The Napoleon of Notting Hill by G.K. Chesterton (1904)

Chesterton (1874-1936) was a hugely successful ‘writer, poet, philosopher, dramatist, journalist, orator, lay theologian, biographer, and literary and art critic’ in his day. He wrote a vast amount of essays, reviews, columns, articles, literary criticism – notably helping a revival of interest in Dickens with his 1906 biography of the great man – and wrote extensively about religion, leading up to his own conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1922.

Probably Chesterton’s most enduring legacy is the 53 Father Brown detective stories published between 1910 and 1936, and regularly dramatised for TV or radio – followed by the novels The Man Who Was Thursday, and this one.

Edwardian humour

The Napoleon of Notting Hill is a comic novel, full of satire and high spirits, not all of which are easily understandable. Some of the incidental humour is pretty laboured and dated.

For example, book three (of five) opens with an extended satire on the kind of poetry published around 1904 and the kind of criticism it received, in the form of an extended joke about a volume of poetry, Hymns on the Hill, which the king reviews, under the critical pseudonym ‘Thunderbolt’, as a member of the so-called ‘Hammock’ school of criticism, so-called because quite a few of their reviews start with reference to the great pleasure the book brought the reviewer as he lazed in his hammock on a seasonal summer’s afternoon. If you make a big effort to project your mind back into the literary world of 1904, this is just about funny.

Similarly, book one opens with a chapter satirising the fashion for ‘prophecies of the future’ which were popular in his day, skewering not only H.G. Wells – by then the leader of a whole school of scientific prophecy – but all kinds of other prophets of socialism and pacifism and vegetarianism and so on. Chesterton mocks them all by carrying their prophetic arguments to extremes.

Having itemised all the individual prophets and their foibles, Chesterton then demolishes the lot with one grand fictional gesture. This is simply to set his novel in the far distant remote year of 1984, and assert the simple fact that, contrary to all their predictions… nothing whatsoever has changed! All the great catastrophes and collapses and social revolutions predicted by the prophets… have failed to transpire.

In effect, the people, the uneducated, uninterested masses, have listened to the Great Prophets, read their books and articles and… ignored them, and just got on with their lives. They have played the traditional game which Chesterton puckishly names ‘Cheat the Prophet’, with the result that:

When the curtain goes up on this story, eighty years after the present date, London is almost exactly like what it is now.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill

In fact the England of 1984 is a despotism but in the nicest possible way. Democracy has faded into the rule of one man, a titular ‘king’, overseeing committees of efficient civil servants. But there have been no devastating wars, society carries on much as it always has, chaps still wear frock coats and top hats, ladies wear elaborate Victorian dresses with corsets and bustles, horse-drawn hansom cabs rumble through the streets. The only change that concerns us is that the ruler of the country, the so-called ‘king’, is chosen at random, like the members of a jury.

In the first couple of pages we are introduced to a trio of young men – the Honourable James Barker (‘one of the most powerful officials in the English Government’), Wilfrid Lambert (a ‘youth with a nose which appears to impoverish the rest of his face’, ‘a fool’) and their short friend Auberon Quin, who:

had an appearance compounded of a baby and an owl. His round head, round eyes, seemed to have been designed by nature playfully with a pair of compasses.

Some of the early incidents, before the story really gets going and taking up several chapters – are offputtingly inexplicable. In one they bump into the exiled President of Nicaragua in Whitehall, and watch as he goes to mad extremes to recreate the flag of his lost country – yellow by tearing a rip in an advertising hoarding for Coleman’s mustard, and red by plunging a knife into his own hand and staining a handkerchief red. After much inconsequential Latin fieriness, he walks proudly off into the night never to be met again.

Quin, Lambert and Barker are strolling through Kensington Gardens one fine day, Quin infuriating the other two with his latest tom-fool idea which is that the secret of humour is telling elaborate stories which don’t have a point, and is just sticking his head between his legs and making a cow noise when… two equerries walk up and announce that the new king of England, picked by random lot is…. Quin!

While the other two go pale with horror, Quin preens and plumes himself and struts around, wandering up into Notting Hill, where a serious little boy wearing a toy knight in armour costume, prods him in the tummy with a wooden sword, whereat Quin very seriously tells the young man he must defend his home turf, the Hill of Notting, with his honour, before strolling off dispensing similar ‘advice’ to puzzled passersby.

But this brief encounter sets Quin thinking. What if he used his power to make the rulers of all of London’s boroughs wear medieval armour and halberds and … and so when Barker visits ‘his majesty’ a few days later he finds Quin on the floor surrounded by poster paints, playfully sketching out new coats of arms and coloured standards for each of the 32 boroughs.

The King was happy all that morning with his cardboard and his paint-box. He was engaged in designing the uniforms and coats-of-arms for the various municipalities of London. They gave him deep and no inconsiderable thought. He felt the responsibility. (Book 2, chapter 2)

As the last sentence indicates, the whole thing is told with an amused, tongue-in-cheek drollery.

Ten years later

Cut to ten years later: Quin is still king and still the joker. One day a building developer (‘Mr Buck, the abrupt North Kensington magnate’) comes to complain about delays in getting a new road and housing development he’s managing built up from Hammersmith through Notting Hill and beyond. Soon he is joined by the Provosts of West Kensington and so on, all dressed in the ceremonial costumes which Quin still childishly insists they all wear, announced by pages and so on.

They’re all complaining to Quin about the hold-ups and delays blocking the project, and the costs and the overheads and profit margins, when a remarkable thing happens: the Provost of Notting Hill arrives – and at a stroke reveals that he takes all Quin’s nonsense about medieval pageantry perfectly serious! He speaks medieval language as if he means it. He speaks of ‘my liege’ and ‘my honour’ and waves his doughty sword and generally takes Quin’s joke at face value.

‘I bring homage to my King. I bring him the only thing I have – my sword.’
And with a great gesture he flung it down on the ground, and knelt on one knee behind it.
There was a dead silence.
‘I beg your pardon,’ said the King, blankly.

Stunned, Quin looks closer and realises it is the little boy who prodded him in the tummy with a toy sword ten years earlier. Now Adam Wayne, aged 19, announces that he is prepared to defend the Hill of Notting to the death! Well, well.

The novel then tells us something about Adam Wayne’s character. Never having been out of London – or even Notting Hill – he is a genuine modernist, in the sense that he finds poetic beauty in the urban landscape, finds fairyland in railings and gas lamps and hansom cabs, and in the silhouette of terraced houses against the night sky. Above all he takes absolutely seriously the notion that Notting Hill is a precious land, worthy of his patriotism, worthy of defending.

In a comic sequence perfectly understandable to the modern reader, Wayne canvases opinion among the shop-keepers on Notting Hill, visiting a grocer’s, a chemist’s, a barber’s, an old curiosity shop and a toy-shop. The comic premise is simple: Wayne enters each shop and speaks the 15th-century register of patriotism and heroism and defending the Hill – and the (generally) short, round, balding shop-keepers are comically nonplussed.

(It’s interesting to learn just how long short, irascible shopkeepers have been a reliable staple of English humour, from H.G. Wells’s numerous retailers (I’ve just read about Bert Smallways, keeper of a bicycle hire shop in The War In The Air) to Jones the butcher in Dad’s Army and Arkwright in Open All Hours.)

Wayne meets with predictable, and comic, incomprehension until he comes to the sweet and toy shop of Mr Turnbull, who stuns him by revealing that he plays wargames with his lead soldiers and – has even built a model of Notting Hill which he uses to play wargames!

The Pump Street argument

The Provosts of the boroughs affected by Wayne’s refusal ask King Auberon for a meeting to insist that their planned new thoroughfare carve its way up from Hammersmith and through Notting Hill, specifically through a few buildings in Pump Street. Led by Buck they offer Wayne three times the properties’ value. But Wayne refuses point blank to see any part of his kingdom despoiled, and leaves the meeting.

At which point Buck and the other speculators say they will simply send men in to knock down the buildings, halbardiers from each of the allied boroughs, Wayne or no Wayne – and the king sadly acquiesces. He wanted fun, frivolity and fantasy, and now it’s all got a little out of hand.

The king has only just moved on to begin a champagne dinner, arranged by servants in Kensington Gardens, when it really does get out of hand. He hears sounds of shouting, footsteps running closer, and then – to his and his courtiers’ astonishment – wounded halberdiers come running and stumbling from Notting Hill, beating down a flimsy wall which separates the gardens from the public thoroughfare and then, in the gap, the apparition of a god-like figure, blazoned with light – Adam Wayne, General of the army of Notting Hill!

A dazed Barker, who had been involved in the battle, stumbles south to High Street Kensington where he bumps into Buck closing up his shop and tells him what has happened. Buck is immediately on his mettle, rallies the Provosts, quickly assembles a few hundred soldiers from each of the four boroughs and leads them on a march converging on Pump Street, which has become the symbolic epicentre of the war.

But the Notting Hillers take control of the nearby gasworks, turn off the gas supply to the streetlamps, plunging all the roads into darkness and, knowing their home turf, launch devastating attacks, genuinely hurting, maiming and killing their opponents.

Chesterton manages to gloss over the seriousness of injury and death, instead writing a funny chapter where King Auberon storms into the offices of his favourite newspaper, The Court Journal, where he terrorises the editor into giving him huge placards to write incendiary headlines on, and then is concocting an entirely fictional description of the battle – in the manner of a modern newspaper – when real eye witnesses, Barker and Buck, stumble in.

Immediately the whimsical king nominates himself Foreign Correspondent to the paper and sets off ‘for the front’, in his usual comically histrionic style:

‘I have an idea,’ he said. ‘I will be an eye-witness. I will write you such letters from the Front as will be more gorgeous than the real thing. Give me my coat, Paladium. I entered this room a mere King of England. I leave it, Special War Correspondent of the Court Journal. It is useless to stop me, Pally; it is vain to cling to my knees, Buck; it is hopeless, Barker, to weep upon my neck. ‘When duty calls’… the remainder of the sentiment escapes me.’

There follows an increasingly complex description of the various battles, which climax with man-to-man fighting around the waterworks on Campden Hill. But meanwhile Buck has sent for reinforcements from the further-flung London boroughs, who have all promptly sent a few hundred men. During a lull in the battle Buck sends an emissary to Wayne pointing out that they now outnumber the Notting Hillers by ten to one. In the manner of confident business men he makes a bet with the king that Wayne will promptly surrender. The king thinks not.

And is proved correct when an emissary from Wayne arrives, arrayed in full medieval gear, and blandly asks the assembled army of the boroughs to surrender. Buck and his entourage burst out laughing. But the emissary goes on to point out that Wayne has secured Campden Hill reservoir and, if a surrender is not given in ten minutes, will open it, flooding and drowning the entire army standing, as it is, in the valley below. Astonished, Buck realises they will have to surrender. The mischievous king is delighted with this turn of events. And so the Empire of Notting Hill commences.

The last battle

It is twenty years later. Notting Hill is an empire to which the other boroughs pay obeisance. It is entered via nine huge elaborately carved gateways on which are depicted events from the battle for Independence. The king is walking its quiet and amazingly prosperous streets. The king notes how the five shopkeepers who Wayne visited all those years ago, now rule over colourful emporia and use the elaborate diction of medieval merchants. In fact Wayne’s victory is not so much a military conquest of the rest of the London as the fact that everyone turned out to want to live a life of medieval colour and romance.

He bumps into Barker who is just explaining that the men of Kensington sometimes get exasperated by the Notting Hillers’ lordliness when… the lights abruptly go out, a local telling our puzzled protagonists that this happens every year on the anniversary of the Great Battle. The Hillers start singing a martial song of victory and this pushes Barker over the edge. He grabs a sword, yells ‘South Kensington’ and leaps into the fray. Other passersby turn out to be from other boroughs and join in. From nowhere appears Buck, leader of the allied boroughs in the earlier war. Soon there is a massive battle taking place… again.

