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  • Conrad & Romance
  • Robert Hampson
Katherine Isobel Baxter . Joseph Conrad and the Swan Song of Romance. Burlington: Ashgate, 2010. vii + 163 pp. $99.95

In 1884, Henry James wrote his essay "The Art of Fiction" as an opportunistic response to Walter Besant's essay of the same title. Robert Louis Stevenson responded with "A Humble Remonstrance" and, when James replied, he responded again with a second essay, "A Gossip on Romance." Although James's "The Art of Fiction" is the best known of these essays, Stevenson actually got the better of this exchange and produced two important (but neglected) essays on fiction and romance. The twentieth-century critical undervaluation of romance has also had an impact on Conrad scholarship, producing a similar underestimation [End Page 258] and misunderstanding of the romance elements in his work. Too often the presence of such elements in his work has been seen as in itself a flaw—leading to an undervaluation of the early work and a misreading of the experimentation of the later work. A full-length study of the romance elements in Conrad's fiction is long overdue, and this is what Katherine Baxter offers in Joseph Conrad and the Swan Song of Romance.

As Baxter's book implies, romance has a long and complex history, and major figures such as Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott and Joseph Conrad have their place in this tradition. Baxter articulates her study through a use of Robert Miles's distinction between romances that do the work of ideology and romances that expose the work of ideology. Scott is the major exponent of the former: his narrative resolutions work to promote the Hanoverian succession and the ideology of a united Britain. Conrad is presented as the major exponent of the latter. Baxter argues that Conrad "uses romance radically throughout his writing career" to question, among other things, even "the power of narrative itself."

Andrea White in Joseph Conrad and the Adventure Tradition (Cambridge University Press, 1993) and Linda Dryden in Joseph Conrad and the Imperial Romance (Macmillan, 2000) have shown Conrad's relation to adventure or imperial romance. Baxter is interested in the broader romance genre. Thus she begins by reminding us of the similarities between "Heart of Darkness" and a quest romance like "Gawain and the Green Knight": in both cases the questor gains an understanding which also marks their separation from their community. In "Heart of Darkness" this serves to articulate a critique of imperialism, but it also represents the "philosophical turn" in that what Kurtz reveals is "a failure of meaning, the implosion of his own idealistic and ideological rhetoric." In Lord Jim, as Baxter convincingly argues in her second chapter, the quest (for both Jim and Marlow) is for an appropriate narrative to express and understand Jim's case. When Marlow introduces Stein, his recapitulation of Stein's history introduces a story "very similar to that of Jim's which is to come," of a young European man inheriting a trading station from an older one, but, as Baxter notes, Stein's story is not Jim's, and one difference is Stein's unconsciousness of his own status as a romantic adventurer. As Baxter observes, Jim seems to be constantly "recolonising" Patusan as a fictional realm—although Baxter, incorrectly I think, sees Patusan as a "romance world." (One of the ironies of Jim's situation is that he converts Conrad's ethnographic [End Page 259] realism into romance.) Thus his interest in the inhabitants' troubles is not philanthropic but rather the "aggregation of others' stories to his own romantic master-narrative." However, when Baxter argues that in Lord Jim Conrad removes the "structural quality" of the quest through the proliferation of "narrators and commentators," she occludes the presence of two other forms of popular romance—the sea story for boys and the adventure romance—which are used to structure the Patna and Patusan parts of the narrative respectively. Conrad presents a self-conscious counter version of the sea story and, as Baxter intimates, a more problematic version of the adventure romance: as Jim tries to write his experiences in the form of an adventure romance (as Baxter shows), Conrad...


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pp. 258-262
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