The Conradian: Reviews
Cavenagh Bridge, Singapore

By Andrea White, California State University at Dominguez Hills

Linda Dryden, Joseph Conrad and the Imperial Romance. New York: Macmillan Press, 2000. xii+228 pp.

In Joseph Conrad and the Imperial Romance, Linda Dryden argues that Conrad’s early Malay stories subvert the romantic imagination so abundantly expressed in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century adventure and imperial romance fiction. Through his negative depictions of imperial intruders, Conrad’s work undermines fictions that told so well the story of England’s will to imperial domination, Dryden claims.

In so doing, she convincingly illustrates the many ways in which Conrad’s works borrow plot, characterization, and local colour details from the romance tradition, and how, in so closely resembling those predecessors, Conrad makes his criticism clear. Not only has there been a severe falling off, the near similarity suggests, but the imperial cause itself also looks a much shabbier affair than the heroic adventure advertised in the imperial romance.

Dryden bases her argument on only two of the “Malay Trilogy” novels, Almayer’s Folly and An Outcast of the Islands. Although she refers to The Rescue in passing and presumably omits it because of its later date, some discussion of its exclusion would have been helpful. And again, while she includes “Karain,” she says very little about “The Lagoon.” Another surprising omission is Romance. That the debunker of romantic ideologies undertook to write one is worthy, at least, of comment.

These cavils aside, I found that her argument about these selected early Malay fictions – Almayer’s Folly, An Outcast of the Islands, “Karain,” and Lord Jim – engages an interesting discussion of nineteenth-century romance, and makes good use of a wide range of sources from Ballantyne to Stevenson, from Cooper’s Chingachgook to Haggard’s Allan Quatermain and Kipling’s Kim, in order to expose the tensions “between the romantic imagination of the past and the modernist sensibilities of the present” (199).

Through abundant comparisons, Dryden places Lord Jim and the other Malay fictions squarely within the romance tradition in order to show how aberrant Conrad’s protagonists are. That neither Almayer, nor Willems, nor Lingard, nor Jim, holds a candle to the heroes of Kingston, Ballantyne or Haggard, leads Dryden to conclude that in Conrad’s view, there is no place for the idealist in the modern world; rather “heroism” has undergone a re-definition in Conrad’s early fiction where it exists only “in the performance of the prosaic tasks of everyday life” (198).

The treatment of “Karain” as romance is particularly illuminating. In comparing it to Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Dryden notices that both foreground the past and submerge in shadow the present, “as the romance rises dream-like from the imagination and takes on a palpable air of reality” (113). While, Dryden argues, “Karain” is “a deliberately conceived romantic narrative” whose exoticizing elements were aimed directly at Blackwood’s conservative audience, it nonetheless “contains hints of the deep scepticism and plurality of meaning that are the distinctive features of later works such as Heart of Darkness” (135).

Another useful aspect of this study, was Dryden’s discussion of the nineteenth-century notion of the English gentleman, its pervasiveness in the period’s writing and its role in the imperial romance of the day. She introduces the discussion in her first chapter, “Making the Imperial Hero,” and makes use of it throughout most instructively, particularly for the light it casts on Jim and the questionable status of the phrase “one of us.”

The idea of the English gentleman as chivalric knight, largely constructed early in the century and instilled by public schools, constituted a code that all imperial romance heroes followed, she argues, and served to legitimize the endeavour. However, while the ideal imperial hero was an English gentleman honourably engaged in a divinely sanctioned quest, the protagonists of Conrad’s Malay fiction – Almayer and Willems, especially – are significantly off the mark.

Although Jim’s self-identifies as an English gentleman, to a contemporary audience his behaviour exposed him as a betrayer of the code and a fraud. Those “gentlemen” Brown and Jones constitute direct repudiations of the code and expose the imperial endeavour as the illegitimate and intrusive enterprise it actually was. Furthermore, Dryden contends, Conrad’s treatment reveals that the “idea of the English gentleman and the romantic illusions of imperial heroism are insubstantial because they are rigid codes of conduct and ideas imposed from without. A moral grounding is required for such notions to have real meaning” (149).

The discourse of the imperial romance that assimilated chivalric ideology also constructed hierarchies of gender and race, although the scope of this study allows Dryden to indicate only the direction rather than deeply develop it. As she points out, manly knights need submissive, pure, and deserving ladies, particularly those clearly depicted as Anglo-Saxon and thus superior to the native Other.

Those signifiers of feudal superiority – Jim and Jewel as “the knight and his maiden” – were also signifiers of whiteness but worked as such only in such constructed utopias as Patusan, and only temporarily. In all these ways, Dryden captures the modes in which Conrad’s early Malay fiction expresses a scepticism about the imperial venture and the code of the gentleman that underlay it, certainly a contrary spirit to that of his age.

Illustrations, unusual in a scholarly text, aid this project. Dryden includes a number of Victorian pictorial imaginings of the heroic endeavour that effectively complement her discussion of verbal discourse. The frontispiece is especially significant. It is a reproduction of Millais’s 1870 painting that depicts Raleigh as a boy listening with rapt attention to a sailor telling of the faraway places he has seen and pointing towards them beyond the horizon with his outstretched arm.

In his Ideology of Adventure, Michael Nerlich speaks of the glorification of adventure in the early modern period and the creation of the Merchant Adventurers of London, an exclusive trade union that assimilated chivalric ideology and increasingly imaged expansion and conquest in noble and divinely sanctioned terms.

It would seem that a knightly ideology has informed English adventuring, in and out of romance, for hundreds of years and not merely decades. Perhaps Millais was familiar with Hakluyt’s The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffics, and Discoveries of the English Nation (1589) and read there Raleigh’s words, “To seek new worlds for gold, for praise, for glory,” a credo for Elizabethan merchant-adventurers, but also for the Victorian explorer-adventurers celebrated in the pages of Henty, Ballantyne, Haggard, and others. It is this glorified tradition of adventure and its depiction in the imperial romance of the day that, Dryden’s study argues, Conrad renounces in his early Malay fiction.

© 2005 Andrea White






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