Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Woman as protagonist in BBC’s re-adaption of Conrad’s The Secret Agent

“This country is absurd in its mania for individual liberty”. This is a sentence of eerily timely resonance. With the onset of Brexit and Vladimir Putin’s claim that it will have “traumatic effect” on Britain, BBC’s recent adaption of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent offers an uncomfortable presentation of politics documented in the murky streets of Victorian Britain.

Published in 1907, and set in 1887, The Secret Agent contextually engages with the Greenwich Bomb Outrage and conveys a story of an anarchist attempting to detonate London in detest of Britain’s overtly politicised liberalism. The uncanny Nostradamus-ism of The Secret Agent has been recognised in the public domain with Peter Lancelot Mallios revealing in his collection Conrad in the 21st Century that following 9/11 attacks, The Secret Agent was “referenced over a hundred times in newspapers, magazine, and online journalistic resources across the world”. With its plot of espionage, global terrorism and suicide bombers, Conrad’s text has become a significant piece in the examination of modernism and terrorism, with critics such as John Gray claiming that Joseph Conrad “can be read as the first great political novelist of the twenty-first century”.

With the recent surge of interest in Conrad’s text following the programme airing in July, one needs to question the contribution that BBC’s adaption offers to the oeuvre of Conrad’s criticism. Tony Marchant’s adaption is acutely aware of global relevance of this text, noting that the “contemporaneity just hit[s]” you “in the face”. Yet, his production precisely fails in this presentation of terrorism. Whereas Conrad’s text is a complex plot of temporality, allusions and non-essentialist ironies, Marchant’s adaption projects Russia as the menacing power and creates a very definite correlation between Europe and non-European terrorism. It is precisely these taxonomies that Conrad stirred away from with the nuances of his writing.

Conrad skilfully conflates the public and private spheres and the institution of terrorism with domesticity through Winnie.

Nevertheless, this adaption offers us something very important to Conradian studies. Vicky McClure’s performance of Winne Verloc, aptly and subtly asserts the female protagonist’s role in Conrad’s narrative. By doing so, this adaption aligns itself with the feminist body of criticism, such as Susan Jones’ Conrad and Women, which challenge the research that claims that Conrad is exclusively a patriarchal writer. In this way, Marchant’s adaption reminds one of Conrad’s purpose for The Secret Agent – to place the female protagonist at the centre of the narrative. In a letter to Ambrose Barker, Conrad wrote that the initial intention of his novel was to write “the history of Winnie Verloc”.  In this respect, Merchant’s re-adaption better presents the nuances of the text and significantly challenges the body of Conradian criticism that reductively attest that Conrad’s female characters are simply stoics with no creative influence in his male-dominated, often seafaring stories.

Keeping in tone with other critics on Conrad, Joyce Carol Oates wrote that Conrad’s “quite serious idea of a ‘heroine’” is always someone who “effaces herself completely, who is eager to sacrifice herself in the ecstasy of love for her man”. So how does Winnie Verloc, and Vicky McClure’s portrayal of her character defy this? Winnie, as critics note, is still positioned within the domestic sphere, marries for convenience and believes deeply “life doesn’t stand much looking into”. Yet, Marchant’s adaption gives focus to Winnie’s role and demonstrates how The Secret Agent serves as a re-examination of the female within patriarchal society. Vicky McClure gives credence to Winnie as an active agent within the domestic sphere and poignantly conveys Winnie’s character in a manner that transforms Winnie into a signifier for “everywoman. Significantly, Winnie is the only protagonist in the novel to manipulate institutional structures – cleverly using the institution of marriage to escape an abusive father and marrying Verloc to ensure security for herself and her disabled brother.

Conrad skilfully conflates the public and private spheres and the institution of terrorism with domesticity through Winnie. Whereas the bombing of the Observatory fails in the narrative, the ultimate act of violence and usurpation of authoritative power lie in Winnie. Out of the three deaths described in The Secret Agent, those of espionage Verloc, pseudo suicide bomber Stevie, and Winnie, only one is described explicitly – Winnie’s murder of her husband Verloc. Yet, the emphasis is not on the murder, but it is Winnie’s psychological being that Conrad focuses on – giving Winnie the ultimate voice in the narrative.

The reviews of Tony Marchant’s broadcast have largely focused on the shortcomings of the adaption to convey the subtle allusion and ironies of Conrad’s plot of terrorism. Nevertheless, despite these limitations, the recent BBC airing offers an important examination of the position of the Victorian woman and the manners in which she can negotiate agency within the androcentric structures of Victorian politics. Marchant’s production achieves the fundamental aim of Conrad’s narrative – to convey the domesticity and passivity of the Victorian woman, and to hold up that stereotyping for critique.

Featured image credit: Joseph Conrad. CC0 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Recent Comments

  1. Karen

    Very interesting, thank you.
    However, this article is full of typos, e.g. ‘taxonomies that Conrad stirred away from with the nuances of his writing.’ and: ‘attempting to detonate London in detest of Britain’s ‘
    so please proof and edit again as it looks very sloppy like this.

    Also, anarchists and other political activists had been using bombs for some time by 1907, and one even managed to set off WW1 a few years later…Conrad was in the thick of it.

Comments are closed.