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A Literary Tour of London: Joseph Conrad's Soho

Picture of Amy Wakeham
Updated: 3 October 2017
Set in London in the final decade of the 19th century, Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907) takes Soho as both its central location and motif. A tale of espionage, intrigue and revolution, the novel examines the themes of political extremism and social corruption that still resonate to this day.

Mr. Verloc is the novel’s central character. The owner of a porn shop in Soho, he is both part of an anarchist group, a secret agent for an unnamed foreign embassy and a police informant. As a test for his dedication to the embassy, and to awaken the British authorities to the revolutionary fervour in their midst, he’s charged with blowing up the Greenwich Observatory.

London’s Soho is key to the The Secret Agent’s physical and figurative landscape. At the end of the 19th century, it was a seedy area of London that was synonymous with corruption and misdeeds. In the novel, it provides a murky backdrop to Verdoc’s unscrupulous and twisted moral decisions, with the gloomy streets ‘sullen, brooding and sinister.’ Dark, mysterious and difficult to navigate, Conrad describes the streets of Soho as:

‘…an immensity of greasy slime and damp plaster interspersed with lamps and enveloped, oppressed, penetrated, choked, and suffocated by the blackness of a wet London night, which is composed of soot and drops of water.’

The Secret Agent
The Secret Agent | © Alexis Orloff/Flickr

Although completely fictional, Brett Street – the location of Verdoc’s shop – is supposedly based on Irving Street, which runs between Leicester Square and Charing Cross Road in Soho. Conrad’s depiction of it in The Secret Agent is at once threatening and enigmatic:

‘Brett Street was not very far away. It branched off, narrow, from the side of an open triangular space surrounded by dark and mysterious houses, temples of petty commerce emptied of traders for the night…. Beyond all was black, and the few people passing that that direction vanished at one stride beyond the glowing heaps of oranges and lemons. No footsteps echoed. They would never be heard of again.’

The Secret Agent is set in 1886, and Conrad presents London as politically and socially in disarray as at the end of the 20th century. The unruliness of the city, which is contrasted by the utter predictability of Verdoc and other quasi-terrorists, is portrayed when the main character visits his boss at the Embassy outside Soho and finds that the numbering of the buildings has gone awry: ‘…a high, clean wall between two houses, one of which rationally enough bore the number 9 and the other was numbered 37…’ The confusion and irrationality of Soho has seemingly leaked out into the surrounding London neighbourhoods, synonymous with the creeping anarchic extremism that the establishment is concerned with throughout the book.

The advent of modernity and its increasingly uncontrollable nature is also a cause for fear and trepidation in The Secret Agent, and one of the reasons the bomb plot is made in the first place; to awaken the British establishment to the dangers of modernity, and the anarchists that embody its uncontainable possibilities.

‘….all around him, on and on, even to the limits of the horizon hidden by the enormous piles of bricks, he felt the mass of mankind mighty in its numbers. They swarmed numerous like locusts, industrious like ants, thoughtless like a natural force, pushing on blind and orderly and absorbed, impervious to sentiment, to logic, to terror, too, perhaps…’

Here London’s population is characterised in animalistic language, reducing them to their supposedly natural fate of ‘pushing on blind and orderly and absorbed’ towards the future, with no thought for control or regulation.

In The Secret Agent, Conrad weaves his tale of espionage, intrigue and base human morality with the cityscape of Soho and beyond. Dark, threatening and all-engulfing, Soho depicts both the deception of the central characters and the self-deception inherent in their actions and beliefs. A metaphor for the darker depths of the human mind, this ‘enormity of cold, black, wet, muddy, inhospitable accumulation of bricks, slates, and stones, things in themselves unlovely and unfriendly to man’ provides the perfect backdrop to the novel.