The Conradian: Review

By Paul Skinner

The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Joseph Conrad

The Inheritors: An Extravagant Story. The Nature of a Crime, edited by Jeremy Hawthorn with the assistance of Max Saunders (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022), lxxviii + 334pp. £94.99.

“Of what took place during those endless conversations,” Ford Madox Ford wrote in 1928, looking back to the years of collaboration, of closest contact, of not so secret sharers, “I am the sole living witness and my word must be taken for what I say.” It very rarely was – indeed, the publication of his Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance in 1924, three months after its subject’s death, had already provoked what would become an extraordinary and long-lasting sequence of partisan claims and counter-claims, hostility and denial.

If there is now, after the theses, biographies and – crucially – letters, a cautious consensus about the general outlines of the collaboration, it might be summarised thus: both men had their motives for entering into this partnership and both benefited, in different ways, from the years of close working, while the varied support Ford provided to Conrad extended well beyond transcription to embrace active involvement in several Conradian texts. We don’t need to accept as literal truth Ford’s later straight-faced assertion that the only two themes over which they quarrelled were ‘as to the taste of saffron and as to whether one sheep is distinguishable from another,” to conclude that, in short, as Ford himself remarked: “Our life was like that.” And how revealing that brief, declarative sentence is: not “our lives” but “our life.”

The major phase of collaboration extended from soon after their initial meeting (almost certainly in early September 1898) to the publication of Romance in October 1903. The two writers remained close for several more years, if less intimately and intensively, until they quarrelled in 1909. They were reconciled, after a fashion, two years later but relations were often strained, and increasingly distant, thereafter. As this volume’s editor comments, “Friendships and collaborative relationships are typically overshadowed by their terminations, especially if these are bad-tempered;” but he also notes that, whatever our final assessment of the collaborative works, they “took Conrad away from compositions based substantially on his own history and life experiences” (xlv), and so played a crucial part in the progression towards the more “political” novels. Ford considered his own primary gains to be a set of skills and techniques, developed in conjunction with an accomplished and hugely admired craftsman, together with the conviction that “the writing of novels was the one thing of importance that remained to the world and that what the novel needed was the New Form.” But he also suffered negative effects from the strains of collaboration: their impact upon his nerves, his pocket and his marriage played a substantial role in bringing about a major breakdown and what he would look back to as “the lost years.”

While Romance has always seemed more substantial, of a more familiar type, and has the obvious strength of being a true collaboration, its senior partner having invested far more heavily than he did in the case of  the other two, the critical attention paid to it has been in large part a matter of its greater visibility: as Hawthorn stresses, the exclusion of The Inheritors from Dent’s Collected Edition, which “served as the standard source for much of the latter part of the twentieth century” of Conrad’s writings “meant that the novel was often passed over by critics of his work” (lxx), while The Nature of a Crime was effectively out of print for many years (lxxvii). The writers themselves, at different times and to varying degrees, played down the pretensions to literary value of all their joint efforts. Conrad considered even Romance “comme une chose sans aucune importance,” and, though Ford would later record that his collaborator had proclaimed The Inheritors “a damn good book” when the question of its reissue arose, Conrad appears always to have regarded it with ambivalence. His letter to the New York TimesSaturday Review,” responding to its notice of The Inheritors, stressed that it was “emphatically an experiment” and talked of “deferring” to his collaborator “more out of friendship, perhaps, than conviction,” commenting on how this may have withheld from the book much “which would have made the story more actual and more convincing.” Though less dismissive as a rule – primarily because of his continued high regard for Conrad – Ford in 1920 would remark of Romance and The Inheritors: “I fancy that neither book has any artistic value at all.” But this statement emerged from long retrospect and what was by then a complex and often personally hurtful history. He did not even mention there The Nature of a Crime, which Conrad regarded with derision or frank disbelief, his published comments inextricable from the increasing hostility he exhibited towards Ford in the last months of his life. Suggesting its republication in 1923, Ford remarked that he had “looked at it again” and that it seemed to him “a pretty good piece of work.” Conrad rejoined that it seemed to him “somewhat amateurish,” while referring, in letters to his agent Eric Pinker, to “the damnable ‘incubus’ of that rotten ‘Crime’ embroglio” and “that idiotic publication.”

