Five new classics to explore 4: The Secret Agent

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When we open a classical novel, we open the door to multiple worlds (historical, geographical, literary, psychological and philosophical) to explore. It is exciting to see what each title means to us, who the author is, how the books were created and how they can be used to develop our students’ knowledge of language and culture.

Let’s take a look at our five new classic reader adaptations. Then tune in later in the year for a lesson based on each book. The titles are:

  • Five Children and It by Edith Nesbit. Level 1 reader, adapted by Jennifer Gascoigne, illustrated by Viola Niccolai.
  • Sherlock Holmes and the Stolen Jewels by Arthur Conan Doyle. Level 2 reader, adapted by Geraldine Sweeney, illustrated by Agilulfo Russo.
  • Uncle Tom’s Cabin written by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Level 3 reader, adapted by Donatella Velluti, illustrated by Michele Rocchetti.
  • The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad. Level 4 reader, adapted by Donatella Velluti, illustrated by Claudia Palmarucci.
  • Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen. Level 5 reader, adapted by Elspeth Rawstron, illustrated by Sara Menetti.

The Secret Agent

1 Who is the author?

IDENTITY. Joseph Conrad was born in 1857 in Berdychiv (Ukraine). At the time the city was part of the Russian Empire, but before that it was part of Poland. He came from a Polish family of intellectuals and political activists who fought for the reunification and independence of Poland. So he was Russian, but he considered himself Polish. In 1886 he became a British citizen.

EDUCATION. He wasn’t a good student at school, but he read a lot of novels, poems and Shakespeare, and he spoke French perfectly. He showed a great talent as a storyteller from a very early age. English was his third language!

A CAPTAIN AT THE NAVY. At 16 he joined the French merchant navy, transferring to the British one later. Over 19 years he worked on many ships, travelled the world and reached the rank of captain. He suffered from bad health and from clinical depression all his life.

THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE. In 1894 he left the merchant navy and became a writer. Although English was Conrad’s third language and he only learnt it from the age of 20, he became one of the most famous and influential British writers. His stories are about people’s reactions to extreme situations, and for many of them he used his experiences at sea.

FAMILY AND DEATH. In 1896 he married an English woman, Jessie George, and they had two sons. He died in 1924 at his house in Kent, probably of a heart attack.

2 What do we need to know about the novel?

The theme and the genre

The Secret Agent was published in 1907, but its themes are so modern that they are often in today’s news: terrorism, espionage and power. Conrad shows us the thinking, or often the lack of thinking, behind terrorism and what terrorists and people in power want to achieve through it. It is a spy story, a detective story and a psychological drama.

The setting

The Secret Agent is set in London.

The real-life inspiration

The idea for this story came from a real event. In 1894 a French anarchist, Martial Bourdin, was carrying a bomb when it exploded in Greenwich Park, near the Greenwich Royal Observatory. Everything about this event remained a mystery: it was impossible to discover the reason for the attack, the aim, or even what happened exactly. Although Conrad had very little information, he managed to base the novel on this unexplained and violent death.

The plot

The novel tells the story of Mr Verloc, a man who lives a double life: one as the owner of a shop where he sells all sorts of junk, and the other as a spy for a foreign government. He lives in a house above his shop with his young wife Winnie, her mother and her brother Stevie, a young man in his early twenties who has a learning disability. There are also a group of anarchists, at least one terrorist, two police officials and some government officials in the plot.

3 Why did we choose this title for adaptation?

I love Conrad,  the beauty of his prose and delicate psychology behind his characters and their motivations. The action in Conrad’s novels unfolds slowly but when it does, the reverberations are profound. And he is such a model for students learning English: one of the greatest novelists in the English language who was not a native speaker himself! This novel in particular felt particularly appropriate for these difficult times.

Dinner scene. Illustration by Claudia Palmarucci. © Helbling

4 How can you use this reader for language learning?

CLIL and discussion topics

1 History

  • Discover London in the 19th century
  • Espionage and terrorism

2 Sociology and philosophy

  • Equality for people with disabilities
  • Justice and injustice
  • Blame and shame
  • Terrorism and anarchy

3 Language and literature

  • Figurative and literal meaning
  • Non-linear plot development

4 An adaptation

We recommend the BBC TV series ‘The Secret Agent’. Watch the trailer to introduce the novel in class and ask your students about the characters, the setting, the plot and the atmosphere. Then look at the illustrations in the reader and talk about what they suggest. You can also start with the reader and then watch the trailer of the BBC series.

Vocabulary development

  • Describing the city
  • Describing characters:
    • Physical characteristics
    • Psychological traits
    • What motivates people?
  • Figurative langauge
  • The police, crime and punishment in the 19th century

5 How did we create the reader?

The story was adapted by Donatella Velluti and illustrated by Claudia Palmarucci.

The original text of the novel was simplified for A2/B1 level learners, avoiding complex grammar and sentence structures and minor plot strands that may lead to confusion. The vocabulary is only simplified as much as it is necessary to make it comprehensible for language learners at this stage.

The illustrations were created by Claudia Palmarucci, whose artworks remind us of the paintings of the great masters of the 19th century. The style and colour scheme of these images give us an idea of both the geographical and psychological landscape of the novel. Check out her website here.

Here is a simple chart about our reading levels.

Helbling Reader levels

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