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Greenwich Revised : Conrad’s The Secret Agent and Swift’s Waterland

Keith Wilson

The history of the descriptive and pictorial representation of Greenwich is inevitably a history of hyperbole, evident in all topographical and antiquarian accounts from the Elizabethan William Camden, through such 18th-century commentators as Robert Dodsley and Henry Chamberlain, to 19th-century successors like Walter Thornbury and Edward Walford. It is against this dominant representational tradition that the two best-known 20th-century literary evocations of Greenwich, those found in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907) and Graham Swift’s Waterland (1983), implicitly locate their own revisions of the area’s emblematic possibilities. By contrast with the conventional representational tradition, both Conrad and Swift use Greenwich’s connotative power not to celebrate the human capacity to create structures of achieved form but rather to expose form’s illusions, not to say delusions. Whether this exposure is made, as in The Secret Agent, to undermine naïve faith in the transparency or objectivity of socio-political structures and motives or, as in Waterland, to complicate equally facile assumptions about historical process or the accessibility to reason of the mysteries of individual psychology, both novels question whether the human impulse to impose meaningful structure on the anarchy of contingent circumstance can ever in any genuine sense succeed. Standing at each end of a century that offered severe challenges to the extraction of historical or ethical meaning from political chaos and human tragedy, these two novels make striking revisions to Greenwich’s longstanding iconic resonances. Conventionally portrayed as a majestic and moralized prospect redolent of fulfilled national, imperial, architectural or scientific form, Greenwich becomes in these works the ironized backdrop to threatening evocations of the inevitable failures of all attempts to make meaning out of experiential chaos.

William Camden’s account is exemplary of what Greenwich’s resonances, aided by its status as the birthplace of Henry VIII, Mary I and Elizabeth I -– and deathplace of Edward VI -– had already become for the chronicler/antiquary by the end of the seventeenth century:

The place is now famous for the royal palace built by Humphry duke of Gloucester, and called Placentia, enlarged in a magnificent manner by Henry VII. who added a small house of friars mendicants, and finished the tower the duke Humphry began on a high hill, which commands an extensive and beautiful prospect over the meandering river and the verdant meads. This place is greatly indebted for additional handsome buildings to its new inhabitant Henry Howard earl of Northampton. But the greatest glory of Greenwich is our sovereign Elizabeth, who was born here under a most fortunate planet, and diffused so much lustre of royal virtue all over Britain, as well as over the whole world, that words are wanting to express her surpassing praise. Take, however, these lines of Leland the antiquary on Greenwich. . . .

Behold the glories of the place,
Bedeckt with each celestial grace,
Fit seat of Gods! The roofs how gay
The painted windows’ rich array,
The lofty tow’rs that kiss the skies;
The bow’rs a ceaseless spring supplies,
The gardens trim, that Flora court
To make this spot her lov’d resort,
And willing yield their royal lords
The richest bounties she affords.
What skill these varied beauties plann’d
That thus adorn old Thames’s strand,
And, conscious of its future fame,
Devis’d Placentia for its name?[1]

The early association of Placentia with Duke Humphrey, younger brother of Henry V, adds its own distinctive cultural seasoning to this richly evocative landscape. At the centre of what became the Palace of Placentia was the country house, Bella Court, which stood where Greenwich Hospital was subsequently built. It was here that Humphrey created a literary centre and library that ultimately became the core of Oxford’s Bodleian Library. In addition, he built a defensive tower on the site of what later became the Royal Observatory. Thus an association with learning was an early adjunct to Greenwich’s fame as a royal demesne.

The end of Elizabeth’s reign heralded the beginning of Royal Greenwich’s decline. James I favoured Whitehall Palace, notwithstanding the commissioning of Inigo Jones to design what became the Queen’s House (begun for James’s wife, Anne of Denmark, and completed for Charles I’s wife, Henrietta Maria). The combination of malign neglect during the Commonwealth and the financial constraints on Charles II’s ambitious plans to rebuild the palace arbitrated against Greenwich’s ever re-ascending to its former glory as a royal residence. One wing of Charles’s projected building, designed by John Webb, was complete by 1665, in time to become the temporary home of the naval administration offices during the plague year. By the end of the century, the seeds of Greenwich’s enduring association with scientific, naval, navigational, and hence imperial, endeavour had been sown. During 1675-76, John Flamsteed’s Royal Observatory complex had replaced the ruins of Duke Humphrey’s Tower atop Castle Hill, and in 1695, William III issued the charter founding, in memory of his dead wife Mary, a hospital “for the reliefe and support of Seamen serving on board the Shipps and Vessells belonging to the Navy Royall.”[2] Thus although Charles’s grand design for a new palace had effectively died with him, the circumstances for ensuring that the customary descriptive tenor applied to Greenwich would survive had already been created. The only real change was in the terms rather than in the magnitude of the hyperbole.

