Joseph Conrad 1857 – 1924
January 29, 2009
Joseph Conrad was a distant cousin of Alexander Poradowski, whom he met in Belgium in 1890. Joseph Conrad and Alexander Poradowski were also related to Alice Gachet, the cousin of homeopath Paul Ferdinand Gachet. Marie Poradowska was the neice of Paul Ferdinand Gachet, and Joseph Conrad consulted Paul Ferdinand Gachet.
Joseph Conrad was a friend of Henry James Jnr, Arthur William Symons, and he knew Ethel Lilian Boole Voynich (Martin Ray, Joseph Conrad: Memories and Impressions : an Annotated Bibliography, (Rodopi, 2007)).
Joseph Conrad had travelled to Brussels to pay a visit to his seriously ill distant cousin Alexander Poradowski who died two days later. His acquaintance with the widow Marguerite Poradowska, was one of the most significant events in Conrad’s life. They remained in a close contact for many years.
Joseph Conrad campaigned against the cruelty of latex production.
His father Apollo Korzeniowski was a writer of politically themed plays and a translator of Alfred de Vigny, Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens and Shakespeare from the French and English. He encouraged his son Konrad to read widely in Polish and French.
In 1861 the elder Korzeniowski was arrested by Imperial Russian authorities in Warsaw for helping organize what would become the January Uprising of 1863–64, and was exiled to Vologda, a city with a very harsh climate, some 300 miles (480 km) north of Moscow. His wife Ewelina Korzeniowska (née Bobrowska) and four year old son followed him into exile.
Due to Ewelina’s weak health, Apollo was allowed in 1865 to move to Chernihiv, Ukraine, where w?thin a few weeks Ewelina died of tuberculosis. Apollo died four years later in Kraków, leaving Conrad orphaned at the age of eleven.
In Kraków, young Conrad was placed in the care of his maternal uncle, Tadeusz Bobrowski - a more cautious figure than his parents. Nevertheless, Tadeusz Bobrowski allowed Conrad to travel at the age of 16 to Marseille and begin a career as a seaman. This came after Conrad had been rejected for Austro Hungarian citizenship, leaving him liable to conscription into the Russian Army.
Conrad lived an adventurous life, dabbling in gunrunning and political conspiracy, which he later fictionalized in his novel The Arrow of Gold. Apparently he experienced a disastrous love affair that plunged him into despair. A voyage down the coast of Venezuela would provide material for Nostromo; the first mate of Conrad’s vessel became the model for that novel’s hero.
In 1878, after a failed suicide attempt in Marseille by shooting himself in the chest, Conrad took service on his first British ship, bound for Constantinople before its return to Lowestoft, his first landing in Britain.
Barely a month after reaching England, Conrad signed on for the first of six voyages between July and September 1878 from Lowestoft to Newcastle on a coaster misleadingly named Skimmer of the Sea. Crucially for his future career, he “began to learn English from East Coast chaps, each built to last for ever and coloured like a Christmas card.”
In London on 21 September 1881 Conrad set sail for Newcastle as second mate on the small vessel Palestine (13 hands) to pick up a cargo of 557 tons of “West Hartley” coal bound for Bangkok. From the outset, things went wrong. A gale hampered progress (sixteen days to the Tyne), then the Palestine had to wait a month for a berth and was finally rammed by a steam vessel.
At the turn of the year, Palestine sailed from the Tyne. The ship sprang a leak in the English Channel and was stuck in Falmouth, Cornwall, for a further nine months. After all these misfortunes, Conrad wrote, “Poor old Captain Beard looked like a ghost of a Geordie skipper.” The ship set sail from Falmouth on 17 September 1882 and reached the Sunda Strait in March 1883. Finally, off Java Head, the cargo ignited and fire engulfed the ship. The crew, including Conrad, reached shore safely in open boats.
The ship is re-named Judaea in Conrad’s famous story Youth, which covers all these events. This voyage from the Tyne was Conrad’s first fateful contact with the exotic East, the setting for many of his later works.
In 1886 he gained both his Master Mariner’s certificate and British citizenship, officially changing his name to “Joseph Conrad.” Prior to his retirement from the sea in 1894, Conrad served a total of sixteen years in the merchant navy. In 1883 he joined the Narcissus in Bombay, a voyage that inspired his 1897 novel The Nigger of the Narcissus.
A childhood ambition to visit central Africa was realised in 1889, when Conrad contrived to reach the Congo Free State. He became captain of a Congo steamboat, and the atrocities he witnessed and his experiences there not only informed his most acclaimed and ambiguous work, Heart of Darkness, but served to crystalise his vision of human nature - and his beliefs about himself.
These were in some measure affected by the emotional trauma and lifelong illness he contracted there. During his stay, he became acquainted with Roger Casement, whose 1904 Congo Report detailed the abuses suffered by the indigenous population.
