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.

Most worrying, Conrad is confronting the fact of his waning creative powers. He has finished his last great work, The Shadow-Line. What comes after is lees: valuable, because he is Conrad, but he knows that he can never again write to his own best standard. Nonetheless, he is at the height of his fame, and intensely proud of it. He thinks he might win the Nobel Prize. When an importunate American publisher asks for a ‘specimen page’ of his work in progress (The Arrow of Gold) Conrad replies with hauteur: ‘A piece of literature is not a bag of wheat and I should think that in the case of a writer of my standing as an artist even the very booksellers ought to feel a certain amount of confidence of the wares they are going to receive.’ Doubleday duly bought the ‘pig in the poke’ (Conrad’s term).

The letters themselves throw little light on the areas about which one is most curious. Conrad makes occasional passing reference to the world picture, the war and the Russian Revolution (‘The great thing is to keep the Russian infection, its decomposing power, from the social organism of the rest of the world’). There are only two surviving letters to Borys from what must surely have been hundreds. There are cheery notes to his wife as she spends yet another spell in hospital. But the nature of their intimate relationship remains inscrutable. There is a particularly pained verdict on his failing powers in a letter to friends about The Arrow of Gold:

I have been working every morning. You can imagine what sort of stuff that is. No colour, no relief, no tonality; the thinnest possible squeaky babble. And when I’ve finished with it I shall go out and sell it in the market place for 20 times the money I had for the Nigger [of the Narcissus] – 30 times the money I had for the Mirror of the Sea

It is a horrible prospect. And because I have not enough Satanism in my nature I can’t enjoy it. I am really a much more decent person than you would think. It’s a great disadvantage.

But, in general, Conrad is stoical about artistic impotence.

The letters here to J.B. Pinker, his agent and banker, outnumber those to any other correspondent by six to one. They are, in general, very dry (more so since Pinker’s partnering letters have been lost). Even less informative are the dashed off notes to friends and acquaintances on trivial social matters. The following note, dated (provisionally) 5 April 1919, is to G. Jean-Aubry (a future biographer). The original, in French, is transcribed, annotated and translated:

Dear Friend.

Would you like to come for lunch on Saturday, if that suits you, or by the 4.30 p.m. train? Get your ticket for Wye because at the moment our motor-car is at the coachbuilder’s and it will be difficult to pick you up from Ashford Station. Send us a line at once – or perhaps a wire.

My wife thanks you for the gift from Holland. It no longer exists – because it was so good.

Yours truly


A note tells us that ‘Jean-Aubry’s letter of 27 March promised “un souvenir comestible” of his Dutch tour.’ A cake? chocolates? The letter is located as ‘MS Yale; Unpublished’. Why should it be published?

The traditional sequence has been Letters then Life. First assemble and edit the correspondence and then, when everything is in place, write the biography. Frederick R. Karl reversed this sequence. In 1978 he published what is still the biography of first call, Joseph Conrad: The Three Lives. It is 1008 pages long. Karl’s foreword begins:

This is the first biography of Joseph Conrad in twenty years, and the first to draw upon the entire range of his correspondence of nearly 4000 letters. As the editor of his collected letters, the author has been able to use the more than 1500 unpublished pieces of correspondence, including many hundreds hitherto unavailable to Conrad’s earlier biographers. While these letters do not provide any sensational divulgations, they do allow documentation and continuity in many areas of Conrad’s life that had been shadowy or vague. Although the correspondence does not fill in the earlier years with any greater precision, it does inform every aspect of his writing life.

The first volume of the Collected Letters, edited by Karl and Laurence Davies (who has assumed first billing in the sixth volume), came out four years later. If one compares the contents of this sixth volume with the corresponding section of Karl’s Life it is clear that any ‘divulgations’ these letters contain were comprehensively scooped in 1978. What the Collected Letters supply is a doughy addendum to Karl’s massive biography. That work has resulted in a secondary scholarly residue in the shape of Karl’s own archive, now deposited at the University of South Carolina, whose Special Collections department has begun to gather materials ‘documenting the achievements of literary biography’. Those materials will, in their turn, inspire doctoral theses and monographs. Large fleas have small fleas on their backs that bite ‘em; and small fleas have smaller fleas and so on.

What, having read Karl, can we find among the epistolary husks? In the preface to the first volume of Letters he suggests that the principal value of the enterprise is that it creates a complete and intact cosmos:

A collected edition or long sequence of letters by a major author is a publication of great dramatic appeal. No other medium can take us so intimately into both his personal life and his way of working. Letters are more effective than journals, memoirs or diaries, for these are conscious efforts, written out of what the author understands to be his intentions and motivations. Letters, however, provide patterns and schemes which move beyond conscious planning.

