The Conradian: Review

By Johan Warodell, University of Lancaster

Conrad’s Secrets, by Robert Hampson. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. 312 pp. £58.

Conrad’s Secrets is a bold title to apply to an author who detested journalese and opportunistic phrasing. Yet unlike journalism that delights in exaggeration and the exposure of secrets, Hampson’s study is composed of careful arguments, none of which is directed towards posthumously embarrassing Conrad. Rather than giving us the writer in flagrante, Hampson’s book has a similar historicist outlook to his previous monographs on Joseph Conrad: Betrayal and Identity (1992) and Cross-Cultural Encounters in Joseph Conrad (2001). Indeed, in this latest study he defines secrets as an element of historicist research: knowledge that is foreign to contemporary readers but ‘which would have been familiar to Conrad and his original readers’ (25). In this peculiar definition, there is no clear line between what is secret and what is unknown; the definition encompasses knowledge of history per se, such as public knowledge of anarchism at the time The Secret Agent was published. This is not to say that Hampson’s study should be titled differently: any attempt to approach Conrad’s secrets is a journey to a defining aspect of Conrad the author. Given the characteristic tension between the writer’s private life and public work, the issue of secrets seems central to his artistic being. The paradox of the hermit who defines his occupation as that of fleshing out his innermost being into print for all to see is distinctly Conradian. It is therefore exciting that Hampson has written the first book-length study on the question of secrets, a task undertaken with considerable care and sensitivity.

The introduction situates the book’s ambition within the context of Edward Said, Fredric Jameson and Stephen Cohen’s discussions about the relation between “the literary text and external reality” (23). Following this, Hampson classifies his approach to Conrad as historical-formalist; he seeks to locate Conrad texts “in relation to specific political, social and economic events and circumstances” (25). His focus is not on unlocking secrets Conrad would have encoded in the writing. Instead, he is concerned with turning us into Conrad’s implied reader: providing us with a set of perspectives that allow us to read a text in the context of its original and intended meaning. The assumption, then, is that there is an element of outdated modernity to Conrad. For instance, Hampson aptly demonstrates that The Secret Agent was published in a climate when Europe was the central stage for anarchist activity; Chance was written for an audience under no illusions about the world of finance; Victory first appeared to English readers who were familiar with the everyday reality of prostitution and homosexual scandals. For Hampson, it is clear that there are passages in Conrad that “assume our complicit awareness of these urban secrets” (104). This study can be seen, then, as an attempt to delete the texts’ expiration dates and give them a new lease of life for a twenty-first century readership.

The book’s eight chapters collectively demonstrate that Conrad’s life (lives?) and writings can be subsumed under the title, “secrets” – if, as discussed previously, the definition of the word is stretched. That said, the term fits some works very comfortably: “Under Western Eyes is a novel about secrets of birth, secret motives of conduct, secret knowledge and the secret operations of power” (208). Hampson’s introduction engages with certain gossipy aspects of Conrad’s life – his first love, gambling activity, suicide attempt, the status of his relationships to Marguerite Poradowska and Jane Anderson. For Conrad’s biographers, these topics are frequent sources of discussion, and Hampson introduces them without compromising their complexity. The subsequent chapters mostly steer away from biography towards Conrad’s writings. These chapters – on Covert Plots and Secret Trades, Trade Secrets, Political Secrets, City Secrets, Sexual Secrets, Medical Secrets, Naval Secrets and Covert Confessions – have different primary texts as their focus, resulting in a book that ranges widely across the canon.

Apart from examining Conrad’s more defining texts, such as “Heart of Darkness” and Lord Jim, Hampson devotes large sections to The Rescue, The Arrow of Gold, The Rover and “The Tale”. These works are seldom targets for historicist readings and have frequently been regarded by critics as second-rate. Whereas Thomas Moser and others may find that Conrad’s later appeal to popularity is analogous to the counterfactual of Kant spending his older years writing chick-lit, Hampson sees no quality-divide in Conrad’s output. Along with many others, he has previously articulated an appreciation for the later Conrad. Conrad’s Secrets, however, is one of the first texts to resist the need to defend this interest; thereby, perhaps, allowing its silence on the issue to act as an argument for dismissing the burden of explanation.

In the introduction, Hampson points out that “[t]he biggest area of secrecy is, inevitably, the area of sex and sexuality” (4). Chapter five explores the notion of sexuality in Victory, how it is presented, to whom and why. The chapter develops without references to two book-length studies on sexuality, Richard Ruppel’s Homosexuality in the Life and Works of Joseph Conrad (2008) and Jeremy Hawthorn’s Sexuality and the Erotic in the Fiction of Joseph Conrad (2007). But Hampson adds to these studies in an effort to highlight the perspective by which contemporary English readers would have approached Victory. Lena’s occupational status in the Zangiacomo ladies orchestra may not have been ambiguous to its first readers, whose metropolis was populated by an estimated 120,000 female streetwalkers. In addition, he provides an original and in-depth discussion about censorship that emphasizes the complexity of the contemporary publishing climate. To my knowledge, he is the first to connect the Obscene Publications Act of 1857 to the articulation of sexuality in Victory. When one considers that this act imprisoned Henry Vizetelly for publishing translations of Zola’s novels, one understands the necessity of writing covertly about sexuality.

