QUOTE: Joseph Conrad’s Silenus Beer Hall

A German beer hall in London, c.1902.

Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel The Secret Agent is set in London in the 1880s and features as a key location an imaginary German beer hall called The Silenus – a haunt of violent revolutionaries.

We made pass­ing ref­er­ence to The Silenus in our short e‑book about Ger­man lager in Vic­to­ri­an and Edwar­dian Lon­don, Gam­bri­nus Waltz, because it demon­strates the sus­pi­cion with which Ger­man beer halls in Britain came to be viewed in the run up to World War I.

For his fic­tion­al com­pos­ite Con­rad bor­rowed a loca­tion from two real estab­lish­ments, Darm­stät­ter’s and the Tivoli, which stood near each oth­er on the Strand, while its name would seem to be a ref­er­ence to an entire­ly dif­fer­ent estab­lish­ment, Ye Olde Gam­bri­nus, which we think is pic­tured above in a pho­to­graph from around 1902.

Any­way, here’s a chunk from Chap­ter 4 of The Secret Agent via the Project Guten­berg edi­tion, in which Com­rade Ossipon meets The Pro­fes­sor at The Silenus:

Most of the thir­ty or so lit­tle tables cov­ered by red cloths with a white design stood ranged at right angles to the deep brown wain­scot­ing of the under­ground hall.  Bronze chan­de­liers with many globes depend­ed from the low, slight­ly vault­ed ceil­ing, and the fres­co paint­ings ran flat and dull all round the walls with­out win­dows, rep­re­sent­ing scenes of the chase and of out­door rev­el­ry in medieval cos­tumes. Var­lets in green jerkins bran­dished hunt­ing knives and raised on high tankards of foam­ing beer.

Unless I am very much mis­tak­en, you are the man who would know the inside of this con­found­ed affair,’ said the robust Ossipon, lean­ing over, his elbows far out on the table and his feet tucked back com­plete­ly under his chair.  His eyes stared with wild eager­ness.

An upright semi-grand piano near the door, flanked by two palms in pots, exe­cut­ed sud­den­ly all by itself a valse tune with aggres­sive vir­tu­os­i­ty.  The din it raised was deaf­en­ing.  When it ceased, as abrupt­ly as it had start­ed, the be-spec­ta­cled, dingy lit­tle man who faced Ossipon behind a heavy glass mug full of beer emit­ted calm­ly what had the sound of a gen­er­al propo­si­tion.

In prin­ci­ple what one of us may or may not know as to any giv­en fact can’t be a mat­ter for inquiry to the oth­ers.’

Cer­tain­ly not,’ Com­rade Ossipon agreed in a qui­et under­tone. ‘In prin­ci­ple.’

With his big florid face held between his hands he con­tin­ued to stare hard, while the dingy lit­tle man in spec­ta­cles cool­ly took a drink of beer and stood the glass mug back on the table.