Literature, Immigration, Diaspora: A Cultural History of the 1905 Aliens Act

Lead Research Organisation: University of Southampton
Department Name: Faculty of Humanities


"Although Britain had tried to prevent certain types of persons from entering the country before the early twentieth century, its laws regulating access had been intermittent and ad hoc. The 1905 Aliens Act was the first recognisably modern law that aimed to permanently restrict immigration into Britain according to systematic bureaucratic criteria administered and interpreted by public officials, including the newly created immigration officer. In so doing, the 1905 Act set the precedent for the ever-tightening web of legislation that is in place today. The passing of this law represented a historic break for a nation that had prided itself on offering asylum to refugees and had promoted freedom of movement for much of the previous century. To understand how and why this change occurred, it is necessary to examine not only the parliamentary arena that brought this law into being, but also the different social and cultural milieux from which anti-immigrant sentiments emerged and the resistance such beliefs aroused. Foremost among these milieux was the complex and expanding field of late Victorian and Edwardian print culture. This study follows a broadly chronological approach to the 1905 Act, starting with an introductory analysis of the keyword ""alien,"" a term that gradually lost its feudal and common law meanings and became part of the language of citizenship, as well as a national-racist epithet increasingly associated with ""the Jew."" The first chapter examines a touchstone for discussions of Jewishness and national identity, George Eliot's novel Daniel Deronda (1876), focussing upon its reception among Jews in Britain and Eastern Europe and linking its themes to changes in naturalisation law. Within this novel, images of the liberal state are set against imperial and proto-Zionist visions of history, anticipating later debates about migration, colonial settlement, and Englishness. Chapter Two turns to the role of London's East End as a crucible for anti-alien politics, reading investigative reports alongside local fiction to show how the idea of a civilising mission was tied to questions of ethnicity, labour and political representation. The third chapter looks at the introduction of the idea of ""anti-Semitism"" into everyday speech, identifying several distinct registers and relating these to anti-immigrant press campaigns, the figure of ""the Jew"" in music hall, popular theatre, and fiction, and to the growth of a Radical Right in the Edwardian era, from whose ranks the leaders of the movement for immigration control were largely drawn. In the fourth chapter depictions of the immigrant experience, especially in the work of Joseph Conrad, form the backdrop to an analysis of the arguments deployed in the Royal Commission on Alien Immigration and in Parliamentary Debates from 1902-05. The idea of a Zionist alternative to an Aliens Act is also considered, drawing attention to novels and short stories that take up this theme. The last chapter explores the moral panics around alien criminality that arose in aftermath of the 1905 Act, a fear of anarchist violence and an anxiety about conspiracy that bleeds into an attack on political corruption, uncertainties that are refracted through thrillers, invasion narratives and the Edwardian ""condition of England novel."" A brief afterword reviews the significance of an illiberal social policy administered by the Liberal Party for the celebrated claim that the Edwardian period witnessed the death of Liberal England.


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