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When William Came
Penguin, 1982, $19.95 (softcover), 944 pp.
White Americans live under something akin to an alien occupation of the mind. Our churches, politicians, journalists, and professors all promote a view of the world that is as damaging to us as would be an ideology imposed by a conquering power. Of course, there has been no military conquest of the United States, and therefore no specific event to which we can point as the origin of this campaign against us. For this reason, only a minority of whites recognize that we are under enemy occupation—intellectually speaking—and many whites are unwitting collaborators in a system that could prove fatal to their civilization.
But what of those who recognize the dimensions of the crisis and have the choice of acquiescence or resistance? When the opposition is in firm control, the rewards of collaboration attract the cowards, conformists, and the unprincipled. Those who are loyal to the memory of older and better ways must be ready to sacrifice—but which sacrifices are meaningful, and how powerful is the temptation to collaborate?
It is these questions that the British author Saki—whose real name was Hector Hugh Munro—explores in his satirical 1913 novel, When William Came. In this case, Britain does not suffer intellectual occupation by the forces of anti-racist liberalism but military occupation by the German Kaiser’s armies. The British are defeated in a lightening campaign in which their navy is destroyed, and the United Kingdom is incorporated as a German province. The Royal Family escapes to India, where a band of loyalist exiles maintains symbolic resistance in the colonies.
Most of the novel describes how members of the leisure class of London accommodate themselves psychologically to a firm but civilized occupation. Just as American whites today are reminded daily of the intellectual occupation under which they live, the British must accustom themselves to new currency and postage stamps, bilingual signs, taxes to pay for the administration, strange uniforms, and an alien flag flying over Buckingham Palace.
The hero, Murrey Yeovil, was traveling overseas at the time of the defeat, and when he returns home after a long absence finds he no longer lives at 28 Berkshire Street but Berkshcirestrasse acht-und-zwanzig. He also finds that his wife Cicely has cheerfully accommodated herself to what is known as the fait accompli. He suggests they emigrate and join the resistance in the colonies.
It’s a difficult question, said Cicely, whether one should stay at home and face the music or go away and live a transplanted life under the British flag. Either attitude might be dictated by patriotism.
It is one thing to face the music, it is another thing to dance to it, said Yeovil.
Really, Murrey, she adds later, if you will think things over a bit, you will see that the course I am following is the one dictated by sane patriotism.
Whom the gods wish to render harmless they first afflict with sanity, says Yeovil bitterly.
Yeovil is appalled that his wife’s gay social life goes on despite the occupation—rather like merry-making with a dead body lying in the house, as he puts it—but is reminded of a passage from a book about Bulgarian social life under Turkish rule:
Bondage has this one advantage: it makes a nation merry. Where far-reaching ambition has no scope for its development the community squanders its energy on the trivial and personal cares of its daily life, and seeks relief and recreation in simple and easily obtained material enjoyment.
Saki continues: The thought of that determined little nation [Bulgaria] came to him with a sharp sense of irony. There was a people who had not thought it beneath the dignity of their manhood to learn the trade and discipline of arms. They had their reward: torn and exhausted and debt-encumbered from their campaigns, they were masters in their own house, the Bulgarian flag flew over the Bulgarian mountains.
Mastery, when it comes, is worth any sacrifice.
Yeovil roams London, trying to understand what has happened, estimating the chances of throwing off the occupation. He strikes up a conversation with a young clergyman who had a keen, clever, hard-lined face, the face of a man who, in an earlier stage of European history might have been a warlike prior, awkward to tackle at the council-board, greatly to be avoided where blows were being exchanged.
Yeovil asks how the lower classes, among whom the cleric works, are taking the defeat. The answer could as well pass for how ordinary Americans feel today about their own occupation: They take it badly, said the young man, badly, in more senses than one. They are helpless and they are bitter—bitter in the useless kind of way that produces no great resolutions.
The cleric is not prepared to take things lying down: I have learned one thing in life, he continues, and that is that peace is not for this world. Peace is what God gives us when He takes us into His rest. Beat your sword into a ploughshare if you like, but beat your enemy into smithereens first.
Yeovil meets a Hungarian, who argues that the British were beaten because wealth and luxury had made them soft, and because they had lost their island-bred suspicions: For the old insular belief that all foreigners were devils and rogues they substituted another belief, equally grounded on insular lack of knowledge, that most foreigners were amiable, good fellows, who only needed to be talked to and patted on the back to become your friends and benefactors.
We in Hungary, he explains, live too much cheek by jowl with our racial neighbours to have many illusions about them. Austrians, Roumanians, Serbs, Italians, Czechs, we know what to think of them, we know what we want in the world, and we know what they want; that knowledge does not send us flying at each other’s throats, but it does keep us from growing soft. Ah, the British lion was in a hurry to inaugurate the Millennium and to lie down gracefully with the lamb. He made two mistakes, only two, but they were very bad ones; the Millennium hadn’t arrived, and it was not a lamb that he was lying down with.
The fieriest character in the novel is an old aristocratic woman Yeovil consults about what he should do:
Are you going to be a fighter, or the very humble servant of the fait accompli? she asks.
I shall never be the servant of the fait accompli, said Yeovil. I loathe it. As to fighting, one must first find out what weapon to use, and how to use it effectively. One must watch and wait.
The old woman astonishes Yeovil by telling him that if she were a young man like him she would become a traveling salesman:
Yes, one whose business took him up and down the country, into contact with all classes, into homes and shops and inns and railway carriages. And as I travelled I would work, work on the minds of every boy and girl I came across, every young father and young mother too, every young couple that were going to be man and wife. I would awaken or keep alive in their memory the things that we have been, the grand, brave things that some of our race have done, and I would stir up a longing, a determination for the future that we must win back… . That is what I would do. Murrey, even if it is a losing battle, fight it, fight it!
Yeovil cannot bring himself to take this advice.
Meanwhile, the Germans are doing their best to turn Britons into Germans, and one of the occupiers has hit upon an eerily prescient set of weaknesses upon which to play:
[T]here is the alchemy of Sport and Drama to bring men of different races amicably together. One or two sportsmanlike Germans on a London football team will do more to break down racial antagonism than anything that Governments or Councils can effect. As for the Stage, it has long been international in its tendencies. You can see that every day.
This German recognizes that the older generation may never be won over, and that it will be necessary to cultivate the young:
The youth of the country, the generation that is at the threshold now. It is them that we must capture. We must teach them to learn, and coax them to forget. In course of time Anglo-Saxon may blend with German … .
Indeed, as we know, if a generation is got hold of early enough, with a will to teach them to learn and coax them to forget, a great people can be made into sheep in just a few decades.
When William Came has a happy ending, but it is rather forced. At the best possible moment, under the most dramatic circumstances, the younger generation peacefully proves its loyalty to Britain, and we are led to believe that this portends eventual liberation from German rule. However, there is little in the novel up to that point to lend credence to this happy ending; the author instead seems to be telling us that once enough people are prepared to collaborate with the unthinkable, the unthinkable becomes routine.
Clearly, there are no answers here to the question of whether so many white Americans have come under the spell of alien consciousness that liberation is impossible. However, we know that for Munro, these were not merely abstract or artistic questions. He appears to have been cut from the same cloth as the young cleric who was intent on beating his enemies into smithereens.
At the age of 44 he enlisted in the Royal Fusilliers as a private and refused a commission. He was killed in combat in France in 1916. He was a far better man than those who pass for the writers and artists of our time.
(Posted on May 5, 2006)