Susan Jones is Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford and Fellow of St Hilda’s College. She has published widely on Joseph Conrad, modernism, women’s writing, and the history and aesthetics of dance. She is an editor of Joseph Conrad’s Chance (1914), an ongoing project for the Cambridge Edition of the Works of Joseph Conrad. Her latest book, Literature, Modernism, and Dance was published by Oxford University Press in 2013. She is Director of Dance Scholarship Oxford (DANSOX), a programme funded by The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH).
As female characters go, Winnie Verloc counts as a very dangerous woman.
She is one of Joseph Conrad’s most deadly female protagonists, since she murders her husband. Yet until that moment she lives a relatively unexciting life dutifully married to Adolph Verloc, eponymous protagonist of The Secret Agent (1907), Conrad’s novel of blighted espionage and failed anarchist plots set in London in the early twentieth century. Verloc, a man of mixed European origins, works for the Russian Embassy in London as a spy – his mission is to instigate unrest among a group of anarchists on English soil.
Verloc’s credentials are hardly spectacular. His previous experiences include an unsuccessful attempt, while serving in the French artillery, to steal designs of ‘the improved breeze-block of their new field-gun’, which resulted in a spell of five years’ imprisonment. But the Embassy keeps him on nevertheless. Conrad’s picture of espionage is highly sardonic, as Verloc is indolent and unfocussed by nature, and he sees a chance to settle into a lazy and comfortable life when he meets Winnie.
Winnie is neither a spy, nor does she adhere to the literary trope of femme fatale, and she knows nothing of Verloc’s secret pursuits. She is a lower-middle class woman of few prospects who marries the ‘comfortable’ Mr Adolph Verloc in order to protect and provide for her disadvantaged brother Stevie. Winnie’s overriding motto is that ‘life doesn’t stand much looking into’, and she sacrifices herself to a marriage of convenience without question. Winnie never asks 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’, where he retails pornography, as a front for the anarchists’ meetings.
But eventually he is required by his paymasters to deliver – to create 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. Winnie’s discovery of Verloc’s responsibility triggers the grief and rage that goads her into murdering him. Her subsequent suicide constitutes the final tragedy of this most skeptical of spy stories.
Conrad’s narrative is nevertheless predominantly a political critique. In part it focuses on the extraordinary lassitude 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 of the novel hinges on a comedy of grotesques – a motley crew of subversives – but the price of the anarchists’ incompetence is nevertheless the slaughter of innocent human life, 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 (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 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 Sabotage). 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 as the clock’s ‘ticking’ is simultaneously presented against the ‘trickling’ of Verloc’s blood. But more than this, Winnie’s rebellion is in effect the real rebellion against ‘time’. Conrad here illustrates the interdependence of public and private life in a society where Ruskin (Sesame and Lilies) had idealized domestic space and time as sacrosanct, an enclosed world protected from the public sphere.
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 (like Mickiewicz’s Grazyna ). Winnie Verloc was, in fact, always the heroine of this novel. She was the original impetus for Conrad’s story. 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.
Eventually the anarchist plot encroached on the domestic story, yet 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 denouement of the novel. Effectively Conrad questions in this novel the position of women deprived of agency in patriarchal structures of late Victorian, early twentieth-century society and politics.