How Joseph Conrad Formed an Identity as an English Novelist
no-image, How Joseph Conrad Formed an Identity as an English Novelist
#language & literature
Joseph Conrad's idea of England and Englishness was formed early in his career. Culture.pl presents an academic paper by Allan H. Simmons addressing Conrad's engagement with his adoptive country as part of shaping his identity and writings.
'One of Us': Conrad and English Politics and Culture
Allan H. Simmons, St Mary's College, Strawberry Hill
My subject is Joseph Conrad's early engagement, both as citizen and as writer, with England and Englishness. Taking as my starting-point Terry Eagleton's claim that 'There are of course vital historical affinities at work in any culture, which the postmodern cult of the discontinuous damagingly ignores' (3). I shall consider the political and cultural 'affinities' that confront Conrad as he negotiates his path from British mariner to English writer and then use these to frame my discussion of his early career as an author. In the process I hope to show that the contemporary debate surrounding Englishness is itself composed of the 'irreconcilable antagonisms' to which Conrad referred in his letter to the New York Times 'Saturday Review' of 2 August 1901 (CL2 348).
One obvious consequence of this concerns the charge of racism levelled at 'Heart of Darkness'. To reflect an inclusive English perspective, Marlow must necessarily represent both pro- and anti-imperial views. The Manichaean criticism that lines up behind either Achebe or his opponents serves ideological allegiances but it is not comprehensive.
Conrad the sailor
On 19 August 1886, in London between overseas duty in the Tilkhurst and Highland Forest,1 Conrad officially became a naturalised citizen of Great Britain, a subject of Queen Victoria.2 Biographically the timing is felicitous: his naturalisation was granted between Conrad's failing and passing his master's certificate (in July and November of the same year). The Tilkhurst voyage itself separates his first-mate and captain's examinations. A Polish nobleman now cased in a distinctly better quality of British tar, Conrad's first known letters in English date from this time. Written to Spiridion Kliszczewski from Singapore, where the Tilkhurst offloaded coal, and Calcutta, where she loaded jute, they offer his first thoughts about the politics of his soon-to-be adopted country.
Achieving his captain's certificate Conrad had succeeded against the understandable early resistance of his uncle, Tadeusz Bobrowski. Conrad recalls his response to passing his examination thus: 'It was an answer to certain outspoken scepticism, and even to some not very kind aspersions. I had vindicated myself from what had been cried upon as a stupid obstinacy or a fantastic caprice' (PR 120). His sense of becoming his own man, of identity, is inescapably linked to British seamanship, as his writing would later identify him with the great tradition of English letters.3
The essays and occasional pieces that spanned his writing career show that Conrad had an active not simply a legal bond with the public life of Britain. He was a professional twice over, a professional seaman and a professional writer, and professionalism, by definition, is exclusive. citizenship, by contrast, is inclusive.
Despite such off-hand comments as 'I never look at the papers, so I know nothing of politics and literature (CL2 138), the subject matter of Conrad's essays suggests that they emerge from his reflections on the pages of the daily press – now responding to the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5; now attacking theatrical censorship; now bringing his maritime expertise to bear on the Titanic disaster, and charging the Board of Trade and the press with irresponsibility; now discussing Poland's re-emergence as a nation state after the First World War.
On the other side of this coin is Conrad's scepticism voiced, for instance, in his 1904 essay on Anatole France, whom he describes as 'a good republican': 'political institutions, whether contrived by the wisdom of the few or the ignorance of the many, are incapable of securing the happiness of mankind' (NLL 30). As John Stape argues, Conrad's political writings 'transcend their specific circumstances to become larger statements about the nature of the state and the individual's relationship to it, concerns rooted in his family's experience as well as those of the average civilised individual' (NLL xlvii).
Conrad reveals his early political allegiances as Conservative in the letters to Kliszczewski of October and December 1885.4 They record that he read the (Conservative) Daily Telegraph sent to him by Kliszczewski 'expecting great things' (CL1 12) in the wake of the Liberal government's defeat by a Conservative budget-amendment in June 1885, and on the general election in November that year: 'I and the rest of the 'right thinking' have been grievously disappointed by the result of the General Election' (CL1 15-16). The elections yielded a Conservative victory, but with a minority government. (Importantly, they ushered in 20 years of near-unbroken Conservative rule.) Conrad's family history complicates his political allegiance to an Empire composed of territories whose boundaries took no account of tribal origins.
Whether Conrad realised it or not when he famously declared to another refugee from Poland, 'When speaking, writing or thinking in English the word Home always means for me the hospitable shores of Great Britain' (CL1 12), there was already a public clamour to restrict immigration into Britain. In a letter to The Times of 31 May 1904, the young Liberal, Winston Churchill, defended 'the old tolerant and generous practice of free entry and asylum to which the country has so long adhered and from which it has so often greatly gained' (10), but the Conservative government's 'Aliens Act' of 1905 restricted immigration into Britain for the first time.
Politically, Conrad's sentiments formulate a sense of his Polish history. Having pinned his hopes on the Conservatives to form an anti-Russian alliance with Germany, his despondence about Britain's limited influence on Continental affairs is evident. Following the election and the constitution of a minority Conservative government he proclaims: 'Joy reigns in St. Petersburg, no doubt, and profound disgust in Berlin' (CL1 16).