The family of Joseph Conrad–Ford Madox Ford collaborations appears, then, to number not one but two black sheep – and this latest volume in the Cambridge Edition of the Works of Joseph Conrad thus contains the texts of the two books with which its titular author had the least authorial involvement, Ford being “responsible for the lion’s share of the writing of both works” (xliv). But, apart from the importance of two major novelists learning from each other over several years of often intense collaborative effort, Hawthorn asserts that The Inheritors “is important in its own right as an original blend of science fiction and political novel,” while The Nature of a Crime too “has its points of interest in the merging of aspects of the epistolary novel with first-person narrative” and “its depiction of the sexual hypocrisy and more general corruption” to be found in the higher, “respectable” social order (xlv-vi). While the first-person narrator is a common feature of all the collaborative works, and varied narrative voices would be of huge importance in the later work of both writers, it was a device that Ford would use far less often than Conrad – unless, that is, we take him at his word when he describes, as “novels,” Return to Yesterday: Reminiscences 1894-1914 (“So this is a novel”), It Was the Nightingale (“I have tried then to write a novel, drawing my material from my own literary age” and, indeed, Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance (“This then is a novel, not a monograph”) – though here Ford refers to himself throughout in the third person – “the writer” – which in consequence makes the primary subjective pronoun “he,” that is, Conrad (the second most frequent is “we”).

The Inheritors: An Extravagant Story is a short novel, containing nineteen chapters, each from five to ten pages long, and totalling fewer than 65000 words, of which Conrad appears to have written no more than 2000, his primary contribution, in Ford’s retrospective account, being “to give each scene a final tap.” A young writer from a privileged background, Etchingham Granger, encounters a mysterious young woman, who claims to be from “the Fourth Dimension.” Feeling and caring nothing for existing traditions and current values, her task, she says, is “to sound the knell of the old order; of your virtues, of your honours, of your faiths.” Granger’s intense but unrequited attraction to the woman ends by enmeshing him in the scheme to persuade the British public that “all the traditional ideals of honour, glory, conscience, had been committed to the upholding of a gigantic and atrocious fraud.” The girl infiltrates his aristocratic but impoverished family, poses as his sister, and gains ascendancy over various influential political and financial figures. Granger ultimately betrays both his professed principles and his associates, including his admired Churchill, a leading politician with whom he has been collaborating on a book about Cromwell. At the novel’s close, Granger is left with neither friends nor future.

“Delightfully young,” Conrad had termed Ford’s first novel, The Shifting of the Fire. Ford himself was still young – just twenty-four when he met Conrad – and The Inheritors, only his second published novel, a decade after the first, is unsurprisingly marked by his own recent and current writing projects. There are visible traces, some of them strong, of The Cinque Ports (on which he worked concurrently), the substantial biography of his beloved grandfather, Ford Madox Brown (1896), even the 1899 short story, “L’Affaire Ingram.” Brought up in “the hothouse atmosphere of Pre-Raphaelism,” Ford was and remained highly attuned to the language and techniques of art, as evidenced by the painterly details and strong visual imaging – “The modelling of her face,” “her cheeks coloured as if a warm light had fallen on them from somewhere” – which are among the most striking features of the early pages and other instances throughout the novel. Granger remarks of his last meeting with the girl: “It was as if I were nothing to her; as if I were the picture of a man. Well, that was it; I was a picture, she a statue.” Ford would always show himself keenly aware of literary and artistic super-session, the often unpredictable changes in tastes and fortunes. Thus, in her oddly discordant final speech, the girl says: “‘I had to set about a work of art, of an art strange to you; as strange, as alien as the arts of dead peoples. You are the dead now, mine the art of an ensuing day.’”

