Victorian Literature and Culture

Research Article

SCRUTINIZING THE BATTLE OF DORKING: THE ROYAL UNITED SERVICE INSTITUTION AND THE MID-VICTORIAN INVASION CONTROVERSY

A. Michael Matina1

a1 Warren Wilson College

The first major example in what would become a long line of popular pre-1914 British invasion-scare narratives was the inflammatory 1871 tale The Battle of Dorking: Reminiscences of a Volunteer. Through its vivid depiction of a German invasion and conquest of Britain, this story was designed to serve as a warning to Britons about the necessity of securing the nation's defenses. The dramatic impact of this work on the Victorian reading public and the political culture of the era has been treated by a number of scholars, most notably I. F. Clarke. Yet little attention has been accorded to the reaction it elicited from the professional peers of its author, Lieutenant-Colonel George Chesney. This interdisciplinary essay – which joins the study of literature with military history and politics – seeks to shed new light on the circumstances surrounding this extraordinarily influential tale, as well as on the genre it popularized, in large part by examining its reception by British officers. It begins by describing the tale's prehistory and emergence into widespread popularity and then evaluates the work's reception within armed forces circles. Some of the most trenchant assessments of this literary text, it turns out, were delivered within the austere confines of the Royal United Service Institution, a body whose meetings functioned as the crucible in which British military and naval judgments were forged.

(Online publication May 18 2011)

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