In time Conrad would come to warn that German expansionism could lead to a divided Europe (in 'Autocracy and War') – and, of course, by which time German imperialism had already declared its hand, not least in Kaiser Wilhelm's telegram of 3 January 1896 sent to congratulate President Kruger on successfully repulsing Jameson's invasion of the Transvaal. Kipling remembered the Jameson Raid as 'the first battle in the war of 14-18 – a little before its time but necessary to clear the ground' (letter to Herbert Baker, 13 January 1934; in Lycett 296-97).
Conrad's political sentiments are shaped by his reaction to what he perceives as a dead Poland. British politics evoke only 'a state of despairing indifference; for, whatever may be the changes in the fortunes of living nations, for the dead there is no hope and no salvation! … nothing remains for us but the darkness of oblivion' (CL1 12). The morbid patriotic sentiments directly echo those of the poem written by his father to commemorate Conrad's birth, with its lines: 'Poland your Mother is in her grave' and 'no salvation without Her!' (in CUFE 33). It was in this letter, too, that Conrad foresaw 'the lurid light of battlefields somewhere in the near future' (CL1 12).
Conrad was British, as he assured David Bone, 'by choice': 'I am more British than you are. You are only British because you could not help it' (Bone 160). And the Britain of Conrad's choice was imperial. The great fact of British life, the empire, provided Conrad with a living, with security, and with a sense of communal recognition and belonging. As a member of the British Merchant Service, engaged in the practical reality of empire, Conrad was part of the great web of communication that assimilated remote areas of the world into the British economy. It would be surprising if his political allegiances were not Conservative. His response to British politics, as his letters to Kliszczewski show, is fashioned by a combination of immigrant complex and self-preservation.5
But while Conservative imperialism dominates British politics at this period, the age is equally characterised by portents of imperial disintegration, and, related to this, strains between old hierarchies of authority and power and an incipient democracy. Conrad's political anxieties extend to the rising tide of Continental socialism and the ineffectuality of Empire to counteract this: 'The great British Empire went over the edge ... Where's the man to stop the crashing avalanche? | Where's the man to stop the rush of social-democratic ideas? ... the sun is set and the last barrier removed. England was the only barrier to the pressure of infernal doctrines born in Continental back-slums' (CL1 16).
Whether 'born in Continental back-slums' or not, the 'rush of social-democratic ideas' that Conrad dreaded was certainly gaining purchase. Gladstone's Reform Bills in 1884 and 1885 extended the vote and, in effect, prepared the way for the extended franchise guaranteed by the Act of 1918 – up to which point only about 60% of adult males had the parliamentary vote. British political life mirrored the changing configurations and realignments of national identity. Its leanings towards socialism were evident in the founding of the Fabian Society in 1884, whose members included Sidney and Beatrice Webb, George Bernard Shaw, and H.G. Wells.
In 1886 unemployed East Enders rioted in Trafalgar Square and looted shops in Oxford Street; in the two years that followed strikes by East End match-girls and dockworkers launched the new and powerful unionism. The need for an increasingly unionised working class to be represented in the House of Commons led to the formation of the Independent Labour Party in 1893.
Conrad's response to contemporary public events is surprisingly muted at times. The deaths of Queen Victoria (1901), Gladstone (1898), and Salisbury (1903), for instance, go unmentioned in his surviving letters, while Edward VII's coronation is barely noticed. But if this reticence is itself his comment upon national politics, he is exercised by international events, such as the Boer War, 'the Krüger-Chamberlain combination' as he calls it (CL2 302).6
While one may put some of this interest down to the fact of his friend, Ted Sanderson's involvement, his comments about the respective merits of British generals suggests a deeper fascination. It is the internationalist Conrad who argues to Zagórska in December 1899 that: 'This war is not so much a war against the Transvaal as a struggle against the doings of German influence. It is the Germans who have forced the issue. There can be no doubt about it' (CL2 229).
A contemporary cartoon that appeared during the Boer War depicts Kitchener and Kipling as toy figures, representing respectively the sword and the pen, with the accompanying doggerel: 'When the Empire wants a stitch in her | Send for Kipling and for Kitchener' (see Buitenhuis 7). And if Kipling, who Rider Haggard described as a true 'watchman of our Empire' (in Lycett 306), was the poet of the right, the left too had its cultural voices, in writers such as George Bernard Shaw, who observes in Misalliance (1909): 'Rome fell; Carthage fell; Hindhead's turn will come'.
Conrad's early anxieties about private and professional acceptance are acutely registered in his letters. On the one hand, a letter from Helen Watson, Ted Sanderson's wife-to-be, is 'like a high assurance of being accepted, admitted within, the people and land of my choice' (CL1 347), and, on the other, criticism of The Secret Agent leads to the outburst: 'Ive been so cried up of late as a sort of freak, an amazing bloody foreigner writing in English' (CL3 488).
Looking back on his life as an immigrant, Conrad would write: 'I went out into the world before I was seventeen, to France and England, and in neither country did I feel myself a stranger for a moment: neither as regards ideas, sentiments, or institutions' (to George T. Keating, 14 December 1922; CL7 forthcoming). Yet, the professional detachment of the writer corresponds to a mirroring perception of him as 'an alien of genius' (in Sherry, ed. 185), and he remains on his death, to Virginia Woolf at least, 'our guest' despite having spent the greater part of his life living on English soil.