The entry on Greenwich Hospital in Dodsley’s London and Its Environs Described (1761), published only a decade after work on the Hospital (more than fifty years in the making) was finally completed, sounds the familiar encomiastic note:

GREENWICH HOSPITAL, stands on the spot, where stood the palace of several of our Kings. The first wing of this noble and superb edifice, erected by K. Charles II. was designed to be applied to the same use. Indeed from the magnificence of the structure, it can scarcely be taken for any thing less than the palace of a great monarch. However King William III. being very desirous of promoting the trade, navigation, and naval strength of this kingdom, by inviting great numbers of his subjects to betake themselves to the sea, gave this noble palace, and several other edifices, with a considerable spot of ground, for the use of those Englishmen and their children, who by age, wounds, or other accidents, should be disabled from farther service at sea, and for the widows and children of such as were slain in fighting at sea, against the enemies of their country. King William also by his letters patent, in 1694, appointed commissioners for the better carrying on his pious intentions . . .”[3]

Not only do nobility and magnificence inhere in the structure but the values the structure embodies and glorifies define the moral equivalents of that nobility –- service, patriotism, family, piety, generosity, and charity (in the most positive of biblical resonances of a term that will increasingly throughout the nineteenth century come to develop a much less altruistic and compassionate inflection). Similarly, Chamberlain’s New and Compleat History and Survey of the Cities of London and Westminster (1771) describes the hospital as standing “where once was situate the palace of several of our kings” referring to it as “this noble and superb edifice . . . from the magnificence of the structure, it can scarcely be taken for any thing less than the palace of a great monarch.”[4] Phillips’s Modern London (1804) accompanies its print of “The West India Docks in the Isle of Dogs, with Greenwich Hospital in the foreground” with the observation that the hospital is “a foundation so closely connected with London, of such extraordinary magnificence, and so well worthy the attention of all persons visiting this city, that the account of buildings, dedicated to public charities, will most properly begin with this edifice.”[5] Sarrett’s New Picture of London for 1803-4 enthuses about the “Royal Hospital for Invalid Seamen, which is a most magnificent building, and greatly admired, not only by Englishmen, but by every foreigner of taste.”[6] In The History of London and its Environs (1811), Henry Hunter begins his discussion of Kent with Greenwich, observing that “[i]t is not remarkable that the town of Greenwich should first present itself, whether we consider its proud connexion with the metropolis; its situation on the river, than which nothing can impress foreigners with a more striking idea of our progress in every civilized art; or the noble institution of its hospital, majestic in its appearance, and the benevolent object of which is so widely and so effectually diffused.”[7]

The two prints of Greenwich contained in Charles Heath’s Views of London (1825) -– one of London as seen from Greenwich Hill, the other of Greenwich Hospital -– are the occasion for very explicit conflation of Greenwich’s scenic, mercantile and naval/imperial properties. Of the view of London Heath asserts:

It is difficult to find a View more generally attractive than that of the Thames and the Metropolis from Greenwich Hill. The sylvan beauty immediately surrounding the spectator in the Park finely contrasts with the great Emporium of the trade and commerce of the world, and the home of every refined art and ennobling science, discernible in the vapoury distance. As the eye bends towards the foreground, the bosom of the Thames expands, and becomes animated with “glittering ships;” — while the appearance of an occasional vessel of war points out the Dockyard at Deptford, and insensibly awakens the patriotic recollections connected with the still nearer magnificence of Greenwich Hospital and College.[8]

In relation to the view of Greenwich Hospital, those patriotic recollections generate specific comparison with the (almost) comparably august military hospital prized by the recent enemy whose navy had been so soundly despatched twenty years earlier at the Battle of Trafalgar:

If it must be acknowledged that our ‘Chelsea’ cannot bear comparison with the ‘Invalides’ of Paris, yet it cannot be denied that Greenwich Hospital is without a rival in the world. No national establishment reflects such a lustre on our country as this magnificent asylum for the brave and worn-out defenders of England. Her highest and truest glory is in that naval pre-eminence which she claims undisputed, and rides Queen of the Seas; and there is something sublime in the gratitude with which she cherishes in age, infirmity, and wounds, the hardy veterans who have fought her battles and wreathed her with never dying laurels.

