The Conradian: Review

By Jeremy Hawthorn, Norwegian University of Science and Technology

Helen Chambers, Conrad’s Reading: Space, Time, Networks (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan / Springer Nature, 2018). xiii + 245 pp. £ £79.

Conrad’s Reading: Space, Time, Networks, published in Palgrave Macmillan’s New Directions in Book History series, “is an exploration of how concepts and approaches from book history and the history of reading may be incorporated seamlessly with new research on a canonical writer.” Its aim and methods are thus distinguished from a more traditional, purely literary-critical, attempt to relate what Conrad read to what Conrad wrote. “Rather than continuing to cherry-pick, from his known reading, yet more putative literary sources and influences on his fiction, [the book] examines how the unusual circumstances of Conrad’s several lives and changing geographical and social environments shaped his own reading and informed his writing.” There are five chapters in addition to an Introduction and a Conclusion. The subtitles of these chapters indicate their scope: “Evaluating the Evidence of Conrad’s Reading,” “Reconstructing Conrad’s Maritime Reading,” “Marlow as Reader,” “Edwardian Reading Communities,” and “Conrad’s Reading Women.” Early on in her book Helen Chambers provides a Venn diagram indicating the three “interlinked, but distinct and different approaches [that] form the investigative strategy used here to study Conrad’s reading and Conrad as a reader, and to align his reading with his creative output”:

The first approach is literary, effectively “close reading,” and consists of what [Katie] Halsey (2008) in her memorable phrase, calls “reading the evidence of reading” (if such evidence is available), and linking this directly to Conrad’s life and his creative output. The second approach, one particularly useful for reconstructing Conrad’s reading during his childhood and sea years (those periods for which direct evidence is sparse), is an investigation into the availability and the international distribution of those texts, either in their original language or in translation, that Conrad or others claimed he had read. . . . The third approach, linked to both the first and the second, consists of examining, as closely as possible, the myriad representations of reading and material texts that Conrad worked into his fiction, and aligning these with his known reading practices, to further illuminate both his fiction and his own reading practices. 

This summary invites some comment. The first approach, including as it does an attempt to link evidence of what Conrad read to his life and creative output, points in two directions. Linking what Conrad is known, or believed, to have read to his creative output indicates a continuing, well-established commitment to tracing the ways in which Conrad’s reading influenced his own writing. But linking Conrad’s reading to his life does not here mean tracing the ways in which a particular book or work changed Conrad’s life; rather, it involves showing how, why, and under what conditions Conrad came to read a particular text at a given point in his life. So far as the second approach is concerned, the word “claimed” implies the possibility that “Conrad or others” may have misrepresented what the novelist actually read, so that reports on Conrad’s reading need to be treated with circumspection. 

Chambers is able to make use of a number of resources unavailable to earlier scholars, such as the open-access repository The Reading Experience Database (UKRED). This particular resource provides some fascinating figures. Two of these divide their data between two periods: before and after 1900. The first shows where Conrad read, and lists on-ship reading, various of Conrad’s addresses, and reading that can be linked to Poland, France, Italy, and Switzerland. The second shows what genres Conrad read, and reveals that his reading included proportionately more nonfiction than fiction in the later period, especially where genres such as travel writing, history, essays, and criticism are concerned.

Where does the evidence for Conrad’s reading come from?

The principal sources of hard evidence on Conrad’s reading are thus to be found in his letters, and occasionally in letters to and about him; this is supplemented by evidence of reading implicit in those of his twenty or so pieces in Notes on Life and Letters and Last Essays, which deal with, or mention books, genres and specific authors. 

Chambers is well aware that third-person reports of Conrad’s reading are possessed of a “variable degree of unreliability,” and with regard to such reports she generally seeks to explore areas of agreement that reach beyond the accounts provided by a single witness. With letters, there are different issues. Whereas Conrad’s correspondents often retained his letters, he rarely returned the compliment. There are gaps and silences, some of which are attributable to the fact that Conrad had no need to write to individuals with whom he was in close personal contact. Chambers notes that “it seems that the extent to which Conrad recorded his reading was directly proportional to his intellectual and/or geographical isolation.” In addition, letters written in languages other than English, some of which may survive only in translation, present their own problems.

Chambers manages to confirm some widely held beliefs about Conrad’s views of particular authors and to challenge others:

Those who knew Conrad were, in general, consistent about his admiration of Dickens, Flaubert, Turgenev and Maupassant, and his intense dislike of Dostoyevsky’s work. Conrad’s reported remarks on American writers during and after his 1923 visit are also consistent, at least on his reading of Poe, his respect for Whitman and Emerson, his appreciation of Twain, and his dislike of Melville.

She confirms that Conrad appears to have read little drama, apart from that by Shakespeare and, in later life, his friend John Galsworthy, but she challenges Jessie Conrad’s account “that it was she who read and commented on all the other books and manuscripts of poetry sent to him,” noting that “[t]here are over forty (about 7%) recorded instances in letters of Conrad apparently reading and responding to poetry, with only one as manuscript and the remainder in book form, and these are almost equally distributed over the two main time periods.”

Chambers uses two quotations from John Keats’s “Endymion” – “one proposed for ‘Youth’ and one used for Typhoon” – as evidence that Conrad had at some time read English Romantic poetry, either in English or in translation. Additional confirmation of this surmise can be found in one very useful source that Chambers does not cite: R. L. Mégroz’s interview with Conrad “at a London West End hotel [at] four o’clock on 2 November, 1922,” prior to the first performance of the stage version of The Secret Agent (Mégroz, Joseph Conrad’s Mind and Method (1931), p. 24). This account was “taken down in shorthand and published during Conrad’s lifetime, with his consent” (p. 7), then republished in 1926 in a limited edition, and later incorporated in Mégroz’s 1931 book. The initial publication in Conrad’s lifetime (details of which are not provided by Mégroz) is, if it can be confirmed, a substantiating fact that adds significantly to its authority.

