The Conradian: Review

By Justin Tonra, National University of Ireland, Galway

The Shadow-Line: A Confession, edited by J. H. Stape and Allan H. Simmons, with an Introduction by Owen Knowles. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. lvii + 287 pp. £70/$120

First published in book form in 1917, The Shadow-Line: A Confession has in recent years been increasingly recognized as a canonical Conrad work and a significant achievement from the late period of his career. This new edition of the novella meets the impeccable standards that have been set by previous volumes of the Cambridge Edition of the Works of Joseph Conrad, and has been awarded the approval of the MLA Committee on Scholarly Editions. The volume stands as a corrective to the many popular editions of the novella that suffer from their basis in unauthoritative texts. The editors’ scrupulous attention to detail has resulted in a new text of convincing authority, while the edition’s detailed and informative paratexts make a persuasive case for the work’s importance within Conrad’s œuvre.

Despite wide recognition of The Shadow-Line’s value and prominence within Conrad studies, the novella does not carry the currency of works such as “Heart of Darkness” or Lord Jim in the public consciousness. Admirers of the latter, however, will recognize the particular appeal of this late return to the maritime stories of the author’s early career. In addition, as Owen Knowles’s Introduction lucidly attests, the avowedly autobiographical nature of The Shadow-Line and its symbolic engagement with the First World War add to the interest of the novella. The story’s focus on the unnamed narrator’s troubled maiden captaincy and his associated traverse of the figurative shadow-line between youth and maturity has its origin in Conrad’s only captaincy: of the Otago, in 1888– 89. Having previously “carried it in [his] head for years under the name of First Command” (xxvi), Conrad composed The Shadow-Line between February and December 1915, before its serial publication in the United States and England, beginning in late 1916, and subsequent book publication in both countries the following Spring.

The subtitle, “A Confession,” establishes the formal context for the novella’s first-person narration and alludes to its autobiographical sources. The geographical and temporal settings of The Shadow-Line closely mirror those of Conrad’s captaincy of the Otago: the narrator assumes command of his unnamed vessel in late 1887 and undertakes a voyage from Bangkok to Singapore, and the edition refers to primary documentation that reveals the similitude of the two voyages. Indeed, the edition’s section on “Autobiographical Sources” is thorough and comprehensive, and usefully elaborates on personal experiences, character models, and geographical details to build a picture of how Conrad’s biography shaped the plot. At the same time, it preserves a keen awareness of Conrad’s recognition of the “accentuating” and fictionalizing aspects of both memory and writing. In responding to a reader who complained that a sailor’s character had been misrepresented in the novella, Conrad defended the necessary artifice of his work, stating, “After all, I am a writer of fiction” (xxxviii). The edition helpfully prepares the reader for this “autobiografictional” (xxxix) narrative, and relates the model to similar unions of biography and fiction elsewhere in Conrad’s career, and to existing scholarship that has critically analysed this mode of writing.

If The Shadow-Line is a reminiscence of Conrad’s own transition from youth to maturity during the course of his first maritime command, the period of its composition and its dedication to Borys Conrad link the novella to the First World War and its status as a rite of passage for young men of that age. Knowles’s Introduction convincingly argues for the significant influence of Conrad’s mental and emotional distress at the outbreak of the war on the genesis of the novella. Meanwhile, Conrad’s own comments help to contextualize the quasi-autobiographical façade and its oblique allusions to the tests of maturity that accompany conflict: “I find it difficult to work in this war atmosphere. Reality, as usual, beats fiction out of sight, but this truth is brought home to one with exceptional force just at present” (xxxi). The reality of the war was brought literally to Conrad’s home as his son volunteered and shipped out to combat in France. The novella is dedicated to him and “all others” who “have crossed in early youth the shadow-line of their generation” (3).

The opening page of The Shadow-Line invokes its titular symbolism, referring to the carefree days of youth, an age “which knows no pauses and no introspection,” but where “One goes on recognising the landmarks of the predecessors, excited, amused, taking the hard luck and the good luck together” (1). The task of creating a scholarly edition amounts to a similar recognition of a work’s textual predecessors, weighing the good against the bad and adjudicating on the correct course of action. In this case, as in all eclectic editions that admit adjustments to a chosen copy-text from a number of textual sources, that correct course ends with a new text of demonstrable authority. For a work with the canonical status of “Heart of Darkness,” the notion of a new edition presenting a version that “as a whole, has never before existed” (Lyon 5) might strike readers as radical and controversial interference in a sacrosanct work; but the more mundane reality is that any eclectic edition presents a text that, to a greater or lesser degree of similarity, has never before existed. Deliberate eclecticism is the policy of the Cambridge Edition, and is explicitly invoked in this volume (169). The important responsibility of an edition that follows this principle, which The Shadow-Line comfortably meets, is to argue for and fully document the motivations and decisions that led to the establishment of its text.