And these final pages are odd, strange and puzzling. One of the reasons I read older books is because they come from a foreign country, where lots if not most of the assumptions are different – about everything, about society, class, technology, about language itself – and you find yourself being brought up dead on every page by words, expressions, ideas, things taken for granted by the author and their Edwardian readers which we, a hundred years later, find outlandish – all of which force the modern reader to stop and rethink our prejudices, values and opinions.

I find this much more challenging than reading modern fiction, which overwhelmingly just confirms our current liberal pieties. It is more bracing to be challenged.

It is clear that Chesterton descends into a kind of romantic fugue state, the battle becomes a vision of romantic fighting from the period of King Arthur, all swords and halberds, quickly relinquishing all contact with reality. At the climax of the battle Wayne stands with his back against a huge old oak tree, symbolic of deep English character, and repeated waves of attackers can’t separate him from it, until in pulling him from it, they only manage in pulling the whole tree up by its roots, which promptly falls onto the crowd of soldiers killing all of them.

This is obviously a hugely symbolic moment but symbolic of what, exactly? I read in the introduction that Chesterton has been criticised, then and now, for glorifying war, for thinking of war as a redeeming cleansing activity. Critics quote King Auberon musing as he walks round the empire of Notting Hill:

‘Old Wayne was right in a way,’ commented the King. ‘The sword does make things beautiful.’

But the use of the word ‘sword’ immediately reveals that Chesterton is not really thinking about war as such. the book was written in the aftermath of the Boer War with its barbed wire, concentration camps and machine guns. No fool glamorise that kind of war. The key is given by the king’s very next remark:

‘It has made the whole world romantic…’

The book doesn’t glamorise war, it praises the life-enhancing qualities of medieval romance – while at the same time richly satirising them, it has its cake and eats it. Right up until the end, when something much stranger happens.

This strangeness reaches a new height in the very last chapter – titled ‘Two Voices’ – when out of the ruins and grim silence at the end of the battle, from out of the darkness of the night amid the landscape ruined with corpses, arise two voices.

I’ve read the chapter twice but still don’t really understand what they’re saying. It seems to by a sort of conservative hymn to the notion of undying, unchanging values.

‘If all things are always the same, it is because they are always heroic. If all things are always the same, it is because they are always new. To each man one soul only is given; to each soul only is given a little power – the power at some moments to outgrow and swallow up the stars. If age after age that power comes upon men, whatever gives it to them is great. Whatever makes men feel old is mean – an empire or a skin-flint shop. Whatever makes men feel young is great – a great war or a love-story. And in the darkest of the books of God there is written a truth that is also a riddle. It is of the new things that[Pg 292] men tire – of fashions and proposals and improvements and change. It is the old things that startle and intoxicate. It is the old things that are young. There is no sceptic who does not feel that many have doubted before. There is no rich and fickle man who does not feel that all his novelties are ancient. There is no worshipper of change who does not feel upon his neck the vast weight of the weariness of the universe. But we who do the old things are fed by nature with a perpetual infancy. No man who is in love thinks that any one has been in love before. No woman who has a child thinks that there have been such things as children. No people that fight for their own city are haunted with the burden of the broken empires. Yes, O dark voice, the world is always the same, for it is always unexpected.’

It takes on a theological tone. Suppose he is God, says one voice, and he made the whole universe as a joke, as a jeu d’esprit, knocked it off for his amusement and then forgot about it.

‘If all things are always the same, it is because they are always heroic. If all things are always the same, it is because they are always new. To each man one soul only is given; to each soul only is given a little power – the power at some moments to outgrow and swallow up the stars. If age after age that power comes upon men, whatever gives it to them is great. Whatever makes men feel old is mean—an empire or a skin-flint shop. Whatever makes men feel young is great—a great war or a love-story. And in the darkest of the books of God there is written a truth that is also a riddle. It is of the new things that men tire – of fashions and proposals and improvements and change. It is the old things that startle and intoxicate. It is the old things that are young. There is no sceptic who does not feel that many have doubted before. There is no rich and fickle man who does not feel that all his novelties are ancient. There is no worshipper of change who does not feel upon his neck the vast weight of the weariness of the universe. But we who do the old things are fed by nature with a perpetual infancy. No man who is in love thinks that any one has been in love before. No woman who has a child thinks that there have been such things as children. No people that fight for their own city are haunted with the burden of the broken empires. Yes, O dark voice, the world is always the same, for it is always unexpected.’

At which point dawn begins to lighten the eastern sky (with rather crushing symbolism) and one voice is revealed as that of King Auberon and the other of Wayne. ‘Wayne,’ says the king, ‘it was all a joke. I meant it as a joke.’ ‘Then that makes it all the more real,’ says Wayne

All criticism of Chesterton sooner or later mentions his fondness for paradoxes, for the unexpected, for reversals. That’s what happens here. Somehow,the very fact that it was all a joke makes it all the more profound and serious.

Wayne says it doesn’t matter what motivated Auberon: all that matters is that the two of them – two poles of human nature – the over-satirical and the over-earnest – came together to restore humanity to the poetic way of life, vision and diction which it deserves.

It isn’t war as such: it is the romance of human life which Chesterton is asserting, in this strange visionary conclusion to what had been, until this moment, a fairly easy-to-assimilate satire.

‘I know of something that will alter that antagonism, something that is outside us, something that you and I have all our lives perhaps taken too little account of. The equal and eternal human being will alter that antagonism, for the human being sees no real antagonism between laughter and respect, the human being, the common man, whom mere geniuses like you and me can only worship like a god. When dark and dreary days come, you and I are necessary, the pure fanatic, the pure satirist. We have between us remedied a great wrong. We have lifted the modern cities into that poetry which every one who knows mankind knows to be immeasurably more common than the commonplace. But in healthy people there is no war between us. We are but the two lobes of the brain of a ploughman. Laughter and love are everywhere. The cathedrals, built in the ages that loved God, are full of blasphemous grotesques. The mother laughs continually at the child, the lover laughs continually at the lover, the wife at the husband, the friend at the friend. Auberon Quin, we have been too long separated; let us go out together. You have a halberd and I a sword, let us start our wanderings over the world. For we are its two essentials. Come, it is already day.’

In the blank white light Auberon hesitated a moment. Then he made the formal salute with his halberd, and they went away together into the unknown world.

As I say, I read older books because they are so often challenging, not because of their plots or characters, but because of ideological or political or theological assumptions which underly them are so often challenging to understand or sympathise with.

But the effort to do so, in my opinion, whether you agree with them or not (whether you completely understand them or not) expands your mind. Better than TV. Better than movies. Better than drugs.


A hint of modernism

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.

Thus T.S. Eliot wrote in The Waste Land published in 1922 but much of it written much earlier. Anomie was clearly a common feeling among Edwardian writers – passages in Conrad and Wells spring to mind, and I was struck how vivid and forceful the same feeling appears in Chesterton. The sheer oppressive boredom of London’s long blank streets.

Adam Wayne is a figure of fun, but in his innocence he speaks truth:

‘I sometimes wondered how many other people felt the oppression of this union between quietude and terror. I see blank well-ordered streets and men in black moving about inoffensively, sullenly. It goes on day after day, day after day, and nothing happens; but to me it is like a dream from which I might wake screaming. To me the straightness of our life is the straightness of a thin cord stretched tight. Its stillness is terrible. It might snap with a noise like thunder.’

Maybe it was Tennyson who introduced this mood of urban despair into English poetry. Here’s a lyric from his long, desolate poem In Memoriam, commemorating his best friend who died young, published as long ago as 1850.

Dark house, by which once more I stand
Here in the long unlovely street,
Doors, where my heart was used to beat
So quickly, waiting for a hand,

A hand that can be clasp’d no more –
Behold me, for I cannot sleep,
And like a guilty thing I creep
At earliest morning to the door.

He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again,
And ghastly thro’ the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.

Dickens knew that long bald street, and so did Chesterton.

The blank white morning had only just begun to break over the blank London buildings when Wayne and Turnbull were to be found seated in the cheerless and unswept shop.

And:

‘I have walked along a street with the best cigar in the cosmos in my mouth, and more Burgundy inside me than you ever saw in your life, and longed that the lamp-post would turn into an elephant to save me from the hell of blank existence.’

Much of the wickedness of men comes from sheer boredom.


Related links

The Food of the Gods, and How It Came To Earth by H.G. Wells (1904)

Bensington drank that delight of human fellowship that comes to happy armies, to sturdy expeditions—never to those who live the life of the sober citizen in cities.

Science fantasies

Wells explained the strategy of his ‘scientific fantasies’ in numerous interviews: take one big reasonably scientific idea, and develop it to extremes in a world which in all other respects remains perfectly ordinary and mundane.

Thus in The War of The Worlds the Martians travel across the solar system and arrive in… Dorking. In The Time Machine the traveller visits the ruins of a future civilisation in… Richmond-upon-Thames.

In the same way, almost all of this garish fantasy happens in rural Kent, described with loving humour and social satire which sometimes buries the actual narrative.

Wells’s development

There seems to have been a simple development in Wells’s output: right at the very beginning (1895) he was exploding with cracking science fiction ideas which he set down in a tearing hurry in short stories and novellas which use the minimum literary devices necessary.

After just a few years, by the turn of the century, he’d become interested in doing more than just tell a ripping yarn. He began writing novels about love and social comedy (KippsLove and Mr Lewisham) and became aware that a number of his contemporaries were experimenting with literary ideas. In particular Wells followed Henry James and Joseph Conrad’s experiments with different types of narrator, seeing what kind of light it sheds on a story to be told by a limited, obtuse or unreliable narrator, to use frame narratives, and so on.

By 1904 when he published The Food of the Gods and How It Came To Earth he was well into this later phase and the book suffers terribly because of it.

The plot

The executive summary is: a pair of doddery ‘scientists’, Mr Bensington and Professor Redwood, discover a form of alkaloid which stimulates growth in all organic life forms. They tentatively experiment with baby chicks on a farm they hire in Kent but the chemical – Herakleophorbia IV – quickly gets into the environment, producing giant ants, wasps and rats, which attack local rural types and interrupt the vicar’s croquet party, in scenes of broad social satire.

But they also give it to humans. Redwoood gives it to his baby son, a doctor friend slips it to the new baby of a foreign Royal Family which he’s treating, and a doughty, macho engineer, Cossar, who helps them put down the infestation of giant rats and wasps in Kent, also feeds it to his three baby boys.

The result is that a) around Britain, and then further afield around the world, leaking packs of Herakleophorbia IV transform the environment, creating giant flora and fauna, grass like trees, flowers like rainforests, insects the size of horses, and b) a cohort of giant young people come to maturity some 20 years after the discovery.

The climax of the novel comes when a political leader, Caterham, rises up to focus popular anger about the wrecking of the environment which he does by focusing on the handful of ‘giants’.

These ‘giants’ – the three Cossar brothers, Redwood’s son, the grandson of the old couple who the scientists set to manage their farm in Kent, and who they secretly fed Herakleophorbia IV (named Caddles), and the princess from the foreign royal family who comes to join them – have grown increasingly resentful as they are hemmed in to a smaller and smaller ‘reservation’ in Kent or – in the case of Redwood’s son and the princess – when the powers that be tell them they are not ‘allowed’ to fall in love (as they are doing) — these giants rebel.

In a colourful and weird scene the giant Caddles storms up to London where he finds himself straddling Piccadilly, beset by thousands of gawping onlookers and angrily addressed by Lilliputian policemen. After prolonged chase and frustration, he settles in a garden in Highgate where he refuses to move and is eventually attacked by the army, killing quite a few riflemen before himself dying.

This prompt all out war between giants and humans. Wells gets round the details by having it described at one remove by the old inventor Redwood, who is placed under house arrest by Caterham’s new government, but can hear the bangs of artillery and see the night sky lit by flares and explosions.

