The Conradian: Review
Letters Volume 7

By Mario Curreli, Università di Pisa

Frederick R. Karl, Laurence Davies, and Owen Knowles, editors. The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad: Volume 6, 1917-1919. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. lviii + 574 pp. £ 80

AFTER A LONG gestation – Volume 5 appeared in 1996 – the sixth in a series of handsome and most rewarding volumes of Conrad’s Collected Letters, aptly dedicated to Sylvère Monod, the doyen of French Conradians, offers the results of several years of hard work by three editors. The “historical” general editors, Karl and Davies, the two leading scholars responsible for earlier volumes of this major publishing project, are joined on this occasion by Owen Knowles, another renowned expert in things Conradian.

These letters, spanning the short period 1917 to 1919, take us from the completion of The Shadow-Line, the final and most important of the fictional transformations of Conrad’s experience as master of the Otago, to the publication of The Arrow of Gold where yet again he retrospectively used idealisations of his juvenile experiences of femmes fatales in Marseilles. In the interim, Conrad was completing The Rescue but could not get on quickly with his work while the instalments kept coming out “with dreadful regularity” (365) in Land and Water, where it was serialized from January to July 1919. He also became a member of the Athenaeum Club, was in contact with André Gide about French translations of his works, and experienced the premature departure of Edward Thomas and Stephen Reynolds (the former killed in April 1917 in the Battle of Arras, the latter died in February 1919).

Other important events during these three worrying years of frequently lost contacts with Borys (who, during fierce German offensives, was shell-shocked and became temporarily blind), were the dramatisations and plans for the theatrical version of One Day More, Victory, and The Secret Agent, which testify to Conrad’s abandoning his inveterate mistrust of the stage. He even went so far as to discussing for a whole afternoon with Macdonald Hastings his own project of a play, whose dialogues should have had a Conradesque tang: “Subject: Faked Old Master. Scene Italy. People all English (including one Jew). Four women. Six men. Stage setting: the big drawing-room and the terrace outside it in an old Italian Palazzo in the hills, near Sienna” (to Pinker, 134-35).

This period also saw the lucrative production of limited-edition pamphlets through Conrad’s renewed association with Clement K. Shorter and with the still reputable T.J. Wise in his “original cloth”; the latter, Conrad wrote, “had behaved in a very friendly manner towards me on one or two occasions, and it was a pleasure for me to give him the required permission” (312). This also induced the writer to start selling Wise many items of Conradiana, breaking an almost exclusive arrangement with an understandably piqued John Quinn, the New York lawyer and patron of the arts who would eventually sell his own lot for a fortune, but now had to be promptly reassured that he was “the possessor of all my pre-war productions,” including The Shadow-Line, and that only the typed first draft of The Arrow and the incomplete manuscript of The Rescue had been sold “to Mr. Wise, because I wanted the money at once for a specific purpose” (497).

In March 1919, Conrad temporarily moved from Capel House to Spring Grove, which he considered “odious” (444) and occupied for only six months; then, having in June sold film rights to four of his works (Romance, Lord Jim, Chance, and Victory) to the Laski Film Company for $22,500, in October of the same year he moved to Oswalds. This substantial country house he took for a yearly rent of £45, with its decoration and furnishing supervised by Grace Willard, an interior designer and the mother of Catherine, a promising Paris-trained young American actress, who was making a reputation playing Shakespeare and Ibsen. In the bucolic surroundings of Oswalds the writer was to remain for the rest of his life.

In this three-year period Conrad also became personally acquainted with Hugh Walpole, who in June 1916 had published the first book-length study of Conrad, in which he detected Flaubert’s infuence. (Conrad was to return the compliment in 1922 with a two-page introduction to A Hugh Walpole Anthology selected by the Author with a note by Joseph Conrad in the well-known ‘Kings Treasuries of Literature’ series edited by “Q” for Dent and Dutton, in which, in genuine Conradese, he praised the audacity Walpole brought “to the task of recording the changes of human fate and the moments of human emotion, in the quiet backwaters or in the tumultuous open streams of existence.”) In May 1918, Conrad also first met Jean Aubry (a French musicologist, who was to become his future and self-styled “definitive” biographer), and he continued to keep in touch with, or see a great deal of Will Rothenstein and Cunninghame Graham, the Pinkers and the Galsworthies, the Garnetts and the Wellses.
While they do not reveal any fundamental change in the nature of Conrad’s poetics, these letters confirm his evolution as a mature novelist, and his awareness of the theoretical aspects of writing.