Conrad's early novels, to which I shall now turn, suggest the pattern of his engagement with prevailing public themes: imperialism in Almayer's Folly and An Outcast of the Islands; maritime history in The Nigger of the 'Narcissus' and Typhoon; and, 'framed' by this 'sea stuff', the 'hidden' rules of social inclusion that define the gentleman, in Lord Jim. I am aware that my brush strokes are broad here, since all three concerns, the Empire, the Sea, and Inclusiveness are interrelated and mutually defining.
But this is part of my point: when Conrad settled in England to write, he was well equipped to train an ethnologist's eye on the natives at a moment when what it meant to be English was being contested. He brought to bear an immigrant's perspective, uniquely coloured by his Polish experience and French and British Merchant Marine histories, on the ambiguities and paradoxes in English life. As Marlow says: 'the onlookers see most of the game' (LJ 224).
Ideologically Conrad's first two novels propose a view of imperialism. His career in the British Merchant Service made him an ideal intermediary between the western and exotic worlds. In this he was not alone: Pierre Loti was another professional mariner turned author. In English letters, colonial administrators like Rider Haggard and colonial journalists like Rudyard Kipling were also able to draw upon personal experiences for their fiction.
Exotic literature reflected the new imperialism. By 1891 Andrew Lang could remark: 'people have become alive to the strangeness and fascination of the world beyond the bounds of Europe and the United States' (in Kucich, ed. 3). In itself this is odd, given the pervasive impact of Empire upon British public life before this moment. Nonetheless, characters such as Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu, and spectacles like Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, ensured that the exotic became part of everyday education. The glimpses it offered of strange worlds, however, were ideological, 'generally reinforcing the sense of superiority of the 'civilised' over the 'savage' ' (Hobsbawm 80). In Conrad's hands this genre of exotic fiction is forced to encounter alien ways of thinking that place its logic and coherence in question.
It is tempting simply to dismiss, say, the colonial fantasies of Haggard, whose jingoistic ruthlessness caught something of the popular spirit and whose 'beastly bloodiness' led Henry James to complain to Stevenson: 'They seem to me works in which our race and our age make a very vile figure' (letter of 2 August 1886; Letters 3 128). Yet Allan Quatermain's observation that 'in all essentials the savage and the child of civilisation are identical. ... Civilisation is only savagery silver-gilt' (Allan Quatermain 14-15) would resonate a decade later in 'Heart of Darkness'.
Conrad endows the exotic with a geographical and historical reality. The fictional setting for Almayer's Folly and An Outcast of the Islands is closely based upon the remote coastal region of Berau in north-east Borneo, which Conrad visited while serving in the Vidar.7 Geographical coincidence is complemented by historical verisimilitude that allows us to identify the temporal setting of Almayer's Folly as the mid-1880s and An Outcast of the Islands as the early 1870s.8 Of course, a work of fiction need not be in thrall to the real world, and Conrad often uses his sources creatively rather than exactly. Nonetheless, in these novels the very process of making history is critically examined through the prism of literary fiction.
Located in space and time, Conrad's fictional challenge to the idea of Empire as heroic, exotic adventure is coextensive with political reality. The imperialism that is debunked in Almayer's Folly and An Outcast of the Islands is Dutch rather than British. Fidelity to personal experience, an eye on the market place, and immigrant sensitivities towards his adopted homeland may all have contributed towards this. Whatever the reason, from the standpoint of an English author writing for a British readership, explicit criticism is directed towards one of Britain's imperial competitors.
Through the characters of Almayer and Willems, ironically referred to as 'These two specimens of the superior race' (OI 63), Conrad subverts any assumption of their racial superiority in favour of an essential similarity within which the European is outsmarted and outmanoeuvred by supposedly primitive intelligences. In Conrad's first attempts at stream of consciousness writing – Almayer's swoon over the body he believes to be Dain's; or Willems' delusions when shot by Aïssa – European identity itself becomes detached from reality and fragments. And this at a moment when the American and European publics paid their coin to gawp at 'savage' on display in P.T. Barnum's travelling exhibitions.
In Almayer's Folly and An Outcast of the Islands the colonial perception of the natives as fit for conquest itself becomes the subject of an answering (post-colonial) gaze that recasts its assumed strengths as weaknesses, its dreams as folly, and its superiority as specious. If the era's imperial speech habits and vocabulary reverberate through these novels then what Cedric Watts terms their 'covert plots' – such as Abdulla's betrayal of Almayer – provide a countermanding structure that highlights the myopia of Western attitudes. The novels dramatise the paradoxes of imperial ideology, such as Willems' desire for Aïssa: 'She was too different from him. He was so civilised! ... and he could not live without her' (OI 28).
The exotic space that fostered European fantasy and adventure is here fraught with dangers of quasi-Darwininan 'degeneration', theorised by Max Nordau and given literary form in Stevenson's simian Mr. Hyde or H. G. Wells' parable of the Eloi dependent upon yet at the mercy of the dark Morlocks. Conrad voices complex contemporary anxieties about the vulnerability and sustainability of the imperial vision that challenge Kipling's description of the 'half-devil and half-child' ('The White Man's Burden').
Kipling may have expressed an aggressive view of Empire, but he is also more nuanced than such quotations allow. Returning to England and English society from India in 1889, he found himself confronted by what he saw as decadence that threatened the imperial mission: 'They derided my poor little Gods of the East … Their aim was peaceful, intellectual penetration and the formation of what today would be called 'cells' in unventilated corners' (in Lycett 196).9 The implication seems to be that the British Empire was vulnerable on two fronts: from without in the shape of international competition and from within through a failure of the will to rule.