The journey upriver that the book’s protagonist, Charles Marlow, made closely follows Conrad’s own, and he appears to have experienced a disturbing insight into the nature of evil. Conrad’s experience of loneliness at sea, of corruption and of the pitilessness of nature converged to form a coherent, if bleak, vision of the world. Isolation, self deception, and the remorseless working out of the consequences of character flaws are threads running through much of his work. Conrad’s own sense of loneliness throughout his exile’s life would find memorable expression in the 1901 short story, Amy Foster.
In 1891, Conrad stepped down in rank to sail as first mate on the Torrens, quite possibly the finest ship ever launched from a Sunderland yard (James Laing’s Deptford Yard, 1875). For fifteen years (1875–90), no ship approached her speed for the outward passage to Australia. On her record breaking run to Adelaide, she covered 16,000 miles in 64 days.
Conrad writes of her:
“A ship of brilliant qualities - the way the ship had of letting big seas slip under her did one’s heart good to watch. It resembled so much an exhibition of intelligent grace and unerring skill that it could fascinate even the least seamanlike of our passengers.”
Conrad made two voyages to Australia aboard her, but in 1894 he had parted from the sea for ever and embarked upon his literary career - having begun writing his first novel Almayer’s Folly on board the Torrens.
In March 1896 Conrad married an Englishwoman, Jessie George, and together they moved into a small semi detached villa in Victoria Road, Stanford le Hope and later to a medieval lath and plaster farmhouse, “Ivy Walls,” in Billet Lane. He subsequently lived in London and near Canterbury, Kent. The couple had two sons, John and Borys.
A further insight into Conrad’s emotional life is provided by an episode which inspired one of his strangest and least known stories, A Smile of Fortune. In September 1888 he put into Mauritius, as captain of the sailing barque Otago. His story likewise recounts the arrival of an unnamed English sea captain in a sailing vessel, come for sugar.
He encounters “the old French families, descendants of the old colonists; all noble, all impoverished, and living a narrow domestic life in dull, dignified decay… . The girls are almost always pretty, ignorant of the world, kind and agreeable and generally bilingual. The emptiness of their existence passes belief.”
The tale describes Jacobus, an affable gentleman chandler beset by hidden shame. Extramarital passion for the bareback rider of a visiting circus had resulted in a child and scandal. For eighteen years this daughter, Alice, has been confined to Jacobus’s house, seeing no one but a governess.
When Conrad’s captain is invited to the house of Jacobus, he is irresistibly drawn to the wild, beautiful Alice. “For quite a time she did not stir, staring straight before her as if watching the vision of some pageant passing through the garden in the deep, rich glow of light and the splendour of flowers.”
The suffering of Alice Jacobus was true enough. A copy of the Dictionary of Mauritian Biography unearthed by the scholar Zdzis?aw Najder reveals that her character was a fictionalised version of seventeen year old Alice Shaw, whose father was a shipping agent and owned the only rose garden in the town. While it is evident that Conrad too fell in love while in Mauritius, it was not with Alice. His proposal to young Eugénie Renouf was declined, the lady being already engaged. Conrad left broken hearted, vowing never to return.
Something of his feelings is considered to permeate the recollections of the captain. “I was seduced by the moody expression of her face, by her obstinate silences, her rare, scornful words; by the perpetual pout of her closed lips, the black depths of her fixed gaze turned slowly upon me as if in contemptuous provocation.”
In 1894, aged 36, Conrad reluctantly gave up the sea, partly because of poor health and partly because he had become so fascinated with writing that he decided on a literary career. His first novel, Almayer’s Folly, set on the east coast of Borneo, was published in 1895. Together with its successor, An Outcast of the Islands (1896), it laid the foundation for Conrad’s reputation as a romantic teller of exotic tales, a misunderstanding of his purpose that was to frustrate him for the rest of his career.
Except for several vacations in France and Italy, a 1914 journey to Poland, and a 1923 visit to the United States, he lived the rest of his life in England.
Financial success evaded Conrad, though a Civil List pension of £100 per annum stabilised his affairs, and collectors began to purchase his manuscripts. Though his talent was recognized by the English intellectual elite, popular success eluded him until the 1913 publication of Chance - paradoxically so, as it is not now regarded as one of his better novels.
Thereafter, for the remaining years of his life, Conrad was the subject of more discussion and praise than any other English writer of the time. Although the quality of his work declined, he enjoyed increasing wealth and status. Conrad had a true genius for companionship, and his circle of friends included talented authors such as Stephen Crane and Henry James Jnr.
In the early 1900s he composed a short series of novels in collaboration with Ford Madox Ford.
In April 1924 Conrad, who possessed a hereditary Polish status of nobility and coat of arms (Na??cz), declined a (non hereditary) British knighthood offered by Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald.
Shortly after, on 3 August 1924, he died of a heart attack. He was interred at Canterbury Cemetery, Canterbury, England, under his original Polish surname, Korzeniowski.