Mégroz reports that he told Conrad that he had the feeling that Conrad’s books “are, essentially, poetry” (p. 40), and records Conrad’s response as follows:

“That is a delightful compliment, I think. You will discover, if you read my books, how I am writing towards some fixed event or scene I can see, but I do not know how I shall ever get there. But you know I could not write a line of verse to save my life. I admire poetry with an open mouth, you understand, but it remains for me something magical. My favourite poet is Keats, because he is so essentially a genius, and so free from all intellectuality. Not that I despise intellectual verse, but I am generally rebellious confronted with verse of any kind, and I enjoy Keats, which, of course, is good for me.” (p. 41)

A footnote added by Mégroz notes that at other times Conrad said that his favourite poet was Christina Rossetti, but cites no source. Mégroz’s account is a very rich mine of comments by Conrad about his reading. In the interview, Conrad tells Mégroz that he read Mill’s Political Economy at sea, finding it “most interesting, but also it was an excellent soporific” (p. 32). One other comment concerning a writer not mentioned by Chambers is worth recording. After Conrad has noted that men like Joseph Addison “leave me cold” but that “[Samuel] Johnson has some of the qualities which command my admiration,” Mégroz asks him about Jeremy Taylor:

    Conrad jerked forward from the depths of his chair and faced me, his sardonic face as nearly beaming as I ever saw it.
    “Now, whatever made you think of that?” he threw at me. “One hardly ever mentions Jeremy Taylor, and I think his prose is wonderful. I can always read him, not for what he says, you know, but for the language, the exquisite music.” (p. 36)

Chambers has much of great interest to say about the involvement of others in Conrad’s reading: those to whom he wrote about what he had read, those whose work he read and commented on, and those whose translations from the French he responded to. The section on Conrad’s correspondence with Elsie Hueffer (Martindale) and Ada Galsworthy about their translations of Maupassant makes fascinating reading. Chambers is well aware that Conrad is a diplomatic commentator on the work of others, and yet while he may wrap a criticism in polite praise, he still makes it, if he feels it necessary. Devoting a chapter to “Conrad’s Reading Women” – both in life and in literature – pays rich dividends, allowing the reader to make comparative judgements not possible when dealing only with specific cases. It is a pity that Conrad wrote so few letters to children, as those that have survived display a most charming side to him that, because it makes little or no appearance in his fiction, is unexpected.

Chambers has done much hard work chasing up information about the books Conrad owned (details of many of which were recorded in preliminary notes and a catalogue by the auctioneer for the Hodgson sale of his library following his death), and has traced some of these books through dedicated research. Perhaps the most exciting find is that of a better candidate for the original of An Inquiry Into Some Points of Seamanship found by Marlow in “Heart of Darkness.” This has hitherto been identified as probably Nicholas Tinmouth’s 1845 text An Inquiry Relative to Certain Points of Seamanship, Considered as a Branch of Practical Science. But this identification now needs to be revised: “There is, however, among the family books in the Canterbury collection, a battered and disintegrating copy of another standard nineteenth-century text, Captain Alston’s Seamanship, written for the Royal Navy but with extra material added for Merchant Service officers.” Chambers notes that few of Conrad’s books contain any significant marginalia, but this book (probably the second, 1871, edition, although the title page is missing) is an exception: “[t]he pencilled marginalia, in Conrad’s hand, consist mainly of calculations.” It would have been too much to have hoped for that the book contained comments in Russian!

I have a number of small niggles to make. First, Chambers notes that the “Marlow of ‘Heart of Darkness’, twenty years older than in ‘Youth’ but younger than in Lord Jim, would have had little opportunity to read while on the Congo.” We know exactly how old the Marlow of “Youth” is, as early on in Marlow’s narrative he states that “It was twenty-two years ago; and I was just twenty” (12), and this usefully distinguishes between the narrating and the narrated Marlow. But Chambers’s comment seems to suggest that while in the Congo Marlow is twenty years older than he is on the Judea. This certainly does not match the real-life Conrad’s age on the Palestine and in the Congo, and it would imply that Marlow is narrating “Youth” only two years after returning from the Congo. This is not impossible, but where is the evidence in “Heart of Darkness” to support this?

Second, Chambers describes the subject matter of Guy de Maupassant’s “La Petite Roque” as “the unsolved crime of the rape and killing of an adolescent girl from a closely-knit village,” but the crime is not unsolved, as the murderer confesses to it in a letter that he attempts to wheedle out of the postman when he has second thoughts after posting it, and, when unsuccessful in this attempt, kills himself. And finally: why does Chambers cite from the Dent Uniform Edition rather than from, where they are available, the new Cambridge Edition texts?

Such niggles should not detract from the fact that Chambers’s book is a wonderfully rich mine of information for Conradians and for students of book history, and I have chosen only a small selection of the most striking details it contains. There is much more that I have not mentioned. The book also suggests topics for additional research. After having discussed the question of the light sources available for reading in Conrad’s lifetime, for example, Chambers continues:

Allied to lighting are reading aids (spectacles, monocles, magnifying tools), also not only symbolic (like Giorgio Viola’s silver rimmed spectacles) but material necessities. While much can be deduced about reading aids from textual evidence, and from images of readers in paintings, drawings and photographs, reading aids have not yet been systematically examined by reading historians.

A number of photographs (and David Low’s caricature, for which Conrad posed about six months before his death) show Conrad wearing a monocle. Did he also use glasses? A photograph of him at his desk shows something that might be a pair of glasses there. This is a book that, like all good books, answers some questions and poses some interesting new ones.

© Jeremy Hawthorn

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