In these eighteenth and early-nineteenth century accounts, Greenwich’s ability to “impress foreigners” is recurrently seen as no small part of its glory. The extent of this impressive capacity had been clearly demonstrated in Pierre-Jean Grosley’s, A Tour to London, as translated for the English market by Thomas Nugent in 1772:

The observatory is as deserving of admiration on account of its situation, as it is respectable for its use; it exhibits the finest, the most exquisite, and the grandest landscape in England. In a space of five or six leagues on every side, the centre of which is occupied by London, it takes in the most agreeable part of the course of the Thames, surrounded by fields, which are covered with villages, palaces, and country houses; a prospect comparable to that of Lombardy at the descent of the Alps, or the Apennines; or rather to that of the country about Rome, seen from the eminences of Tibur and Tusculum, during the most flourishing times of the empire. [9]

Against this visual evocation of imperial grandeur and its implicit association with the scientific innovations that helped develop and support the naval pre-eminence on which that empire depended, the evolution of the Queen’s House into the Royal Hospital School (1712), and finally the National Maritime Museum (1937), and of the Royal Naval Hospital itself into the Royal Naval College (1873) appears a natural progression. Indeed, even the placing adjacent to the Royal Observatory of Tait Mackenzie’s statue of James Wolfe -– presented in 1930 by the people of Canada (and unveiled by the Marquis de Montcalm, a descendant of Wolfe’s honoured adversary at Quebec) –- makes a fitting late addition to Greenwich’s capacity to evoke in such richly resonant ways these historical, architectural, perspectival, scientific, literary and imperial echoes of what successive generations of commentators have clearly seen as a formally contained topographical microcosm of fundamental attributes of England’s national identity, not to say destiny.

As the ultimate expression of Greenwich’s imperial reach, its eventual adoption, at the 1884 International Meridian Conference in Washington, as site for the prime meridian, took on (especially to those countries, most notably France, who resisted the process) the attributes of a spatio-temporal colonisation of the world. One country after another accepted Greenwich as not only the spatial designator of 0 longitude but also the temporal coordinator -– Greenwich Mean Time -– that logically followed from it. [10] As the Greenwich 2000 website ( uncompromisingly if somewhat simplistically asserts, Greenwich “defines both time and place for the whole world.” In 1999, Clive Aslet, while observing that “[w]ith the exception of New Zealand, every country in the world will take the start of the new millenium as 00h 00m 00s Universal Time (within 0.9 of a second of Greenwich Mean Time),” took this proposition as meaning that “the millenium begins at Greenwich.” [11]

Since after such a statement, hyperbole would appear to be left with no new worlds to conquer, I would like to turn now to the two most notable twentieth-century literary renderings of Greenwich, those in Conrad’s The Secret Agent and Swift’s Waterland. Both invite a sceptical engagement not only with Greenwich itself but also with all possibility of establishing meaningful formal structure -– historically, scientifically, spatially, or temporally -– of a kind that the very idea of Greenwich has conventionally been seen as seeming to ratify. Both novels enlist the associations of Greenwich to engage what are finally ontological questions about the problematics of origin and identity. They foreground the inevitable flux between, on the one hand, individual or societal attempts to impose purposive form and, on the other, the undermining by contingent process of all such aspirations to coherent structure, at both national political/historical and individual psychological levels.

