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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:

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].