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Conrad and Greenwich

In February, 1894, a man called Martial Bourdin blew himself up in Greenwich Park with the explosives he was carrying. His actions have never been entirely explained, but it has been suggested that he killed himself up accidentally while attempting to blow up the Observatory, and that he may have been put up to the deed by his brother-in-law, a well-known anarchist, H.B. Samuels. David Nicoll in his pamphlet of 1897, "The Greenwich Mystery" complicated the matter by arguing that Samuels was an agent provocateur, who had in fact used Bourdin as a dupe, intending that he be arrested in Greenwich with the explosives on him, and so bring the anarchist movement into disrepute. Other anarchists of the time did distance themselves from the Greenwich explosion, claiming no connection with it. Joseph Conrad would have read about the explosion in the newspapers, and was probably aware of Nicoll's pamphlet. This incident provided the germ for Conrad's novel, The Secret Agent.
"Dynamite outrages", as contemporaries called them, were common at the time. The 1880s had seen a series of explosions and bomb attempts in London, including on the underground system, Whitehall and in 1885, on the House of Commons and on the Tower of London. The term, "anarchists", may have covered a spectrum of political activists and terrorists. These attacks were often attributed to the Fenians, or Irish Nationalists, but other political groupings active in Britain included Russian opponents of the Tsarist regime and Italian exiles. Conrad was acquainted with the Rossetti family, whose younger members, Olive, Arthur, and Helen published the anarchist journal, "The Torch" from their basement in St Edmund's Terrace, and whose house was a meeting-place for European, especially Italian, anarchists. However, it is the Russian angle which Conrad emphasises. Tsar Alexander II had been assassinated by a bomb in 1881, and in his novel, Conrad makes the Russian embassy keen to organise a spurious act of terrorism through a double agent in order to alienate the public and the establishment from any sympathy with anarchists living in Britain.
Conrad took these intriguing materials and formed them into a deeply ironic domestic drama. It may also that he was attracted by the contrast between the semi-rural beauty of the Greenwich environs and the mangled human remains after an explosion. The Observatory may not seem the obvious target for a dynamite attempt, but Conrad has his Russian official, Vladimir, justify his choice of an attack on the Observatory, by explaining that it is only an attack on science and learning which will end complacency: "it would be really telling if one could throw a bomb into pure mathematics. But that is impossible." Conrad also highlights the new techniques of police surveillance and detective work of his time. However, Conrad's particular achievement is to foreground the domestic tragedy of the affair, and to bring forward as his key character, Winnie Verloc, the older sister of the young man who is accidentally blown up. Although at the time of writing, London stood at the heart of an empire at its territorial zenith, the world of the novel as seen through the Verloc household is oppressive, troubled, and even claustrophobic, all rendered in a distinctively Conradian ironic style.


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