A few years before Martial Bourdin unwittingly provided (by apparently accidentally blowing himself up not far from the Royal Observatory) The Secret Agent’s sensational core episode, Greenwich’s demarcation of virtually the whole world’s spatio-temporal sense of itself had received the ultimate accolade of immortalization in a music-hall song:

If you want to know the time, ask a p’liceman.
The proper Greenwich time, ask a p’liceman.
Every member of the Force
Has a watch and chain, of course.
If you want to know the time, ask a p’liceman. [12]

Music hall’s fey association of temporal propriety and authority with the police force and Greenwich adumbrates whimsically the central plot preoccupations of The Secret Agent. Between them, Inspector Heat and the Assistant Commissioner effect sufficient of a triumph over the vagaries of circumstance and the corruptive powers of what in Nostromo Conrad memorably terms “material interests” to allow the Assistant Commissioner his crowing to Vladimir, the instigator of the botched outrage, that “[i]n less than twelve hours we have established the identity of a man literally blown to shreds, have found the organizer of the attempt, and have had a glimpse of the inciter behind him. And we could have gone further; only we stopped at the limits of our territory.” [13]

The novel itself, of course, explodes such unearned confidence in the sanctity of territorial limits and the efficacy of attempts to police them. Instead of ratifying the Assistant Commissioner’s smug faith in a containable nexus of motivation, cause, and effect, The Secret Agent makes its most memorable embodiment of form the distinctly non-territorial circles described interminably by “the innocent Stevie”:

circles, circles; innumerable circles, concentric, eccentric; a coruscating whirl of circles that by their tangled multitude of repeated curves, uniformity of form, and confusion of intersecting lines suggested a rendering of cosmic chaos, the symbolism of a mad art attempting the inconceivable. (45)

“Repeated curves” and a “uniformity of form” that paradoxically suggest not the possibility of fulfilled structure but rather “confusion” and “cosmic chaos” are proleptic of the motivational tangles confusing all human action in The Secret Agent, however apparently transparently motivated. They also anticipate Stevie’s own grotesquely physical transformation in Greenwich Park into the novel’s ultimate expression of matter’s tendency to fracture into chaos:

Another waterproof sheet was spread over that table in the manner of a tablecloth with the corners turned up over a sort of mound – a heap of rags, scorched and bloodstained, half concealing what might have been an accumulation of raw material for a cannibal feast. . . . A local constable in uniform cast a sidelong glance, and said with stolid simplicity:
“He’s all there. Every bit of him. It was a job.” (77-8)

The constable’s pride in having effected reconstructive completion (“Look at that foot there. I picked up the legs first, one after another. He was that scattered you didn’t know where to begin” [79]) by assiduous attention to spatial detail (“I sent a keeper to fetch a spade. When he heard me scraping the ground with it he leaned his forehead against a tree and was as sick as a dog” [78]) offers a parodic version of the impulse to assert formal material proprieties, even in the face of this most horrific assault on the idea of individual human identity. And to give constabulary doggedness its due, the officer’s admirable application to his unpleasant task does indeed bear fruit in the discovery of the address label that restores the obliterated Stevie to posthumous identity.

Equally dogged is the Professor’s desire to effect perfection of temporal form by the creation of a detonator that will eliminate the twenty-second wait between the pressing of the rubber ball that irrevocably activates the device and the explosion itself. In effect, he dreams of a detonator as precise as Greenwich’s Observatory chronometer, one that “would adjust itself to all conditions of action, and even to unexpected changes of conditions. A variable and yet perfectly precise mechanism. A really intelligent detonator” (62). In a further parody of Greenwich’s embodiment of absolute notions of origin in its possession of a meridian line that designates the logical fiction of the perfection of non-space and non-time -– 0 degrees of longitude, 00h 00m 00s of time –- the Professor dreams of his own version of “a clean sweep and a clear start for a new conception of life” (67). His version of sweeping the world into a tabula rasa originary state is the antithetical complement of the policeman’s assiduous attempt to reconstitute Stevie, and to bring it about the professor too would be prepared to “shovel my stuff in heaps at the corners of the streets if I had enough for that; and as I haven’t, I do my best by perfecting a really dependable detonator” (67).

