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
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”
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” )
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.
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
© 2011 Andrew Purssell