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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
Written by Miguel de Cervantes, The 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.
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.
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.
Sarah Waters' Tipping the Velvet, set almost exactly the same year as The Secret Agent, revolves around a Music Hall performer.