When Kipling issues his injunction to 'Take up the White Man's burden' (in 1899), it is addressed to America not Britain, suggesting that the torch, not to mention the sword, of Empire has passed across the Atlantic. Roosevelt found it 'rather poor poetry, but good sense from the expansionist point of view' (in Lycett 311). Even Kipling's 'Recessional', written to commemorate Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897, warns of the impermanence of empires.10 And six year's before this he wrote in 'The Long Trail': 'your English summer's done'. Seen in this light, Kipling, the poet of the right, was as much of an outsider in English society as Conrad was.11
Conrad portrays an imperialism in decline, overcome by the perceived barbarism against which it has constructed its self-image. Supporting this, a rich mix of cultural and racial allegiances complicates Eurocentric over-simplifications. As Watts notes, the Balinese Dain escapes from a combination of Dutch soldiers, Arabs, and a Siamese slave-girl, thanks to a Sulu-Malay-Dutch alliance (50-51). Once noted, the racial diversity renders culturally corrosive Nina's observation of her father as 'traditionless' (28).
If the ostensible criticism is of Dutch colonialism, it is their colonial competitor in the Archipelago, the Englishman Lingard, who provides the impetus. Indeed, the Malay trilogy charts a pattern of imperial demise centred on Lingard, from his failure to keep his word and save Hassim and Immada in The Rescue, through the loss of his trading monopoly in An Outcast of the Islands, to his disappearance in Almayer's Folly, where he is a memory.
Conrad's Vidar-experience came during an unbroken spell of nearly two-and-a-half years service abroad.12 By the time he returned to Europe in May 1889, as a passenger in the SS Nürnberg, eleven years had passed since Conrad had first set foot on English soil. I estimate that he had spent only three years of this in Britain, and one of these being caused by the delay in setting sail in the Palestine. This is the degree to which the Merchant Service fashioned Conrad's early sense of what it was to be
Sailing and writing
Nowhere in Britain is one ever more than seventy miles from the sea and, unsurprisingly, the sea is intimately woven into the national story. To W.H. Auden the sea is 'that state of barbaric vagueness and disorder out of which civilisation has emerged' (17); Ackroyd suggests that the pastoral image of England stems from the vision of the island as a haven from the sea (263).
By the time Conrad began writing fiction, the sea had become a national obsession that expressed itself in agitation for a bigger and better navy. Britain's naval policy in the 1870s and 1880s responded to the threat of the Russo-Turkish War of 1878-79. The word 'jingoist' stems from a popular music-hall refrain of the time.
We don't want to fight, yet by Jingo! if we do,
We've got the ships, we've got the men, and got the money too.
We've fought the Bear before, and while Britons shall be true,
The Russians shall not have Constantinople.
It is difficult to overestimate the impact of popular sentiment upon political decision-making. 1878 is also the year of Gilbert and Sullivan's H.M.S. Pinafore with its jibe at 'landsmen all' to 'Stick close to your desks and never go to sea, | And you all may be Rulers of the Queen's Navee!'
The Nigger of the 'Narcissus' and Typhoon identified Conrad with the prevailing national mood.13 He also contributed to the Trafalgar centenary on 21 October 1905 the essay on Nelson,14 that brings to a patriotic close The Mirror of the Sea, which appeared a year later. The customary finale to the last night of the Proms, Henry Wood's Fantasia of British Sea Songs, with 'Rule, Brittania!' as its stirring conclusion, was first performed as part of the Trafalgar celebrations in 1905.
Between them The Nigger of the 'Narcissus' and Typhoon represent successive phases in Britain's maritime history: sail and steam. If the Narcissus provides an elegy for the vanishing era of sailing ships, then the less romantic steamship, the Nan-Shan, is a tribute to the mechanisation necessary for Britannia still to 'rule the waves'. With the benefit of historical hindsight, we can see that the celebration of Englishness in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries coincides with the peak of Empire and thus seems to be partly motivated by fears of decline.
The Nigger of the 'Narcissus' is more than a recessional to maritime England, it also politicises and historicises the sea. Whether trade follows the flag or the other way round, the division of the seas into profitable trade-routes intimately linked the two marine services: merchant shipping depended upon naval protection. In the face of increasingly professional foreign competition, the sheer scope of the empire strained Britain's ability to meet her demand for sailors, and foreign sailors were not unusual in the Merchant Service. To Berthoud, the international face of the Merchant Service left it 'relatively free of the worst prejudices of nationalism. Thus when, as the century wore on, it came to rival the Royal Navy in the regard of the country, it did not wholly succumb to the contagion of jingoism' (xi).
Whether manifest in Donkin's social agitation or in the nepotism that Mr. Baker accepts will enable Mr. Creighton to 'get on' in the service (NN 167), class is a central theme in The Nigger. Conrad, whose own period in the Merchant Service entailed class demotion, declared in a letter of 1922: 'Class for me is by definition a hateful thing' (letter to Elbridge L. Adams, 20 November 1922; CL7 forthcoming). This did not stop him signing off from two of his English ships with the aristocratic 'de Korzeniowski' – nor equating 'infernal doctrines' with 'Continental back-slums' (CL1 16).
