Erskine Childers’ extraordinary life and death (part 2)

December 4, 2020 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: fiction, writers, writing.

After the publication of The Riddle of the Sands in 1903, Erskine Childers could have settled in to a literary and possibly a political life in London. The book had achieved astonishing success and popularity.

The book had also become an important part of the ongoing debate in England at the time about the nation’s military preparedness. Despite the fact that England was an island nation, there was a growing fear that it could be invaded, particularly by the increasingly militaristic Germany.

In the 1890s, Germany, under Kaiser Wilhelm, had built a great Navy with much fanfare — a Navy that was designed to challenge the British dominance of the seas.

Childers’ novel seems to show that an invasion was a distinct possibility, if not a likelihood. The novel sparked a slew of other Invasion novels. One, in particular, was by William Le Queux titled The Invasion of 1910, which was published in 1906. That novel was serialized by the London Daily Mail. To promote readership, the Daily Mail sent out newsboys dressed as German soldiers with placards showing maps revealing the next city that  the German army would be hitting in that day’s episode. 

In addition to all of this, The Riddle of the Sands was something new in literature – it  was the beginning of the modern espionage novel. It is easy to imagine Childers maintaining his writing life and having a lasting impact on British letters.

That is not what Childers chose to do, however.

Childers traveled to America where he met his future wife, the daughter of a Boston family who traced their roots back to the Mayflower. Her name was Mary Alden Osgood, but her family called her Molly.

Childers and his new wife returned to London where he eventually resumed his job with the House of Parliament. He still hoped for a political career. He did not pursue much in the way of fiction, but he continued to write items having to do with politics in the military. He also began to take an interest in the issue of Irish home rule.

Childers had begun life as a staunch British imperialist, but by 1914 his love of Ireland had overcome those earlier feelings. no one knows exactly what might have changed his mind. Some believe that his American wife Molly played some role in his transformation. 

Even though Childers was highly sympathetic with the idea of Independence for Ireland, he still in many ways supported the British effort against Germany in World War I. He held several positions with the British military during the war and distinguished himself in various areas, including, ironically, planning an invasion of Germany. Childers also spent some time in the newly formed Royal Air Force.

More and more, however, Childer’s sympathized with the Irish, and at the end of the war, he had joined a delegation from Ireland that attended the Paris peace talks seeking autonomy for that nation. The British, of course, did not grant Ireland any sort of autonomy in Paris. After the peace talks had been concluded, the situation in Ireland deteriorated to such an extent that not only was there a war against the British, but there was also a civil war among the Irish.

Childers was a vocal critic of an Anglo-Irish peace agreement that was imposed on Dublin by the British in 1921. But because he was an Englishman,  the factions within Ireland grew more and more distrustful of him while the British considered him a traitor. The Irish Free State government in 1922, in order to gain control of a deteriorating situation, imposed martial law on Ireland. A provision of this law stated that anyone caught in possession of a gun would be subject to execution.

In November of that year authorities rated the home of Childers and found a pistol – witch, ironically, had been a gift from the assassinated Irish leader Michael Collins.

Childers was quickly tried and sentenced to death. His lawyers filed appeals, but the government was determined to carry out the sentence quickly. Consequently, on November 24, 1922, Childers faced a firing squad.

As a final act, Childers shook the hands of each of the members of the firing squad. When they lined up to face him, he said, “Take a step  or two forward, Lads, it will be easier that way.” Thus ended the life of the writer who gave us the first modern espionage novel.

In assessing his life and work, Eric Sandberg, who teaches English at the City University of Hong Kong, writes:

Childers was not, however, just a smuggler, soldier and politician. He was also a writer, so it is perhaps unsurprising that the quotidian exceptionalism of his life, his at once remarkable and commonplace involvement in history, should find expression in his literary work. In fact Childers’ main legacy is, arguably, not his contribution to the cause of Irish independence, nor the extraordinary story of his life, but the single novel of adventure he published in 1903, The Riddle of the Sands, a work which establishes some of the key characteristics of the spy novel, and in doing so offers a powerful fictional matrix for working through the twentieth-century individual’s experience of history. (Eric Sandberg (2018) “A Terrible Beauty is Born”: Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands, the Spy Thriller and Modern Identity, English Studies, 99:5, 538-553, DOI: 10.1080/0013838X.2018.1475592)

Sandberg’s article is an excellent assessment of The Riddle of the Sands as a spy novel.

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