The Secret Agent works a densely suggestive complex of variations on the paradoxical relationship between creation and destruction, between humanity’s impulse to impose formal structures of meaning and its equally strong, and in the Professor’s case nihilistically defiant, assertion and demonstration of their ultimate unachievability. These motifs are intermeshed with other paradoxes that figure Stevie and Winnie Verloc (who increasingly comes to resemble, both physically and in her mental confusion, the brother for whom she first sacrifices her own emotional fulfilment and then kills her own husband) as coterminously creative and destructive principles. Theirs are self-contradictory personalities, whose altruism is obsessive to the point of solipsism and whose compassion and capacity for love generate hatred and homicidal violence. When Vladimir gives as his reason for attacking science in the form of Greenwich Observatory that “[t]he whole civilized world has heard of Greenwich” (37), Conrad was selecting a location against which his exploration of the ontological base for believing in the illusoriness of all attempts to achieve clear causal, motivational and moral form would resonate most ironically. The ultimate linguistic embodiment of this inescapable existential state is the journalistic mantra attaching to Winnie Verloc’s suicide – “An impenetrable mystery seems destined to hang for ever over this act of madness or despair” (246) – that haunts Ossipon as he walks the streets of London “without looking where he put his feet, feeling no fatigue, feeling nothing, seeing nothing, hearing not a sound” (249). Ossipon’s complete self-reference, his former confidence in being able to marshal a highly-developed capacity for manipulative selfishness to impose his own distorted version of form on contingency, is finally brought low by this encounter with a woman whose self-contradictory life of solipsistic altruism achieves its ultimate expression in an act of self-destruction that lies beyond Ossipon’s comprehension. It reduces him to a state of purely automatized movement through the streets of what has become an alien city.

The effect of Conrad’s eerie anticipation in Ossipon of a state of automatized catatonia that T. S. Eliot will soon, in The Waste Land, make definitional of a cultural moment is heightened by the novel’s complementary terminal focus on the equally prophetic Professor. Less than a decade before the First World War turned the will to destroy into the scientifically-enabled patriotic duty of a whole generation, the Professor summons the annihilating power of science to his cause as he too haunts the streets of London “terrible in the simplicity of his idea calling madness and despair to the regeneration of the world” (249). As suggested earlier, the very notion of regeneration –- the return to an ideal initiatory state, in the Professor’s case in response to a sense that his own exceptional powers have not been recognized by an imperfect and fallen world -– is an ironic distortion of the promise of those emblems of spatial and temporal origin that Greenwich embodies. It is therefore fitting that the Professor -– ever willing, if needs must, to destroy himself in the pursuit of his delusional ends -– should be the source of the explosive that makes such a puzzling but ineffectual assault on the absolute principles of which the Professor himself is a parodic embodiment.

The self-contradictory and self-destructive impulses informing the deranged mind’s commitment to some notion of regeneration are foregrounded also in Graham Swift’s Waterland. So is Greenwich, which stands as both analogue and contrast to the novel’s primary evocation of the East Anglian fens, that protean landscape whose complementary but contradictory principles are flatly declared in the titular neologism: water/land. An environment whose fluxes and refluxes, departures and returns, surfaces and depths reflect the matching psychological and emotional contradictions of the characters born into and shaped by them, the fens surrender much of their textual dominance to Greenwich upon Tom and Mary Crick’s relocation to London after their marriage. Greenwich immediately grants the couple the surface comforts of formal structure:

They settle in Greenwich, in a suburb of London noted for its historical features: a Royal Observatory; a park where Henry VIII once wooed and hunted; a former palace; a Queen’s House turned Maritime Museum; not to mention the dry-docked Cutty Sark, bowsprit permanently pointing to the Isle of Dogs….
They acquire regular habits, spiced with unspectacular variations. Sunday walks in the park (the Observatory and back). Exchanges of hospitality with his teaching colleagues and her age-care associates…. A visit, approximately every six weeks, to her father…. A slap-up meal in a restaurant every birthday and wedding anniversary. Trips to the theatre. Weekend excursions. Holidays.
… they do not lack for money, indeed are almost embarrassingly comfortable: the “enviable Greenwich home” (Regency, porticoed front door) … [14]

As a context for these private temporal demarcation lines that mark out the Cricks’ unspectacular marital course, Swift elaborates further on the main spatial components of the Greenwich setting, parodying the cadences of guide-book authority and imbuing the sites described with the wider temporal range of public history:

On the top of Greenwich Hill, in Greenwich Park, stands an Observatory, founded by Charles II to search the mysteries of the stars. By the Observatory, set in the asphalt, much bestridden and photographed by visiting sightseers, a metal plate marks the line of longitude 0?. Near longitude 0?, perched on a plinth, becloaked and tricorned, stands General Wolfe, in bronze, staring to the Thames. . . . The Maritime Museum (relics of Cook and Nelson); the Naval College (painted ceiling depicting four English monarchs). . . .
From the top of Greenwich Hill it is possible not only to scan the inscrutable heavens but to peel back past panoramas (wind-jammers in the India Dock; royal barges, under Dutch-Master skies, bound for the Palace), to imagine these river approaches to London as the wild water-country they once were. Deptford, Millwall, Blackwall, Woolwich . . . And, away, out of sight to the east, the former marshes where, in 1980, they are building a flood barrier. (112).