But hugely influential too were Ford’s encounters with other writers, in and around the time of his first meeting with Conrad, most of them those he would celebrate and recur to for the rest of his life. The Wellsian theme of the wonderful visit, the unearthly visitant, is undoubtedly relevant but how often Ford writes of those artists in similar terms: W. H. Hudson, Henry James, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Proust, Conrad himself, perhaps above all Stephen Crane, “this apparently miraculous being” whom, on first meeting, Ford took to be “a god – an Apollo with starry eyes.” The “wonderful visitors” in this context are the inheritors who would take literature by the scruff of its neck and hurry it into a new, modern era, to the lasting benefit of those other inheritors, their readers – us.

The many ways in which The Inheritors has been described and summarised and assigned to a genre, though varied, usually have one element in common: that it is a hybrid work. It is “half a political roman à clef … and half a Wellsian fantasy” (Gene M. Moore), located in “the nascent popular genre of science fiction” while its “real energy is concentrated in a knockabout satire of Edwardian politics, mass culture and commercial imperialism” (John Attridge), a novel that “shows how closely related the devices of time travel and the wonderful visitor are” (Robert Hampson). It has also been explored as the creation of “an evolving literary agenda” which embraces “delayed decoding, derangement of the senses, moments of epiphany” (Laurence Davies), as a “textually allusive” novel which contains “over eighty references to reading and material texts” (Helen Chambers), and as prefiguring so much of Ford’s later Edwardian work that a great deal of his writing up to The Good Soldier might be seen as working through some of The Inheritors’ “anticipations” (Max Saunders).

The odd sense of things not quite cohering is perhaps due to its shotgun marriage of popular fiction – the desire for its financial rewards in particular – and two writers who would discuss at improbable length the suitability of such words as “azure”’ and “serene,” or the difference between “penniless” and “without a penny.” But their interests, beyond the “how” and once into the “what,” diverged enough to harbour such peculiarities as the location of de Mersch’s scheme being “Greenland,” while its inhabitants are black – which indicates either the flimsiness of Conrad’s engagement, given his expertise in colonialism and international politics, or, Hawthorn suggests, “a deliberate attempt on the part of the authors to link their fate to that of the native people in Conrad’s African fictions” (p. lxii).

The Inheritors intersects with an astonishing range of social and political issues and was also written at an extraordinary historical juncture: the turn of a century, the close of a long reign – and “a warlike era,” as Ford recalled. The Boer War, which “set, as it were, an iron door between the past and the present,” broke out within a week of his reading the opening chapters to Conrad. He would later write that the novel was intended “rather allegorically” to support Arthur Balfour, while the villain was Joseph Chamberlain, “who had made the war,” and the “sub-villain” the “foul” Leopold II of Belgium. The more sympathetic portraits were of those figures generally accepted as representing Edward Garnett and Ford Madox Brown (lxi). Hawthorn includes among the “most important” sources, “the then fashionable interest in the ‘fourth dimension’ and a popular fascination with the possibility that scientific advances would open new realms of achievement (and danger) for humanity; contemporary politics, both domestic and international; changes in the realms of professional writing, both journalistic and book publishing; and the authors’ personal histories – which of course overlapped with changes in the realms of professional writing” (lii). These broad headings cover the invasion narratives of the first decade of the twentieth century, the scramble for Africa, the emergence of the New Woman and much else, though, as Hawthorn remarks, “the tracing of specific sources,” because so often filtered through other writers, is “less than straightforward” (lii).

Several critics have pointed to Conrad’s visit to Glasgow in late September 1898, during which he saw a demonstration of an X-ray machine, much discussion about “the secret of the universe” being in “the existence of horizontal waves” and his letter to Edward Garnett detailing his impressions – “Therefore it follows that two universes may exist in the same place and in the same time” – as a major contributory factor in the “presentation of the fourth dimension and its representatives in the novel” (lvii). Conrad’s evident excitement makes his visit as a topic of discussion with Ford highly plausible. Still, literature, the arts generally, are not strangers to time-travel or to other worlds parallel to – and often very similar, but not identical, to – this one. And if one strong literary influence was Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, another was H. G. Wells (whom Conrad addressed in a letter as “Realist of the Fantastic”), a general presence although with some specific examples – The Time Machine, The Wonderful Visit, The Invisible Man, “The Man Who Could Work Miracles” – and perhaps “A Story of the Days to Come,” serialised in the second half of 1899 (Ford’s unpublished tale, “A Romance of the Times Before Us” probably dates from just before his first meeting with Conrad). Ford also mentioned a story he called “Fear,” which may have been “The Red Room,” also known as “The Ghost of Fear.”

