memories of his experiences as a Belgian refugee during the First World War. As he investigates a series of grisly murders, Poirot wanders through a rain-swept and racist Britain, increasingly becoming a hostile environment for foreigners. As if to underline this point, on almost every street corner, Poirot passes posters bearing the BUF’s flash-and-circle insignia.

While actual BUF members never make an appearance in The ABC Murders, Peaky Blinders depicts an alternate history of the movement’s formation. The fifth series begins with the protagonist, Thomas Shelby, newly installed as the Labour MP for Birmingham South – the constituency neighbouring Mosley’s. In an attempt to undermine Mosley (played brilliantly by Sam Claflin), Shelby becomes his right-hand man.

The series’ creators have moved events around a little. They erase Mosley’s pre-fascist New Party entirely, depicting his jump straight from Labour minister to British fascist three years early in late 1929 immediately after the Wall Street Crash. These liberties are easy to forgive as Claflin and the series’ writers capture Mosley’s personality and ideas with chilling accuracy. The series takes place in a turbulent Britain, wracked by gang warfare and economic unrest. Mosley appears here as a populist, complaining about ‘false news’ and promising to put ‘Britain first’. In the series’ finale, with the backing of Winston Churchill and in cooperation with a gang of Jewish bakers, Shelby mounts an assassination attempt on Mosley.[2]

In addition to these, Brigid Larmour’s recently announced touring production of The Merchant of Venice plans to shift the setting of Shakespeare’s most problematic play from Renaissance Venice to the inter-war East End of London. Due to begin touring in September 2020, this version is set to sympathetically reimagine Shylock – long considered an antisemitic stereotype – as a Jewish shopkeeper and war widow. Set in the weeks leading up to the 1936 Battle of Cable Street, the play’s original protagonists are to be recast as wealthy Mosleyites.

These modern depictions are darkly introspective. Their creators manipulate the historical record and over-inflate the popularity of the BUF. But in doing so, they are really inviting audiences to ruminate on the state of present-day, post-Brexit Britain. In looking to examples of political authoritarianism, anti-immigrant xenophobia and racism (especially in the contemporary context of rising antisemitism) from Britain’s past, they are attempting to think through the present.

However, in an eagerness to make historical analogies, we might miss the specifics of the present. In Britain and throughout the world, the radical right in 2020 does not resemble the radical right of the mid-1930s. Fascists were not, as the creators of The ABC Murders imagined, present on every street corner in inter-war Britain. While this is still not the case in terms of their physical presence, radical right ideas and rhetoric are being mainstreamed now as never before. Through their journalistic fellow travellers and social media, the modern radical right have achieved a reach that far surpasses Lord Rothermere’s brief endorsement of Oswald Mosely in the mid-1930s. Recent fictional depictions of British fascism suggest we are reliving the 1930s; in fact, we are living through something altogether different and potentially worse.

Liam Liburd currently works as a Teaching Associate in Modern International History at the University of Sheffield. He completed his PhD entitled “The Eternal Imperialists: Empire, Race and Gender on the British Radical Right, 1918-1968” in February 2020. His broader research interests are in British political and cultural history, and the history and afterlives of the British Empire. You can find him on Twitter @DocLiburd

Cover image: Oswald Mosley and Diana Mitford, 1936. https://www.flickr.com/photos/150300783@N07/35638188926 [accessed 4 May 2020].

[1] The BUF was renamed the British Union of Fascists and National Socialists or just ‘British Union’/BU in 1936.

[2] Churchill’s appearance in the fifth series of Peaky Blinders as some kind of parliamentary anti-fascist waging a secret war against Mosley is perhaps the show’s most disappointing misstep. Before his time as the grand anti-appeaser, the real-life Churchill was an aristocratic apologist for Mussolini.   

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Bringing Nineteenth-Century Women to Life in Present-day Uruguay

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As a cultural studies scholar, my work on historical novels from Uruguay at first glance seems to stand out from a website titled ‘History Matters’. Whilst many consider historical fiction to be the frivolous sibling to the rigor and precision of historical research, what happens when history cannot provide any answers? What about people who were marginalised for their gender, sexuality, class and/or colour and could not leave traces of their lives? How do we access their past experiences when historically we know very little about them? It is in these recesses of history where, I argue, fiction can play a significant role. In other words, narrative imagination can function as an effective tool for studying and thinking about an inaccessible past.

One of the Uruguayan historical novels that features in my research is titled Untamed Love: The Women of Artigas (Amores cimarrones: Las mujeres de Artigas, 2011, translation mine). Written by Marcia Collazo Ibáñez, who is also a historian by profession, this highly successful novel traces the lives of six women connected to Uruguay’s ultimate national hero, José Artigas (1764-1850).

