Page 81. " no man is a hero to his valet "

A portait of Michel de Montaigne by Thomas de Leu (c. 1600)
Public DomainA portait of Michel de Montaigne by Thomas de Leu (c. 1600)

This phrase, perhaps the most famous in the book, derives from Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), who wrote “Peu dʹhommes ont esté admirés par leurs domestiques” (few men are admired by their domestic staff). You can also find a similar sentiment in the New Testament of The Bible: “A prophet is not without honour save in … his own house” (Matthew, Chapter XIII, Verse 57).


Page 82. " Seven years' hard "

Seven years’ hard labour. A standard prison sentence for the sort of crimes that Chief Inspector Heat was used to encountering among thieves. Hard labouring could consist of extreme manual labouring on roads or working the land, or might involve futile physical exertion on devices such as the hand crank, a handle which convicts had to turn to drive a paddle through a tank of sand. 

Page 86. " an enormous double inkstand "


Example of a double inkstand
Public DomainExample of a double inkstand

Page 86. " Speaking tubes resembling snakes "

An example of a speaking tube
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeAn example of a speaking tube - Credit: MaciejKa

A speaking tube is a device made up of two cones connected by an air pipe. It was designed to carry sound over a long distance, so that someone speaking in one room could communicate with a person in another part of the building, ship or train without raising his or her voice. 

Page 88. " trying to his sensitive liver "

Claude Galien by Pierre Roche Vigneron (around 1865)
Public DomainClaude Galien by Pierre Roche Vigneron (around 1865)
Historically, the liver was regarded as the seat of the passions, a view which had its basis in the writings of the Roman physician Galen. In saying something is trying to the Assistant Commissioner’s liver, Conrad is implying that it gets on his nerves.

Page 90. " his daily whist party at his club "

Garrick Club, 1864
Public DomainGarrick Club, 1864 - Credit: Illustrated London News

Whist is a card game played by four players in two pairs.  These days you can play whist online.

The Assistant Commissioner’s club was one of a number of gentlemen’s clubs in London in the late nineteenth century, some of which still exist today. Membership was exclusive to men and could only be gained if you were recommended by an existing member and approved by the membership committee. 

Page 96. " She disliked the new element of plutocracy in the social compound "

Plutocracy is a political system where the wealthy are in control. This is at odds with the great lady’s liking for absolutism, a system in which complete power is given to a monarch or dictator.

Page 99. " an energetic Don Quixote "

An illustration by Gustave Doré from the 1906 edition of Don Quixote
Public DomainAn illustration by Gustave Doré from the 1906 edition of Don Quixote

Written by Miguel de CervantesThe Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha is a two-volume Spanish novel, first published in the early seventeenth century. It is one of the most frequently referred to texts in the world, and describes the hare-brained quests of a retired country gentleman who decides to reinvent himself as a gallant knight. The name is now synonymous with naïve hopefulness and ambition. Conrad twice compares the Assistant Commissioner to Quixote over the course of the book.

Don Quixote on Book Drum

Page 100. " Norse rover's moustache "

Here Conrad reflects the opposition between the Assistant Commissioner and Chief Inspector Heat in physical terms. While the Assistant Commissioner has previously been described as a dark, Mediterranean-looking man – a Don Quixote – Chief Inspector Heat is here shown to be fair, like a Norse rover, a traveler from ancient Scandinavia.

Page 100. " the manager of the Music Hall "

Wilton's Music Hall
Creative Commons AttributionWilton's Music Hall - Credit: K. Thompson

The Music Hall was a very popular form of entertainment for the working and lower middle classes in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Its shows were made up of performances - or “turns” - from singers and dancers of the day, many of which were quite risqué.  In London, Wilton’s Music Hall still stands as an example of the art form’s glory days. 

Listen on Spotify: Down at the Old Bull and Bush      They’re Moving Father’s Grave to Build a Sewer

Sarah Waters' Tipping the Velvet, set almost exactly the same year as The Secret Agent, revolves around a Music Hall performer.