After a few days of captivity Redwood is released and taken to see Prime Minister Caterham who explains the initial attacks have resulted in stalemate: some giants have been killed (though not the five or so key ones I’ve listed above) and lots of troops. More devastatingly, the giants have been using artillery they have constructed to fire canisters of Herakleophorbia IV far and wide, trying to biologically engineer a new, giant, ecosystem to suit them.

Redwood is then sent by the Prime Minister to the giants’ fortress in Kent, to offer a truce and a deal. they will be sent to a ‘reservation’anywhere in the world to live out their lives as they see fit but must no reproduce and must stop showering Herakleophorbia IV everywhere.

The giants reject it. In the final scene, the leader, Cossar’s oldest son, says that growth is the law of nature, the death of the old, the birth of the new, and that giants will inherit the earth come what may, as part of the never-ending process which will carry the human race towards complete knowledge of the universe.

‘It is not that we would oust the little people from the world,” he said, “in order that we, who are no more than one step upwards from their littleness, may hold their world for ever. It is the step we fight for and not ourselves…. We are here, Brothers, to what end? To serve the spirit and the purpose that has been breathed into our lives. We fight not for ourselves—for we are but the momentary hands and eyes of the Life of the World. So you, Father Redwood, taught us. Through us and through the little folk the Spirit looks and learns. From us by word and birth and act it must pass—to still greater lives. This earth is no resting place; this earth is no playing place, else indeed we might put our throats to the little people’s knife, having no greater right to live than they. And they in their turn might yield to the ants and vermin. We fight not for ourselves but for growth—growth that goes on for ever. To-morrow, whether we live or die, growth will conquer through us. That is the law of the spirit for ever more. To grow according to the will of God! To grow out of these cracks and crannies, out of these shadows and darknesses, into greatness and the light! Greater,’ he said, speaking with slow deliberation, ‘greater, my Brothers! And then—still greater. To grow, and again—to grow. To grow at last into the fellowship and understanding of God. Growing…. Till the earth is no more than a footstool…. Till the spirit shall have driven fear into nothingness, and spread….’ He swung his arm heavenward: – ‘There!’ His voice ceased. The white glare of one of tho searchlights wheeled about, and for a moment fell upon him, standing out gigantic with hand upraised against the sky.

On which note, the novel ends.

Thoughts

Well it’s quite an enjoyable book if you don’t mind it being a complete mess of style and story. Wells has set himself the task of describing the next stage in human evolution around the planet, but chooses to do so through the antics of a couple of silly scientists, a gung-ho adventurer (Cossar) and a great deal of social comedy taking the mickey out of provincial vicars and rural workers.

The science

Doesn’t bear much thinking about. For some time we’ve known that the larger an animal’s size the heavier its bones or exoskeleton need to be, and that there is a natural limit to this. Having 50-foot Caddles clump around Piccadilly is good cinema, but not very persuasive science.

Another obvious fact is that ecosystems include vast amounts of organisms human beings don’t notice or even know about, vast numbers of bacteria, fungi and viruses. In order for giant plants to exist, you’d need a world of giant micro-organisms.

The rhetoric of the book says there are about 50 giants around the world by the time their rebellion breaks out. This isn’t a large enough number to create even a self-sustaining colony, let alone replace the swarming billions of madly reproducing normal humans.

Anybody who wrote about the leak of a life-changing chemical into the environment, now, today, in 2018, would have to describe a) ecological catastrophe b) the swift response of international health and scientific agencies. None of this existed in Wells’s day. In fact a striking aspect of the story is the complete absence of the police or army in any of the outbreaks of giant rats, ants, wasps and so on, which have to be dealt with by comic local villagers equipped with antique blunderbusses, or outraged vicars wielding croquet mallets.

Giants

There are two great literary predecessors, the French novels Gargantua and Pantagruel published in the 1530s, and Gulliver’s adventures in Lilliput, published by Jonathan Swift in 1725.

On an obvious level, Wells namechecks both of these antecedents, having Redwood nickname his fast-growing baby Panty, after the giant Pantagruel.

Although Wells (fortunately) skips over most of the twenty years in which they grow up, he does have several scenes describing the giant playroom which is built for his son, the enormous nursery Cossar builds for his three, and the strain which baby Caddles imposes on the charity of the local lady of the manor, Lady Wondershoot, who finds herself trying to supply adequate food and clothing for the monster.

In each of these scenes I could hear reminiscences of Gargantua in particular, and they are told in a funny mix of awe and broad comedy.

The narrator

The narrator is what I think is categorised as an ‘omniscient first-person narrator’. That’s to say, a first-person narrating ‘I’ appears a few times during the story – once or twice mentioning that he was eye-witness to this or that event, once or twice mentioning that he ‘heard’ about this or that incident from people that were there. But overwhelmingly the rest of the story is told as if by a third-person narrator i.e. someone who gives a reliable and authoritative overview account of all the different scenes – whether the two scientists in their London apartments, the rural goings-on in Cheasing Eyebright, the streets of London during Caddles’ adventures, and so on. The combination – or the sudden appearance of a first-person I into an otherwise straight third-person story – is odd and disconcerting.

But whoever exactly is telling it, the story is dominated by a tone of facetiousness, irony and sarcasm which gets pretty wearing. Sometimes he delivers broad social comedy that would have been recognisable to Restoration wits or Sheridan, describing the jocose activities of characters with names like Sir Arthur Poodle Bootlick, the Bishop of Frumps and Judge Hangbrow.

The entire book is divided into just three parts, which makes it all the more notable that all of part two is devoted to the growth of baby Caddles in the little Kent village of Cheasing Eyebright. This section is devoted to all manner of rural comedy and social satire. The village is dominated by the patronage of Lady Wondershoot, supported by the old buffer obtuseness of the local vicar, both of whom have to deal with comically inarticulate and stumbling peasants, like the giant’s mother and grandmother.

At moments there are straight descriptions of rural life which read like Thomas Hardy.

She [the old woman] was engaged in pulling onions in the little garden before her daughter’s cottage when she saw him coming through the garden gate. She stood for a moment ‘consternated’, as the country folks say, and then folded her arms, and with the little bunch of onions held defensively under her left elbow, awaited his approach.

At other points there is acute social satire.

Lady Wondershoot liked bullying Caddles. Caddles was her ideal lower-class person, dishonest, faithful, abject, industrious, and inconceivably incapable of responsibility.

Sometimes we have a self-dramatising narrator, using the mock solemn tone which characterises so much 18th century comic fiction:

It was an anonymous letter, and an author should respect his character’s secrets.

Sometimes he is the intrusive narrator, forcing his opinions on us.

There are vicars and vicars, and of all sorts I love an innovating vicar – a piebald progressive professional reactionary – the least.

Sometimes there are prolonged passages which read like late Dickens.

[Lady Wondershoot’s] coachman was a very fine specimen, full and fruity, and he drove with a sort of sacramental dignity. Others might doubt their calling and position in the world, he at any rate was sure – he drove her ladyship. The footman sat beside him with folded arms and a face of inflexible certainties. Then the great lady herself became visible, in a hat and mantle disdainfully inelegant, peering through her glasses. Two young ladies protruded necks and peered also.

Looming over all this is the threat that Wells will resort to his grandest, most pompous, history-of-the-world manner.

To tell fully of its coming [the food of the gods] would be to write a great history, but everywhere there was a parallel chain of happenings. To tell therefore of the manner of its coming in one place is to tell something of the whole. It chanced one stray seed of Immensity fell into the pretty, petty village of Cheasing Eyebright in Kent, and from the story of its queer germination there and of the tragic futility that ensued, one may attempt – following one thread, as it were – to show the direction in which the whole great interwoven fabric of the thing rolled off the loom of Time.

The book is characterised throughout by the same tonal and attitudinal mish-mash.

Thus the rise of the nationwide anti-giant party led by Caterham is described in a tone half-satirical – as if the author and reader are both men of the world who know that all political parties are rackets – but which sometimes stumbles into a completely different register, where he is suddenly talking about the way the mob can be whipped up against ‘outsiders’, a mood that unnervingly reminds you of Hitler and all the other 20th century demagogues.

There is a kind of momentary flash of something you could take seriously, a real insight into Wells’s life and times and then… he crushes it with another slather of heavy-handed facetiousness.

The same thing happens at the end of the novel. When Redwood is taken from his house arrest to go and meet  the newly elected Prime Minister Caterham, who has just triggered the ‘war on the giants’, he is struck by how much smaller, older and tireder the man seems than his photos and caricatures in the press.

For a moment there is a gleam of what you could call adult insight into the wearing effects of power. But then it is gone and the narrative focuses in on Caterham’s ‘offer’ to the giants and Redwood’s defence of the giants and you realise that – you are in the middle of a preposterous load of tosh.

The influence of Henry James

Is Wells copying Henry James’s style, with its proliferation of would-be pregnant phraseology? It crossed my mind when a baby fed with Boomfood becomes too heavy for ‘maternal portage’. Hmm. That’s a late-Jamesian periphrasis.

The public mind, following its own mysterious laws of selection, had chosen him as the one and only responsible Inventor and Promoter of this new wonder; it would hear nothing of Redwood, and without a protest it allowed Cossar to follow his natural impulse into a terribly prolific obscurity.

What does that last phrase even mean?

Before he was aware of the drift of these things, Mr. Bensington was, so to speak, stark and dissected upon the hoardings. His baldness, his curious general pinkness, and his golden spectacles had become a national possession. Resolute young men with large expensive-looking cameras and a general air of complete authorisation took possession of the flat for brief but fruitful period

‘Complete authorisation’ is good, but unlike Wells’s usual style.

He was the sort of doctor that is in manners, in morals, in methods and appearance, most succinctly and finally expressed by the word ‘rising’.

This ornate positioning of the narrative voice to prepare us for exquisite phraseology is surely Jamesian.

Bensington, glancing from the window, would see the faultless equipage come spanking up Sloane Street and after an incredibly brief interval Winkles would enter the room with a light, strong motion, and pervade it, and protrude some newspaper and supply information and make remarks.

Fairy tale

There is yet another tonal intrusion or flavour in this mad mix, one he uses to describe the whole sub-plot about the baby of an (unnamed) foreign royal family, who a scheming doctor of Redwood and Bensington’s acquaintance (the absurdly named Dr Winkles) feeds the wonder food.

She will grow up to be a beautiful fifty-foot tall young woman and fall in love with Redwood’s giant son. In the mad, visionary, scene at the climax of the novel, when redwood is allowed into the giant’s stronghold, he discovers this 50 foot Amazon tenderly leaning over his own fifty-foot son who has sustained some injuries and the Lilliputian Redwood is forced to acknowledge the tenderness and romance of the scene.

But anyway, her entire existence, growth and the passages describing the couple’s love affair are told in an extraordinarily mimsical, sentimental, almost fairy tale style.

Now it chanced in the days when Caterham was campaigning against the Boom-children before the General Election that was – amidst the most tragic and terrible circumstances – to bring him into power, that the giant Princess, that Serene Highness whose early nutrition had played so great a part in the brilliant career of Doctor Winkles, had come from the kingdom of her father to England, on an occasion that was deemed important. She was affianced for reasons of state to a certain Prince – and the wedding was to be made an event of international significance.

All the rest of her story is told in the same style. ‘Now it chanced in the days…’ That’s Biblical phraseology, isn’t it?

What an extraordinary mess of voices and registers! If you could colour-code styles and tones of voice, this book would look like a Jackson Pollock painting. There are loads of local enjoyments (the social satire is, in fact, often very funny) but the net effect is a mess, and you can see why it is never included in the canon of Wells’s key works.


Related links

Other H.G. Wells reviews

1895 The Time Machine – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come – set in the same London of the future described in The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love but descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1906 In the Days of the Comet – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end

1914 The World Set Free – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed

King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild (1999)

Can’t remember the last time a book made me physically sick. About half way through another description of the murders, rapes, dismemberments, garrotings, hangings, torture and shootings carried out by Belgian rubber companies in the forced labour system set up by king Leopold II in his colony in the Congo (1885-1909), I thought I might spew.

