Simmons, Allan H., Stape, J. H., The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)
IN RESPONSE TO reviews of The Secret Agent in 1907, Conrad fulminated: "I've been so cried up of late as a sort of freak, an amazing bloody foreigner writing in English" (CLZ 488). Foreignness is a hallmark of this novel, from its factual source in the "Greenwich Outrage" of 1894 to Conrad's explanation for its "honourable failure": "I suppose there is something in me that is unsympathetic to the general public. ... Foreignness, I suppose" (CLA 9-10).
When early reviewers referred to the author as a "Slav," they touched a raw nerve: Conrad, who had adopted British nationality, countered to his friend Edward Garnett, "you seem to forget that I am a Pole" (CLZ 492), at the time a linguistic and cultural rather than a national identity. Foreignness had topical currency, as the Alien Act of 1905 demonstrated. Begun in Montpellier in February 1906, The Secret Agent is the first of Conrad's novels with an English setting. It centres on a potential act of anarchism perpetrated by a foreign power on British soil, and is likewise a departure in being "a spy novel" whose narrative methods and pervasive, but not corrosive, irony make heavy demands on the reader.
The Secret Agent is the central novel in the political trilogy, comprising Nostromo and Under Western Eyes as well, that crowns Conrad's greatness as a writer. It is also his great metropolitan novel, aware in a special way of the Condition of England fiction then popular. But the novel makes the familiar life of London strange and anatomizes its society and institutions. As Garnett noted in the same offending review: "It is good for us to have Mr Conrad in our midst visualising for us aspects of life we are constitutionally unable to perceive" (in Sherry, ed., 1973: 191).
It has long been realized that Conrad brought a Continental influence to bear upon the English novel, but the vision here is also fundamentally English. London life is dissected with the scalpel last used (though for the making of wider cuts) by Dickens. In his 1933 essay on The Secret Agent, the German novelist Thomas Mann described the "spirit of the narration" as "impressively English, and at the same time ... ultra-modern, post-middle-class," concluding that modern art "sees life as tragic-comedy, with the result that the grotesque is its most genuine style" (240-41). …