Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

What Secret Agent?

Guest poster Colin Fisher looks at the man whose death gave Joseph Conrad the idea for The Secret Agent, and wonders if the best long-term defence against terrorism is Britishness.



Today’s topic: Martial Bourdin, anarchist, inspiration for Joseph Conrad’s character Stevie in The Secret Agent and a man not to be trusted to handle a bomb.

On the 15th of February 1894, he mishandled a bomb that he was carrying through London, blew off his hand and died soon after, complaining of the cold. The police said he was trying to blow up Greenwich Observatory; the anarchists said he wasn’t – anarchists would never attack an institution dedicated to the advancement of truth and the betterment of mankind. Conrad said he was a simpleton. The newspapers said he was born in 1867 or 1868 in the French city of Tours. He was a tailor. He had lived in New York and Paris and, prior to blowing his hand off, he had lodged with his landlady Mrs Callaghan at 13 Great Titchfield Street (I’m assuming there is no blue plaque), rooms he shared with his brother Henry. He was secretary of the Autonomie anarchist club and when they searched his body in the mortuary, they found thirteen pounds in gold and silver, worth £1,292.

On the 20th of February 1894, Charles Darling MP asked in the House of Commons that, given the possibility of Bourdin’s funeral being turned into a public demonstration, would the Home Secretary consider declaring Bourdin felo de se (a self murderer) and prohibit the funeral. Asquith declined to do so. As it was there was no need to worry. Thousands did turn out for the funeral, four days later, but they came to hiss the hearse. The Manchester Guardian noted that the French anarchists formed two groups: one of a single, hollow-cheeked Frenchwoman and the other of some well-dressed Frenchmen smoking cigarettes. The British anarchists’ beards were, however, ragged and their clothes black and slimy. This is my point of departure from Bourdin’s story. There is, as there always is in a story of political violence, a net of personalities and events that spreads out from the centre. But not, I am pleased to say, one of conspirators and secrets. Rather it is folk doing what folk do best, which sometimes is to make it up as they go along. Hence the comment from The Manchester Guardian journalist who, after describing the funeral cortège and the mourners, went on to say that an anarchist could not be a clergyman, a schoolmaster, a sea captain, a soldier, an Irish estate agent, a shopwalker or a college don.



Gladstone, I’d argue, has his place in this net of personalities. Born when Jane Austen was still alive, he first spoke in the House of Commons in 1833, presenting a petition calling for the abolition of slavery. He had grown up in a Britain without steam trains, debated with Lord Palmerston about admitting Dissenters to Oxford and Cambridge, outlived Disraeli, addressed Queen Victoria as if she were a public meeting and had a sense of God-given destiny equalled only by General Gordon of Khartoum. Sixty years on from that first speech, prime minister for the fourth and last time, he had listened to the suggestion that his government hold on to the corpse of a dead anarchist to stop it being buried by his family. He later stood up and spoke for what could not have been much less than half an hour on a proposed amendment to the Employer’s Liability Bill. Of Bourdin’s death, he said not a word. He is the dog that did nothing in the night-time, because there was nothing to do. As the 41st prime minister since Robert Walpole, he knew that there would be a 42nd, a 43rd and a 44th, continuing until the last syllable of recorded time. Such unshakeable confidence in the continuation of the Establishment was not shared by Bourdin, and which one the two had died?

At the other end of the political spectrum was the French anarchist Vaillant. In December 1893 he had thrown a bomb from the public galleries of the French Chamber of Deputies, wounding twenty of them. Visited by the Minister of Justice in prison and asked why he had thrown the bomb he had replied, “It is useless to explain to you. You are a bourgeois and could not understand.” On his way to the guillotine he had cried out, “Death to the Bourgeoisie! Long live Anarchy!”The Marquess of Salisbury, leader of the Opposition, mused on this in the days following the attack, referring to the murders of Henry the Fourth in 1610 and William the Silent in 1584, lamenting that the political violence of his own day seemed to have lost the sense of purpose it once had. His comments did not, as they had vociferously in the French government, recommend rounding up the usual suspects and muzzling the press. When Mr Asquith was asked in the House of Commons on February 19th 1894 if he would place limits on the immigration ‘of the refuse population of Europe’ he once more declined to play to the galleries – plus ça change, plus cest la même chose.