The concept of 'the gentleman' reverberates through the novel, its selectivity at times rhetorically undermined by appropriation, as when Wait asks: 'Is your cook a coloured gentleman?' (NN 19). Exchanges among the crew repeatedly call the stereotypes of class and race to the service of casual abuse. Thus, to James Wait, the victim of the racist term 'nigger', Donkin is 'East-end trash' (45) and Belfast an 'Irish beggar' (80). His 'Canton street girl' would 'chuck – any toff – for a coloured gentleman' (149).
Singleton's choice of reading matter, Pelham: or The Adventures of a Gentleman (1828), certainly contributes towards the theme, but Pelham is a gentleman dandy. One aspect of Nordau's theory of 'degeneration' is that it acquires a subtle manifestation in the person of the artist – an idea given an added boost by the Oscar Wilde exposé of 1895. Reductively stereotypical– and lampooned in a host of cartoons of the era – the image of the effete, emasculated dandy contributed to the reclassification of the idea of a gentleman.
Interestingly, a disillusioned Kipling looks beyond the ruling classes for the survival of the British Empire: 'The big smash is coming one of these days, sure enough, but I think we shall pull through not without credit. It will be the common people – the 3rd class carriages – that'll save us'. (Letter to J.W. Mackail, 21 July 1897; in Lycett 300).
In his attitude towards authority, duty, and work, Singleton represents the claims of inherited tradition. Anarchically opposed to this is the figure of Donkin who, as he announces in his first speech, is also travelling ' 'ome', he too is 'an Englishman' (NN 9, 12). His 'picturesque and filthy loquacity' (101) offers a hypocritical blend of supremacist racism towards 'Those damned furriners [who] should be kept under' (13) and employment rights: 'Who took any notice of our wrongs? Didn't we lead a 'dorg's loife for two poun' ten a month?' ' (100). His may be the 'social-democratic ideas' and 'infernal doctrines' against which Conrad fulminated in 1885, a year after he shipped in the actual Narcissus, but well before the British working-man had a vote.
The case against Donkin is overwhelming: the advocate of humanitarian rights who is not above stealing from a dying man; the socialist who would put the lives of the crew at risk by letting the ship drift unmanned. But perhaps he is another 'gentleman': a parody gentleman. After all, if the recognisable qualities according to the crew, with whose vision the narrating voice comes to identify, are money, 'a clean job for life' (32), and speech-habits, then, by the time they spurn his invitation to join him in a farewell drink, he is better dressed and is 'goin' ter 'ave a job ashore' (169). Vocally, his voice is intentionally resonant: in the narrative's ventriloquism, the artist's ear is more attuned to and concentrates more upon reproducing Donkin's speech-habits – not least those of labour agitation: his is not a call to 'mutiny' but rather to 'strike, boys, strike!' (121).
Challenging the ship's hierarchy, Donkin threatens tradition, too: the storm on deck he inspires structurally balances the storm at sea, but are the storm-heroics mirrored in the incipient mutiny – or in resisting it? The cohesive force of the forecastle can only be salvaged for politics when it reformulates its notions of service, including what it means to be socially 'other', and begins to address the differences in power that render individuals unequal.15
Donkin calls the language of technology to his assistance when, trying to incite the crew, he asks rhetorically: 'Are we bloomin' masheens?' (121). The Nigger of the 'Narcissus' is a hymn to sail and manpower at a moment when the iron steam ship was eroding the supremacy of the sailing ship. 'Typhoon' offers a complementary, mechanised, portrait of sea-life, where Captain MacWhirr's name has a mechanical resonance and the crew have been transformed into engineers who work in the bowels of the ship and communicate with the deck through a speaking-tube that recalls the upstairs-downstairs life of the bourgeois household.
By comparison with The Nigger of the 'Narcissus', the maritime adventure depicted in 'Typhoon' is robbed of some of its romance. Duty and heroism remain, but the work of the crew is now done by machinery. Temperamentally, Captain MacWhirr seems ideally suited to skipper a steamship: unimaginative and literal, his response to life gives human expression to the functional and mechanical power of the Nan-Shan.
MacWhirr's decision not to change the Nan-Shan's course is sometimes construed as a further example of literal-mindedness: he lacks the imagination to get out of the way of the 'dirty weather' (20). But MacWhirr is equally driven by faith in the technology behind a 'full-powered steamship' (31), telling Jukes: 'We must trust her to go through it and come out on the other side' (88), and a recognition that, in the world of maritime trade, time is money. Following the 'storm strategy' (34) would add 'Three hundred extra miles to the distance, and a pretty coal bill to show' (33). It is little wonder that, when looking for a 'reliable skipper', his employers identify him as 'the very man' (7, 8).
As the typhoon finally reveals to MacWhirr 'the wrath and fury of the passionate sea' (19), his ordeal compares with Singleton's 'completed wisdom' (99). But this is a portrait of captaincy, and MacWhirr needs to be compared with Allistoun. Both Allistoun and MacWhirr make decisions for which they alone are responsible and upon which their ships depend, sharing the prestige, privilege, burden, and loneliness of command (T 39-40).
