This post was originally part of InSpyNoMo.
It’s worth noting that the debate as to where, when and how the spy genre got started is actually fairly intense. Some claim it all began with James Fenimore Cooper‘s The Spy (1826), some say Homer’s Odyssey, some believe it began with the story of Caleb and Joshua, some that it actually all began with Japanese folktales of ninjas and migrated over trade routes. Although these all have elements of espionage, I believe the genre (as a genre) didn’t really begin to take shape until the early 1900s when the spy thriller, when a continuous movement began. Nonetheless, it’s interesting to look back at pre-genre examples of spies in fiction as, if you remember Eric Ambler, they provide insights into the attitudes and preconceptions at work the time in which they were written.
I was reminded of William Godwin‘s The Adventures of Caleb Williams, or Things As They Are (1794) while I was reading One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (1940) by Agatha Christie. In it Christie’s Poirot is faced with agents of the British Secret Service, a Greek secret agent and a myriad spies and spooks sneaking about trying to change the world. I might look at it more in depth for Day 19, as it’s a wonderful example of how the popularity of the spy genre influenced other genre writers in the lead up to the Second World War. However, the reason why it made me turn to Caleb Williams is that the phrase ‘things as they are’, the subtitle for Godwin’s text, is repeated throughout the text. It made me wonder if Christie herself hadn’t done a bit of research into the history of the spy genre herself when setting about to write her story.
I’ve mentioned before that spies in fiction, prior to WW2, were rarely placed in the position of the hero. Rather they were if not the villains then certainly not anyone to be taken into a lasting confidence. Looking back as a genre was beginning to take shape, attitudes towards actual spies and secret agents were levelled with wariness and mistrust (which you can definitely see at work in Riddle of the Sands, for instance). In fact, more often than not, the spy is little more than a criminal operating on a grand politicised scales, while the hero is unwillingly thrust into events beyond his control, which he nonetheless seeks to rectify. This isn’t relegated to the pulpier side of the genre; even more literary authors, such as Rudyard Kipling (Kim, 1901) or Joseph Conrad (The Secret Agent, 1907), reflect a passionate uneasiness for the type of person who could enter themselves into spying.
Their stories situated the spy in the borderlands of morality. While they recognised the necessity of spying for reasons of national security, the actual figure of the spy was regarded with anxious disquietude. Anyone who would knowingly engage in such suspect activities must himself be suspicious. Although this attitude was not relegated solely to foreign agents, there was a tacit agreement that spying was something ‘the other side’ engaged in. This means that characters such as Verloc and even Kim, certainly Mahbub Ali, are immediately held with suspicion, even if they are unusually central to the plot.
Curiously, the suspicion that cast all spies as villains can be traced back to an eighteenth-century preoccupation with property crime as well as a disconcertion with social mobility (which itself could considered a form of ‘status crime’ against the upper classes). Consider the story of Lady Godiva’s naked canter through Coventry. The townsfolk agreed not to observe Godiva as she passed by, but that Peeping Tom broke that trust and spied on her. ‘Peeping’ was a crime of the most intimate nature, because it violated the sanctity of the private body, but also socially assumed shields between gender and class. So we find that while military and political spies were a common feature of all political systems, conventions of honour and social privacy held that spying of any form, be it espionage or voyeurism, was considered something of a rape of social order and values.
This certainly provided the grounds for William Godwin’s novel. Caleb Williams discovers his master, Mr Falkland, has murdered a man and walked free by framing another. In spite of his lowly position, he sets out to expose Falkland’s crimes. Initially, Caleb, though amazed and secretly delighted in his own daring, is more appalled he ever discovered the secret in the first place than he is with the nature of the crimes themselves. After his intention to expose the truth becomes known by Falkland, he finds himself on the run. As Falkland’s men chase him from up and down England, Caleb adopts a number of different disguises in order to avoid capture. He quickly realises that if he is to survive he must adopt the gestures and accents of those around him, their style of dress and the way they walk must become his; yet, in these transformations, he fears that the necessity of his ‘counterfeit manners’ becomes akin to is role as spy against Mr Falkland.
As he becomes further enmeshed in his disguises and the lies that go with them, Caleb is increasingly aware that he is losing his grasp on himself. His own real identity seems to be getting written over. Later, he frets that
[e]very atom of my frame seemed to have a several existence, and to crawl within me.
However, he know he can only succeed in escaping Falkland’s by spying on those who take him in, in order to and he is all too aware that spying was what got him into this mess in the first place. Eventually Caleb becomes
seized with so unconquerable an aversion to disguise [that] the idea of spending my life impersonating a fictitious character, that I could not for present at least reconcile my mind to anything of the nature.
Weary of being on the run, he decides to ‘come in from the cold’ and take his information against Mr Falkland to the authorities.
Is Caleb Williams really the first true proto-British spy thriller? It’s indeed a possibility. Its peeping protagonist on the run until such time as the adversary can be exposed bears many of the elements we now associate with the genre. The navigation between moral ambiguity and active voyeuristic participation can be seen later reflected in the twentieth-century division between realism and sensation. The underlying moral uncertainty that haunts Caleb throughout his adventure will later become one of the key features of the realistic branch of the genre; while the sensational side becomes steeped in the chase narrative that necessitates chameleon-like shifts through disguises and cover stories.
There are heaps of things I could get into here, but it would make for an intolerably long post. Suffice to say, Caleb Williams is part of a long history of British crime stories. It’s a history that is as much politically motivated (as Godwin certainly intended his novel) as it is socially and morally motivated. The roots of almost all major thriller genres can be traced through to texts like Caleb Williams. Though they disguise themselves with an escapist front, virtually all major thriller genres actively seek to question the social/political infrastructure of their time. They engage the reader in a dialogue, asking whether or not things should remain as they are, or if there mightn’t be something better.