John Sutherland

The multi-volume Collected Letters is more of a literary monument than a necessary scholarly resource. The club of 20th-century novelists thus honoured is as exclusive as the strictest Leavisite (if any remain) or St James blackballer could wish: D.H. Lawrence (seven vols), Virginia Woolf (six vols), Thomas Hardy (seven vols) and Katherine Mansfield (four vols). The Conrad project, begun in 1983, is moving to its close with this, the sixth instalment of what will be an eight-volume set. These compilations are among the most expensive and least remunerative ventures in the scholarly profession. And (be warned, tyro) the least applauded. Cynical careerists will work out early on that joining an editorial team embarked on a decades-long ‘service-to-scholarship’ enterprise is a dumb move. Particularly in a profession marching to the quickstep of RAE quinquennial assessments and septennial promotion rungs. Academic life, like everything else, is afflicted by James Gleick’s hurry sickness.

The cost of ventures like the Conrad Collected Letters (only a fraction of it borne by CUP) is not easily calculated. But factoring in a third of the editors’ salaried time over 25 years, and the corresponding dollops of grant money, it must be hundreds of thousands of dollars. The volumes themselves are expensive. Nor does any one of them make much sense on its own: the whole set (cost to date £480) has to be subscribed for. There are Conradians who will shell out 80 quid, wincingly, for the latest piece of their specialist jigsaw, but the principal market is the university library. It is a stiflingly closed circuit: the university stipends the research (via the editors’ salaries), the university press publishes it (expecting at best to break even), the university (via the library budget) buys the product and, at the end of the food chain, university-based scholars use it. Or do they? Anyone embarking on a serious biography of Conrad would return to the manuscript originals, not trusting even the most scrupulous editorial transcription, and would hope to find caches which had escaped the compilers. Writers of monographs, theses and articles in learned journals will consult and draw on these volumes but even in the case of an author like Conrad, the number of scholars involved is coterie-sized. Undergraduates? The first volume of the Letters, which I have just taken out of Caltech library, has had two borrowers in twenty years.

‘Collected Letters’ is, of course, a misnomer: long-lived authors invariably weed their literary remains. The problem is compounded in the case of a correspondent as habitually costive as Joseph Conrad. Not that the slice of life covered by this volume is lacking in biographical juice. The novelist is at the threshold of sixty, living his last years as he ruefully says ‘en vieux garçon’. He has only seven years to live. His health is failing. He is disabled by gout. For a decade and a half his wife, Jessie, has had a damaged knee which has rendered her invalid, wretched; she is now facing the prospect of amputation. He is as much care-giver as husband. The world is in apocalyptic turmoil. The Great War grinds bloodily on. The Russian Revolution spills more blood. Conrad’s son, Borys, has joined up, still a boy, to fight. His parents agonise that he will be killed and are, perversely, grateful that he is only gassed and shellshocked. His relations with his father are tense. The Conrads move house.

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