His reactions to reviews by Walter de la Mare or Katherine Mansfield (all “distinctly friendly but I fear of not much use from the commercial point of view” (463), to a wide-growing critical appreciation (“I am also the ‘most read’ novelist” (389), and to an increasing number of translations of his works, that he likes “to look over” before publication (458), along with the “Author’s Notes” he started writing for the Collected Editions show how Conrad’s artistic vision was continually developing, also in response to the contemporary debate on the nature of Modernism. He strongly defended both the original title and disposition of Some Reminiscences, when Dent had asked him to add new material to the volume: “The Reminiscences are not a collection of loose papers, The book is an elaborately planned whole in a method of my own… It is no more ‘material’ than my very heart is ‘material’” (396).

An author of very distinguished reputation, who, from the start of his writing career, had been confronted by the frustrating agonies of writer’s block, is again glimpsed during protracted confrontations with blank sheets, or while still embarrassingly asking for small advances from friends and agents. “Please send me a cheque” is a recurring phrase, since Conrad never learned to manage his income carefully, whether modest or large. Elusively bargaining over delivery dates, Conrad is finally relieved and even elated when, instead of being completely flattened, he manages to overcome his languor and weariness in order to announce on a scrap of manuscript paper to editors and publishers that a new story or novel has just been completed.

Self-conscious of his being a high-ranking public figure, he curtly replied to “the Cosmopolitan people” who had asked for a synopsis of The Rescue: “It seems rather absurd to me that with three fourths of the story in hand there should be a request for a synopsis from a writer like Conrad” (338), and he reminded Pinker that “the New York Herald, seven or eight years ago, was not afraid to begin before ‘Chance’ was finished” (339). We even discover him wondering in another letter to Pinker of 15 February 1919 if he might be in the running for the Nobel Prize: “we needn’t have any scruples about acceptance, if it ever comes in our way” (362).

Even though we should expect to contemplate an author thoroughly enjoying at sixty that long-awaited reception by the general reading public, which finally enabled him to provide his family with comfort and even luxury and eventually relinquish his Civil List pension, along with the familiar jeremiads about shortness of money we continue to find the usual, depressing litanies over the completion of novels. Perhaps his feelings are justified in the case of The Rescue, begun almost a quarter of a century before: “I am still too seedy to feel very much elated at the termination of a task which would never have been done without the support of your steady friendship and unwearied devotion to my affairs. I am so profoundly conscious of it that with the end of every book my thought turns naturally towards you first with affectionate regard” (to Pinker, 25 May 1919, 426). Another long series of justified lamentations accompanies the painful operations on Jessie’s leg, but, characteristically, the descriptions of the same event are quite often verbally varied, giving detailed versions to personal friends, and dry ones to mere acquaintances.

As with previous volumes edited to the highest standards, only a small number of these letters have heretofore been partly available in Jean Aubry’s or other editors’ often inaccurate and even bizarre transcriptions, and while only a few have been published in specialist scholarly journals, the vast majority of these letters is completely new. If my reckoning is correct, out of 646 letters, 484 are printed here for the first time. As these experienced editors’ policy goes, all letters have been checked, whenever possible, against the originals, but when only printed versions were available one has good cause to suspect both the persistence of a large dose of unavoidable inaccuracies and imperfections on the one hand, and, on the other, the silent correction of all those small errors and idiosyncrasies that make Conrad’s prose so vividly expressive. One case in point, from which we gain richer insight into Conrad’s supposed anti-Semitism, is the famous disclaimer “Mr. Conrad is Not a Jew”, till now known only in the version published in the New Republic on 24 August 1918.