Leopold II, king of the Belgians, and his genocide

If you like historical horror stories, you’ll love this book. It intertwines a biography of lonely unloved Leopold, aloof, shy king of the Belgians who conceived a great ambition to own one of the chunks of the developing world being claimed as colonies by all the other European nations – with detail of how, once he’d settled on the Congo, he commissioned the greatest explorer of the age, Henry Morton Stanley, to open it up; and then created a system of concessions to commercial companies which more or less guaranteed that at every level and in every way, the native peoples of the vast Congo basin would be worked to death, exploited, punished and murdered every bit as cruelly and needlessly as the genocides carried out by Hitler or Stalin.

Villages were razed to the ground, women and children were casually shot, or taken as hostages to force the menfolk to drain rubber from the vines which grew high up into the rainforest canopy. If enough rubber wasn’t collected, the women or children were murdered. Or their hands were cut off. Or their brains were dashed out with rifle butts. Or they were raped or tortured to death, or beaten, or tied in sacks and thrown into the river, or flogged to death, or left chained to trees till they died of thirst. And much more.

Leopold’s loot

This happened for 20 years or more over an area the size of western Europe. The profits to the Belgian, French and British companies who extorted raw rubber were big, but nothing compared to Leopold’s take. The book details the countless cunning ways the king screwed the maximum revenue out of every aspect of the operation. Hochschild quotes the scholar Jules Marchal who estimates Leopold’s total haul at around $1.1 billion in today’s money.

Leopold’s follies

This loot Leopold spent on turning his palace on the outskirts of Brussels into a new Versailles, building grandiose public monuments in cities around Belgium, on collecting a suite of villas on Cap Ferrat in the south of France, and on an impressive series of prostitutes and mistresses, until he fell in love with a 16 year old, Caroline Delacroix when he himself was an ageing 65.

The genocide

Modern scholars estimate the population of the Congo region was halved, from about 20 million to around 10 million, during the decades of Leopold’s homicidal rule. Hochschild quotes Alexandre Delcommune, ‘a ruthless robber baron’, saying that, if Leopold had ruled the Congo for another ten years, there probably wouldn’t have been a single rubber vine left, or, quite possibly, a single native. The genocide would have been complete.

It goes without saying the all this was done in the name of ‘civilisation’ and ‘justice’, of ‘law’ and ‘morality’. It is particularly disgusting that the Catholic church, right up until the end and beyond, supported Leopold, a crime just as egregious as its over-analysed relation with the Nazis.

The resistance

Speaking of Christians brings us to the resistance to Leopold’s bloody rule and among these were many Protestant missionaries, especially the non-conformists. It is reasonably well-known that what eventually became a worldwide campaign against Leopold’s rule was run by two passionate advocates, the doughty English businessman-turned-crusader-for-justice ED Morel, and the febrile but effective Irishman, Roger Casement. Through a brilliant series of books, pamphlets, newspapers, speeches, through fundraising and lobbying, they managed to discredit Leopold’s rule and make the scandal one of the great issues of the Edwardian world.

And Hochschild says their campaign was the most important and sustained crusade of its type between the mid-Victorian abolitionist movement and the worldwide boycott of South African apartheid in the 1970s and 80s.

Black heroes who campaigned against the horror

But above and beyond Morel and Casement, Hochschild goes out of his way to bring attention to the work of several remarkable black missionaries and campaigners, namely George Washington Williams, William Henry Sheppard and Herzekiah Andrew Shanu who, often at great risk, travelled far, took testimony, and publicised the horrors of what Model called ‘that infamous System’.

Review

I read Hochschild’s book immediately after Thomas Pakenham’s wonderful Scramble for Africa, which covers the same period and a lot of the same subject. Pakenham’s book has the breadth and scale and depth of War and Peace. It is an epic which also includes detailed portraits of key individuals, ranging across the whole continent throughout the scramble, 1880-1914.

Pakenham’s tone is judicious and, for the most part, detached; only occasionally does he pass judgement on the men he’s describing, and his biting criticism is all the more powerful for being rare. By contrast, Hochschild’s book is much shorter, much lighter, and he is ready with sarcasm and criticism from the start. He is sarcastic about Britain’s claims to abolish slavery after the 1830s, he is sarcastic about the so-called civilising mission of the explorer and colonisers, he is quicker to dismiss all high-falutin rhetoric and, in doing so, he misses the complexity to which these rhetorics, these discourses, were put. Many people believed what they said about bringing civilisation to the savages. A number of native tribes did practice cannibalism. The slave trade was rampant in east Africa and British authorities did do their best to stamp it out.

Pakenham’s book, maybe four times longer than Hochschild’s, has the space and depth to explore the highly complicated ways scores and scores of contemporaries struggled to make sense of their world and of the made scramble for African colonies. As such it is a much deeper and more satisfying read.

But what it lacks in scale and depth, King Leopold’s Ghost makes up for in intensity and horror. After you’ve read a certain amount, it’s hard not to share his sense of indignation, his anger, that human beings from so-called civilised, so-called Christian, Europe were allowed to get away with such barbarity and depravity for so long.

The end?

Leopold died of cancer in 1909. Despite the worldwide success of the campaign against him, in the end he was only forced to sell the Congo to the Belgian state a year or so before his death (he had planned to leave it to the Belgian people in his will). And in a depressing final chapter Hochschild makes clear that, although the scale of wanton murder was reined in, forced labour of some sort continued in Congo, and in neighbouring European colonies, well into the 1930s, and was even intensified during the Second World War with the Allies’ bottomless need for tyres for all types of war machinery.

One of the most powerful lessons for me was the link Hochschild draws between the occasional tribes who managed to rebel against the system, who stole arms and killed their white torturers and escaped into the jungle to wage prolonged guerrilla campaigns against their oppressors – and the similar tactics adopted by anti-colonial nationalists fighting the British and French following the Second World War, the Mau-Mau et al. If, as Hochschild book makes you, you powerfully and emotionally root for the first group of freedom fighters – then surely you must, at the very least, sympathise with their descendants.

European civilisation

Leopold II, king of the Belgians. Note the smart uniform, the shiny medals, the impeccable manners. What a Christian gentleman!

Leopold II, king of the Belgians

Leopold II, king of the Belgians

And now some of the hundreds of thousands of Africans whipped, chained, mutilated, raped and murdered by Leopold’s officers to incentivise them or their parents to gather more rubber for the wise and good king.

Children in the Belgian Congo whose hands have been cut off to encourage their parents to gather more rubber for King Leopold

Children in the Belgian Congo whose hands have been cut off to encourage their parents to gather more rubber for King Leopold

Related links

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1899)

Heart of Darkness was published in three monthly instalments in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in February, March and April of 1899. (The Victorian Web has an essay describing the other articles which Heart of Darkness appeared among.) The final text was still divided into three equal sections when it was published in book form in 1902.

Heart of Darkness is a masterpiece and as such can be approached from scores of different angles, interpreted in countless ways.

In line with my earlier comments about Conrad, I think its success is partly because, in the horrific facts of the Belgian Congo which he experienced on his 1890 trip up the river, Conrad found external realities which, for once, justified the extremity of his nihilistic worldview and the exorbitance of his style.

The Congo really was a vast immensity of suffering and pain. When he uses his almost hysterical language about Almayer’s daughter abandoning him, or Willems’s native mistress seeing through him, or Hervey’s wife leaving him, Conrad’s lexicon and syntax seem overwrought, hyperbolic. In King Leopold’s Congo there really was a subject which justified the obsessive use of words like ‘horror’, ‘suffering’, ‘immense anguish’ and so on.

Frame device

In Youth Conrad invents the frame device of the group of five mature men of the world sitting around smoking after-dinner cigars while one of them, Marlow, sets off to tell a long yarn.

Having come across this device in Youth Conrad immediately reused it for House of Darkness. Precisely the same five good fellows who we met in Youth are aboard the yacht Nellie, moored in the Thames at dusk, as Marlow recounts the story of his trip up the  Congo.

So the book has two narrators: the anonymous one who describes the ‘we’, the five chaps; and then, via his narrative, we hear Marlow’s story – a story within a story.

Matching the tale to the teller, and creating subtle ironies between the actual events and the way they are told, are devices as old as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales or Boccaccio’s Decameron, older. Thus, once Marlow finishes his story, the narrator returns for the concluding paragraphs, to describe the haunting final vision of the darkness of the Thames after sunset, when the full repercussions of Marlow’s story sink in.

The frame device:

  • guarantees a happy ending – we know that Marlow returned alive
  • guarantees a kind of sanity – periodically, when Marlow’s story rises to heights of absurdity or psychological stress, the narrator reminds us of the calm, bourgeois, urban setting the tale is being told in:

There was a pause of profound stillness, then a match flared, and Marlow’s lean face appeared, worn, hollow, with downward folds and dropped eyelids, with an aspect of concentrated attention; and as he took vigorous draws at his pipe, it seemed to retreat and advance out of the night in the regular flicker of the tiny flame.

  • above all, it replaces suspense – what happened? – with reflection – what does it mean? It legitimises the way Marlow frequently stops the tale to ponder the meaning of his experiences, or stops to tell his audience how he’s struggling to convey the feelings he experienced – something that would be harder for an omniscient narrator to do.

Plot

Marlow takes a commission from a Belgian company to captain a steamboat up the Congo to find one Mr Kurtz, a prize ivory trader. Before he’s even set foot in Africa he sees signs of the greed and folly of the European imperial mission to Africa – ta lone warship pointlessly firing cannon randomly into the jungle – and as soon as he arrives at the first station up-river he finds the building of the so-called railway a shambles where Africans are chained like slaves and worked to death.

When Marlow reaches the legendary Kurtz he finds he has sunk into horrific barbarity, savagely marauding through neighbouring country, killing natives and stealing their ivory, his campong lined by stakes on which are impaled human heads.

The young idealist Kurtz had written an eloquent pamphlet on how to bring ‘civilisation’ to the natives. Across the bottom the older, degraded Kurtz has scrawled, ‘Exterminate all the brutes.’

Kurtz is a symbol of the hypocritical cruelty and absurd folly of imperial enterprises. Marlow gets his native bearers to carry the sick and dying Kurtz onto his steamer, turns around and heads for the coast. Kurtz dies onboard and his last words – ‘The horror, the horror’ – have become classic, referenced by T.S. Eliot, the climax of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 movie adaptation, ‘Apocalypse Now‘, I’ve seen them on t-shirts.

Not British

Although Conrad doesn’t name the colonial power, he gives broad enough hints that it was Belgium. The Congo was the personal possession of King Leopold of Belgium, who modern historians nowadays place alongside Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot as one of the great modern mass murderers of all time, with an estimated 8-10 million Africans dying in the Congo as a direct result of the slavery he instituted during his reign (1885-1908).

But the point is – it isn’t British. This genocidal regime wasn’t British. Conrad was anxious about how his blistering critique of Imperialism would be received in his new home, the greatest empire the world had ever seen.

Later the same year Heart of Darkness was published, in October 1899, the Boer War broke out and whipped the country into a furore of Imperialist jingoism. Conrad knew it was impossible to criticise the British Empire, and he certainly goes out of his way in the opening pages to emphasise that he is NOT talking about the British Empire, and that the British Empire is qualitatively different from the imperial folly he attributes to Belgium.

‘On one end a large shining map, marked with all the colors of a rainbow. There was a vast amount of red – good to see at any time, because one knows that some real work is done in there…’

What’s more, the opening pages contain a great and deliberate hymn to the history and integrity of the British Empire.

I wonder what obligation Conrad felt under to clarify that, although he appeared to be saying that all empires are hypocritical, rapacious follies… he in fact meant, all empires except your empire of course, chaps.

