Earnestness and Nationalism: Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands (1903)

The Riddle of the Sands (1903), the only novel by Erskine Childers, is a once immensely popular and still highly readable spy yarn distinguished by the wealth and accuracy of detail with which Childers describes the Dutch coast around which his heroes, Davies and Carruthers, are sailing. The geoliterary setting is murky and foggy, and beneath the murk are all sorts of strange and underhanded goings-on, which gain their urgency by their relation to the underlying threat of invasion that Childers felt England faced from a strong and rapacious German nation. The basis of Childers’ thought, as revealed in the novel, is almost wholly nationalistic: love of country is the way out of dilettantism and mammonism and into earnestness and manliness.

The narrator, Carruthers, is at the opening of the story a man about town in London, eagerly seeking social outlets, but bored and conscious that he is a non-entity in social terms, and even in existential terms, being reduced to “the dismal but dignified routine of office, club and chambers” (2). The picture of London society that is painted by Childers is the familiar one of an inescapable labyrinth of superficiality and false consciousness. There is no respite from this mode of being in London, except solitude, and that is dreary and morbid. When he agrees to join the barely-known Davies in a cruise around the Frisian Islands, then, the stage is set for a casting off of the London-self, and a becoming, a baptism in the cold, refreshing North Sea: “As I plied the towel, I knew that I had left in those limpid depths yet another crust of discontent and self-conceit” (18).

The contradiction of The Riddle of the Sands is that life as lived in England, in so far as it is presented, is viewed entirely negatively, but the only mode of serious living offered is the dedication to the defence and the greater glory of this same England: for England, but not in England. What is striking is that, far from engaging in anti-German propaganda, Davies, Childers’ model of English manhood, shows an obvious respect for the German national character, as he sees it, praising the Kaiser warmly and seeming to see them as no less worthy than the English, but still opposed to any German expansion or imperialism along English lines: “I don’t blame them […] We can’t talk about conquest and grabbing. We’ve collared a fine share of the world, and they’ve every right to be jealous. Let them hate us, and say so; it’ll teach us to buck up; and that’s what really matters” (81). This is the closest the novel comes to adopting a reflective attitude towards imperialism, notably in Davies’ use of the word “grabbing”. Yet any moral difficulties that may arise from the practice of “grabbing” are left unexamined, indeed quickly forgotten in Davies’ focus on the need for a national “bucking up”, and the potential energizing benefits of  German hostilities.

Concurrent with his espionage investigations along the Dutch coast, Davies falls in love, with Clara Dollman, presented as a German but who, through “the racial instinct” (156), Carruthers quickly divines to be English. She barely appears in the book, though she is apparently much on Davies mind, an eternal English feminine drawing him to higher spheres. At Carruthers first meeting with her, it is hard to tell where Englishness ends and Clara begins: she has “[t]wo honest English eyes” and “an honest English hand” (156), and is ultimately suitable because she is ideal Englishness embodied in a female form. In the 1979 film of The Riddle of the Sands, Clara (Jenny Agutter) appears much more often, indeed the first piece of dialogue after the initial voiceover is Clara’s; the film tones down the nationalism and turns up the romance angle, unsurprisingly.

In Childers’ book, Davies remains an endearing character: honest and sincere, brave and competent in his sphere, not intellectual or academic (his spelling is notably poor, as shown in Chapter 25), but full of the classic English virtue, pluck, a word occuring several times in Riddle.

Pluck, n., 4. a. colloq. Courage, originally viewed as residing in the heart; boldness, spirit; tenacity in adversity. (OED)

All of these virtues are seen to be not only absent but impossible in the London society of the book’s opening, and Childers was evidently of the opinion that only in the nationalist sphere was this model of manliness expressible. His nationalism is unreflective, and its appeal is less theoretical than practical: it is a way of growing up and of earnest being in the world. Carruthers watches Davies at work and reflects with awe: “I had just a glimpse of still another Davies – a Davies five years older throbbing with deep emotions, scorn, passion and stubborn purpose; a being above my plane, made of sterner stuff, wider scope” (54). This yearning for earnest being seems to me to be an important component in Childers’ nationalism, and is also another manifestation of that great Victorian obsession with earnestness, traceable to a large extent to Carlyle. Childers’ career took an unexpected path when he became converted to the cause of Irish nationalism (he was born in Ireland, a member of the protestant ascendancy), and eventually ended his life executed in the Irish Civil War. Riddle, then, provides a snapshot of an ideology at a vulnerable and volatile stage, and shows how the imperialist mindset was so attractive to the minds in formation of the young men of the time.

Erskine Childers, The Riddle of the Sands (London: Adlard Coles Nautical, 2010)