It’s been a long time since I read a novel with maps… and I don’t think I’ve ever read one that ends with an essay explaining its geopolitics. I’ve just finished C.J. Sansom‘s Dominion (Pan/Macmillan, 2012), which is set in an alternative Britain in 1952. The premiss is that Churchill never became Prime Minister in May 1940; instead, the British government under Lord Halifax sued for peace with Hitler. In Sansom’s chillingly plausible vision, Britain became a German satellite state but retained its nominal independence; it was not placed under military occupation but its government (and especially its police apparatus) became overwhelmingly fascist. Germany was given carte blanche in Europe, and continued a relentless, remorseless but ultimately unwinnable war against what was left of the Soviet Union; Britain retained its Empire – which, apart from South Africa, became increasingly restive at the absolutist politics that festered at its heart – and the United States remained isolationist until the election of Adlai Stevenson in 1952.
One of the pleasures of the book (and of Sansom’s closing essay) is his explanation for the historical figures he manoeuvres onto (and off) his stage and the political and geopolitical formations their movements bring into view: Beaverbrook (whom Clement Attlee described as the only evil person he had ever met) as the collaborationist Prime Minister, Oswald Moseley as Home Secretary, Rab Butler as Foreign Secretary, and Enoch Powell (who else?) as Secretary for India; Churchill, together with Attlee and Harold Macmillan, as key figures in the Resistance; and the appearance of a host of minor figures in the world of ‘light entertainment’, dimly remembered from my childhood (I was born a year before Sansom): Isobel Barnett, Frankie Howerd and, a marvellous conceit, Fanny Craddock showing her audience how to cook sauerkraut….
It is in these minor-key details, in the richly imagined world of a post-war Britain in which – since the Blitz never took place – bomb shelters are relicts of an unrealized past, and everyday life re-assumes the drab mantle of the 1930s – that the genius of the novel lies. Sansom conveys with a rare sensibility the banality of Fascism (and, yes, of evil): not only its grotesque monumentality (like Sansom I suspect, I take a grim satisfaction in the University of London’s Senate House becoming the new German Embassy), not only the vile exactions of anti-Semitism (a leitmotif of the book, flickering in and out of view in the smog that grips the capital, is the round-up of Britain’s Jews), but the thousand and one accommodations and submissions made by ordinary people to the extraordinary.
All of this, perhaps inevitably, makes me wonder what I would have done in such circumstances: I’ve been thinking about this ever since I started my history/geography of bombing. Would I have had the courage to join the RAF and bomb Germany? Or would I have had the courage to refuse? But Sansom’s novel – which acknowledges its debt to Len Deighton’s SS-GB – adds another dimension because Dominion is animated not only by its repugnance towards fascism but also, as that closing essay makes clear, by a studied contempt for European nationalisms.
Hi Jasper. Thanks so much — there are parallels to be sure (both Harris and Sansom nail Joe Kennedy, for example), and Fatherland included maps too. Sansom himself describes it as “the best alternate history novel ever written”, but there are significant differences. Some of them are geopolitical (in Harris’s novel the ghastly Edward VII returns to the throne, a prospect Sansom emphatically rules out because “as King, he would have been a headache to any government”, while Japan surrenders to the US after two nuclear attacks). But the staging is different too; unlike Deighton’s SS-GB and Sansom’s Dominion, Fatherland largely plays out in Berlin (in 1964).
All that said, I’m less interested in alternate history or counterfactual history as such than in the ability of these (and other) fictional works to capitalise on historical research to produce a substantial sense of place and landscape: you’ll have caught some of that in my admiration for Tom McCarthy’s C, a very different project but one that also troubles the too simple distinction between ‘fiction’ and ‘fact’ and captures dimensions of the First World War that rarely trouble the standard narratives.
Derek: Fascinating post (as always); due you think Fatherland by Robert Harris preempted Sansom ?
From Jasper (by phone)
Reblogged this on Progressive Geographies and commented:
Derek Gregory on an intriguing counterfactual historical novel.