One of the leaders of the revolutions which began in 1810 against the Spanish Crown in the River Plate of South America, Artigas led and later governed the Banda Oriental region (present-day Uruguay). In 1816 Banda Oriental was gradually invaded by Portuguese forces, and by 1820 Artigas and his armies were forced into exile in Paraguay where he spent the last thirty years of his life.[1] Despite being defeated by the Portuguese, curiously, after Artigas’ death his actions and ideals were exalted to proclaim him the father of the Uruguayan nation, a position he holds until today.

So, what about the women connected to Artigas, one may ask? Although his grandmothers, Ignacia Carrasco (1701-1773) and María Camejo (1714-1772), and his mother Francisca Asnar (1743-1803) are sometimes mentioned in historical works, they are often side-lined to highlight Artigas’s noble and honourable actions. His wife, Rosalía Rafaela Villagrán (1775-1824), furthermore, was portrayed not only as a ‘mad’ woman due to her ill health but also as someone who could not understand his need to fight for self-determination. His other partners, Isabel Sánchez (dates disputed) and Melchora Cuenca (birth date disputed-1870), on the other hand, were deemed inconsequential by male historians who also glossed over the national hero’s possibly promiscuous behaviour.[2]

Published in 2011, when Uruguayans celebrated the bicentenary of Artigas’s heroic actions, Collazo Ibáñez’s novel Untamed Love is divided into six parts with separate sections devoted to each of his grandmothers, his mother and his most significant three partners. In each of these six sections, the novel follows a very interesting pattern, as history and narrative imagination co-exist side by side. After conducting thorough historical research, the author precedes each anecdote about the women’s lives with short quotes by mostly male historians, significant leaders and sometimes Artigas himself. Then she proceeds to describe what might have occurred from the women’s perspectives, sometimes questioning Artigas’s behaviour towards them. Indulging her readers in a counter-history, which is partly imagined, the author, in a rather feminist gesture, writes these women into history.

In the case of Artigas’s official wife, Rosalía Rafaela, although she has been often mentioned in history books, even school textbooks, there are no known archival sources from her hand, i.e. no letters nor a diary. The information we have on her is second-hand: letters her husband or other officials wrote and parish entries. In Untamed Love, on the other hand, Collazo Ibáñez uses a first-person narrative to describe Rosalía’s ‘madness’. The section on Rosalía in the novel begins with her interior monologue as she wakes up in a hospital bed and inadvertently overhears her doctors discussing the reasons for her illness and unfortunate situation. This scene, symbolic of historians talking about Rosalía whilst her response was only silence, counters patriarchal history as the author uses narrative imagination to portray Rosalía’s experience in the hospital.

One might ask, how does this work differ from any other historical novel? Untamed Love is not a mere fictionalisation of the past. That is to say, it does not depict historical types but instead fictionalises the lives of real, often marginalised people. In doing so, it engages with a recent sub-genre that Linda Hutcheon has termed ‘historiographical metafiction’.[3] In fact, as Untamed Love’s author Collazo Ibáñez first attempts to access these women’s lives through history, she points to gaps in historical discourses and utilises fiction to fill them. In this sense, history does matter, but when there are insufficient historical sources available, fiction offers a space to imagine how traditionally marginalised people, like women, lived their lives. That is to say, when history is not enough, fiction steps in.

Karunika Kardak recently completed her PhD in Hispanic Studies from the University of St Andrews and is currently an academic tutor at the Department of Spanish there. Her doctoral research focused on literature from the post-dictatorship period in Uruguay and studied issues of national identity and cultural memory in historical fiction. You can find her on Twitter @KKarunika.

Cover image: Portrait of José Gervasio Artigas, circa 1884.

[1] John Street’s Artigas and the Emancipation of Uruguay serves as a perfect introduction for Anglophone readers to Uruguay’s history and the national hero’s role in it. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1959).

[2] See Isidoro de María, Rasgos biográficos de hombres notables de la República Oriental del Uruguay, 3rd edn (Montevideo: Imprenta Artística, de Dornalecha y Reyes, 1889); Luis Bonavita, Sombras heroicas (Montevideo: Impresora L.I.G.U., 1949); and Juan Alberto Gadea, El ambiente hogareño donde nació Artigas (Montevideo: Estado Mayor del Ejército, 1974).

[3] Linda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction (New York and London: Routledge, 1988), p. 114. See Jerome de Groot on historiographical metafiction in The Historical Novel (London: Routledge, 2010), pp. 119–21.

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