After the near-riot on the Narcissus, Allistoun reasserts the claims of authority and order aboard his ship by forcing Donkin to replace the iron belaying-pin to its rightful place and function. With structural symmetry, the unpretentious MacWhirr deals with the crisis posed by the Chinese workers. 'Couldn't let that go on in my ship, if I knew she hadn't five minutes to live' (88), says MacWhirr dutifully, a quality he combines with a sense of fair-play, the quality that, perhaps above all, once typified England to the outsider. 'Equitable Division', was the working title for 'Typhoon'. In a letter to his wife, MacWhirr expresses his 'hope to have done the fair thing' (94).16
If the feminised, transgressive image of the gentleman-dandy offers a critique of inherited social demarcation, then it is but one expression of a wider national debate in nineteenth-century Britain that encompasses authority and Empire. The Crimean War at mid-century, for instance, had already undermined traditional respect towards the 'officer and gentleman'. Early defeats during the siege of Sebastopol led British soldiers, who were themselves famously viewed by the Russians as 'lions commanded by asses', to claim that they had been 'massacred by the authorities'. Similarly, opposition to the Boer War demonstrates that scepticism about British imperialism was increasingly a fact of British political life. Hobsbawm notes that: 'Freedom for India, like freedom for Egypt and Ireland, was the objective of the British labour movement' (72).
As Jim's experience on Patusan demonstrates, English character and empire-building are intertwined in imperial narratives. Reviewing one such narrative, Marlow's own favourite, A Ride to Khiva (in Nation, 29 March 1877), Henry James wrote: it 'offers a very entertaining image of a thoroughly English type of man – the robust, conservative, aristocratic soldier, opaque in intellect but indomitable in muscle' (Literary Criticism 812). Already we can appreciate how Jim does and yet doesn't fit the mould.
Historicised, Conrad's insistence upon Marlow's status responds to a central aspect in the widespread contemporary debate about the formalised institutions and structures of Englishness. Marlow is a gentleman who, particularly in Lord Jim, addresses gentlemanly behavioural codes such as honour, and his designation of Jim and Jewel as 'knight and maiden meeting to exchange vows amongst haunted ruins' (312) embeds such codes within the context of chivalry.
In The Return to Camelot, Mark Girouard considers how the Victorian period's idea of 'the gentleman' was fashioned by its fascination with the age of chivalry – as witnessed in the Eglinton Tournament of 1839, where, in defiance of what they perceived as the 'Penny Coronation' of Victoria, Tory peers dressed up as medieval knights and conducted a jousting tournament in a symbol of aristocratic virility. The qualities of the ideal knight are well known: he was brave, loyal, true to his word, courteous, and merciful. Death was preferable to dishonour. The fascination with chivalry coincided with an enlargement of the gentlemanly class: 'By the end of the century thousands of middle-class Victorians, if asked their social rank, would have unhesitatingly answered … that they were gentlemen' (262).
While economics redefined social status at home, Empire played its part abroad. John Merriman, the Prime Minister of the Cape Colony remarked in 1908 that colonists who would have been ranked as working class in Europe were 'delighted on arrival here to find themselves in a position of an aristocracy of colour' (in Hobsbawm and Ranger, eds. 213).
The old saw connecting 'an officer and a gentleman' takes on various guises in Lord Jim, with Jim being accused by the Patna crew of thinking himself 'too much of a bloomin' gentleman' (117) to lend a hand during the desertion of the ship. Jim confesses to Marlow during their conversation at the Malabar House: 'Of course I wouldn't have talked to you about all this if you had not been a gentleman. I ought to have known ... I am – I am – a gentleman, too' (131), to which Marlow reaction is: ' 'Yes, yes', I said hastily' (131). The mirroring identification Marlow seeks in his 'younger self' thus extends to their shared status as gentlemen, whose definition is intimately linked to comportment.
Jim stands at the point of intersection between two mutually defining codes of conduct: personal honour and public duty. The issue of lost honour that provides a mainspring of the plot is consequent upon Jim's feeling of disgrace at having betrayed a code of behaviour in which he continues to believe – a different thing from the guilt at failing in his professional duty, for which he is duly punished by having his certificate cancelled.
During the Court of Inquiry, Brierly asks Marlow to intercede with Jim: 'let him creep twenty feet underground and stay there! By heavens! I would. ... The fellow's a gentleman if he ain't fit to be touched – he will understand' (66, 67). If Brierly recognises the gentleman in Jim, by his own admission he lacks the 'courage' (Marlow's term; 66) to face the consequences. But this 'courage' is itself a public expression of the 'professional decency' (68) that identifies the marine service. On the sinking of the Titanic, in April 1912, Punch published a cartoon of mourning Britannia together with verses that praised 'that gallant breed | Schooled in the ancient chivalry of the sea' (in Girouard 6).
In Brierly's case at least, the easy identification of 'officer' with 'gentleman' is troubled. Moreover, as he claims: 'We aren't an organised body of men, and the only thing that holds us together is just the name for that kind of decency' (68). The inference is that the 'decency' that marks an officer lacks precise definition, yet we know it when we see it – or when we don't.17 Significantly, Brierly gives Jim's crime a particularly English inflection by invoking 'a stiff upper lip' (68).
Complementing the Patna half of the novel, with its emphasis upon the gentleman-officer, is the Patusan sequence in which Jim is given the chance to redeem his lost honour in another guise: the gentleman-as-imperialist. Jim's success in Patusan is curiously reminiscent of Lingard's boast about Sambir: 'I brought prosperity to that place. I composed their quarrels, and saw them grow under my eyes' (OI 45). The presentation of Jim on Patusan indicates a bifurcated political self-awareness: imperially, his conduct appeals to notions of efficiency and order; socially, it reaffirms faith with the gentlemanly, chivalric tradition of honour.