‘The tidal current runs to and fro in its unceasing service, crowded with memories of men and ships it had borne to the rest of home or to the battles of the sea. It had known and served all the men of whom the nation is proud, from Sir Francis Drake to Sir John Franklin, knights all, titled and untitled—the great knights-errant of the sea. It had borne all the ships whose names are like jewels flashing in the night of time, from the Golden Hind returning with her round flanks full of treasure, to be visited by the Queen’s Highness and thus pass out of the gigantic tale, to the Erebus and Terror, bound on other conquests—and that never returned. It had known the ships and the men. They had sailed from Deptford, from Greenwich, from Erith—the adventurers and the settlers; kings’ ships and the ships of men on ‘Change; captains, admirals, the dark “interlopers” of the Eastern trade, and the commissioned “generals” of East India fleets. Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they all had gone out on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch, messengers of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from the sacred fire. What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth! . . . The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires.’

Furthermore, at a few key moments in the story, the English auditors interrupt the story to object to Marlow’s tone and implications.

These interruptions mark the boundaries, indicating not so much to the fictional audience but to us, the readers, that even Marlow’s overflowing style and withering irony has limits, is safely contained. That Conrad knows where the borders of taste are and is policing them:

‘I felt often its mysterious stillness watching me at my monkey tricks, just as it watches you fellows performing on your respective tight-ropes for –  what is it? half-a-crown a tumble – ‘
‘”Try to be civil, Marlow,” growled a voice, and I knew there was at least one listener awake besides myself.
‘”I beg your pardon,” [said Marlow]

Style

Because the bulk of the narration is meant to be spoken by Marlow, an Englishman telling his story to other Englishmen, Conrad is forced to rein in his style.

Much more of the narrative deals with facts, factually conveyed, than in his earlier texts such as the lyrical Youth, the first Marlow text.

Coming fresh from reading Almayer’s Folly, An Outcast of the Islands and Karain, the style of Darkness seems mercifully sober and controlled.

But coming from outside Conradworld, to most ordinary readers the style will still seem extraordinarily florid, with long descriptive passages larded with lush adjectives, and Marlow’s comments on his experiences forever tending to the same nihilism and fatalism which drenched the narratives of Almayer, Outcast, Karain, Lagoon and The Return.

There include the liberal use of triplets –

‘all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men.’

The long sentences which use multiple sub-clauses to repeat and amplify the message of despair.

Imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate.

And the endlessly creative ways he finds to express the same underlying mood of despair:

…my isolation amongst all these men with whom I had no point of contact, the oily and languid sea, the uniform somberness of the coast, seemed to keep me away from the truth of things, within the toil of a mournful and senseless delusion.

…in and out of rivers, streams of death in life, whose banks were rotting into mud, whose waters, thickened into slime, invaded the contorted mangroves, that seemed to writhe at us in the extremity of an impotent despair.

A taint of imbecile rapacity blew through it all, like a whiff from some corpse.

The great wall of vegetation, an exuberant and entangled mass of trunks, branches, leaves, boughs, festoons, motionless in the moonlight, was like a rioting invasion of soundless life, a rolling wave of plants, piled up, crested, ready to topple over the creek, to sweep every little man of us out of his little existence.

…a gesture that took in the forest, the creek, the mud, the river, – seemed to beckon with a dishonouring flourish before the sunlit face of the land a treacherous appeal to the lurking death, to the hidden evil, to the profound darkness of its heart.

The pattern itself

There are insights to be had about the role of women – about the contrast between the savage woman of the jungle and the white purity of Kurtz’s Intended who Marlow visits back in Brussels and whose innocent, naive love for Kurtz he is compelled to preserve.

There’s also a lot to write about the concept of the Voice – Marlow experiences Kurtz as predominantly a fluent, deep, authoritative voice – but then Marlow himself becomes nothing but a voice on the deck of the unlit yawl – the two are ironically yoked together.

Books can and have been written about Conrad’s racism, his fundamentally insulting opinion of Africans or ‘savages’ etc.

In all three ‘issues’ or themes or motifs (and in a host of others) Conrad deliberately creates multiple ironies, multiple systems of comparison and contrast. But however easily these patterns can be reduced to feminist or post-colonial or post-structuralist formulas, rewritten to support early 21st century political correctness, I also regard the patterning of the text as almost abstract, as an end in itself which can be enjoyed for itself.

The repetition of key words and phrases – the repetition of leading motifs – the multiple ironies i.e. the ubiquitous techniques of doubling and comparison – because they are expressed in words are susceptible of logical interpretation. But I suggest they can also be seen as abstract designs, comparable to the Japanese designs so appreciated by contemporary Aesthetes – or to the new languid style of Art Nouveau, the delicate intertwining of tracery meant to be enjoyed for its own sake and nothing more.

I think of the turn to patterning of a painter like Edward Burne-Jones who, in his final years, acquired a symbolist depth. His later paintings are full of grey-eyed women in increasingly abstract patterns or designs.

Symbolist poetry and painting was the new thing in the 1890s, paintings and poetry full of shimmering surfaces to be appreciated for their own beauty, without any straining after meaning. Like the intricate line drawings of Aubrey Beardsley where the style is much more important than the ‘subject matter’; or the ‘impressionist’ music of Claude Debussy.

Conrad hints as much in an oft-quoted passage right at the start, where the anonymous narrator is setting the scene and introducing Marlow:

The yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut. But Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted), and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.

In 1917 Conrad wrote prefaces to a new edition of his works, and wrote the following about Heart of Darkness, explicitly comparing it not to a tract, a fiction, even to a painting, but to music:

Heart of Darkness is experience, too; but it is experience pushed a little (and only a little) beyond the actual facts of the case for the perfectly legitimate, I believe, purpose of bringing it home to the minds and bosoms of the readers. There it was no longer a matter of sincere colouring. It was like another art altogether. That sombre tone had to be given a sinister resonance, a tonality of its own, a continued vibration that, I hoped, would hang in the air and dwell on the ear after the last note had been struck.

In my opinion, you can write whole books about Conrad and Women, Conrad and Empire, Conrad and Race, and these will be interesting investigations, but all these approaches can (should?) be subsumed by a sensitive, receptive appreciation of the multiply-layered phrasing, of the styling and patterning of motifs and rhythms, tones and colours, words and clauses, sentences and paragraphs, of his grandiloquent and haunted prose style.

To appreciate it like a work of art or the intricate patterning of an exquisite piece of music. To penetrate to a deeper appreciation of the sheer sensual pleasure of this extraordinary text.


Reviews of other fiction of the 1880s and 1890s

Joseph Conrad

George du Maurier

Henry Rider Haggard

Sherlock Holmes

Anthony Hope

E.H. Hornung

Henry James

Rudyard Kipling

Arthur Morrison

Robert Louis Stevenson

Bram Stoker

H.G. Wells

Oscar Wilde

Youth by Joseph Conrad (1898)

Youth, the shortish short story (30 pages) Conrad completed in June 1898, sees the debut of Charles Marlow, Conrad’s alter-ego, the fictional narrator of this and his two most famous stories, Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim. Marlow’s arrival marks a step change in the quality of Conrad’s work.

Marlow enforces discipline

Because the story is narrated by a character, not by the omniscient narrator he’d used in all his previous works, Conrad has to make a big effort to rein in the stylistic excesses I have described in previous posts. For example, Conrad’s short story The Return strikes me as being almost unbearable to read for its sustained note of manic hysteria. Conrad uses free indirect style to take us inside the mind of Alvan Hervey as his wife’s infidelity triggers what feels, trapped inside his head, like a nervous breakdown. In fact, this is just another outing for the hysterical, panic-stricken, horror-obsessed nihilism which characterises all of Conrad’s fiction up to this point.

It is with immense relief that one turns to Youth because this hysteria is reined right in and Conrad’s stylistic excesses, though still noticeable at moments, are in general held in abeyance in order to foreground the practical, no-nonsense voice of Charles Marlow.

Plot

The plot is simple. The 20-year-old Marlow is second mate on the Judea, contracted to take coal from Newcastle to Bangkok. The boat encounters a number of problems which repeatedly delay its departure from England, then it hits storms off Africa, and then the coal in the hold begins to spontaneously burn as they enter the Indian Ocean.

Eventually the crew are forced to abandon ship, and Marlow docks in the East having commanded a 14-foot ship’s boat and crew of two for the last week of the ill-fated journey.

Style

The style is blessedly restrained. Both the character of Marlow and the nature of the ‘story’ i.e. a detailed account of the maritime problems encountered by the ship – dictate a much more factual style than anything Conrad had previously written.

We had been pulling this finishing spell for eleven hours. Two pulled, and he whose turn it was to rest sat at the tiller. We had made out the red light in that bay and steered for it, guessing it must mark some small coasting port. We passed two vessels, outlandish and high-sterned, sleeping at anchor, and, approaching the light, now very dim, ran the boat’s nose against the end of a jutting wharf.

Shorter sentences. Fewer subordinate clauses. Much more factual content. A lot less tautology or redundancy. A blessed relief, though the old Conrad is still there, straining at the leash:

O youth! The strength of it, the faith of it, the imagination of it! To me she was not an old rattle-trap carting about the world a lot of coal for a freight—to me she was the endeavour, the test, the trial of life. I think of her with pleasure, with affection, with regret.

There was not a light, not a stir, not a sound. The mysterious East faced me, perfumed like a flower, silent like death, dark like a grave.

This was the East of the ancient navigators, so old, so mysterious, resplendent and somber, living and unchanged, full of danger and promise.

But the familiar lyricism, the repetition and apposition, is justified by the fundamental idea – that this is the character Marlow’s paean to the vividness and optimism of naive and romantic youth. Well, just about justified.

Framing device

Youth starts with the identical setting made famous by Heart of Darkness, i.e. after dinner in London five mature and successful men of the world who have all experienced the sea sit and smoke cigars, chatting. The anonymous narrator is one of them; he sets this scene, describes the audience a little, and then lets Marlow begin his tale.

The frame device, the tale-within-a-tale, does several things:

  • It distances the tale. No matter what happens we know that Marlow survived and is telling it to us now. Though we are caught up in the events he narrates, we are not actually lost in a moment-by-moment helter-skelter of hysteria with a totally unpredictable outcome, as we are in the key scenes of Almayer or An Outpost
  • Marlow is telling his tale to a suave and knowing audience. This has an important effect in toning down the hysterical style of the earlier novels and stories. Although Marlow is still given lines of improbable lyricism, Conrad is conscious of them, limits them, and excuses them – Marlow himself justifies them as he speaks them – because this is a tale of high spirits and boyish optimism.
  • Marlow is English. Unlike the protagonists of Almayer and Outcast and Outpost and Karain. It is as if hysteria is characteristic of the lesser Europeans, the Dutch and Belgians. Conrad emphasises Marlow’s Englishness by making him use the upper-class slang of the day – ‘Pon my soul’, ‘The deuce of a time’. And the Englishness of narrator and audience guarantees a sang-froid, the famous stiff upper-lip, which limits and disciplines Conrad. Enforces restraint. And his prose is all the more effective for it.

For those who like patterns, it is pretty that Conrad published Youth, Heart of Darkness and The End of The Tether in one volume in 1902 (Youth, A Narrative, and other tales) – one representing youth, one representing maturity, one representing old age.


Related links

Reviews of other fiction of the 1880s and 1890s

Joseph Conrad

George du Maurier

Henry Rider Haggard

Sherlock Holmes

Anthony Hope

E.H. Hornung

Henry James

Rudyard Kipling

Arthur Morrison

Robert Louis Stevenson

Bram Stoker

H.G. Wells

Oscar Wilde

Tales of Unrest by Joseph Conrad (1898)

After his first two novels Conrad turned to shorter forms, to novellas and short stories. He followed 1897’s novella, The Nigger of the Narcissus, with five short stories collected in 1898’s Tales of Unrest, being:

The Idiots

His first short story, written March 1896.

