A Note on a Borrowing by Conrad

The Return” (in Tales of Unrest, 1898) is an early story by Conrad. It is about 20,000 words long, and Conrad worked on it for four or five tormenting months in 1897. The labor was not really rewarded. “The Return” was too long and too difficult for the magazines Edward Garnett, Conrad’s friend and adviser, didn’t like it. And Conrad himself seems later to have felt that the story was a failure—though he welcomed kind words about it (“for I know how much the writing of that fantasy has cost me in sheer toil, in temper and in disillusion”).

Conrad’s three previous short stories had been set in Malaysia or Africa. “The Return” was set in London and it was about English people. It was, specifically, about the passionlessness and shallowness of the English middle class. How well did Conrad know these people in 1897? The answer, on the evidence of this story, is that he hardly knew them. He saw them from the outside; he saw them with the help of what he had read about them.

A line of doors flew open and a lot of men stepped out headlong. They had high hats, healthy pale faces, dark overcoats and shiny boots, they held in their gloved hands thin umbrellas and hastily folded evening papers…. Between the bare walls of a sordid staircase men clambered rapidly; their backs appeared alike—almost as if they had been wearing a uniform; their indifferent faces were varied but somehow suggested kinship, like the faces of a band of brothers who through prudence, dignity, disgust, or foresight would resolutely ignore each other…. Outside the big doorway of the street they scattered in all directions, walking away fast from one another with the hurried air of men fleeing from something compromising….

The writer appears to see only what the traveler sees. He has no pertinent social knowledge to draw on, and he appears to be making epigrams about a class. The most striking epigram—the one I carried in my head for years—occurs in the third paragraph of the story. It is a description of the male protagonist, a City man.

He moved on in the rain with careless serenity, with the tranquil case of someone successful and disdainful, very sure of himself—a man with lots of money and friends. He was tall, well set-up, good-looking and healthy; and his clear pale face had under its commonplace refinement that slight tinge of overbearing brutality which is given by the possession of only partly difficult accomplishments; by excelling in games, or the art of making money; by the easy mastery over animals and over needy men.

A striking epigram. And something very like it struck Leonard Woolf, but in another book. In Sowing, the first volume of his autobiography, Leonard Woolf—grandson of a successful Jewish “tailor and outfitter,” and son of a lawyer—describes his introduction to the artistocracy during his Cambridge days—not long after …

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