Academic journal article The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)

"Intimate Friends": Norman Douglas and Joseph Conrad

Academic journal article The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)

"Intimate Friends": Norman Douglas and Joseph Conrad

Article excerpt

FOR SLIGHTLY OVER a decade, from early 1905 to 1916, Norman Douglas and Joseph Conrad enjoyed a friendship that was variously important to them; for Douglas, it had significant professional as well as personal aspects, for Conrad, it was mainly a personal connection, although he may have enjoyed playing a mentoring role to Douglas, a writer a decade younger than himself to whom he provided an entrée to literary London.

The friendship had three more or less distinct stages: (1) an early one on Capri extending from late-January or February to May 1905 during which Douglas and Conrad laid the foundations for their later relationship; (2) an epistolary one after Conrad left for England in May 1905; and (3) that in England, roughly beginning with Douglas's 1908 visit, and then from 1912 when he returned to live until his departure for the Continent in 1916. It had an afterlife as well with Conrad and his wife, Jessie, taking responsibility for Douglas's younger son, Robin, who stayed with them at Capel House from time to time, and for whom they were responsible in 1916 when Robin was enrolled in the training-ship HMS Worcester, in which their elder son Borys also trained.1

The hows and whys of friendship are notoriously difficult, if not impossible, to determine and describe, and understanding the contours for the friendly sentiments between Douglas and Conrad is made even more problematic because, with a single exception, only Conrad's side of their correspondence - sixty-six letters and notes published in The Collected Letters - survives.2 Only one of what must have been several dozen letters from Douglas to Conrad is extant, a hastily written and business-like missive dating to the summer of 1909.3 Anyone interested in understanding this friendship is thus forced to glimpse between the lines, or in a sense, peer over them, for Conrad, an enigmatic correspondent at times, deliberately shaped himself for a letter's recipient and more often than not shied away from intimacy, writing letters that are immediate and sometimes vivid but just as often emotionally distant and as regards his inner self almost invariably protective and unrevealing

It seems unlikely, moreover, that the highly itinerant Douglas managed to preserve all of Conrad's letters to him. Belongings no doubt went astray during the course of his long life or were subject to periodic siftings. To focus on lacunas for a moment: for 1906, the year of the eruption of Vesuvius on 4 April, an event widely reported and evocatively recalled in Douglas's South Wind, only a brief note from Conrad announcing the birth of the his second son in August survives, and no communications at all exist for 1907. It seems somewhat unlikely that no other notes or letters were exchanged during these two years, close to the time the two men met.

Capri and After

Precisely when the acquaintance began is unknown, but it cannot have been too long after Conrad's arrival on Capri on 20 January, accompanied by his wife, his seven-year-old son Borys, and a nurse, with a view to a stay of several months. This first phase of Douglas's connection with Conrad is frustratingly under-documented. Given the tight-knit nature of Capri's foreign community, a meeting between Conrad and Douglas seems inevitable, but it came about, as it were, semi-officially through the British Consular Agent, Harold E(dward) Trower.4 Conrad recalled the event as follows when writing of Douglas to his literary agent, J. B. Pinker: "Came to see me with introduction from the B[ritish] Cons[ular] Agent here. (NB both B[riti]sh & Am [eric] an colonies here made rather a set at me)" (6 May 1905; CLZ 238). An established writer by 1905, Conrad enjoyed a solid reputation among the discerning, although real fame would come only a decade later; the two English-speaking colonies may have been intrigued by his cosmopolitan roots and English nationality.

An enthusiastic admirer of Capri, Trower seems to have combined official duties with acting as a de facto welcoming committee to British visitors. …

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