The Lagoon

What Conrad considered his first authentic short story, written in July 1896. A white man stops at a gloomy lagoon where a solitary Malay has his hut along with his woman. The woman is dying of fever. Through the night the Malay tells the story of their doomed love, how they ran away from the king and queen who owned her as a servant girl, how they were pursued, how his brother gave his life to save them. At dawn she dies and the man is left utterly bereft.

Quintessential Conrad – a tale of utter bleakness, told in lush, decadent, tropical prose.

An Outpost of Progress

Published in two parts in Cosmopolis magazine in June and July 1897, Conrad considered this his best short story.

It is set in the Congo, drawing on his experiences there seven years earlier, and strongly linked with Heart of Darkness i.e. pretty much the same plot. Two white men are left high up the river, deep in the Dark Continent, to run a trading station. They fall to pieces physically and mentally and the end comes when a group of African slavers steal away their native staff, leaving ivory tusks in payment.

Having lost their self-respect they go quickly downhill, bicker about nothing until, after a trivial argument, one shoots the other then hangs himself.

Conrad all over. The tropical setting; the complete degradation of the protagonists; the vision of futility; the lush prose.

It is a bit mind-boggling that ‘An Outpost’ appeared just at the moment of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, June and July 1897. On 22 June there was a vast procession of colourfully-dressed colonial subjects through London to an open air service outside St Paul’s cathedral. On 23 June the Queen met some young Indian princes. On 2 July the Queen surveyed her colonial troops at Windsor. Both the June and July editions of Cosmopolis included length celebrations of the greatness and benefits of Empire (some quoted in this article). The Times published Kipling’s great poem, Recessional, on 17 July.

And over exactly this same period, Conrad was publishing this bleak nihilistic tale. You wonder how he avoided being lynched!

The Return

Completed in early 1897. In his preface Conrad says he hated writing this story. Arrogant, successful middle-aged businessman Alvan Hervey returns on the Tube to his smart West London house to find a message from his wife saying she has left him for a magazine editor. He is devastated, his world collapses, everything he has valued is torn away from under him etc.

He is just starting to feel like all the turmoil which Conrad heroes usually luxuriate in, when his wife, embarrassingly, returns. She’s changed her mind!

How does Conrad make such a slight incident (man comes home, reads note, is unhappy, wife walks back in) last 60 pages?

With great torrents of prose describing Hervey’s anguish, mental collapse, fury, despair. Despite its untypical setting (London) it is classic overripe, hysterical Conrad, redolent of Strindberg or of a strung-out existentialist play like Jean-Paul Sartre’s play, Huis Clos.

Karain: A Memory

Published in Blackwoods Magazine in November 1897.

From the safety of Blighty the narrator remembers the days when he was a gun smuggler around the Malay archipelago. The striking figure of the native chief, Karain. Fine figure of a man. Everyone loved him. Yet he seemed somehow nervous. One stormy night (lol), he swims aboard the white trader’s schooner and tells them his story, viz:

A Dutch trader steals away a woman from his tribe. He and his best friend vow to track them down and erase the shame. For years they are on the trail together, travelling all over the archipelago in pursuit. But slowly the beautiful girl’s voice and then figure come to him in dreams and visions, talking, defending herself. Finally they find the Dutchman and the girl and his friend gives Karain a rifle and tells him to shoot the white man while he slays the girl with his dagger.

But, as his dearest, oldest friend leaps from the bushes to carry out this plan, Karain is overcome by the secret memory of the voice of the girl and her secret presence. Before he knows what he has done, he has shot his friend. He has spared the vile white man’s life. He gets away. But that night the girl’s voice doesn’t come to him. His friend’s voice and shape come to him. And from that night onwards he is pursued, followed, haunted…!

Conrad excelsis: a frame narrative around a tale of betrayal, despair and haunting.


Related links

Reviews of other fiction of the 1880s and 1890s

Joseph Conrad

George du Maurier

Henry Rider Haggard

Sherlock Holmes

Anthony Hope

E.H. Hornung

Henry James

Rudyard Kipling

Arthur Morrison

Robert Louis Stevenson

Bram Stoker

H.G. Wells

Oscar Wilde

Conrad’s style (3) the Nihilist worldview

In the previous post on Conrad’s style I looked at his use of repetition, trying to analyse or list out the different ways Conrad uses repetition to amplify and embellish his prose. In this post, I look at his bigger, structural use of repetition – and something of what that tells us about his overall purpose.

The repetitiveness of Conrad’s plots

Seems to me that the obsessive repetition we observe in Conrad’s fiction at the level of the sentence and paragraph is repeated in bigger structures ie in the plots or narratives of entire stories and novels. Again and again men are abandoned.

  • Almayer, abandoned, dies of despair in the heartless jungle.
  • Willems, abandoned, dies a bloody death in the heartless jungle.
  • The nigger of the Narcissus dies a lonely death at sea.
  • Arsat’s woman dies leaving him abandoned by tribe and family.
  • Karain is a haunted outcast, abandoned by his tribe, betrayer of his best friend.
  • Kurtz has left behind every vestige of civilisation and dies, abandoned, in the heart of darkness; and so on and on.

The plots’ sole purpose is to place the wretched protagonists in situations of abandonment and despair, conveyed in a prose which is obsessively compelled to repeat descriptions of the same desolations again and again. Not once but a hundred, a thousand times, Conrad is compelled to tell us just how meaningless life is, how hollow the conventions of ‘civilisation’ are, and how indifferent the heartless universe is to our wretched fates.

The repetition of Conrad’s Existentialist worldview

Because to read Conrad is to enter not only the richness of his exotic settings and lush descriptions, but to become quickly aware of a compelling and coercing worldview. The same ominous, existentialist, stricken nihilistic message is rammed home in almost every one of the longer, descriptive paragraphs. There is, in fact, a fair bit of tautologia in Conrad – being ‘The repetition of the same idea in different words, but (often) in a way that is wearisome or unnecessary’.

The white man came out of the hut in time to see the enormous conflagration of sunset put out by the swift and stealthy shadows that, rising like a black and impalpable vapor above the tree-tops, spread over the heaven, extinguishing the crimson glow of floating clouds and the red brilliance of departing daylight. In a few moments all the stars came out above the intense blackness of the earth, and the great lagoon gleaming suddenly with reflected lights resembled an oval patch of night-sky flung down into the hopeless and abysmal night of the wilderness. (Lagoon)

Over the lagoon a mist drifting and low had crept, erasing slowly the glittering images of the stars. And now a great expanse of white vapour covered the land: flowed cold and gray in the darkness, eddied in noiseless whirls round the tree-trunks and about the platform of the house, which seemed to float upon a restless and impalpable illusion of a sea; seemed the only thing surviving the destruction of the world by that undulating and voiceless phantom of a flood. Only far away the tops of the trees stood outlined on the twinkle of heaven, like a sombre and forbidding shore – a coast deceptive, pitiless and black. (Lagoon)

Arsat had not moved. In the searching clearness of crude sunshine he was still standing before the house, he was still looking through the great light of a cloudless day into the hopeless darkness of the world…” [Last words of The Lagoon]

He had plumbed in one short afternoon the depths of horror and despair, and now found repose in the conviction that life had no more secrets for him: neither had death! (Outpost)

It was the very essence of anguish stripped of words that can be smiled at, argued away, shouted down, disdained. It was anguish naked and unashamed, the bare pain of existence let loose upon the world in the fleeting unreserve of a look that had in it an immensity of fatigue, the scornful sincerity, the black impudence of an extorted confession. (Return)

With a short thrill he saw himself an exiled forlorn figure in a realm of ungovernable, of unrestrained folly. Nothing could be foreseen, foretold—guarded against. And the sensation was intolerable, had something of the withering horror that may be conceived as following upon the utter extinction of all hope. (Return)

He remembered all the streets—the well-to-do streets he had passed on his way home; all the innumerable houses with closed doors and curtained windows. Each seemed now an abode of anguish and folly. (Return)

To-morrow had come; the mysterious and lying to-morrow that lures men, disdainful of love and faith, on and on through the poignant futilities of life to the fitting reward of a grave. (Return)

The revelation was terrible. He saw at once that nothing of what he knew mattered in the least. The acts of men and women, success, humiliation, dignity, failure—nothing mattered. (Return)

Never, never before, did this land, this river, this jungle, the very arch of this blazing sky, appear to me so hopeless and so dark, so impenetrable to human thought, so pitiless to human weakness. (Heart)

Droll thing life is—that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. (Heart)

Conrad’s Repetition Compulsion: a Freudian interpretation 

It’s a basic idea of Freud’s that a range of symptoms of human behaviour, speech and thought are determined by early childhood traumas which our conscious minds repress but which have such overwhelming power that they seek to rise again into the conscious mind; and that the struggle of the conscious mind to control and suppress these feelings leads to peculiar and repeated types of behaviour or speech; in some people these expressions go beyond the bounds of ‘normality’ to become  neuroses, obsessions, hysterias. Thus, according to Freud, the suppressed content returns, disguised, in dreams, in jokes, in obsessive patterns of behaviour, in verbal (Freudian) slips, in the taboos of primitive societies and the religious rituals of more ‘advanced’ cultures.

When you learn (from Wikipedia) that Conrad’s father was condemned to exile by the Russian authorities for his Polish patriotic views, that he grew up in a gloomy exiled household dominated by the failure of his father’s Romantic hopes, and that first his mother died (when Conrad was 7) and then his father (when the boy was 11) – then you don’t have to be Dr Freud understand why so much of Conrad’s fiction is drenched in obsessive, compulsive repetitions of this primal childhood abandoning, an abandonment so complete as to dominate almost every sentence he wrote, and to set the deeply pessimistic tone and dictate the forlorn plots of almost all his fictions.

Conrad and Freud

  • Conrad was born in 1857. Freud in 1856.
  • Freud had the conceptual breakthrough which led to his theories in 1895, the same year Conrad published his first novel.
  • Both were uber-civilised, central European gentlemen driven to find prose outlets for their devastatingly nihilistic and pessimistic views of human nature.
  • Were they twins, secretly separated at birth?

The Europeanness of Conrad’s temperament stands out even more when you compare him with two Englishmen born in 1857 – Edward Elgar and Robert Baden-Powell. For subtlety, intelligence and culture, Conrad has vastly more in common with the Austrian doctor than with the composer of the Pomp & Circumstance marches or the founder of the Boy Scouts.


Related links

Conrad’s style (2) Repetition

The fear and fascination, the inspiration and the wonder of death—of death near, unavoidable, and unseen, soothed the unrest of his race and stirred the most indistinct, the most intimate of his thoughts. The ever-ready suspicion of evil, the gnawing suspicion that lurks in our hearts, flowed out into the stillness round him—into the stillness profound and dumb, and made it appear untrustworthy and infamous, like the placid and impenetrable mask of an unjustifiable violence. In that fleeting and powerful disturbance of his being the earth enfolded in the starlight peace became a shadowy country of inhuman strife, a battle-field of phantoms terrible and charming, august or ignoble, struggling ardently for the possession of our helpless hearts. An unquiet and mysterious country of inextinguishable desires and fears. (The Lagoon)

Repetition is an absolutely essential element of Conrad’s style. Why use one word when you can use two? ‘Black and dull’, ‘writhing and motionless’, ‘thick and sombre’, ‘fear and fascination’, ‘profound and dumb’, ‘untrustworthy and infamous’… And why use one pair of words when you can double up and use two phrases of paired words? ‘The fear and fascination, the inspiration and the wonder…’

Rhetoricians down the ages have categorised many different types of repetition (they are usefully summarised on this webpage from Brigham Young University) and it is quite entertaining to try and identify the types of repetition Conrad uses:

Apposition is the rhetorical term for when one noun or phrase is placed next to another to explain or amplify it. It’s a key aspect of the Conrad style – the extra clause, qualifying and expanding the original word or clause, adding to the length and musicality of the sentence, helping to create the sense of depth and lushness of description; or to expand his nihilistic phrases into long sequences which emphasise the sense of all-encompassing doominess and entrapment.