The full text of this long letter to Lewis Browne given here, and preserved at The Lilly Library, shows both variant readings and omitted sentences. For instance, the New Republic version, having omitted the whole of the first half of the letter, started in medias res with the sentence “… I imagine that — called me a Jew in his publication as a manner of insult and in the hope of causing me extreme annoyance. But I don’t feel annoyed in the least. Had I been an Israelite I would never have denied being a member of a race occupying such a unique place in the religious history of mankind. I send you this disclaimer simply in the interest of truth.” Instead of an elongated dash, Letters 6 prints Frank Harris’s initials, and where New Republic reads “Neither is there anything in him to prevent him calling me a forger, a burglar, a pickpocket or a card-sharp. This is a statement of fact…”, Letters 6 corrects card-sharp, restores a full sentence: “… a pickpocket or a card-sharper. He however for some reason prefers to call me a Jew. This is a statement…”, and, among other inaccuracies, restores the correct form “Apollinary” instead of “Appollinary” (216).

As in previous volumes, letters written in languages other than English have been newly and efficiently translated, and all have been succinctly and impeccably annotated, but, while unshowy learned footnoted materials remain unindexed, biographical sketches are reproduced verbatim both in the “Conrad’s Correspondents” section and in the notes: see, for instance, Clifford’s sketch (xxxvii and 349), or Walpole’s (lii and 92), Retinger’s (xlviii and 93), or Ada Nemesis Galsworthy’s (xli and 163), etc. This volume also offers such useful and familiar features as a richly suggestive introduction by Laurence Davies and a detailed chronology for the convulsive end-of-the-war period that saw the first signs of the anti-Tsarist revolution. In March 1917, Conrad dryly wrote to Dent: “Can’t say I am delighted at the Russian revolution. The fate of Russia is of no interest whatever to me; but from the only point of view I am concerned about – the efficiency of the Alliance – I don’t think it will be of any advantage to us” (46). As Laurence Davies aptly notes in his Introduction, moving “into the first person plural as if to share the views of other citizens,” here and elsewhere Conrad was writing “as a loyal Briton” (xxix).

There follow in the paratext both a statement of editorial procedures and concise but informative biographical details of major correspondents. Only in a very few cases were the editors unable to supply the dates of both birth and death: for instance, of a Lieutenant Henry Joseph Osborne, who served in the Q-ship Ready when Conrad sailed in her at the request of the Admiralty, we only have the date of birth, 1891 (xlvi), but Osborne is not one of the correspondents and his name is not even mentioned in the text but only in a footnote (164); of Katherine Sanderson, too, born 1899, we learn that “She is named after her grandmother … the dedicatee of The Mirror of the Sea”: does “is” instead of “was named” imply that Katherine is still alive, or rather that she still was when a record card was issued in her name a long time before this volume went to press? This supposition applies as well to an article of mine, referred to as forthcoming in Con-texts (400), where it actually saw the light in 1999, or even to the fact that while the index lists ten plates (ix), the credits are for twelve illustrations, even though, including two different Shadow-Line dust-jackets, instead of the one credited, I only counted eleven altogether. But such is the fate of these very complex volumes, that, to adapt the final words of Suspense, even if we are not supplied with minor details, such as the date when a Mr Saunders (a clerk for Simpson and Co., owners of the Otago) died (p. l), who will miss them from the sky?

The great wealth of editorial matter includes then eight pages of illustrations, with reproductions of a letter to Cunninghame Graham, showing a slip of the pen, ‘unshod hores’ for ‘unshod horses’ (facing p. 262), with the missing s duly restored between square brackets by the editors (531), and fresh portraits of major literary correspondents and intellectual or business associations, comprising Sir Hugh and Lady Clifford in full colonial attire, Jessie’s affable Sir Robert Jones (the prominent orthopaedic surgeon who, along with Gide and Garnett, was one of only three personal friends to get a complete set of the Collected Edition), a young-looking Perceval Gibbon, and the pretty actress Catherine Willard, whose date of birth remains characteristically uncertain (liii, 60-61, 534). Conrad recommended her in 1917 to Irving and in 1919 to Frank Vernon, the producer, saying that the young lady “has got the physique for Mrs Verloc, and of course with her I would have the opportunity of impressing my conception of the part in a way I could not do with anybody else. She is very plastic yet and, as far as I can judge, very receptive” (534).

