By David Miller,
in the Public Eye: Biography / Criticism / Publicity, edited
by John G. Peters. Amsterdam: Editions Rodopi, €57/$75. 275
If you bother to read this review, I should
politely urge you to remember one thing: not an academic, I read
Conrad for sheer enjoyment as well as pure enlightenment, and I
read around him in exactly the same way, almost more so. When scholarship
seems to stray from such entertaining enlightenment, things go awry:
which explains my being slightly catty in what follows, though not
about the book in purview.
Let me state straightaway, without sounding
like a sad sycophant, there has been excellence in most of the Conrad
scholarship recently published for the academic audience as well
as the likes of me – partly due to Cambridge University Press
but, above all, to Rodopi and The Conradian. Cambridge
has managed the publication of the final volumes of the Conrad’s
correspondence in tandem with the publication of new editions of
his works and, in September 2009, the publication ofJoseph Conrad
in Context edited by Allan H. Simmons.
With so much going on in the Conradian world
(to say nothing of other authors, other presses) it seems almost
indecent that John Peters’ new book can be welcomed with such
warmth. But it can. The possibility of this book ten or eleven years
ago would have seemed a van Marlean dream. The fact it joins a burgeoning
"Conrad Studies" series overseen by Simmons and J. H.
Stape and published by Rodopi is magnificent. The late Martin Ray’s
volume Joseph Conrad: Memories and Impressions: A Bibliography
(Rodopi, 2007) kicked "Conrad Studies" off. This volume
is the second to appear.
John Peters’s stated purpose is “to
provide access to a number of brief and relatively brief publications
that are difficult or nearly impossible to obtain.” So far,
so good – and what is good is excellent. His book
more than matches Ray’s and – having read the third
in the series, "My Dear Friend": Further Letters to
and about Joseph Conrad, edited by Owen Knowles – provides
precisely what it says on the tin: old material, often difficult
of access and widely scattered in archives, newly presented.
Peters divides his research into four sections:
Biography; Appreciations; Early Criticism and Publicity and has
collected some terrific material for each of his sections –
of note are a talk about Conrad given by Hugh Clifford in Ceylon
in 1927 and Florence Doubleday’s skittish memories of Conrad’s
visit to America, as well as James Whitaker’s account of Conrad
in Stanford-le-Hope between 1896 and 1898.
One can almost make out the deep purple of
the ink used by Liam O’Flaherty when he penned his appreciation
of Conrad – “I say that the God of Romance is a beautiful
God and Conrad is his prophet” (90) – and Peters has
unearthed a fascinating piece of criticism by John Cowper Powys
which provides this insight:
very curious psychological blunder made by many of our younger
writers is attributing to women of the particular kind of sex
emotions which belong essentially to men… From this blunder
Conrad is most strangely free. His women love like women, not
like vicious boys with the faces of women.” (98-99)
The last third of the book is centred on publicity
material providing fascinating, if slightly repetitive, glimpses
as to how Conrad was presented to his reading public. Peters has
gathered material from Doubleday, Dent. and Unwin and offers a useful
collage of advertisements, jacket copy, biographical sketches, and
other promotional matter, helpfully annotated.
In a world where a forthcoming conference is
soon to host a paper comparing Conrad’s and Henry James’s
place in contemporary cultural tourism in Kent [sic], publications
like Conrad in the Public Eye are manna from some sort
of seventh heaven. There is here serious scholarship and thought
apparent in this splendid anthology. Needless to say, there are
some tiny slips, the most entertaining being the fact that J. B.
Pinker could not have accompanied Conrad to New York in 1923 having
died the year before (46). The error is Mrs Doubleday’s, but
it is underlined by a careless footnote.
I’d have happily seen much of the material
in Peters’s first section (Biography) included in the earlier
compilation by Martin Ray (Memories and Impressions) that
I mentioned earlier. That is a minor cavil, perhaps a personal,
wrong-headed desire, but the fact that this did not, has not and
cannot happen certainly should not prevent Conrad in the Public
Eye from being an essential addition to any college or university
library. I am delighted to have it on my shelf, and am happier still
to know now its use and validity to any reader mad enough to explore
stuff about Conrad for longer than an hour and a half.
© 2009 David Miller