…the earth enfolded in the starlight peace became a shadowy country of inhuman strife, a battle-field of phantoms terrible and charming… (Lagoon)

Darkness oozed out from between the trees, through the tangled maze of the creepers, from behind the great fantastic and unstirring leaves… (Lagoon)

…stirred the most indistinct, the most intimate of his thoughts… (Lagoon)

The ever-ready suspicion of evil, the gnawing suspicion… (Lagoon)

The earth … became a shadowy country of inhuman strife, a battle-field of phantoms… (Lagoon)

Synonymia ‘The use of several synonyms together to amplify or explain a given subject or term. A kind of repetition that adds emotional force or intellectual clarity.’

…the contact with pure unmitigated savagery, with primitive nature and primitive man… (Outpost)

The fear and fascination, the inspiration and the wonder [of death]… (Lagoon)

Outside the big doorway of the street they scattered in all directions, walking away fast from one another… (Return)

They were both unable to look at a fact, a sentiment, a principle, or a belief otherwise than in the light of their own dignity, of their own glorification, of their own advantage. (Return)

Anaphora is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of every clause:

…and as it was utterly faithless, as it contained no new thought, as it never by any chance had a flash of wit, satire, or indignation in its pages, he judged it respectable. (Return)

…the darkness, mysterious and invincible; the darkness scented and poisonous… (Lagoon)

Therefore I shall speak to you of love. Speak in the night. Speak before both night and love are gone – and the eye of day looks upon my sorrow and my shame; upon my blackened face; upon my burnt-up heart. (Lagoon)

A rumour powerful and gentle, a rumour vast and faint; the rumour of trembling leaves, of stirring boughs ran through the tangled depths of the forests, ran over the starry smoothness of the lagoon…

A plaintive murmur rose in the night; a murmur saddening and startling… (Lagoon)

High above his head, high above the silent sea of mist… (Lagoon)

… stirred the most indistinct, the most intimate of his thoughts… (Lagoon)

… he was still standing before the house, he was still looking…

…the fear, subtle, indestructible, and terrible, that pervades his being; that tinges his thoughts; that lurks in his heart; that watches on his lips the struggle of his last breath. (Outpost)

He thought it must be a horrible illusion; he thought he was dreaming; he thought he was going mad! (Outpost)

The day had come, and a heavy mist had descended upon the land: the mist penetrating, enveloping, and silent; the morning mist of tropical lands; the mist that clings and kills; the mist white and deadly, immaculate and poisonous. (Outpost)

…and their eyes, quick or slow; their eyes gazing up the dusty steps; their eyes brown, black, gray, blue, had all the same stare… (Return)

… with the hurried air of men fleeing from something compromising; from familiarity or confidences; from something suspected and concealed… (Return)

His face was set, was hard, was woodenly exulting… (Return)

He had made up his mind to eat, to talk, to be natural. (Return)

The years would pass, and . . . The years would pass . . . And then… The years would pass in the anguish of doubt . . . The years would pass and he would always mistrust her smile . . . The years would pass… (Return)

The years would pass—and he would have to live with that unfathomable candour where flit shadows of suspicions and hate . . . The years would pass—and he would never know—never trust . . . The years would pass without faith and love. . . . (Return)

She had a mature capacity for fidelity, for belief, for suffering. (Heart)

Anadiplosis is repetition of the last word of a preceding clause at the beginning of the next one:

…the inspiration and the wonder of death – of death near, unavoidable and unseen…

…they felt themselves very much alone, when suddenly left unassisted to face the wilderness; a wilderness rendered more strange, more incomprehensible by the mysterious glimpses of the vigorous life it contained.

The courage, the composure, the confidence; the emotions and principles; every great and every insignificant thought belongs not to the individual but to the crowdto the crowd that believes blindly in the irresistible force of its institutions and of its morals…

A man may destroy everything within himself, love and hate and belief, and even doubt; but as long as he clings to life he cannot destroy fear: the fear, subtle, indestructible, and terrible…

… into the stillness round him – into the stillness profound and dumb… (Lagoon)

He sat by the corpse thinking; thinking very actively, thinking very new thoughts.

This intense desire of secrecy; of secrecy dark, destroying, profound… (Return)

I tried to break the spell—the heavy, mute spell of the wilderness… (Heart)

Scesis onomaton – A series of successive, synonymous expressions. Conrad employs this category of repetition liberally.

…out of the great silence of the surrounding wilderness, its very hopelessness and savagery seemed to approach them nearer, to draw them gently, to look upon them, to envelop them with a solicitude irresistible, familiar, and disgusting. (Outpost)

…he will begin this horror again to-morrow—and the day after—every day—raise other pretensions, trample on me, torture me, make me his slave. (Outpost)

His old thoughts, convictions, likes and dislikes, things he respected and things he abhorred, appeared in their true light at last! (Outpost)

…that one death could not possibly make any difference; couldn’t have any importance… (Outpost)

Society was calling to its accomplished child to come, to be taken care of, to be instructed, to be judged, to be condemned… (Outpost)

She had her desire—the desire to get away from under the paternal roof, to assert her individuality, to move in her own set… (Return)

…a distinct failure, on his part, to see, to guard, to understand. (Return)

Nothing could be foreseen, foretold—guarded against. (Return)

…and then came the idea, the persuasion, the certitude, that the evil must be forgotten—must be resolutely ignored… (Return)

There was an utter unreserve in her aspect, an abandonment of safeguards, that ugliness of truth… (Return)

The glamour of youth enveloped his particolored rags, his destitution, his loneliness, the essential desolation of his futile wanderings. (Heart)

… the crowd … flowed out of the woods, filled the clearing, covered the slope … (Heart)

…the sight of people hurrying through the streets to filch a little money from each other, to devour their infamous cookery, to gulp their unwholesome beer, to dream their insignificant and silly dreams. (Heart)

Triplets Sets of three, specifically three adjectives, giving a rolling, grand affect to your rhetoric. Mostly the adjectives are consonant, developing the same thought – but sometimes a set of three can be used to create a dissonant affect when one or more are unexpected.

…a solicitude irresistible, familiar, and disgusting. (Outpost)

…death near, unavoidable, and unseen…

…a coast deceptive, pitiless and black. (Lagoon)

…as if in the presence of something undreamt-of, dangerous, and final.  (Outpost)

…the mist penetrating, enveloping, and silent… (Outpost)

A shriek inhuman, vibrating and sudden… (Outpost)

He felt the destructive breath, the mysterious breath, the breath of passion, stir the profound peace of the house. (Return)

Their air of wooden unconcern struck him as unnatural, suspicious, irremediably hostile (Return)

… thoughts disintegrating, tormenting, sapping… (Return)

His very existence was improbable, inexplicable, and altogether bewildering. (Heart)

I saw the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear… (Heart)

I saw on that ivory face the expression of somber pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror… (Heart)

In the third post on Conrad’s style I look at his use of repetition in the structure of his stories and how this can be psychologically interpreted.


Related links

Conrad’s style (1) Decadence and foreignness

The narrow creek was like a ditch: tortuous, fabulously deep; filled with gloom under the thin strip of pure and shining blue of the heaven. Immense trees soared up, invisible behind the festooned draperies of creepers. Here and there, near the glistening blackness of the water, a twisted root of some tall tree showed amongst the tracery of small ferns, black and dull, writhing and motionless, like an arrested snake. The short words of the paddlers reverberated loudly between the thick and sombre walls of vegetation. Darkness oozed out from between the trees, through the tangled maze of the creepers, from behind the great fantastic and unstirring leaves; the darkness, mysterious and invincible; the darkness scented and poisonous of impenetrable forests.

This passage from Conrad’s first short story, The Lagoon (1896), demonstrates some key elements of his prose style:

Lush descriptions

Conrad is addicted to adjectives – tortuous, immense, festooned, glistening, writhing, sombre, arrested etc. The insistent use of adjectives at every opportunity creates a richness and sumptuousness of texture which reminds you that this is the 1890s, the yellow decade, the period when Oscar Wilde wore jackets made of green velvet and even Conan Doyle characters live in plush luxury.

it is noticeable that many of the adjectives or adverbs are vivid or extreme: fabulously, immense, pure, writhing, fantastic, poisonous, impenetrable. There’s a definite fin-de-siecle decadence, an aromatic heaviness of description, about Conrad’s lexicon.

Over and above the influence of the period, the lushness seems appropriate to the subject matter ie the steaming, hot, tropical jungle which is the setting for almost all Conrad’s early stories.

In the famous preface to the The Nigger of the “Narcissus” Conrad says his overwhelming task is to make the reader see.

My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see.

This has been taken as a manifesto of literary impressionism. I’ve never understood how this is particularly different from any other novelist who writes descriptive passages. What does single Conrad out is the length and repetitiveness of his descriptions. Over a long distance this creates a heavy, clotted atmosphere, and contributes to his Author’s Message of Doom and Abandonment. The claustrophobia of imagery and the hysteria of psychology makes me think much more of north European Expressionism than sunny southern Impressionism. More Munch Scream than Monet Waterlilies.

Similes

As his qualifiers tend to be extreme, so Conrad’s similes tend to make comparisons with grand, colourful and rich objects. It is part of the process of expansion or amplification. To be honest, he doesn’t use similes that often, but when he does they’re rich.

…a signal fire gleams like a jewel on the high brow of a sombre cliff. (Karain)

green islets scattered through the calm of noonday lie upon the level of a polished sea, like a handful of emeralds on a buckler of steel. (Karain)

The gold head flashed like a falling star… (Karain)

Dried palm-leaf roofs shone afar, like roofs of gold. (Karain)

His sentences complicated like arabesques… (Karain)

gaslights stretched far away in long lines, like strung-up beads of fire. (Return)

The very mist on the Essex marshes was like a gauzy and radiant fabric… (Heart)

The ships whose names are like jewels flashing in the night of time… (Heart)

The fact dazzling, like the foam on the depths of the sea, like a ripple on an unfathomable enigma… (Heart)

Long sentences

Though he can write short sentences where necessary, and for unexpected punchiness, the typical Conrad sentence is long, sometimes a paragraph long. They are built up from multiple clauses, often placed in apposition ie describing the same noun or noun phrase, approaching the same subject from different angles. Eg ‘tortuous, fabulously deep’ and ‘filled with gloom’ in the passage above both describe the ditch; ‘black and dull’ and ‘writhing and motionless’ both describe ‘a twisted root’. More about apposition in my post about Conrad and repetition.

Un-English phraseology

‘Under the thin strip of pure and shining blue of the heaven’ is not how a native English-speaker would phrase this. Conrad admits somewhere that he didn’t write in French because he knew it too well; he knew the rules and wouldn’t be able to break them. Whereas English is much more flexible and idiomatic than French and so allowed him to stretch rules, creating new phrases, denting existing ones. For example:

  • The house which seemed to float upon a restless and impalpable illusion of a sea. (Lagoon)
  • Each had a bedstead and a mosquito net for all furniture. (Outpost)
  • He had been, at home, an unsuccessful painter who, weary of pursuing fame on an empty stomach, had gone out there through high protections. (Outpost)
  • On his passage voices died out as though he had walked guarded by silence. Surely we’d say, As he passed… (Karain)
  • A puff of breeze made a flash of darkness on the smooth water. (Karain)
  • …one could not imagine what depth of horrible void such an elaborate front could be worthy to hide. (Karain)
  • This fit of hot anger was succeeded by a sudden sadness, by the darkening passage of a thought that ran over the scorched surface of his heart, like upon a barren plain, and after a fiercer assault of sunrays, the melancholy and cooling shadow of a cloud. (Return)
  • Often far away there I thought of these two.. (Heart)
  • ‘A simple formality,’ assured me the secretary… (Heart)
  • In exterior he resembled a butcher in a poor neighborhood… (Heart)
  • Ah! but it was something to have at least a choice of nightmares. (Heart)
  • …as if to devour all the earth with all its mankind. (Heart)

On every page of Conrad there are one or two phrases which aren’t quite correct, giving the sensitive reader a continual, slight feeling of disconnect and foreignness.

