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Conrad's Creole Family Romance and "A Smile of Fortune"

From: Conradiana
Volume 43, Numbers 2-3, Fall/Winter 2011
pp. 67-79 | 10.1353/cnd.2011.0034

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"A Smile of Fortune," critics generally agree, "has something to hide."1 Indeed, it seems to have many things to hide, and it seems to be hiding them ostentatiously behind the "smile" of the title. There are the biographical facts of Conrad's seven-week visit to Mauritius that involve at least one romantic entanglement (with Eugénie Renouf), possibly another (with Alice Shaw).2 There is the social and economic significance of the Indian Ocean setting itself: the "Pearl of the Ocean" as "the more enthusiastic of its inhabitants" are said to call it (Twixt, 8). This ironic gesture, like the "smile" of the title, becomes all the more difficult to place the clearer its Mauritius setting becomes. There are then also the strangely distorted allusions to fairytale, fable, and romance patterns: what Cedric Watts calls the "protean, shifting complex of magic-invoking narratives;" what Jeremy Hawthorn succinctly diagnoses as "an anti-Cinderella" narrative; and what Daphna Erdinast-Vulcan calls "an anti-romance" (Watts, 132; Hawthorn, 105; Erdinast-Vulcan, 143). The biographical facts of Conrad's romantic affair(s), the sociology of the Mauritius setting, and the story's twisting of romance patterns all conspire to form a revealing family romance. Loosely adapting Freud's use of the term, "family romance" might apply all at once to Conrad's biography, to his fictional family romances, and also—above all—to the economy of reading romance at work in biography and fiction alike.

It is the specifically Mauritian economy of the family romance of reading in "A Smile of Fortune" that interests me most here. Unique in Conrad's work, the Mauritius setting nonetheless reveals a racial economy of identity and identification in Conrad's work as a whole—from the interracial economy of the earlier Malay family romances (in Almayer's Folly and An Outcast of the Islands) to the white racial economy of the later European family romances in Malay settings (in Victory, "Because of the Dollars," and The Rescue). Constituting a turning-point from the earlier mixed racial romances to the later white racial romances—and linked to the homosocial economy of white racial identity that structures the first-person autobiographical narrators of "The Secret Sharer" and The Shadow-Line—"A Smile of Fortune" reveals a unique, if also highly unstable Creole identification at the heart of all Conrad's family romances.

By "Creole" I mean here, all at once, a specifically Mauritius sense of Creole identity (as discussed by Megan Vaughan) and also the historically ambiguous and changing senses of racial identity attached to the term's use with reference to the Americas. As an ethnographic designation, "Creole" may refer to the landholding European élite born in the Americas. This is how Conrad uses the term in Nostromo, referring to the "pure Creole families" (like the Goulds) and "the very type of the fair Spanish creole" (to which Decoud is compared)—where "pure" and "fair" connote a white racial identity, and specifically, in the second example, "that warm, healthy creole white which is never tanned by its native sunshine" (Nostromo, 64, 151). "Creole" may also, however, refer to those of mixed European, African, or other backgrounds not native to the Americas. Alongside these conflicting, indeed contradictory racial designations ("Creole" could designate a white racial identity, a mixed racial identity, or a black racial identity), there is also the linguistic sense of "Creole," referring to the various kinds of patois languages developed from the interaction of African, European, and native languages. It is with an emphasis on the cultural significance of the linguistic process of creolization that Caribbean writers (notably Kamau Brathwaite and Édouard Glissant) have transformed in turn theories of race and culture, fundamentally shaping postcolonial theories of creolization and hybridity.3 The Creole family romance of A Smile of Fortune brings together all of these different, conflicting, and contested senses of Creole.4 This makes the story all the more interesting, as perhaps the most tangible, if also least examined, historical link between Conrad's fiction and the Creole coordinates of postcolonial theory.

There are a number of reasons to call the story's family romance a Creole family romance. Even although the word "Creole...



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