- Conrad's Critique of the Serial RomanceChance and The Rover
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[End Page 288]
It has become a critical commonplace to refer to the success of Chance (1913) as a turning point in Joseph Conrad's career as a writer. The novel secured his reputation in the United States and brought him economic success for the first time in his life. Chance's serialization in the women's pages of the Sunday Magazine section of the New York Herald (see figure 10) between January and June 1912 was preceded by a lively marketing campaign that advertised its author's promise to write especially for women. Installments of the serial text were sandwiched between advertisements for hair care, dress design, and domestic appliances; articles on the suffragist movement; and marriage schools for young ladies. The serial's accommodation to this context was confirmed by its narrative focus upon a woman and its several references to contemporary feminist ideas, while the choice of the English countryside and London as settings underscored Conrad's desire to change the public's image of him as a writer of the sea exclusively. The book versions of Chance were a roaring success, published first by Methuen in London in 1913 and then by Doubleday in the United States in 1914, where it was aggressively marketed by Alfred Knopf (see Karl 746–47). In May 1914 a Chicago bookseller who had never previously taken more than two hundred orders for a Conrad novel received orders for twelve hundred copies.1
The phenomenon has baffled modern critics, who mourn the fact that Conrad found popularity in his lifetime, not with the protomodernist Heart of Darkness or Lord Jim, but with what they consider an inferior romance for women. "Why should Chance, of all his novels, have been so successful?" asks Cedric Watts (84). By way of answer, Watts [End Page 289] proposes that Conrad's attempt to write a popular romance resulted in a text that, though weak, was far from populist and whose success was entirely due to American-style marketing for women. Taking issue with this view, the following essay argues that a close examination of the manuscript, serial, and typescript revisions for the book version reveals both the experimental nature of Chance and the complexity of Conrad's resistance to the demands of market forces.2
I have argued elsewhere that in order to understand Chance fully it is necessary to look closely at the transition from manuscript to serial, during which Conrad's text metamorphosed from a short sea tale into a novel-length romance.3 Writing to Pinker in June 1913, Conrad himself suggested a rift in the continuity of subject matter between the original sea tale and the topical romance, which "was written in 1907 and the rest of the novel in 1911–12. And it did not belong to that novel—but to some other novel which will never be written now."4 While Chance's subject matter did indeed change at the serial stage, this essay focuses on the later stages of the text's evolution. The most radical changes to Chance, it will be seen, were made rapidly during the last revisions from serial to book, in an intense period of writing that took place between 11 May and 18 June 1913.5 At this time, Conrad's innovations in the narratorial framing of the story led him to a new and recognizably modernist interpretation of romance, one that incorporates a critique of serialization itself.
Although Conrad courted popular journals for the serialization of his late works, the texts he offered them can be seen to make a double critique of the visual content and popularist mode of such magazines. First, he draws attention to the reductive stereotyping of women in the illustrations that accompanied both serial fiction and advertisements. In Harper's Magazine or the Pictorial Review, writers such as Thomas Hardy and Conrad appeared alongside sentimental romances by Baroness Orzcy, Marjorie Bowen, or Marie Corelli, installments of which were often framed by beauty and fashion...