Backplacing adjectives

Adjectives in English generally come before the noun they describe. Only a handful specifically don’t. But a big aspect of Conrad’s unEnglish phraseology is the way he routinely puts adjectives after the noun. Why? it gives him the freedom to pile up two or three adjectives after a given noun or noun phrase, thus adding to the sumptuous repetitiveness which is key to his style.

…faces dark, truculent, and smiling… (Karain)

…men barefooted, well armed and noiseless… (Karain)

…a coast deceptive, pitiless and black… (Karain)

…the water slept invisible, unstirring and mute… (Lagoon)

…the glitter of stars streaming, ceaseless and vain… (Lagoon)

This tripling of adjectives placed after the noun is just one type of repetition, a technique I address more fully in the next post.


Related links

An Outcast of The Islands by Joseph Conrad (1896)

Joseph Conrad followed his 1895 debut, Almayer’s Folly, with a prequel, An Outcast of the Islands.

This longer, more substantial novel (295 pages to Almayer’s slender 167) is also set in an isolated backwater of the Malayan archipelago, and features largely the same characters, filling in a lot of Almayer’s backstory, but from a different perspective.

What is odd about the novel is the extent to which it almost replays the narrative arc of the previous one, with the central character another feeble white man abandoned up a distant tropical river among, outwitted by crafty Malays and Arabs, and slave to a mad passion for a native girl which brings him to ruin.

It’s the first novel all over again, but on twice the scale and much more obsessively despairing and nihilistic:

On Lingard’s departure solitude and silence closed round Willems; the cruel solitude of one abandoned by men; the reproachful silence which surrounds an outcast ejected by his kind, the silence unbroken by the slightest whisper of hope; an immense and impenetrable silence that swallows up without echo the murmur of regret and the cry of revolt.

Plot 

About 15 years before the climactic events of Almayer’s Folly, another Dutchman works in Hudig’s warehouse in Macassar, Peter Willems. He thinks he is a great successful man and has earned a big house and the hand of a beautiful Portuguese woman in marriage through his own abilities. But he steals and embezzles from his employer and his jealous rivals expose him. One fine morning he is sacked, ruined, and thrown out of his house.

He goes down to the jetty, distraught, contemplating suicide, but encounters the English buccaneer Tom Lingard who shatters his illusions by telling him old Hudig only set him up with the house because the Portuguese girl he’s married is in fact old Hudig’s illegitimate daughter. Far from being the swanky demigod he thought he was, Willems is only the patsy and tool of Hudig’s wishes.

Lingard offers to take him on, to take him to the new trading post in a new river on the east coast of Borneo where a colleague of his from Hudig’s, Kaspar Almayer, is setting up a trading station and expecting great things…. Weakly, Willems accepts and finds himself in Sambir, the same raddled trading post on the Panteir river as the disillusioned Almayer. Almayer’s daughter, Nina, is still small which helps us date it to 15 or so years prior to the first novel.

And now Willems is once again out of his depth in the small communities dotted along the river and run by a local ‘rajah’ and his wily, one-eyed Malay ex-pirate and fixer, Babalatchi. These conspire to make Willems fall ‘helplessly’ in love with the fetching daughter – Aissa – of another local potentate who has been brought there dying after a bloody fight with the Dutch authorities. Willems is meant to fall so totally under her spell that he is persuaded to help a mighty Muslim trader of the area, Syed Abdulla, navigate to Sambir, to land and establish his own trading post, in direct rivalry to Almayer and against the interests of his protector, Lingard. In his foolish exuberance Willems goes so far as to tie Almayer up and taunt him, waving a gun in his face.

Captain Lingard returns and there is a sequence of set-piece scenes: Almayer updates Lingard, Lingard canoes across the river to the native campong, Lingard is tempted by the wily Babalatchi who hands him a loaded rifle at dawn as Willems is set to appear at the door of his hut, hoping the white men will kill each other. Lingard does indeed confront Willems and punches him to the ground, but resists the temptation to do more, insisting that Willems will remain here, effectively a prisoner, as his punishment.

The Arabs and Malays have left the settlement, having gone to a new one upriver. Lingard also leaves. Willems is completely abandoned apart from the Malay girl, Aissa, who is genuinely but puzzledly in love with him.

But Almayer, goaded by Lingard’s failure to take revenge against Willems, takes his own: for unexplained reasons Lingard has brought and dumped at Almayer’s station the Portuguese wife Willems had abandoned in the opening chapters. Almayer now arranges for her to be paddled over to Willems’ isolated campong hoping that she will encourage Willems to get in the canoe and be paddled downstream to find ships at the sea some 15 miles away.

However, things don’t go to plan as Aissa confronts the newly reunited husband and wife, becomes hysterical with jealousy and, after Willems has hustled his wife back to the canoe and is returning, Aissa shoots Willems through the lung and kills him.

In the final few pages Conrad does what will become a habit with him and abruptly switches the point of view to some years later as the complacent Almayer retells the last few actions of the plot (burying Willems ‘body etc) to a passing explorer who has casually stopped at the station. Having the effect of distancing the action, and also making it seem trivial, just another yarn…

(In fact this mannerism will become standard operating procedure for the other great suicidal depressive of English literature, Graham Greene.)

Good

When he is good, Conrad is brilliant. I think he is best in:

Descriptions of the jungle, particularly the changing light of dawn or dusk.

Instinctively he glanced upwards with a seaman’s impulse. Above him, under the grey motionless waste of a stormy sky, drifted low black vapours, in stretching bars, in shapeless patches, in sinuous wisps and tormented spirals. Over the courtyard and the house floated a round, sombre, and lingering cloud, dragging behind a tail of tangled and filmy streamers—like the dishevelled hair of a mourning woman.

Non-white characters In painting the characters of the non-white characters: the esteemed Muslim trader Syed Abdulla, the local rajah Lakamba, his tricksy sidekick Babalatchi – they are painted with a foreignness or otherness which seems utterly plausible – the scenes in which they meet and conspire against the stupid white men are vivid and intricate.

Style In his not-quite-English style, his uneven way with English idioms regularly leads to odd but expressive forms, the askew angle of his prose adding to the exoticism of the subject matter.

In his unnervingly precise physical details, the way a man stumbles or hesitates or is distracted mid-sentence by a cloud or a fly, the way raindrops fall from wet hair or puddles form in mud, or cutlery clatters in a bowl:

The nose bled too. The blood ran down, made one moustache look like a dark rag stuck over the lip, and went on in a wet streak down the clipped beard on one side of the chin. A drop of blood hung on the end of some hairs that were glued together; it hung for a while and took a leap down on the ground. Many more followed, leaping one after another in close file. One alighted on the breast and glided down instantly with devious vivacity, like a small insect running away; it left a narrow dark track on the white skin.

Bad

But – twice the length of the first novel turns out to be just long enough for Conrad to reveal his weaknesses and for them to begin to really grate. These are:

Obscure plotting It is sometimes hard to understand what’s going on, since the events are often told from different people’s perspectives and new chapters leap back and forward in time. And when you do finally understand, it’s often disappointing. Weak white man is duped into falling for exotic siren who leads him to ruin. Hmmm.

Style Conrad’s rhetorical habits begin to grate. There’s a lot of repetition, a lot of drama and melodrama, a lot of passages which tip over from lush into overripe, into the frankly hysterical.

Psychology 300 pages is long enough to become a bit sick with Conrad’s worldview, which is one of overwhelming negativity, depression and despair. It would be one thing is one of the characters was rather depressive, but ALL the characters experience the same overwrought levels of fear, dread, despair, terror and existentialist angst, and all the time.

And the narrating voice, Conrad, is as depressed, disillusioned and defeated as the characters he describes:

They moved, patient, upright, slow and dark, in the gleam clear or fiery of the falling drops, under the roll of unceasing thunder, like two wandering ghosts of the drowned that, condemned to haunt the water for ever, had come up from the river to look at the world under a deluge.

How dark it was! It seemed to him that the light was dying prematurely out of the world and that the air was already dead.

He laughed. His laugh seemed to be torn out from him against his will, seemed to be brought violently on the surface from under his bitterness, his self-contempt, from under his despairing wonder at his own nature.

He felt a great emptiness in his heart. It seemed to him that there was within his breast a great space without any light, where his thoughts wandered forlornly, unable to escape, unable to rest, unable to die, to vanish—and to relieve him from the fearful oppression of their existence. Speech, action, anger, forgiveness, all appeared to him alike useless and vain, appeared to him unsatisfactory, not worth the effort of hand or brain that was needed to give them effect.

The anger of his outraged pride, the anger of his outraged heart, had gone out in the blow; and there remained nothing but the sense of some immense infamy—of something vague, disgusting and terrible, which seemed to surround him on all sides, hover about him with shadowy and stealthy movements, like a band of assassins in the darkness of vast and unsafe places.

It’s too much. Eventually a healthy reader reacts badly to being so continuously hectored by what are clearly Conrad’s own personal demons. He doesn’t just intrude his angsty worldview into the story, he soaks every sentence in negativity and slaps you in the face with it.

Is Conrad the most miserable novelist in English?

As he wrote in a letter to R. B. Cunninghame Graham in January 1898:

There is no morality, no knowledge and no hope; there is only the consciousness of ourselves which drives us about a world that whether seen in a convex or a concave mirror is always but a vain and floating appearance.

The epigraph of the book is a cheery quote from the Spanish playwright Calderon: Pues el delito mayor Del hombre es haber nacito, meaning: ‘Man’s greatest crime is to have been born’. Google tells me this quote is also referenced by Samuel Beckett, patron saint of depressives.

Maybe when I read this when I was 18 or 21 it had a powerful impact on me. Now it sounds silly and immature. Now that we are born, it makes sense to try and live with as much dignity and self respect as we can. In fact, you could try enjoying yourself, from time to time. Do some exercise. Go for a swim!

The relentlessness of Conrad’s despair also overloads his next novel, The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus‘. That short tale was meant to be the story into which Conrad poured all his knowledge of the sea. If so, it is deeply disappointing since the barely detectable plot is overwhelmed by thousands of passages of Conradian despair and misery at the wretched fate of forlorn men abandoned in a heartless universe etc.

On the other hand, all the above helps explains the enduring appeal of Heart of Darkness which, in contrast to Outcast:

  1. Is short – so you don’t have a chance to get sick of Conrad’s ornate style and relentless negativity.
  2. Has a subject, the Belgians’ evil management of their Congo colony, which actually justifies the most extreme and witheringly misanthropist sentiments anybody could express. The subject, for once, matches the constant near-hysteria of his style.
  3. Conrad shapes a narrative arc, helped by the frame narrative of Marlow on the director’s yacht moored in the Thames, which gives an element of detachment and control to the horror. It makes the central narrative all the more aesthetically impactful, unlike the raw, unmediated emotions of the overwrought protagonists of Almayer and Outcast.

Movie 

The book was made into a movie in 1952, directed by Carol Reed, starring Trevor Howard, Ralph Richardson and Robert Morley. Sadly, the reviews on Amazon say it’s rubbish. The posters are great, though. They appear to have dropped the interminable moralising and gone for ‘the soft beautiful body of a woman’.


Related link

Reviews of other fiction of the 1880s and 1890s

Joseph Conrad

George du Maurier

Henry Rider Haggard

Sherlock Holmes

Anthony Hope

E.H. Hornung

Henry James

Rudyard Kipling

Arthur Morrison

Robert Louis Stevenson

Bram Stoker

H.G. Wells

Oscar Wilde

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