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

Hearing the News in the Secret Agent

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

Hearing the News in the Secret Agent

Article excerpt

AS PETER MAIUOS NOTES, "Newspapers fill The Secret Agenf (2005: 156). References to the press abound, from the early description of the "obscure newspapers" (9) in Verloc's shop window, to the end of the novel, where Ossipon is haunted by the "rhythm of journalistic phrases" (231) used to report Winnie's story in the daily press. This is hardly surprising, given the ubiquity of available newsprint during the years preceding the novel's appearance in 1907. The period witnessed a high point in newspaper publication: until 1905, when The Evening Standard and St James's Gazette amalgamated, in London there were no fewer than twelve morning and nine evening papers.1 This amount of newsprint is indicative of a specific historic period. As the narrator of H. G. Wells's The War of the Worlds (1898) anticipates from the perspective of the early twentieth century: "People in these latter times scarcely realize the abundance and enterprise of our nineteenth-century papers" (2005: 12). Such "abundance" included individual newspapers running to several editions daily. As an example, The Evening News had six daily editions in 1905. In this context, this essay seeks to consider how The Secret Agent evokes popular news exchange in the late-Victorian era, especially as expressed through the experience of the "well informed" Comrade Ossipon (229).

"Glancing" at the News: Conrad's Portrayal of a Reading Public

Writing in 1909, in W. H. Smith's in-house journal The Newsbasket, an employee contrasted this frequency of publication with the early 186Os, when there were just two editions per day, except on "extraordinary occasions," when an extra edition was published and printed as a "special."2 By 1905, the sense of urgency surrounding the news is reflected in the plethora of timed editions: in that year, for example, The Evening News published a "second extra," a "late extra," and a "last pink edition." Conrad evokes this news-bound world at the beginning of "The Return" (1898), where we see City workers rushing home with their "hastily folded evening papers that resembled stiff, dirty rags of greenish, pinkish, or whitish colour" (Tales of Unrest, 1 18).3

Despite all the references to newspapers in The Secret Agent, it is interesting to note that, Ossipon and Stevie aside, we do not witness much actual reading of them. We learn, for example, that Winnie Verloc had merely "glanced at a morning paper as usual" on the day of the Greenwich explosion, while her husband's newspaper reading is qualified as "looking at" (155, 134). Most significantly, Winnie doesn't glean her information about Stevie's death from a newspaper, but from a conversation that she overhears between Heat and Verloc. This information communicates itself through "muttering" (157), "murmurs" (158) and other auditory clues, such as Heat's speaking "emphatically" (159). As Aaron Fogel argues, Winnie is thereby characterized as "someone hypersensitive to sound and information" (1985: 170). As for Heat's "extra special," evidently of so little interest to Winnie that it is "flung . . . on the floor" (159), that appears to have been purchased merely because "He was interested in horses" (156). Elsewhere in the novel, The Professor is described as "gazing abstractedly" at Ossipon's newspaper, while Michaelis "never looks at the newspapers" (59, 225).

Apart from Ossipon, the novel's only other significant newspaper reader is Stevie. For Peter Nohrnberg, Stevie is an archetype of "halfeducated modern readers" (2003: 50) satirized in Gissing's New Grub Street (1891). For Nohrnberg and Mallios, Stevie is a "consummate figure ... of the modern newspaper itself (2005: 157). However, it seems debatable how far Conrad intended Stevie or any of his characters to represent an "Edwardian reading public," as Nohrnberg suggests (2003: 51; emphasis added), not least because he so carefully locates the story in the earlier period of the late-1880s. By that time, newspaper reading may well have lost the novelty value it held in the 1860s,4 as expressed by Dickens's Betty Higden: "I do love a newspaper" (1998: 198). …

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