Being English in the late-Victorian period must have been about as terrifying as being a breakfast roll in a corner-shop next-door to a building site. To judge from the literature of the time at least, the country was in constant peril of invasion. The average Briton looking for a schlocky read down at the railway station had a wealth of choice in the sub-genre we now call ‘invasion literature’. Essentially, this is early military fiction in which Blighty is invaded by enemies, usually written by right-wing reactionaries, the point of which is to ‘shock’ the country into waking up and recognising the threats posed by the other European powers. In short, late-Victorian England was trembling in its red-white-and-blues over the possibility of invasion by somebody.
And why shouldn’t it have been? Not just because of the real-life threats of a newly-unified and belligerent Germany under Bismarck, or the possible resurgence of war-mongering France under some new Napoleon, or even the un-named Germanic nation that invades southern England in The Battle of Dorking (the novel that really kicked off the genre in 1871, with epic fighting taking place in safe, settled Surrey), but also from a host of imagined invaders such as the all-conquering Martians in War of the Worlds (who also merrily burned and maimed their way through Surrey in 1898). These books show that the average Victorian Joe Sixpack positively expected airship-equipped Jerries and heatray-wielding skywogs to drop from the clouds and into Piccadilly Circus at a moment’s notice any time they popped out to get some milk and a copy of Punch.
But there was a subtler strain of these literary invaders, too: novels in which powerful supernatural creatures arrived from more distant shores, showcasing the British unease with their supposed superiority over Johnny Foreigners from the colonies. Invariably, these invaders come from the ‘mysterious east’, as the Victorians termed anywhere east of the main industrialised European countries. These were lands that had become weak and backward and ripe for exploitation, despite once boasting great civilisations and occult knowledge.
The archetype, of course, is Dracula (1897). A single creature invades England, intending to cause its destruction. He comes from the East- in this case a ridiculously orientalised and under-researched Transylvania (the book almost single-handedly cemented the region’s reputation as a mysterious and superstitious place for centuries to come). He manifests himself as an urbane and refined gentleman from an ancient family, from a culture that has centuries of good breeding and ancient knowledge, but in truth he is a hedonistic creature with many animal-like tendencies and characteristics. The subtext is clear: Easterners are clever, but evil. They may seem civilised, but below the surface, they are animals, and can’t be trusted.
A similar novel is The Beetle by Richard Marsh. Again, a single supernatural being comes to England to wreak havoc; this time he’s from Egypt, another ‘eastern’ land of ancient civilisations and brooding power that had more lately become, to European eyes, decadent and weak. The Beetle is often paired with Dracula—they were released within months of each other and deal with similar topics—but to my mind The Beetle hits a lot closer to home.
Certain sources of unease that might have been niggling at the back of the Victorian psyche are called into play in this novel, for by its year of publication, 1898, Britain had become the de facto occupier of Egypt. I guess you don’t conquer a quarter of the world’s population without acquiring a few hang-ups. Even after decades of convincing themselves that they were ‘better’ than the races they subdued, it must have been extremely strange for the Victorian English psyche to find themselves ruling Egypt, the home of one of the most revered inspirations for Western civilisation.
So while our hypothetical Victorian reader is waiting anxiously for the next instalment of his favourite pulp to be published in The Strand magazine, it’s possible that he gets a certain illicit thrill from the notion that, just perhaps, the vanquished nations lucky enough to have fallen under the protective blanket of the Pax Britannica might somehow yet get their revenge on their aggressor: it could happen here.
In Guy Boothby’s Pharos the Egyptian (1923), this subtext takes centre stage much like a fat woman dressed as a Viking does in a Victorian opera. Boothby seems to be mostly remembered today for his Dr Nikola books, which were about a Moriarty-like international criminal (who was later the inspiration for James Bond’s many nemeses). But Boothby was also a well-travelled Australian whose just-below-the-surface unease with colonialism consistently crept into his books. In Pharos the Egyptian, he created a character who is the living (sort of) embodiment of the notion of the downtrodden Eastern nations wreaking a terrible revenge upon the colonial powers.
The book’s narrator is one Cyril Forrester, a well-off artist. Through him, we get a fascinating glimpse into the day-to-day life and rituals of an upper class Victorian. His life is a revolving door of parties, dances and ‘home concerts’. Old Cyril has barely to leave his flat for ten minutes and his ‘letter-bowl’ is practically overflowing with invites to social events (up to five a night, too—this man has options!)
Alas, Cyril Forrester’s carefree dandy-days come to an end when he meets a creepy, wizened old man cackling at a suicide drowning in the river below Cleopatra’s Needle in London. Like any good Englishman, Forrester is outraged at this beastly behaviour, but the man doesn’t stick around to be berated for his inappropriate chortling. Over the following weeks Forrester becomes inexorably drawn to this strange old man, largely because he keeps turning up at the same social functions that Forrester attends, but also because he always appears with a knockout brunette in tow.
This woman is a half-Hungarian named Valerie, and she is a typical late-Victorian heroine: that is to say, she is bland, boring and beautiful. She has virtually no characteristics except that she is beautiful and plays the violin extraordinarily well, and Forrester (sigh) falls in love with her. As usual in these novels, it’s the kind of love that seems entirely based on her looks, since we get virtually no insight into anything else about her personality that might attract her to him. She plays a key role in binding Forrester to Pharos, which is the name of the old man.
Illustration by John H. Bacon found on Forgotten Futures.co.uk
One night, Pharos turns up at Forrester’s apartment and, through mysterious means, steals a mummy from him (like any Victorian gentleman, Forrester has a mania for ancient Egypt, and wouldn’t you know it, 20 years ago his father dug up this mummy and left it to him). Pharos also manages to implicate him in a murder, so Forrester, by now sensing that Pharos is a thoroughly rum cove, tries to track him down, only to find out that he’s moved to Naples.
In fairness to Boothby, his characters get around, and from here on the novel spans a variety of colourful locales. Outside Naples, Pharos meets our hero at the ruins of Pompeii, where he comes over a tad strange at what was once the house of a former acquaintance… and by ‘former’ of course, I mean back in Roman times. He waxes lyrical, in fascinating detail, about life in Roman Pompeii. Forrester, however, has obviously never read The Ring of Thoth by Arthur Conan Doyle, so despite this howler, he doesn’t cop it that Pharos is obviously some kind of immortal Egyptian creep who has obviously lived through the times he’s yammering about. Instead, he proves strangely susceptible to the old man’s silver tongue and his claims that their previous dodgy encounters involved serious misunderstandings.