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Conrad's Dangerous Heroine

The BBC’s recent broadcast of a three-part dramatization of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent has generated renewed public interest in the 1907 spy novel. The TV version fails in many ways to reflect the work’s complex narrative ironies, but it succeeds in fulfilling one of Conrad’s most important original intentions – to place the role of the female protagonist at the centre of the story. In this respect it restores a frequently unacknowledged aspect of Conrad’s writing: his ability to imagine plausibly the status and psychology of his female characters.

Vicky McClure’s convincing performance as Winnie Verloc, wife of the eponymous spy, Adolphe Verloc, thoughtfully reflects Conrad’s empathy for the tragic disillusionment of a dutiful lower-middle-class woman who, under extreme duress, murders her husband. In the ‘Author’s Note’ to The Secret Agent, written retrospectively in 1920, Conrad declared that ‘This book is that story’, referring to his initial imagining of the character and life of Winnie Verloc.

The Secret Agent is, on the surface, a story of blighted espionage and failed anarchist plots set in London in the early twentieth century at the time of burgeoning anarchist activity throughout Europe. Adolphe Verloc, a man of mixed European origins, works as a spy for the Russian Embassy and informer for the London police. The Russians commission him to instigate unrest among a group of anarchists on English soil. Verloc’s credentials as secret agent are hardly spectacular. His previous experiences include an unsuccessful attempt, while serving in the French artillery, to steal designs for ‘the improved breeze-block of their new field-gun’, which resulted in a spell of five years’ imprisonment. Nevertheless the Embassy keeps him on. Conrad’s picture of espionage is highly sardonic, as Verloc is indolent and unfocused by nature (in the TV version Toby Jones comes across as permanently morose and fearful rather than communicating Conrad’s biting characterisation of essential diffidence), and he sees a chance to settle into a lazy and comfortable life when he meets Winnie, a woman of few prospects who marries him principally to provide security for her disabled brother Stevie.

Winnie’s story, however, provides the tragic undercurrent of the novel. Her overriding motto is that ‘life doesn’t stand much looking into’, and she sacrifices herself to a marriage of convenience without question, never asking about the source of her husband’s income. Verloc continues to indulge in an inactive life as agent on the payroll of the Embassy while using his ‘shop’ in Soho (where he retails pornography) as a front for the anarchists’ meetings. But eventually his paymasters require him to deliver – creating internal turmoil actively in London in the form of a terrorist plot to blow up the Greenwich Observatory. Verloc thoughtlessly embroils Winnie’s fragile and mentally challenged brother into planting the bomb and causes the boy’s death when it explodes too soon. The actress McClure chillingly conveys the moment at which the news is revealed to her, when the police representative, wishing to identify the remains, shows her the address-tag ripped by the blast from Stevie’s coat. Winnie’s discovery of Verloc’s treachery triggers the grief and rage that provokes her to murder him – and her withdrawal into despair is delivered with a poignant economy by McClure, who presents the character’s subsequent suicide as the final tragedy of this most sceptical of spy stories.

Conrad’s narrative is predominantly a political critique. In part it focuses on the extraordinary indifference of the government, whose ineffective policing and laissez-faire attitudes foster corruption at the heart of the metropolis and centre of colonial administration. Based on actual incidents of unrest in London and elsewhere, the proliferation of revolutionary activity from within London’s subculture may, in the novel, seem ultimately ineffective – the irony hinges on a comedy of grotesques – a motley crew of subversives – but the price of the anarchists’ incompetence is nevertheless the obliteration of an innocent human being, and Conrad interweaves the political and domestic stories in such a way as to show that it is indeed Winnie’s story that literally drives ‘home’ the tragedy. Conrad juxtaposes private and public lives in his treatment of Winnie’s ‘sensational’ murder of her husband (an act which appears on one level to borrow directly from popular fictional forms). He negotiates the textual spaces within the novel, presenting Verloc’s pornography store as the intermediary between the ‘slimy aquarium’ of the outer London streets with their quasi-Dickensian atmosphere and the inner sanctuary of jaded comfort of his domestic milieu.

Conrad also uses Winnie’s situation in the domestic sphere skillfully to tease out ironies about the control of ‘time’. The failed destruction of ‘authoritative’ temporal structures in the political plot involving Greenwich Mean Time is reinforced as the cause, in the domestic plot, of the murder. At the moment of the murder, the third person narrator enters Winnie’s consciousness. Having just learned of Stevie’s death, and her husband’s part in it, Winnie sees the portly Verloc reclining on the sofa. He has gratified his appetite by hacking off chunks of meat from the joint on the table in the dining room and now expects the amorous attentions of his wife. Instead, Winnie picks up the knife and raises it above Verloc’s supine figure (a moment Hitchcock exploited to great effect in his film version, Sabotage [1936]). She registers her perception of her deed as distended time, felt from within an altered psychological state. The contrast between clock time and Bergsonian durée is foregrounded in both the novel and TV version. Conrad juxtaposes the clock’s ‘ticking’ simultaneously with the ‘trickling’ of Verloc’s blood. But more than this, Winnie’s rebellion is in effect the real rebellion against time. Here Conrad illustrates the interdependence of public and private life in a society where Ruskin had idealized domestic space and time as sacrosanct, an enclosed world protected from the public sphere (‘Of Queen’s Gardens’ in Sesame and Lilies [1865]).

Winnie wasn’t Conrad’s only murderess – Aïssa in Outcast of the Islands (1896) and Mme Levaille in ‘The Idiots’ (1896) set a precedent – and in each case these women’s despair over men’s actions is viewed sympathetically. Far from incurring the dismissive response of Marlow in Heart of Darkness, who declared women to be ‘out of touch with truth’ in the real world, Conrad’s murderesses are closer to something he borrowed from his Polish Romantic heritage, where women’s sacrifice derives from heroic action, not passivity, in battle.

Winnie Verloc was always the heroine of this novel, but eventually the anarchist plot encroached on the domestic story. Despite Winnie’s exclusion from the anarchists’ activity, it is Verloc’s withholding of knowledge from her, precipitating her murderous action, that constitutes the bitterly ironic dénouement of the novel. The recent TV serial, in spite of its shortcomings, reveals effectively how Conrad questions the position of women deprived of agency in patriarchal structures of late Victorian/early twentieth-century society and politics.

Published: 29 Aug 2016  Categories: English Literature, Literary Theory

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Susan Jones is Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford and Fellow of St. Hilda’s College. She is author of Conrad and Women (Oxford, 1999) and Literature, Modernism, and Dance (Oxford, 2013). She is co-editing Conrad’s Chance for the Cambridge Edition of the Works of Joseph Conrad.