The move from the fens to Greenwich constitutes an attempt to erect a flood barrier against Mary’s post-abortion psychological turmoil. But thirty years on, this very private flood overwhelms its domestic banks, bursting forth in her return to the visionary certainty, as pure in its singularity as the Professor’s pursuit of a regenerated world born of apocalypse, that God has willed her to have a child. The chapter in which Tom wrestles with Mary’s annunciation of her pregnancy foregrounds ironically in its title, “Longitude 0?,” the illusory certainties of spatial and temporal originary points. Tom’s narrative by turns ratifies and undermines faith in such elusive principles of structure. Mary’s subsequent life is indeed partially explained by the originary trauma of her teenage abortion, which, apparently left behind with adolescence, re-emerges to haunt her post-menopausal years. But equally, Mary’s story originates nothing and is simply another reformulation of the series of cyclical familial and historical patterns, as inevitable as Stevie’s endless circles, that embody for the individual caught up in them only the chaos of flux, while tantalisingly and destructively suggesting purposive design.

When Mary, by appropriating a baby from outside a supermarket, fulfils her sense of divinely-sanctioned generative/regenerative mission, Tom’s tussle with her for possession of the child is presented specifically as a fracturing of the Regency formality of the Greenwich house:

Witness, for contrast, the fastidious surroundings which offset this central whirlwind: a room still preserving its late Regency features, tastefully furnished over a period of thirty years with items to match: old porcelain, leather bindings, Cruikshank prints. A veritable museum. Witness the Chelsea vase on the Sheraton table which, jostled by the sofa which in turn is jostled by the motions of this desperate tug-of-war, topples from its perch and disintegrates on the floor. Observe too the golden retriever, roused from its favourite napping place in a corner of the kitchen, which enters and adds the din of its barking to the racket of screams, baby-hollers and tinkling antiques. (230-1).

Thus the formalities of Greenwich again become the background to the rendering of not just Mary’s individual psychological fracture but of the inevitability with which relentless and uncontainable historical processes overwhelm the structures by which human consciousness makes its fragile attempts to impose order on both inner and outer landscapes.

As suggested earlier, the Conrad of the The Secret Agent may be said to anticipate the cultural and political mood during and after the First World War in a number of ways: in his uncannily prescient evocation of automatized response, of the contradictory but complementary creative/destructive impulses in both the individual and the wider social complex, and of a scientifically-impelled apocalypse awaiting its fulfilment. Similarly, the Swift of Waterland, though in his case consciously and overtly, makes his primary twentieth-century reference points the two World Wars. The First World War provides the explanatory context for the trauma endured by Henry Crick, with his consequent failed pursuit, via amnesia, of an originary point swept clean of the memories of the Western Front. His attempt to protect Dick, his son who is not his son, from personal history by concealing the past from him is no more successful – indeed, it is ultimately disastrous and directly contributes to Dick’s death. The events of their Second World War childhoods are what Tom and Mary try unsuccessfully to leave behind them by the escape to Greenwich. And the war provides the immediate cause -– two uniformed American servicemen whom Dick misidentifies as policemen coming to arrest him for the murder of Freddie Parr -– for Dick’s final eel-like descent under the waters of the Ouse and the Wash. Against this context, in which private and public history are inextricably intertwined in ways that make a mockery of the formal structures by which attempts are made to understand them, for Tom and Mary their life in Greenwich cannot finally be the fulfilment of a purposive private history, analogous to the public history embodied in the Maritime Museum, the Observatory, and the Regency houses. Greenwich provides for them only an illusory fantasy of surface form through which the real and very destructive history of the twentieth century, at the chaotic meeting point of private and public experience, eventually breaks, shattering not only their antiques but the hard-won tranquillity of their marriage.

