"These Ignorant and Bumptious Reviewers": F. J. Furnivall in Defence of Conrad

Article excerpt

On matters of style swim with the current;

on matters of principle, stand like a rock.

Thomas Jefferson

MATTERS OF STYLE were invariably discussed, but without consensus, in the critical reception of Conrad's early work. Yet the publication of Tales of Unrest (1898) prompted a degree of accord among reviewers who deemed the author's style to be lacking in matters of syntax. The Daily Mail set the general tone with the observation: "It is sufficient testimony to Mr. Conrad's power that we accept and enjoy him as we do, considering the continual weakness of his grammar" (12 April 1898: 3).

In a similar vein the Outlook noted that this "otherwise excellent piece of literary work is marred by a regrettable laxity of style," and illustrated the point with an example from "The Return": "He shouted, 'Enough of this!' like men shout in the tumult of a riot, with a red face and staring eyes." The reviewer's cavil was Conrad's "misuse of the word 'like' grates upon the sensitive ear with irritating frequency in this book." While Black and White wondered "why will he make us shiver in the middle of a fine piece of writing by using 'like' for 'as'?" The Manchester Guardian was in turn exercised by his "unaccountable habit of using the adverb 'like' as if it were a conjunction." Whereas the American publication the Nation mused that Conrad "often takes pains to select one very wrong word, such as 'like' for 'as.'"1

In an early example of Conrad's work being called into service for pedagogical purposes, the topic was also commented upon in the "Our Student Column" of the Weekly Irish Times. The dedicated forum was launched in 1891 to provide not only information on educational topics, but also offered tutorials by setting arithmetic, handwriting, and composition exercises. Examples of the latter were regularly published, and, commenting on one such contribution, the column's editor, Erasmus, noted:

He uses "like" in a peculiar way in the phrase "like we regard savages." The use of the same word in a similar manner by Mr. Joseph Conrad in his 'Tales of Unrest" has aroused a good deal of discussion in literary circles. I should like to have your opinions on the matter.

(The Weekly Irish Times, 21 May 1898: 2)

Unfortunately, the request for reader's opinions was to no avail, yet mention of the ensuing discussion in literary circles was one probably prompted by the exchange of letters in the Outlook between the reviewer of Tales of Unrest and no less an authority than the eminent philologist Frederick) J(ames) Furnivall (1825-1910). Furnivall was never shy of confrontation, public or otherwise, as his spats with the poet Algernon Swinburne (1837-1909) and the literary journalist and man of letters Charles Whibley (1859-1930) testify. A formidable scholar, Furnivall contributed immeasurably to the founding of the Oxford English Dictionary, the Working Men's College, and numerous literary societies. Indeed, John Gross has cast him as "one of the great rock-blasting entrepreneurs of Victorian scholarship, the kind of man who if his energies had taken another turn might have covered a continent with railways" (1969: 188).

Furnivall's spirited defence of Conrad's use of the word like cites historical precedents both to defend the author and lambast the critic. The published debate between the men appeared in two non-consecutive issues of the Outlook, but each time under the provocative banner extracted from Furnivall's first missive - "these ignorant and bumptious reviewers" - and is reprinted below (see Appendix). One can imagine the lively discussions that reverberated in literary circles around this time.2 Conrad did not enter the fray publicly, but he unequivocally, and graciously, stated his position in a letter to his then publisher, T. Fisher Unwin:

Have you seen the controversy about my grammar - a poor thing to quarrel about. Good old Furnivall seems a peppery kind of grammarian, and I am very much obliged to him for pointing out my authorities. …