This map plots the settings and references in The Secret Agent
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At the heart of The Secret Agent, and as memorable as the characters that walk its streets, is Victorian London. By 1886, the year the novel takes place, the city's population had swelled to nearly 5 million as workers poured in from the countryside to take up the factory jobs created after the Industrial Revolution.
With so many people flooding into it, the city became a sprawling warren of alleyways and side streets, lined with hastily erected dwellings where families were packed sometimes as many as eight to a room. People who had once known stability and a sense of community in rural towns and villages now found themselves thrown together with anonymous strangers. This, combined with the smoke and smog from London’s factories, could make London’s streets a lonely and sometimes eerie place.
Space wasn’t the only thing at a premium. Clean water and decent sanitation were equally scarce as the city groaned under the strain of its millions of new inhabitants. With raw sewage being pumped into the Thames and diseases such as cholera rife, London was a place of strong and often unpleasant smells. The stench from the river got so bad that in the summer of 1858 Parliament closed because of it. By 1886, a more extensive sewage system was in place, but the smell from horses, meat markets and the ubiquitous coal fires still dominated the streets.
Poverty was extreme in nineteenth-century London, with many people forced into difficult and dangerous occupations to make ends meet, even going as far as scavenging in the sewers to find coins and objects they could sell. Although Verloc’s shop is a front for his anarchist activities, it wouldn’t have looked strange in London’s backstreets where anything and everything was packaged up and flogged to anyone prepared to pay.
For those not cut out for hard graft, crime was the alternative. Although violent criminals, such as the notorious Jack the Ripper, were relatively rare, petty thieves and prostitutes frequented the streets. In 1829, in an attempt to maintain law and order among the burgeoning population outside the square mile, Sir Robert Peel founded the Metropolitan Police, whose officers are still known as “bobbies” because of him today. By the time Chief Inspector Heat and the Assistant Commissioner get on the trail of Conrad's Greenwich bomber, the force has been going nearly sixty years.
The Royal Observatory at Greenwich, the object of Verloc’s bungled terrorist attack, was commissioned in 1675 by King Charles II. It was the centre of British astronomy (see Longitude), and in 1884 an international conference established that the Prime Meridian running through it should be used as the baseline measurement for time, becoming known as Greenwich Mean Time. In 1894, the French anarchist Martial Bourdin blew himself in Greenwich Park when the device he was carrying exploded. This apparently motiveless attack was the inspiration for Conrad’s novel.
A major intersection at the south east corner of Hyde Park. The constitutional arch there was originally built as a northern gate to the grounds of Buckingham Palace. It would have been topped by a statue of the Duke of Wellington on horseback when Mr Verloc passed it.
Greenwich is the location of the prime meridian, the longitudinal line from which all measurements of time are taken. The location of the line was agreed at an International Conference in Milan in 1884, two years before the book is set.
The intersection between Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street is a major crossroads on the edge of Soho. At his first mention, Chief Inspector Heat is already just round the corner from the Verlocs.
Crim Tartary, or Chersonesos Taurica as it was known in the ancient world, was the old name for the Crimean peninsula in the Black Sea. Its original inhabitants, the Tauri, were said to be brutal and harsh people who were gradually civilized by the Grecian colonies that settled in the area. This idea was reflected by Euripides in his tragedy Iphigenia in Tauris a bloody play in which savage fierceness is, to some extent, tamed by religion.
Thirty years before the events of The Secret Agent, Britain had allied with the Turks of the Ottoman Empire against Russia in the Crimean War. Nevertheless, the Turks were seen as a barbarous race in the nineteenth century. If they would act better than the anarchists, then the anarchists must be very bad.
A road leading into Greenwich Park, is very close to George Street (now known as King George Street), which Mr Verloc passed before seeing anyone after leaving Stevie alone with the bomb. His description makes it clear how nearly he could have been caught at the scene of the crime.
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is a pub on Fleet Street in London. It was rebuilt after the Great Fire of London and the names of all the kings and queens who have reigned since it was built are written next to its door. A gloomy place with lots of tucked away corners, it was frequented by many writers including Alfred Tennyson and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.