The Conradian: Review

By Andrew Purssell, Royal Holloway College, University of London

Katherine Isobel Baxter, Joseph Conrad and the Swan Song of Romance. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing , 2010. 172pp. £50 / $89.95

In letter to J. B. Pinker of 15 February 1919, Conrad claims that his forthcoming novel “‘Rescue’ has a particular quality”: “Novels of adventure will, I suppose, be always written; but it may well be that ‘Rescue’ in its concentrated colouring and tone will remain the swan song of Romance as a form of literary art” (CL6 362). Pinker may well have felt that one of the particular qualities of this novel of adventure, begun before Conrad’s honeymoon on Île Grande in March 1896, and completed some twenty-three years later on 25 May 1919, was that it was always being written. As Conrad acknowledges: “I am afraid you must be sick of the very [mention] of [the] Rescue” (CL6 363).

Whilst anticipating the possible (and probable) concerns of his long-suffering agent, Conrad’s promotion of The Rescue as “the swan song of Romance” also caters to a piece of literary hearsay then “in the air” (CL6 362), that he was being considered for the Nobel Prize, the prospect of which tantalized Conrad: “we needn’t have any scruples about acceptance, if it ever comes our way” (Ibid.). Disappointingly for Conrad, “it” never did. Added to which, although in career terms certainly something of a “swan song” as Conrad’s last colonial romance novel, The Rescue came to be regarded not as the pinnacle of “Romance,” but “a romantic ‘failure’” ( Knowles and Moore 308).

At one level, however, this failure was determined by a broader critical rejection of “Romance” in Conrad’s works. This rejection is implicit in F. R. Leavis’s influential criticism of the “romance” element characterizing the second part of Lord Jim (1900), which, “eked out to provide the substance of a novel, comes to seem decidedly thin” (The Great Tradition, 1948: 190); and in Thomas Moser’s equally influential achievement-and-decline thesis, which, as Baxter notes, “conflates what he perceives as the increased presence of amorously active women in the later fiction with the (in Moser’s view, degenerative) presence of romance narrative itself,” a presence that comes at the expense of “more conducive subject matter, such as men and politics, and narrative style, such as historical realism” (1).

In these criticisms, as elsewhere in Conrad studies, “romance” had become a term of abuse. Baxter locates a partial corrective to this “anti-romance” trend in Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism (1957), published the same year as Moser’s study, in which the critical gaze “so pointedly turned onto the realist novel” by Leavis, was re-directed “to romance” (2). Yet Frye’s Anatomy, like its 1976 “sequel” The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance, displaces “the ‘trivial’ experience of reading individual texts” by construing literature as a rigorously closed system, a Stein-like “display of [textual] artefacts for taxonomic study” (2, 1).

Like Moser, Frye could be seen to be something of a straw target, bringing to mind Terry Eagleton’s memorable barb, “how many students of literature today read [him]?” (1996: 174). Yet Baxter persuasively argues that Frye’s structuralism is a shaping, problematic presence in more modern studies aimed at rehabilitating the romance genre, because they repeat the guiding assumption that “romance … remains a conservative genre that cannot, and does not look to, destabilize the world beyond its fictional realm” (3).

Baxter’s study aims, first, to banish the pejorative associations that the term “romance” has in Conrad studies, by recovering (while at the same time being cautious not to overstate) the ways in which Conrad deliberately “uses, borrows from, alludes to, and subverts romance techniques, typologies, motifs and themes”: “We need not try to find excuses for Conrad’s engagement with romance, as if [it] occurs in his fiction … as some residue of a more honourable genre or literary intention” (5).

And, second, to offer a new approach to those taken under the aegis of structuralism, with its attendant side-effect of insulating the text from the social forces conditioning its production, by foregrounding the cultural and historical situatedness of Conrad’s engagement with romance, particularly in relation to the ethics and aesthetics of Modernism. By emphasizing the complexity and “experimentation of that engagement” (1), the suggestion is that Conrad’s use of romance might not be seen as distinct from, but as integral to, his modernism.

The arguments laid out and developed here are also situated in Conrad’s engagement with the specifically British traditions and forms of the genre, rather than those of his native Poland – while acknowledging that there are confluences and consonances between the two – the latter being too large a field adequately to cover here.