The composite manuscript-typescript of the complete novella held at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library serves as the edition’s copy-text. This document preserves many of the author’s stylistic traits that are lost through the normalization of the text in the process of preparation for print, while substantive authorial revisions from the first English edition are interpolated. The section entitled “The Growth of the Novella” details progress on composition between February and December 1915. Using extant documentary evidence, the editors carefully reconstruct a period with many details of potential interest to biographical interpreters of the story. Discussions of format with his publisher, anxieties about the war, and the consequent “sick-apathy” (119) experienced by Conrad, illness, and the resort to dictation and a typist for the final quarter of the novella all help to recreate the complex compositional circumstances of The Shadow-Line.

The composite nature of the copy-text complicates the quest to restore “the author’s work” (152) somewhat, given the involvement of typist in more than a quarter of the text. However, Conrad’s decision to hire an assistant proved expeditious: after rather stuttering progress on the novella for much of 1915, hiring a typist coincided with “a remarkable creative breakthrough” that saw the completion of almost 12,000 of the novella’s 40,000 words in the course of ten days (120). The editors are scrupulously transparent about the nature of the difficulties presented by this composite text, however, and in the process articulate the inevitable caveats and compromises that accompany any editorial task.

The manuscript portion of the copy-text contains varying degrees of revision (124), along with some “Instructions to typists” and Conradian doodles (123). More generally, the editors’ discussion of preprint documents provides interesting detail on the kind of error that may enter a dictated text, and then traces the correction of (or failures to correct) these errors in the process of the text’s transmission and publication. Conrad himself recognized the interest of this compositional distinction, remarking in a letter to John Quinn, that “From a literary point of view it will be curious for critics to compare my dictated to my written manner of expressing myself” (125). Wearing their critical hats, the editors continue to describe an interesting variation in the degree of punctuation in the corresponding manuscript and typescript sections. Where the dashes of the manuscript section symbolize its generally under-punctuated nature, punctuation in the typed section of copy-text “can verge on fussiness” (126), effecting a change in the rhythm and pace established in the first portion of the novella and slowing narrative momentum. The “Preprint Documents” section of the edition not only focuses on the valuable contexts of the copy-text, but also extrapolates from surviving documentary evidence to hypothesize about the production and nature of other preprint documents, such as clean-copy publishers’ typescripts, which do not survive.

The practice of editing an author-focused edition from the basis of a copy-text that approximates the author’s final intentions is a well-established orthodoxy. A charge of the method’s inherent conservatism may be sustained, of course, by those advocating the more socially-oriented edition promoted by McGann, McKenzie, and others. But the editors are not unaware of the latter’s significance and value. A survey of later editions of The Shadow-Line is included within the textual essay that accompanies the current edition, and while their limited value to the present editorial task of determining authority is declared, their potential relevance to a broader publication and social history is acknowledged. Even this short summary, however, is useful insofar as it identifies the provenance of the texts, and the consequent accuracy and authority of popular late-twentieth-century reading editions. Both Oxford and Penguin Classics editions of The Shadow-Line relied upon versions of the texts from the collected editions (published by Dent and Heinemann, respectively) in which Conrad had little or no involvement, until the revised 2003 Oxford World’s Classics edition chose the first English edition as its copy-text. Even this apparently negligible two-page portion of this edition is immensely valuable in its provision of a guide for students and teachers to the relative merits of the various cheaper texts of the novella.

The editors’ fidelity to the strictest principles of scholarly editing is enriched by their consistent provision of illustrative cases that helpfully anchor the abstractions of editorial theory within the text. At each significant stage in the textual transmission of The Shadow-Line, the editors provide examples to illustrate the nature and extent of corrections and revisions, whether they originate from the author, publisher, or another source. Here, the editors draw the reader’s attention to sites of significant textual interest, while providing excellent and lucid close readings of the origins and import of the revisions. The practice is constant throughout the editorial commentary, but a couple of examples will suffice to provide a sense of its value. The insertion by an editor or compositor of a comma into Conrad’s phrase “deadly slow tones” is shown to change “the speaker’s carefully measured speed of delivery … into a charged description” (136). Such examples span the so-called accidental and substantive variants in the text, at once explaining to the reader the rationale of favouring a reading of “Musn’t” rather than “Mustn’t” (20.30), and demonstrating the extent of the scholarly editor’s power and responsibility.