The Manchester Guardian review of The Inheritors included the suggestive observation that: “It is a ghost story of a new kind, with the vulgar thrills eliminated for a strange quality of mental disturbance.” Ford was always aware of ghosts, or the ghostly: those people, often his fellow-artists, sometimes himself, rendered insubstantial by spatial or temporal distance, neglect, misunderstanding or forgetfulness. Towards the end of The Inheritors, Granger says flatly: “I seemed for a moment to see myself a tenuous, bodiless thing, like a ghost in a bottomless cleft between the past and the to come. And I was to be that forever.” A decade later, in Ladies Whose Bright Eyes, Ford would write, in terms that seem oddly relevant to The Inheritors, that Mr Sorrell “felt vaguely that if the ghosts from the past could come into the present, why in the world should not ghosts of the future be able to go back into the past?” The war would accentuate, for him as for others, that sense of ghostliness, of revenants sometimes seeming more real than “those who still walk this earth.” Several times in the 1920s and 1930s, Ford would specify those whose deaths he had not been able to bring himself to believe in – Conrad’s was always among them.

The Inheritors opens abruptly and effectively, and its early pages have justifiably attracted a good deal of critical attention: the puzzling stranger, the narrator’s fixation on her nation of origin and the dizzying moment when the beautiful panorama of cathedral and valley, “a vision, the last word of a great art,” is suddenly rendered worthless and contemptible, the tower reeling out of the perpendicular and Granger seeing beyond it “not roofs, or smoke, or hills, but an unrealised, an unrealisable infinity of space.” The increasing interest in this novel, certainly among Fordian scholars, may be attributed to the many ways in which it foreshadows later situations, narrators, perspectives, characters: The Good Soldier most evidently, signalled by Etchingham Granger’s constantly asserting his ignorance, his not knowing, not understanding, not remembering. But there is much to admire in and of itself, not least a good deal of sly humour: Granger, the man of letters, completely misreading two men at the Paragraph Club or, earlier, in a passage noticeably concerned with breath – divine afflatus? – remarking: “I was recovering my breath, and, with it, my inclination to expand.” And when we read: “she struck me as sinister,” is it significant that the last word contains both “sin” and “sister,” in a work that plays with the incest taboo, glancing at Ford’s probable affair with his wife Elsie’s sister Mary as well as forward to elements of that taboo in several later works, including A Little Less Than Gods and his introduction to The Sisters, with their Conradian associations?

Smaller in scale and ambition, The Nature of a Crime is a novella, or long short story – or simply, as in Ford’s letter to Conrad about its reprinting in the transatlantic review, “a short story” – of around 15000 words, of which Conrad contributed at most a few hundred. Not only the shortest, The Nature of a Crime is also consistently the least regarded. It offers obvious biographical interest, given the personal circumstances of both writers – at the dates of both serial and volume publication – but its fascination sometimes seems to inhere precisely in the paucity of Conradian input, the extraordinary length of its publishing history, the intriguing prefaces – and the curious attitude of both authors towards this waif or stray.

First published in the English Review in the spring of 1909, under the name of “Baron Ignatz von Aschendrof,” it is in the form of a series of letters from a man to his married lover, informing her of his intended suicide because of the imminent exposure of his long plundering of the estate of which he is the guardian. Unexpectedly, the discovery of his crime is averted but his confession has placed him wholly in the power of his lover.

Conrad’s own preface is extraordinarily disparaging from the first: his consciousness of this “very small piece of collaboration” has been “very vague, almost impalpable, like the fleeting visits from a ghost.” Yet he wants to catch “the echo” of “those old days,” in this time when the “fun” of his life “must be looked for in the past!” Ford also asserts a blank in his memory when it comes to the origin of the story; though in doing so, he conjures up those days, reaching back past the writing of The Nature of a Crime, past the publication of Romance, even that of The Inheritors. He is bringing back almost the first memory, not of the meeting at Limpsfield but the first reading aloud, that of the manuscript of “Seraphina.” “Anyhow, as the memory comes back to me overwhelmingly, I would read on and read on.” The prose of this present piece is, he adds, “for the most part prose meant for recitation, or of that type.”