Ford Madox Hueffer

Ford Madox Hueffer

Somewhere in all of this was Conrad’s friend and collaborator Ford Madox Ford (then Hueffer) who regarded Bourdin as an ‘unfortunate idiot’, encouraged by agents provocateurs  into taking the bomb to Greenwich Park with the intention of provoking the British government to arrest every anarchist in Britain. But more interesting than this, and possibly more illuminating, is Ford’s anecdote about Comrade P______, who also attended the funeral of Bourdin. P was a man accustomed to handing his blanket in at the cloakroom of the British Museum, thus exposing his nakedness. The magistrate who usually heard his cases of public indecency, tired of sentencing him repeatedly, invited Comrade P_________ to dinner, on the condition that he wore running-drawers, an oarsman’s jersey and sandals. By agreeing to do so, Comrade P________ was rewarded with his reader’s ticket for the British Museum. It is perhaps this perspective that the continental European political scene lacked, a vision of a situation in which anarchism and the eccentric could meet, and have dinner with the law.

Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad

Have I, in all of this, been seduced by the perennial myth of British decency, even in the face of violence and threats to this Britishness? Of course. Have I written anything that might increase our understanding of The Secret Agent? I would be very surprised. Do I feel strongly that a novel (any novel?) is much more than the sum of its parts? Yes, I do. Bourdin was an eejit who did not deserve to die in the way that he did. But it is in the society in which he lived and the lives of people associated with his death that perhaps we can appreciate the weight of a true work of art. Like Priam, we can view in wonder a god-like man such as Conrad, and still say, ‘You got it wrong, mate’. The Professor, the novel’s nihilistic bomb-maker, wanders off into the distance at the story’s close. Yes, he will make more bombs and kill more people. But he will be arrested, put on trial or shot or hung or die of cancer of the jaw in a seedy Belgian pension. He might live to see the blessed imbecile Ramsay Macdonald become prime minster in 1924 but probably not, as Churchill would call him, that turnip Baldwin in 1935. Conrad could look deep into the minds the of evil and the misguided, but as for the likes of Gladstone, Henry Asquith and the crowds that booed Bourdin’s hearse, the book, or the novel, was closed to them.

Colin Fisher is the author of A Republic of Wolves, A City of Ghosts, and rereading Arnold Bennett’s guide to literary taste using graphs and arcane numbers.

6 comments on “What Secret Agent?

  1. Thom Hickey
    June 9, 2014

    Thanks. A very illuminating post. Good historical context. Regards … Thom

  2. Conor
    June 9, 2014

    What an exhilarating and provocative read! More, please.

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings
    June 9, 2014

    Fascinating and intriguing post! I read The Secret Agent recently and found it gripping and very thought-provoking – particularly the discussion of how anarchists were allowed to live in freedom in Britain and so had less to actually kick against. Maybe the laissez faire attitude in this country has actually helped….!

  4. Jackie
    June 9, 2014

    This was a terrific and educational post. The incidents described would serve to show anyone that bombs in public places is not a modern phenomenon & was dealt wit with much less hysteria and seemingly more effective results.
    I really enjoyed the historical topic and style of writing in this entry. Well done!

  5. Hilary
    June 10, 2014

    I really enjoyed that – thank you, Colin! Witty, entertaining and informative. Some required reading here, perhaps – subtly, this is very topical, in the light of this week’s news from the UK cabinet.

  6. CFisher
    June 15, 2014

    I don’t know if it’s proper blog etiquette for writers to say thank you, but I will. Thank you. Now, I’ve got that piece on Virgil somewhere…

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