From the Archives: G. M. Trevelyan, Napoleon Bonaparte, and the First Ever (?) Alternate History Essay Contest

 One the best known early works of alternate history is the British historian, G. M. Trevelyan’s essay, “If Napoleon Had Won the Battle of Waterloo” (1907).  

Trevelyan’s narrative depicts Napoleon’s victory in 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo producing a reactionary shift in British politics under the leadership of the conservative Tory, Viscount Castlereagh, and the suppression of liberal efforts at domestic political reform, punctuated by the execution of Lord Byron.   In focusing on how British history almost turned out worse, Trevelyan’s tale expressed gratitude that events transpired as they did.    

What is more interesting about Trevelyan’s essay is that it was written in response to a contest sponsored by the Westminster Gazette in the spring of 1907 that promised “a prize of fifty pounds” for the best essay describing “the situation that would have been brought about IF NAPOLEON HAD WON THE BATTLE OF WATERLOO.”  

I’m including photos of the original contest’s terms, along with some promotional advertisements for books on Napoleon that were explicitly linked to the contest.  

The fact that such a contest was even conceivable at such an early date – and the fact that the contest organizers expected numerous submissions – reflects the growing awareness of people in Great Britain about alternate history as an independent literary genre.    

I don’t know of any other such contest this early in the 20th (let alone the 19th) century.  But it reflects the broader fact that Anglo-American culture was particularly receptive to wondering what if?  

Why this was the case is one of the questions I’m examining in my ongoing research.