Two very different versions of imperialism progress', both of them English, are contrasted in the novel's denouement, in the challenge posed to Lord Jim by Gentleman Brown, with their honorific titles allegorising the issue of social rank. Brown arrives in Patusan during Jim's absence in the interiour; by the time that Jim returns, old rivalries have already been re-ignited among the natives. Jim's European influence has been to interrupt rather than erase the islanders' struggle for dominance that necessarily defines government. Again, one is reminded of Lingard here: 'His trade brought prosperity to the young state, and the fear of his heavy hand secured its internal peace for many years' (OI 200).18
According to the Privileged Man, Jim would become disgusted with 'acquired honour' on Patusan (338). His defence of racial purity is summarised by Marlow as: 'we must fight in the ranks or our lives don't count' (339). Initially having wanted to see Jim 'squirm for the honour of the craft' (46), it is a tribute to Marlow's own long voyage of inquiry that he can now speculate whether 'at the last [Jim] had not confessed to a faith mightier than the laws of order and (339). This last phrase is a euphemism for imperialism, used ironically in Heart of Darkness.
Yet Jim negotiates the protocols of race and in the process reclaims his sense of self worth. The fine line between honour and its loss in the novel is couched in Marlow's question that the French Lieutenant declares is 'too fine for me': 'couldn't it reduce itself to not being found out?' (149). And yet from such 'fine' paradoxical threads hang social inclusiveness and social definition.
Jim remains acutely aware of his detachment from the outside world where, as Marlow says, 'no one wants him' (317) and 'Nobody, nobody is good enough' (319). Despite the shadowiness of the 'ideal of conduct' (416) he pursues, true to his 'word', Jim's suicide quite literally reaffirms his faith and his place in the gentlemanly tradition that is voiced, as Ian Watt noted, in the Cavalier poet Richard Lovelace's 'To Lucasta, Going to the Wars': 'I could not love thee, Dear, so much, | Loved I not honour more' (Watt 353).
Conrad's early fiction unites the local and the universal: the sense of belonging to Great Britain that is inextricably linked to Greater Britain. The novels capture a national identity, bound to its (now threatened) place in the world, in the process of rediscovering itself. By revealing Englishness as an extensive network of influence at a moment when England's grip on Empire if not loosening is the subject of public and political unease about her role, Conrad historicises and politicises the very notion of Englishness in fictions that are both celebratory and elegiac.
Daphna Erdinast-Vulcan cites 'homesickness' as integral to the plight of the Modern hero (3). Jim never returns 'home', but is there a home to return to? The further the Narcissus sails up the Thames, the more alien England seems. As Bob Dylan sings: 'You can always come back, but you can't come back all the way' ('Mississippi'). In 'Youth' the frame narrator describes Marlow's narrative as a 'chronicle'; the word is aptly chosen for these fictions record moments of resistance to imperial culture, when inherited national values and virtues confront individualism and materialism.
Conrad's sense of Englishness in his early novels is transitional. Having initially tried to hide his Polish background from English readers, he comes clean after this period and admits that he is not English, for instance in A Personal Record. Viewed as cultural commentary, sentimental and empirical impulses fashion his response to his adopted country. But the identity of England in which he is simultaneously an insider and an outsider is itself in the throes of reformulation, for which his own words provide a frame of expectation.
An immigrant in an age of Empire, Conrad's biography is bound up with the national struggles of England, whose changing face is reflected in these sea and land tales. Inevitably, the nation's sense of itself is indebted to the image of itself as seen by one of its greatest outsiders. As the recurrent subject of the gentleman demonstrates, Conrad's engagement with England is extensive with an appeal to the stability of tradition that, as his szlachta inheritance confirms, is European and not uniquely English. If this complicates the perception of him as 'one of us', it none the less asserts that 'He stood there for all the parentage of his kind' (LJ 43).
Conrad in Europe
józef teodor konrad korzeniowski
- Ackroyd, Peter. Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination. London: Chatto & Windus, 2002.
- Auden, W.H. The Enchafed Flood or the Romantic Iconography of the Sea. London: Faber and Faber, 1951.
- Berthoud, Jacques. 'Introduction' to The Nigger of the 'Narcissus', ed. Jacques Berthoud. Oxford: OUP, 1984.
- Bone, David. Landfall at Sunset: The Life of a Contented Sailor. London: Duckworth, 1955.
- Buitenhuis, Peter. The Great War of Words: Literature as Propaganda 1914-18 and After. London: B. T. Batsford, 1989.
- Eagleton, Terry. 'Irregular Virtue'. Review of Peter Ackroyd's Albion. Times Literary Supplement 20 September 2002: 3-4.
- Erdinast-Vulcan, Daphna. Joseph Conrad and the Modern Temper. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.
- Giles, Judy, and Tim Middleton, eds. Writing Englishness: 1900-1950. London: Routledge, 1995.
- Girouard, Mark. The Return to Camelot: Chivalry and the English Gentleman. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1981.
- Haggard, H. Rider. Allan Quatermain. (1887) London: Macdonald, 1969.
- Hobsbawm, Eric. The Age of Empire: 1875-1914. (1987) London: Abacus, 2002.
- _____, and Terence Ranger, eds. The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge: CUP, 2003.
