Academic journal article The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)

The Female Offender, the New Woman, and Winnie Verloc in the Secret Agent

Academic journal article The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)

The Female Offender, the New Woman, and Winnie Verloc in the Secret Agent

Article excerpt

"Rarely is a woman wicked, but when she is she surpasses the man."

Italian proverb quoted in Lombroso's The Female Offender (1895)

"Lombroso is an ass."

Anarchist Karl Yundt in Conrad's The secret Agent (1907)

THE WORK OF Cesare Lombroso in many ways typifies the concerns of fin-de-siècle Britain in attempting a serious study of criminal behaviour in light of Darwinist theories and concerns about atavism. An Italian criminal anthropologist, Lombroso used phrenology, including cranial measurements and the classification of facial features, and contemporary assumptions about atavism and degeneracy in an attempt to develop physical predictors for criminal behaviour.1 Because he assumed that women in general and certain ethnic groups and individuals were less evolved, his theories supported the racial and sexual biases of late nineteenth-century Britain.2 As Nicole Hahn Rafter and Mary Gibson, translators of a new edition of Lombroso 's and Guglielmo Ferraro's La donna delinquente (1893) note, the work "constitutes perhaps the most extended proof of women's inferiority ever attempted" (2004: 32).3 Lombroso's assumption that women were less evolved than men had to be reconciled with the fact than his female subjects have fewer anatomical anomalies and women in general a markedly less tendency to commit crime: "The remarkable rarity of anomalies (already revealed by their crania) is not a new phenomenon in the female, nor is it in contradiction to the undoubted fact that atavistically she is nearer her origin than the male, and ought consequently to abound in more anomalies" (Lombroso and Ferraro 2004: 107). Lombroso attributes this lack of anomalies to a "conservative tendency of women in all questions of social order" and a woman's familial duties, because of which she "leads a more sedentary life, and is less exposed than the male to the varying conditions of time and space in her environment" (109). Thus, a woman's domestic duties and limited, "conservative," beliefs prevent the consequences that would likely result from her less evolved state. Examining the causes of women's crime, Lombroso identifies maternal passion among many possible contributing factors, considering the ways in which natural passions like maternal and marital love become twisted into criminal motivation.

Lombroso's theories become the fodder for the dark Darwinism of The Secret Agent. Conrad both mocks Lombroso's typologies and easy classification of degenerates and uses his ideas about atavistic throwbacks and criminal types to sketch his central characters. In particular, he invites his readers to look at the unwilling "free woman" at its heart. The secret Agent interrogates discourses about femininity that proliferated in Edwardian England, telling a story that hinges on sympathy for Winnie and the breakdown of her "unfathomable reserve" even as it depicts her as devolving to "the age of caverns" as she takes her revenge (11, 197). Conrad's portrayal of a series of selfish characters acting from their wants and desires becomes a damning picture that offers no hope or relief for the reader, only "Winnie Verloc's story to its anarchistic end of utter desolation, madness, and despair" ("Author's Note," 8). This novel shows the devastating personal consequences of her husband Verloc's political act and the connections between the public and domestic spheres.4 I argue that Conrad's depiction of Winnie's downfall is selfconsciously political, drawing from discourses on female degeneracy from Lombroso and the discourse surrounding the New Woman of the turn of the nineteenth century to comment ironically on women's liberation and dismantle the possibility of a post-Victorian "free" woman. As Conrad notes, Winnie's end is "anarchistic," and, thus, political, even as it presents a portrait of complete, personal devastation, using the botched bombing of the Royal Observatory in part to explore the unravelling of a late-Victorian family in this seedy vision of post-Darwinist London. …

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