Readers with a bent for collecting rarities will also find reproductions of two dust-jackets of different issues of the first British edition of The Shadow-Line, plus a stage picture of the successful Globe Theatre production of Basil Macdonald Hastings’ dramatization of Victory, and two expressive illustrations for the serialisation of The Rescue in Land and Water, by Dudley Hardy and Maurice Greiffenhagen. The latter was the same artist who, as early as 1902 had provided six illustrations for the serialization of Typhoon in the Pall Mall Magazine and in the New York Critic. For Greiffenhagen, who had made his name illustrating Rider Haggard’s novels, Conrad had preserved “a sentiment of real gratitude for the sympathy of workmanship, for the honest effort to render in another medium – if not all the details or even the hard facts, then the spirit of my conception” (see plate 7). Having heard that another artist, a Mr Dudley Hardy, had been chosen to illustrate his new serial (plate 6), Conrad made a point of strongly recommending Mr Greiffenhagen, for, although this artist had in all likelihood never seen the appearance of a typhoon, “he had imagination enough to understand the words I had written. He tackled his problem like a man… does Mr Hardy know the difference between a lamp and a lanthorn?” Conrad scornfully asked the editor of Land & Water (327-29).

Drawing on extensive new research in public archives and sifting through private collections the three editors of the present volume have much expanded an already relevant corpus of letters addressed to a remarkably stable circle of old friends, including Garnett, Cunninghame Graham, Curle, Colvin, and Gosse (to whom he sent a detailed plot summary with some useful comments on the geography of Nostromo, on the occasion of the novel’s new Dent edition, 229-31). These letters are interwoven with those, mostly unpublished, he sent to new acquaintances and admirers, such as the unidentified actor to whom Conrad imparted the notion that he had his first and last visual impression of Heyst in 1876 “in an hotel in St Thomas (West Indies). There was some talk of him after he left our party” (97), whereas, in the “Author’s Note” to Victory, he only alluded to the prototype of Mr Jones. Several letters are addressed to total strangers, such as Rollo Walter Brown, a professor of Rhetoric at Wabash College, Indiana, who had assured him that his work was becoming “an influence in the artistic life of a great country” (485), or even to a William Reno Kane, who had asked for “A brief account of [Conrad’s] experiences as a writer,” and was sent a complimentary copy of A Personal Record in response (522) .

Nor does Conrad ignore new (or comparatively young) authors, with whom he can act the literary mentor, praising Galsworthy’s Another Sheaf for its “justness” and “sincerity” (461), or applauding Edmund Candler, who too had drawn on his experiences in the Far East for Blackwood’s, Outlook, and the Daily Mail: “You have rendered marvellously the aspects of nature, … and as to the humanity of it, I have been immensely struck by the lofty impartiality of your insight and the sincere sympathy of your treatment” (303). He also congratulated young H. M. Tomlinson on his writings about the sea and South America: “I have already seen most of the papers composing your new vol. and I have appreciated their graphic power, personal point of view and felicity of expression” (392). Tomlinson was to show his gratitude for and admiration of the writer of this letter by dedicating to him a series of tributes.

This volume of almost completely new letters makes Conrad appear in a diversity of attitudes, from jocose to depressed and even anguished tones over broken deadlines, to violent outbursts over female French translators of The Arrow of Gold or Victory, particularly so when Gide tells him that a woman has got her hands on his book: “une femme vient de s’emparer de Arrow pour le traduire” (502), and again “Une dame c’est emparée du livre” (515), “I am afraid that I have quarrelled with Gide for good” (517), so much so that Aubry was eventually to translate The Arrow. Reading through all these letters we watch the author shifting from one linguistic register to another, from friendly warm to formally dry and self-conscious voices, almost as if he were writing for posterity, since Conrad was well aware that his friends (unlike him) were keeping his letters with a mind, as he told Garnett, to deliver them to the printer’s devils.

To conclude, I noted only one or two minor errors in the Index, and an evident misprint in the last line of Owen Knowles’ bio-bibliographical sketch in the second flap (“several volume[s] of essays”), but now that two more volumes only are still to come (and well under way with the collaboration for Volumes 7 and 8 of J.H. Stape and Gene M. Moore, respectively), the exceptional interest and value of these scrupulously annotated letters will be properly appreciated for the first time not only by limited academic circles, but also by present and future generations of world critics and scholars with limited or no access to archival collections.

In its superb lay-out the set of these elegantly stout volumes, a must for any library, will reveal the Anglo-Polish master, along with Gissing, Lawrence, and Joyce, as one of the most prolific and engaging letter-writers of his period, and will provide renewed admiration, much new information, and fresh, indispensable food for thought to Conrad students and Conrad lovers alike.

© 2005 Mario Curreli






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