- James, Henry. Letters 3: 1883-1895. Ed. Leon Edel. London: Macmillan, 1980.
- _____. Literary Criticism: Volume One. New York: The Library of America, 1984.
- Kipling, Rudyard. The Definitive Edition of Rudyard Kipling's Verse. (1940) London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1977.
- Kucich, John, ed. Fictions of Empire. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2003.
- Lycett, Andrew. Rudyard Kipling. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1999.
- Najder, Zdzisław, ed. Conrad Under Familial Eyes. Trans. Halina Carroll-Najder. Cambridge: CUP, 1983.
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- 1 The Tilkhurst on which Conrad shipped as second mate for a round trip to the East, leaving Hull on 27 April 1885, returned to Dundee on 16 June 1886; the Highland Forest left Amsterdam, bound for Java, on 18 February 1887 with Conrad as first mate. He signed off on 1 July to receive medical treatment in Singapore.
- 2 Rather than Tsar Alexander III, although he would only be released from his status as a Russian subject in 1889.
- 3 One is reminded of his letter to Marguerite Poradowska of 4 September 1892: 'one becomes useful only on recognizing the extent of the individual's utter insignificance within the arrangement of the universe. When one has fully understood that, by oneself, one is nothing and man is worth neither more nor less than the work he accomplishes with honesty of means and purpose, and within the strict limits of his duty to society, only then is one master of one's conscience, only then has one the right to call oneself a man' (CL1 113-14).
- 4 Kliszczewski is listed as Josef Spiridion in the 1881 Census, suggesting that, like Conrad, his anglicanization included changing his name.
- 5 Immigrant complex is taken to mean the process whereby one tends to overcompensate for being an outsider by adopting small 'c' conservative causes of the adoptive polity and even suppressing one's original cultural traits.
- 6 Joseph Chamberlain, the Conservative Colonial Secretary, told the House of Commons in his maiden speech: 'I believe in the British Empire and I believe in the British race' (in Lycett 1999: 276).
- 7 Present-day Kalimantan, which Conrad visited while serving as first mate in the SS Vidar between September and December 1887. Conrad traced his decision to become a writer to his meeting with William Charles Olmeijer in Berau in late 1887: 'if I had not got to know Almayer pretty well it is almost certain there would never have been a line of mine in print' (PR 87). At the time of their meeting, Conrad was serving as first mate on the Vidar, a Singapore-based steamer plying her trade between Singapore and ports on the islands of Borneo and Celebes (present day Sulawesi).
- 8 Established by Royal Charter in 1881 and mentioned at the opening of Chapter 3 of Almayer's Folly, the British North Borneo Company led the Dutch to strengthen their position in north-east Borneo and to the setting up of a joint British-Dutch commission in 1884 to settle boundary disputes. The predicament of the fictional Almayer is thus coextensive with historical and political reality: an agent for the British firm of Lingard and Co., Almayer reasonably expects to prosper under the British but not under the Dutch – the chief of the Dutch Commission tells him that 'the Arabs were better subjects than Hollanders who dealt illegally in gunpowder with the Malays' (36).
- Dain Maroola's arrival in Sambir is similarly grounded in historical fact. His contribution to the fictional plot of Almayer's Folly in search of gunpowder can be traced to the Dutch reversals against the Sumatran Achinese in 1881 that fostered unrest throughout the Archipelago.
- 9 A decade later Kipling wrote to Cecil Rhodes: 'England is a stuffy little place, mentally, morally and physically' (letter of 24 October 1901; in Lycett 340).
- 10 Far-called, our navies melt away; | On dune and headland sinks the fire: | Lo, all our pomp of yesterday | Is one with Nineveh and Tyre! | Judge of the Nations, spare us yet, | Lest we forget, lest we forget.
- 11 Tantalisingly, no trace has yet been found of Conrad's (unpublished) essay on Kipling submitted to The Outlook in February 1898 (see CL2 32-34).
- 12 Between sailing out to the Far East from Amsterdam on the Highland Forest in February 1887 and returning to Europe in May 1889, as a passenger on the SS Nürnberg, a ship involved in the immigrant trade from Germany to Adelaide.
- 13 The national celebration of the sea assumes various artistic forms: musically, for instance, it is heard in such compositions as Elgar's Sea Pictures, Delius' Sea Drift (1908), and Vaughan Williams' Sea Symphony (1910), while literature boasts Kipling's The Seven Seas (1896), Newbolt's Admirals All (1897), John Masefield's Salt-Water Ballads (1902).
- 14 Published in a 'Trafalgar Day' supplement of the Standard (13).
- 15 From one angle, Donkin's extremist views herald the more reasoned debate that can take place in the contested space he has created between the status quo and his threatening alternative.
- 16 In his own letters, Conrad describes England as 'hospitable' in 1885; 'Merry England' in January 1899; and, during the Boer War, the immigrant has turned patriot: 'liberty ... can only be found under an English flag' (CL2 229).
- 17 According to Sir Ernest Baker, 'It is impossible to think of the character of England without thinking also of the character of the gentleman. But it is also impossible to think of the character of the gentleman clearly. It has an English haze' (in Giles and Middleton, eds. 59).
- 18 The history of colonial expansion is similarly conflicted: preceding the infamous 'Scramble for Africa', for instance, it was David Livingstone's horror of the slave-trade in Africa that led him to recommend European colonization and the 'three Cs' – Christianity, civilisation, and commerce.