The study is divided into eight chapters, each focusing on a single text, laid out chronologically according to publication. Chapter One maps the romance quest motif onto “Heart of Darkness,” a motif that in Conrad’s hands “ends in negativity and the revelation of absence” (15). Chapter Two, on Lord Jim, examines Jim’s inability to reconcile his fantasies of romantic existence with “the opportunities for romantic action” (Ibid.) offered during the Patna episode and in Patusan. Chapter Three puts forward a radical re-reading of the (often unread) collaboration with Ford, Romance, which Baxter sees as subverting the very generic conventions – and by extension some of the societal and ideological norms – it appears to endorse. (Romance, of course, was written as a deliberate attempt to cash in on the contemporary popularity of adventure romances such as Stevenson’s Kidnapped.)

Chapter Four looks closely at the ways in which Nostromo challenges the generic expectations of his contemporary readership, by frustrating “the reader’s desire for teleology and … uplifting escapism” (69). Chapter Five offers an interesting close reading of the alignments of laughter, gender, and power in Chance, while Chapter Six looks at issues of trickery, finance, and investment in Victory.
Chapter Seven (an earlier version of which appeared in The Conradian), explores the use of theatrical metaphors in the representation of the cross-cultural encounter, and its attendant mis- and non-recognitions, in The Rescue. Chapter Eight, on The Rover, reads the novel as an historical romance whose characters are “left to haunt a post-romantic world” (15), an apt note on which to bring proceedings to a close given Conrad’s own apparent fondness for bleak endings; or, as one contemporary critic melodramatically put it, his “perverse desire to make our flesh creep.” (Courtney: 3 March 1915, p. 4). Conrad, while an occasional writer of romance, was himself no romantic.

A few of the many interesting points made here might have been pushed further. For example, analysing Marlow’s “final vision” of Jim’s absorption into Patusan, Baxter points up the removal from the scene of any signs of “native” life: “the image of singularity, even of aloneness … is essential to the romantic ego: there can only be one romantic hero” (45). As other critics have shown (see, for example, Taussig 1986 and Pratt 1992) such an “emptying” gesture is also a commonplace of colonial discourse, and it would have been interesting to see how “the romantic ego” and the colonial ego feed into and from one another (especially given that Jim’s re-invention as a colonial authority in Patusan is informed, in part, by his consumption of adventure romances).

There are, in addition, a considerable number of typographical errors that would have been reduced by a keener editorial eye; typifying this, Baxter appears to misquote the letter to Pinker from which this study takes its title (and which, strangely, is not identified until two-thirds of the way through, thus seemingly downplaying its significance).

Equally, the overuse of chiasmus may not be to every reader’s taste, often clouding, rather than helping to clarify, the point being made, with some of the more overcooked examples (“[Conrad] uses specific romance tropes and themes to uncover the ideologies that underpin romance and the romanticism that underpins much that presents itself as ideology” [49]) inviting Forsterian charges of mistiness. But these are minor quibbles, easily offset by this rich, inventive, and wide-ranging study’s many qualities; the chapter on Romance, which critics tend to avoid because of the novel’s collaborative aspect, is worth the price of admission alone.

Works cited

Courtney, W. L. Daily Telegraph, 3 March 1915, p. 4.
Knowles Owen, and Gene M. Moore. Oxford Reader’s Companion to Conrad. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. 2nd edition. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.
Pratt, Mary Louise. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. London: Routledge, 1992.
Taussig, Michael. Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

© 2011 Andrew Purssell






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ody of ambitious plays” by placing them within the context of evolving theatrical traditions, including melodrama, Expressionism, Grand-Guignol, and naturalism, to argue that, despite his protestations to the contrary, Conrad’s awareness of contemporary theatre was more advanced than has hitherto been recognized.

Bringing the volume to a close, Mary Morzinski challenges the “achievement

and decline” claims made by Moser et al. to provide a strident defence of Conrad’s stylistic development as one of continual growth, using the manuscript of The Rescue as evidence. A linguistic approach to Conrad, this essay’s context is Second Language Acquisition, whereby the speaker develops an “interlanguage.” Analysis of such characteristics as verb tense and word order (of adverbial modifiers and adjectives) leads into a discussion of asyndeton and synecdoche to argue that the hallmarks of Conrad’s style are simultaneously aspects of his artistic techniques, and that these continue to evolve across Conrad’s career.

The Conrad: Eastern and Western Perspectives series is proving to be

seful contribution to on-going Conradian scholarship and critical debate. Apart from occasional designated monographs, including Morzinski’s own Linguistic Influence of Polish on Conrad’s Style (Vol. 3: 1994), the series are largely composed of edited collections of essays that, if heterogeneous, are ultimately satisfyingly wide-ranging in their range and scope.