While Hawthorn’s edition does not radically alter the story of these texts, it traces that story with great thoroughness, and his assertion that this volume “allows modern readers to study two collaborative works by two major writers of the modernist period in authoritative versions that are as close to their authors’ intentions as is possible” (254) is fully justified. The immense amount of research and scholarly expertise that has clearly gone into establishing the texts, the essays tracing their history and reception, and the apparatus detailing emendations and variations, is deployed with scrupulous care. Though the pre-print documents in both cases were very few – a handful of manuscript and typescript pages, valuably reproduced here – there were three printed versions of The Nature of a Crime: in the English Review, the Transatlantic Review and in volume form. The numerous emendations noted of Conrad’s “Preface,” in particular, are followed by nearly two hundred in the text of the novella. In accordance with the Cambridge edition’s policy of selecting for copy-texts those closest to the author’s own work as possible, the first English edition is used for The Inheritors and, for The Nature of a Crime, “the surviving typescript in its unrevised form.” Ford’s previously unpublished “The Old Story” is usefully included in an appendix, “because of its plot resemblance” (279) to The Nature of a Crime. It’s a brief but suggestive piece, several points in it echoed in later – sometimes much later – work. “The Old Story” was itself a phrase which Ford would use at least half a dozen times, and it also occurs three times in Romance.

The final section, “Explanatory Notes,” is, naturally, catnip to another annotator; and a valuable demonstration of the extent to which an ostensibly objective exercise is, unavoidably, a highly individual one, the possibility of pleasing every reader as remote as it is for the compilers of anthologies. In a series devoted to Conrad’s writings, with notes ranging very widely, sometimes drawing on earlier, though still recent editions of both books, it may seem unreasonable to suggest that, while words and phrases that recur elsewhere in Conrad’s corpus are frequently and expertly commented upon, those that reappear in Ford’s books are just a little less often noted. For instance, while Hawthorn’s note for “trepanned” has “Trapped or tricked. An archaism at the time of writing,” the Fordian annotator would surely add that Ford uses the word in just that sense nearly twenty times in his subsequent writings (once with the more familiar surgical meaning). Such phrases as “one of us” and “hominibus bonae voluntatis” also strike a Fordian ear very familiarly. The reference to de Mersch’s scheme “letting the light in upon a dark sport of the earth” does indeed echo Heart of Darkness but reverberates later too in The Good Soldier’s Florence Dowell “clearing up one of the dark places of the earth, leaving the world a little lighter than she had found it.” And when “nakedness” in the sense of vulnerability occurs next to a mention of “giddiness,” a citation of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII might have been augmented by noting that a line in The Cinque Ports – “One is quite shut in in these sheltered roads – not left naked, as it were, beneath an immense sky” – is one of many such instances in Ford’s work and, more specifically here, that Granger is, as Max Saunders observed, Ford’s first fictional agoraphobic, this example in The Inheritors indicating that the writer’s own suffering from the condition preceded by some time his major breakdown in 1904.

Yet even the relative slightness – and perhaps, as acknowledged, unreasonableness – of this cavil helps throw into relief the significant achievement of this volume, while the statement that “these important fruits of the collaboration between two of the great modernist novelists in English texts are thus made available to the sort of serious consideration accorded to other works by these authors” (252-3) prompts the reflection that, along with Ford’s most assured masterpieces – The Good Soldier and the Parade’s End tetralogy – these two are the only works by him (and even then not wholly by him) so far to receive such consideration. The editing of Ford’s Collected Letters, a precursor to the huge, eventual project of scholarly editions of all his work, has only just begun. Now, in any case, Fordians and Conradians alike are hugely in Jeremy Hawthorn’s debt.

© 2022 Paul Skinner

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