The chapter on sexuality contains a speculation on the gap between Victory’s chapter four and five – and how the unwritten story here is about Lena and Heyst’s lovemaking. This finding seems indebted to Paul Kirschner in Conrad: The Psychologist as Artist (1968) and Yves Hervouet in The French Face of Joseph Conrad (1990). But Hampson takes this finding further and becomes the first to explore how “a similar use of the chapter end is made by Thomas Hardy in Tess of the D’Urbervilles” (128). This admirable ability to situate Conrad in the context of another writer’s work is symptomatic of his approach. For example, in chapter eight on covert confessions, Hampson notes how “the narrator of Under Western Eyes, despite his asserted lack of abilities, does not simply display his sources – as James Hogg’s The Confessions of a Justified Sinner, Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone or Bram Stoker’s Dracula had done” (215-6). Many comparative observations like these are charged with connections that could spark further research.

Hampson has explored sexuality in Conrad’s work previously, notably in his previous two monographs on Conrad. Although there is in secondary criticism no published work with the direct or exclusive aim of defining Conrad’s concept of love, the concept of sexuality has been studied extensively. Hampson’s recent study seems to reach towards an engagement with the theme of love, but it is not given the same attention as sexuality. To subsume all of Conrad’s love relationships under the label of sexuality seems to involve unexamined assumptions about the overlap between sexuality and love. It is unclear whether “Conrad’s flirtation with the Misses Renouf in Mauritius in 1888 and his emotional interest in Émilie Briquel” (4) should be classified under the category of sexuality. A focused discussion on love would have added to the originality of the study and allowed Hampson to explore Conrad’s “first love” (1) in greater depth.

The chapter on “Political Secrets” opens by placing The Secret Agent in Victorian London, with references to socio-economic cues that indicate wealth or poverty, and above all – a society deeply marked by income inequalities. In this way, the carriages that Verloc perceives, as he makes his way through Hyde Park, are “obvious signs of wealth” (74). Hampson keenly observes how the narrator “serves to question the ideological perspective that values the ‘leisure’ of the ruling class, while condemning the ‘idleness’ of the working class” (74). What follows is a re-visitation of familiar themes – an exploration of Dickens’s influence on the London of The Secret Agent, a contextualization of the sources Conrad gives for the novel in his Author’s Note, and a survey of the contemporary construct of “policing.” Among these sections, the survey on policing appears to make the most original connections, and I am unfamiliar with any previous study that has fruitfully used the findings of John Wilkes’s The London Police in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, 1977) to make creative connections to The Secret Agent.

The chapter on political secrets further explores The Secret Agent under subsections titled “A casual conversation about anarchists,” “Anarchists in late-Victorian London,” “A girl among the anarchists,” and “The Greenwich mystery.” In this way, it introduces new readers to many the novel’s essential topics. For example, Hampson demonstrates that the memoir, A Girl Among the Anarchists (1903), is “a possible source for The Secret Agent” (97). Although he does not spell it out, this connection has already been discussed, by David Mulry and to a lesser extent by Sarah Cole, Ian Watt and Norman Sherry. Yet the entire subsection on the Greenwich mystery is more than a skillful reiteration of the facts surrounding the actual bombing. Instead, an argument is presented that the “anarchist account of the 1894 bombing provided the means by which Conrad negotiated his own 1886 naturalisation and the current debates about immigration and asylum seekers” (101).

To conclude, unlike Norman Sherry and Stephen Donovan’s focus on Conrad’s extra-literary connections, this is not a completely new dish but a smorgasbord of previous findings, spiced with original observations and tastefully combined and selected. Most of the secrets disclosed within the study are not secrets to most Conrad scholars. Hence, one gets a quick overview of Cedric Watts’s early research in chapter one; Norman Sherry’s findings in chapter three; chapter four engages with research by the author himself; and chapter six rests on Martin Bock’s findings. In short, the umbrella term ‘secrets’ is original, but the themes he places under this term, less so.

Given the admirably quick tempo by which topics are handled, the study is excellent as an authoritative and readable introduction to different areas of Conrad. However, the study is not – and makes no claims to be – a sustained and thorough examination of all of its topics. Its primary audience seems to be those who are new to Conrad. The Conrad scholar is, however, likely to enjoy the study as well, mostly for its uncommon attention to less explored writings and unusual focus on the historical aspects of Conrad’s work. Indeed, there is an element of understated originality in Hampson’s approach to historical formalism.

Although he is too subtle a critic to engage in blunt generalizations, Hampson’s latest study emerges as an alternative to the apparent bifurcation of Conrad criticism; many Conrad critics have either followed the calls of New Criticism to explore the texts as autonomous entities, or gone outside the texts to unveil the writer’s opinions and philosophical standpoints. He rejects both approaches in an attempt to equip the reader with the perspectives available to Conrad’s contemporary public. However, it is unclear whether we understand Conrad’s writings better by turning ourselves into his original readers. A relative ignorance of the contemporary debates may have left us modern readers more attuned to the formal aspects of Conrad’s work, thereby allowing us to appreciate texts that reached relatively few readers in his lifetime, such as Lord Jim. On the other hand, Chance and other contemporary successes could regain their former lustre through an understanding of historical issues. Throughout his career, Hampson has viewed these later Conrad creations as neglected – with Conrad’s Secrets he might offer a conclusive way to unlock these texts’ estimable qualities and extend their shelf-life. Regarding Conrad’s earlier writings, he succeeds in demonstrating the extent to which these classics, and their meditations on eternal questions, respond to contemporary debates.

© 2014 Johan Warodell






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