The general editorial policy on punctuation is sensible. The idiosyncratic punctuation of Conrad’s copy-text is preserved, except in instances where it may cause confusion for the reader. Here, punctuation from printed witnesses is interpolated. This practice is not generally adopted, because of the potentially detrimental effect that this “accidental texture” (154) would have on Conrad’s characteristic style. The editors claim, for instance, that the English Review “applies to his energized prose a [punctuation] convention that drains it of vitality and individuality” (158). As important as these textual and documentary minutiæ undoubtedly are, the task of recording them in readable and engaging prose can be difficult and thankless. In the main, however, the editors of the present volume have accomplished this with great success.

Interest in the periodical originals of Conrad’s works has grown in recent times, thanks, in part, to the excellent Conrad First: The Joseph Conrad Periodical Archive. The question of serialization, always interesting with respect to composition and editorial concerns, is dealt with in detailed fashion in the edition’s textual essay. Commercial imperatives are particularly evident from both principal parties in the American serialization of The Shadow-Line. The Metropolitan Magazine insisted on severe cuts to the 40,000-word “enormous white elephant” (129), while Conrad, for his part, expressed little interest in “these American humbugs” (129) beyond their publicity value and financial returns, declaring that the “book-form . . . is the only form that counts – for me” (129). The significant question of who made the cuts to the story for the Metropolitan Magazine – its editors or Conrad – remains unanswered, although the author’s general indifference to the finished quality of his work in American serials seems to preclude his candidacy (129). By contrast, however, there is evidence of Conrad’s direct involvement in making corrections for the English serialization in the English Review, having corrected proofs of five of the seven instalments.

The high level and value of detail in the textual essay is consonant with the standards set by previous volumes in the Cambridge Edition. For instance, footnotes describing the nature and intended audience of the advertisements that accompanied the American serial version of the story (129) are a helpful and interesting key to the socialization of the text. The finer details of the printing and publication circumstances of both the serials and the books (print runs, advanced payments, royalty systems, etc.) will be of interest to scholars of publication history who study comparative processes on either side of the Atlantic. As an aside, some information about the circulation of the Metropolitan Magazine and English Review would have been a valuable addition, enabling comparison with the initial print runs of the book editions and adding quantitative depth to the valuable sketches of the likely audiences for these periodicals. Other engaging details that emerge in the section on serialization include the calculated and manipulative cliffhangers that were engineered in the division of the two serial versions into their constituent episodes. Of associated significance for the new edition is that it presents The Shadow-Line without part- and chapter-divisions for the first time in published form. This decision is warranted on the basis that these paratexts were added at the instigation of the publisher (Dent), who wished to increase the length of the slim volume.

To the publisher’s credit, the volume has a handsome and robust design: its only flaw is the unconvincing inked imitation of a title-label on the book’s spine. Navigation of the edition is also simple and intuitive: the critical apparatus consists of separate sections detailing substantive and accidental variation. The arrangement and presentation of these entries is effective, and helpful cross-references are included concisely and unobtrusively. Textual notes refer to discrete textual issues in greater detail than is possible or appropriate in the textual essay, as well as identifying characteristic issues in Conrad’s writing. The “Explanatory Notes” provide helpful and detailed glosses on factual and critical matters related to the text, often employing contemporaneous sources available to Conrad and his readers. Similarly, the “Glossary of Nautical Terms” is a boon for those who have trouble distinguishing the butt end from the poop deck. On the whole, the significant labour and attention to detail expended by the editors is evident throughout the volume. After its initial publication in 1917, reviews of The Shadow-Line were generally positive, if varied in focus. The popular press emphasized the sea-salt of Conrad’s latest yarn; other publications underlined the story’s apparently supernatural element, drawing explicit connections to the Flying Dutchman legend and Coleridge’s “Ancient Mariner”; other still took the opportunity to assess the work within the broader vista of the author’s career. With this very fine edition, the editors have enabled the recuperation and examination of many diverse perspectives on Conrad’s late novella.

© 2014 Justin Tonra

Works cited

Lyon, John. "Review of Youth, Heart of Darkness, The End of the Tether, edited by Owen Knowles." Conradian 36.1 (2011): 1-7.






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