Macaulay’s Prophetic Sterotypes

Rose Macaulay’s 1914 satirical novel, The Making of a Bigot pokes fun at many current intellectual fads, including the National Service League, which since 1902 had advocated vigorous preparation for war (Kipling was an active member). When a spokesman for the League gives a highly successful lecture at an East End Settlement, he invites his audience to a  cinematograph display in Hackney the following week, called ” In Time of Invasion.”

It was a splendid show, well worth three-pence. It abounded in men being found unlawfully with guns and being shot like rabbits; in untrained and incompetent soldiers fleeing from the foe; abandoned mothers defending their cottage homes to the last against a brutal soldiery; corpses of children tossed on pikes to make a Prussian holiday; Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, the one saving element in the terrible display of national incompetence, performing marvellous feats of skill and heroism, and dying like flies in discharge of their duties.

Were there any such films? The scenes described, and the tenor of the film, are not unlike those found in the invasion-scare novels and stories of the time, such as War (also 1914) by W. Douglas Newton. The phrase about “men being found unlawfully with guns” shows how memories of  brutal reprisals in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 provided imagery for this kind of thing.
What strikes me most in this description, though, is the bit about “corpses of children tossed on pikes”. This was one of the commonest tropes found in the atrocity stories and rumours buzzing around at the start of the War, exaggerating German nastiness in Belgium and France, as though the actual reprisals and executions there were not nasty enough. This pre-war appearance of the trope suggests where the idea may have come from, while the phrase “to make a Prussian holiday” echoes Byron to stereotype Germans as taking an active pleasure in cruelty. Memories of 1870 are presumably at play again.
The cinematograph show continues:

Afterwards there was a very different series to illustrate the Invasion as it would be had the National Service Act been passed. ” The Invaders realise their Mistake,” was inscribed on the preliminary curtain. Well-trained, efficient, and courageous young men then sallied into the field, proud in the possession of fire-arms they had a right to, calm in their perfect training, temerity, and discipline, presenting an unflinching and impregnable front to the cowering foe, who retreated in broken disorder, realising their mistake (cheers). Then on the Finis curtain blazed out the grand moral of it all : ” The Path of Duty is the Path of Safety. Keep your homes inviolate by learning to Defend them.” (Renewed cheers, and ” God Save the King”).

“ Well-trained, efficient, and courageous… calm in their perfect training, temerity, and discipline”; there again you have a premonition of a wartime stereotype – the representation of the soldier that is found in countless wartime novels, stories and newspaper articles.
Macaulay’s novel is consistently entertaining, but doesn’t quite work. Its central premise, of a young man who sees the good in every possible point of view, would have been a good basis for a satirical short story, but he is not believable enough to be an engaging hero of a full-length novel. The book was Macaulay’s second to be published by Hodder, and it sold notably less well than her first, the prize-winning  The Lee Shore.  Even her third and last novel with that publisher, Non-Combatants and Others (1916), would do much better, despite its pacifist message (unpopular in wartime and not at all in line with most Hodder and Stoughton publications).
I read a free downloadable Kindle edition of The Making of a Bigot, obviously scanned from a print copy and riddled with outlandish errors. It can be decoded without too much pain or difficulty, but it’s not good. Sooner or later the providers of electronic texts are going to have to face the fact that many online editions are extremely unreliable.

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2 Comments

  1. Jonathan Lighter
    Posted February 7, 2011 at 11:16 pm | Permalink

    According to Lisa M. Bitel (Women in Early Medieval Europe, CUP: 2002, p. 190):

    “Simeon of Durham, writing a century after the event, described the Danes’ assault on Canterbury in 1011, recalling that “…Infants torn from the mother’s breast were carried on pikes, or crushed to pieces by a wagon driven over them”

    An age-old motif. Prussians were merely Danes with one less spike on their helmets.

    • Posted February 8, 2011 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

      I’m sure you’re right – it’s an age-old stereotype of evil. What struck me was its being applied to Germans even before the invasion of France and Belgium.


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