Lying behind Swift’s evocation of Greenwich – with its suggestion of analogy with the fens in the viewer’s ability from the top of Greenwich Hill “to imagine these river approaches to London as the wild water-country they once were” (112) – is surely Conrad’s sense, articulated by Marlow in Heart of Darkness, that “this also . . . has been one of the dark places of the earth.” [15] Against that other heart of darkness in the fens, the hope nursed by his mad and incestuous father, Ernest Atkinson, on behalf of the simple Dick (surely another creative/destructive avatar of Conrad’s simple Stevie) that he will turn out to be “a saviour of the world” (198) is fulfillable only in the reductive terms embodied in his operation of the dredger in the months before he obeys the instinctual eel-like drive to return to a point of origin:

And who would choose dredging for their calling? Who would opt for this endless and stationary war against mud? This dredgery-drudgery, sludgery-sloggery. It would sap even the stoutest spirit. It would dull even the brightest soul.
And yet it has to be done. Because it won’t go away. It gathers, congeals, no matter what’s going on in the busy world above. Because silt, as we know, is the builder and destroyer of land, the usurper of rivers, the foe of drainage. There’s no simple solution. We have to keep scooping, scooping up from the depths this remorseless stuff that time leaves behind. (299)

As a version of purposive endeavour, this dogged and largely unconscious assault on mud — formless matter, part water, part land, part builder, part destroyer – lacks the aspirational grandeur that defines the Greenwich of Duke Humphrey and Elizabeth, Samuel Pepys and James Wolfe, Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor. Just as surely, the Professor’s deranged impulse to call “madness and despair to the regeneration of the world” with the perfect detonator lacks the rational scientific authority of John Flamsteed and that endlessly fascinating spatio-temporal denoter of originary absolutism, the zero longitudinal meridian line. But as a summation of humanity’s relationship to the inscrutabilities of both private and public historical process in the century that these two novels bracket, the Conrad-Swift version of Greenwich is perhaps the more appropriate one.



[1] William Camden, Britannia: or, A Chorographical Description of the Flourishing Kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Ireland, and the Isles Adjacent; from the Earliest Antiquity. Translated from the edition published by the author in MDCVII. Enlarged by the Latest Discoveries, by Richard Gough. Second Edition in Four Volumes (London: Stockdale, 1806), I, p. 309.

[2] Clive Aslet, The Story of Greenwich (London: Fourth Estate, 1999), p. 142.

[3] London and Its Environs Described, Vol III (London: R. and J. Dodsley, 1761), p. 69.

[4] Henry Chamberlain, A New and Compleat History and Survey of the Cities of London and Westminster (London: J. Cooke, 1771), p. 576.

[5] Modern London being the History and Present State of the British Metropolis (London: Richard Phillips, 1804), p. 169.

[6] H. J. Sarrett, New Picture of London For 1803-4, or, A Guide through this Immense Metropolis, On a Plan hitherto unattempted: containing Comprehensive Descriptions of the Publick Edifices, Collections of Curiosities, and Places of Entertainment; Interspersed with Diverting, Authentick, and Valuable Anecdotes, Many of which are Historical, and record Events which have happened Several Hundred Years Ago (London: Tegg and Castleman, 1804), p. 156.

[7] Henry Hunter, The History of London and Its Environs, Vol II (London: John Stockdale, 1811), p. 155.

[8] Charles Heath, Views of London (London: Hurst Robinson and R. Jennings, [1825]), unpaginated.

[9] As quoted in Aslet, p. 139.

[10] France held out, retaining Paris Mean Time less nine minutes and twenty-one seconds until 1978, when it adopted Universal Time. See Aslet, p. 267 and E. Walter Maunder, The Royal Observatory Greenwich: A Glance at its History and Work (London: Religious Tract Society, 1900)

[11] Aslet, p. 266.

[12] Sung by James Fawn, written (c. 1885) by E. W. Rogers and Augustus E. Durandeauby.

[13] Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971), pp. 185-6. Hereafter cited parenthetically.

[14] Graham Swift, Waterland (London: Heinemann, 1983), p. 106-07. Hereafter cited parenthetically.

[15] Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, ed. and intr. Paul O’Prey (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983), p. 29.


To Cite This Article:

Keith Wilson, ‘Greenwich Revised : Conrad’s The Secret Agent and Swift’s Waterland’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 5 Number 1 (March 2007). Online at Accessed on [date of access].