In The Honours, 13-year-old Delphine Venner, living in the stately home of Alderberen Hall in pre-war Britain, is convinced that her mother and father have fallen under the influence of a shadowy organisation, plotting within secret tunnels under the Hall.
Positing the existence of such clandestine groups is typical of the conspiracy theorist. Here the novel's author, Tim Clare, looks at how such ideas flourished long before the mass media and the world wide web allowed arcane and unorthodox views of the world and how it works to spread at the press of a button.
I love conspiracy theories. There’s something perversely optimistic about the idea that a small group of guys with a dream could get together and change the world. After all, a ‘conspiracy’ is just cooperation with bad PR.
In my novel, The Honours, the protagonist, Delphine, is a fully paid-up conspiracy theorist. Unlike me, she doesn’t see it as a brilliant hoot. She is convinced that Britain is threatened by a shadowy cabal who plan to undermine democracy and seize power. She’s not sure who this cabal are, or quite what their plan is, only that they are out there. In fairness, she is only thirteen, and the year is 1935, an age in which the prevailing mood was paranoia.
Between the wars – that cosy interbellum period whose presence in the literary canon mostly boils down to the morose beanos of Jay Gatsby and Agatha Christie’s toff bloodbaths – secret societies, and the fear of secret societies, reached a fever pitch.
One thing we forget is just how common membership of these societies was. In America, by 1920, an estimated 50% of adults belonged to some kind of fraternal order. A lot were insurance lodges that paid a lump sum on the event of the member’s death – perhaps with a private clubhouse that sold booze on the sly to dodge Prohibition.
It’s true that in Freemasonry and similar groups there were rituals, secret teachings, and degrees of initiation, but many of these were truncated or discarded altogether as treasurers found the society profited from initiating as many paying members as possible. Initiations ranged from solemn faux-ancient rites – partly inspired by an upsurge of interest in Egyptology – to out-and-out hazing. ‘Burlesque degrees’, as offered by the Ancient Arabic Order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine – known as Shriners – included the blindfolded initiate sitting on a booby-trapped chair rigged to detonate a blank cartridge when they sat down, or being zapped by a spark coil hidden inside a water-filled well, or riding a mechanical goat. Indeed, ‘riding the goat’ became slang for undergoing a humiliating initiation.
But of course, make anything secret and you invite speculation, suspicion and paranoia. Conspiracy theorists claimed the goat symbolised the daemon Baphomet, with whom the initiate was symbolically engaging in coitus to show their allegiance to Satan. The KKK – which, at the start of the 20th century had all but collapsed as a functioning organisation – made great headway expanding the focus of its lurid, hate-filled paranoia from blacks to include Freemasons, Catholics, Jews, Communists and Liberals, growing its membership from 100,000 in 1921 to over 4 million by 1924.
Meanwhile, anti-Semitic hoax The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was being distributed throughout Europe and America. The document purported to be leaked minutes from a meeting of Jewish elders, discussing their secret plans for dominating the world through lies, undermining morals, sowing discord and usury. Henry Ford paid for the printing and distribution of 500,000 copies. Some versions replaced references to ‘Jews’ with ‘Bolsheviks’ and presented them as proof of the global Communist conspiracy.
Record low costs for paper, printing and distribution meant a boom in special interest magazines, periodicals, journals and newsletters, and a concomitant boom in classified ads. A cottage industry grew up around correspondence societies promising to initiate paying acolytes into mysteries ancient and modern – everything from the secrets of Atlantis to the art of hypnotism. As with fraternal orders, these secret societies operated with varying levels of solemnity – in 1935, the year The Honours takes place, malted-milk drink manufacturers Ovaltine invited children to join ‘The Secret League Of Ovaltineys’. There was a theme song and secret passwords.
If all of this appears self-evidently ludicrous to the modern reader, we must remember that the 20s and 30s were populated by survivors of one of the most horrendous, bloody wars in human history, and featured starvation, coups, governmental collapse, the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the emergence of quantum physics. Faith in conventional politics, Western civilisation, even the fundamental basis of reality, was dissolving.
What the interbellum period really represents is a crisis in rationalism.
Against the background radiation of this fear, rumour and frothing racist fervour, the rise of Fascism feels horribly plausible. The role of the Thule Society – a secret occult organisation which believed in an ancient lost Aryan continent – in the rise of National Socialism has been sensationalised and overplayed, but the irrational belief in secret societies – of cliques of hidden enemies conspiring to bring down civilisation – was crucial.
We’re used to reading about the 1930s with a certain smugness – a sort of moral complacency, where characters state their political convictions in rather blunt terms and we tut and shake our heads. Oh, this one’s a Nazi, we think, how vulgar. Even as novels feign a message of ‘it could’ve happened here’, crypto-Fascists remain comfortably Other, asking only that we revise our sense of the national myth, rather than our personal one.
In The Honours, Delphine is undoubtedly a Fascist in the making. She sees plots everywhere. She spies on her enemies. She fears and despises foreigners. She venerates her father for his military service. She’s obsessed with guns. She kills.
And the most unsettling thing about her – I hope – is she’s really rather likeable.
Of course she is. Irrational beliefs, no matter how abhorrent, aren’t held by monsters. They’re held by people. That, I suspect, is the most terrifying thing about secret societies. When finally your foes have been rounded up and executed, when finally you tear down the brocaded tapestries and reach the inner sanctum, what you find are not monsters.
What you find – if you can bear to look – are frightened human beings, just like you.
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