How many readers conscientiously read these volumes, as they intermittently appear, from cover to cover? It is unlikely that they will be read as avidly as the single-volume edition of The Letters of Kingsley Amis, which contains, as its editor Zachary Leader records, some eight hundred letters ‘from a trawl of several thousand’. Leader trawls, so that the reader can scud along. The Amis Letters made it into the bestseller lists. That did not happen to the sixth volume of The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad.

There are convincing utilitarian arguments against the old-style collected edition. On the dustjacket of this (and previous) volumes is Tony Tanner’s compliment: ‘These letters are impeccably edited and presented . . . To anyone interested in the history of fiction writing, or the emergence of Modernism, they are indispensable.’ If they are indispensable shouldn’t the letters appear in a form that would enable them to be available more quickly? As it is they’re set to take a quarter of a century – the greater part of an average academic career (Tanner, alas, hasn’t lived to see this volume). The issue is further complicated by the observable facts that, in the twenty years since 1983, the personal computer has arrived, the Xerox machine has become universal, and air travel has become magnitudes cheaper. These last volumes are being delivered to a scholarly world which has changed in unforeseen ways.

A centrally catalogued, searchable, digitised database, with content summaries and functional annotation would be sufficient for most current academic purposes. It would, of course, be possible to publish as a companion a traditional book which could draw superstructurally on the digital resource. A model that comes to mind is Philip Horne’s ingenious Henry James: A Life in Letters (1999). A thirty-volume set of letters, even for the Master, is not on, so Horne sifted through James’s manuscript remains and printed a run of correspondence, with linking commentary and footnotes. It’s an elegantly composed and highly useful book. Other similar volumes are, apparently, being commissioned.

One of the irritating platitudes of contemporary criticism is that email means the age of literary letter-writing is over. This is plainly wrong. There is, thanks to the Internet, more correspondence today than ever. Explosively more. But how to archive it? Most of it is lost in the unechoing ether, in discarded hard disks, or dead server directories. Despite this, it is clear that as Sue Hodson, the keeper of literary manuscripts at the Huntington Library, predicts, the systematic acquisition of digitised material ‘is only a matter of time’. These will differ from traditional manuscripts (with their scorings out, erasures and obliterations), but Word 2000 has a ‘track changes’ facility, allowing buried layers of revision, correction and deletion to be recovered. Hodson’s ‘biggest challenge so far’ has been, she says,

a set of emails from an author, donated to us (with the author’s permission) by the recipient. After much discussion about how to proceed, the donor finally loaded all the emails into a MS Word file, which now resides on my computer’s hard disk. Obviously, this is not a satisfactory solution for large-scale or repeated application. Any time now, I expect to be confronted with the question of acquiring a hard disk of files coming in with a collection.

The Huntington has cornered most of Kingsley Amis’s manuscript correspondence. If they acquire Martin’s, most of it will, presumably, be in electronic form. I hope he’s got ‘track changes’ enabled.

At the British Library another keeper of manuscripts, Christopher Fletcher, is co-ordinating a pilot project, aimed at developing ‘a means by which email correspondence can be preserved, catalogued and made accessible in its “born digital format”’. But Fletcher, a self-confessed devotee of Conrad, wonders whether digital materials have the same value as manuscripts. ‘Towards the end of Conrad’s life,’ Fletcher says, ‘he was much preoccupied with selling his manuscripts to T.J. Wise – and endorsing them (at Wise’s insistent request) with all sorts of proofs of originality/authenticity etc. Would a latter-day Wise be interested in a digital Conrad manuscript work? I’m not sure.’

The BL has already received at least one major archive whose contents are entirely digital (discs, tapes, hard drives). Devising protocols for such materials raises interesting scholarly issues. Unlike traditional correspondence, email annotates itself as to such things as time and date of dispatch. It automatically keeps copies of received letters. In one sense email’s immediacy deteriorates ‘literary’ quality. In compensation, it tends to capture communication which, for decades now, has been lost to the irretrievability of the phone conversation. More technically, Fletcher notes: ‘Just as curators of conventional correspondence retain envelopes for the information they hold (date stamps, seals, postmarks, forwarding addresses etc), so the curator of email correspondence must not neglect its accompanying electronic paraphernalia.’

The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad is a worthy monument to one of the indisputably major novelists of the 20th century (Leavis was right about that). It is also a monument to a noble genre of scholarship whose time, I fear, has passed.