The Secret Agent, Joseph Conrad

Conrad Secret Agent

It’s more than half a century since I was given this book for my birthday, the edition pictured, except that mine was 2s dearer (see the price in the top RH corner). The bearded man is Conrad, not the secret agent, from an engraving by Walter Tittle. I’ve always rather admired the anarchist/bomber at the centre of this story and it was only on relistening recently that I realised Conrad despised him.

The Secret Agent (1907) was Conrad’s tenth novel, written in a few days, in contrast with the long and ambitious Nostromo (1904), which required “a two years period of intense absorption”. Conrad discusses this in an Author’s Note dated 1920 and goes on to explain how he heard about the attempted bombing of the Greenwich Observatory in 1894, on which the novel is based, and how he felt about its futility.

Even the purely artistic purpose, that of applying an ironic method to a subject of that kind, was formulated with deliberation and in the earnest belief that ironic treatment alone would enable me to say all I felt I would have to say in scorn as well as in pity.

Slowly, he says, he realised that he would write the story around Winnie Verloc’s – the secret agent’s wife – maternal passion for her simple brother. “Personally I have never had any doubt of the reality of Mrs Verloc’s story, but it had to be disengaged from its obscurity … it had to be made credible.”

Conrad was born in 1857 in Russian-controlled Poland. He seems to me now, as the author of this book, to be almost the stereotypical Eastern European anti-socialist. But, as I say, it took me a long time to notice.

Verloc is a hefty man, approaching middle age, of French and English parentage, who has served some time in the French Army. When he takes a room in Winnie’s mother’s off-Belgravia boarding house he has the appearance of being a prosperous commercial traveller, although he stays out very late, and comes home hoarse. “His work was in a way political, he told Winnie once.” But when Winnie marries him and she and her mother and brother go to live with him, it is to the residence of a squalid little shop in Soho selling faded ‘dirty’ pictures and back issues of political newspapers.

The first chapter begins: “Mr Verloc, going out in the morning, left his shop nominally in the charge of his brother-in-law” but then digresses into Verloc’s back-story without any further action, so it is only in the second chapter, after we have looked about London under a sun shining reddish through the smog, that we find our hero, smartly brushed and combed, on his way to see his master, the First Secretary of a foreign embassy, a Mr Vladimir, a name from which we may infer his nationality.

It appears Vladimir, new in the post, believes Verloc has been doing too little to justify the stipend he has received for many years from Vladimir’s predecessor. He demands of Verloc a bomb outrage that will shock the English parliament into winding back its ridiculous freedoms. The bombing of churches, the assassination of heads of state has become commonplace. What is needed is an attack on science and learning. Verloc has one month to organise and carry out the bombing of the Royal Observatory Greenwich.

Verloc is intensely unhappy, he is a gatherer and seller of information. He has spent years in becoming accepted as an important figure in English revolutionary organisations. He is a man of immense indolence, yet if he fails the First Secretary, in just one month he will lose his only reliable source of income.

For a while he falls back on the routines of his shop and home which Conrad describes in some detail, and yet Winnie barely, or only slowly, emerges from the shadows. She has taken this marriage for the sake of her brother and increasingly infirm mother, and she bears it stoically.

Mr Verloc extended as much recognition to Stevie [Winnie’s brother] as a man not particularly fond of animals may give to his wife’s beloved cat .. Both women admitted to themselves not much more could be reasonably expected. It was enough to earn for Mr Verloc the old woman’s reverential gratitude.

And yet Mr Verloc now begins to take Stevie with him when he goes out for walks.

Stevie is disturbed by the violent imagery used at a meeting of Verloc’s anarchist friends.

Two of the friends meet in a cafe. One of them has seen a report of a man blown to bits in Greenwich Park. The other, ‘the terrorist’ who, carries a small bomb in his pocket in case of arrest, appears to confirm he gave Verloc some explosives and instructions on how to use them.

Chief Inspector Heat thought he had a handle on all the anarchist activity in London. The Assistant Commissioner is not happy with him. Under pressure, Heat admits that he has been using Verloc as an informer, and protecting him from prosecution.

Winnie’s mother takes herself off to a nursing home, and Stevie is sent away to stay in the country.

The impression I get from this book and from Heart of Darkness (here) is that Conrad sets up situations not for the ‘action’ but in order to be able to look deeply into men’s motivations. The action moves slowly, and once a scene is set almost all the description is of thoughts and conversations.

It’s Heat’s duty to tell Winnie that the bomber who’s blown himself up was wearing a coat with a label bearing the address of the shop. I’ll leave off there. The Secret Agent has an interesting, sad ending during which we learn a little more about Verloc and a lot more about Winnie.


Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent, first pub. 1907. My edition, Penguin 1965

Download the audiobook from Project Gutenberg (here)

Moll Flanders, Daniel Defoe


This is a brief history of England in the 1600s –

1603 Elizabeth Tudor dies and the English Crown goes to James VI of Scotland
1605 Gunpowder plot (Guy Fawkes). Failed attempt by Catholics to kill James
1607– English colonies on the east coast of North America
1625 James dies, his son Charles becomes King. Espouses ‘Divine Right of Kings’
1642-1651 Civil War, Parliament vs King
1649 Charles I executed
1651 Charles II deposed, replaced by Parliament under Oliver Cromwell
1660 Restoration. Charles II King again, then his brother James, a Catholic
1665-66 Great Plague. Bubonic plague carried by rats
1666 Great Fire of London destroys the homes of 70,000 of the city’s 80,000 inhabitants (and St Paul’s Cathedral)
1688 James II deposed in favour of his Protestant daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange (see Waverley).

Moll Flanders (1722) purports to be the autobiography of an (unnamed) English woman who after running through any number of husbands, lovers and customers, turns in desperation in her fifties to pickpocketing and shoplifting, and comes to be known by that name. The point being that her life, and therefore Defoe’s story, spans the years 1613-1683, and apart from the English colonies in America, none of the history above is mentioned or even hinted at, which I found disappointing.

The Author’s Preface begins: “The world is so taken up of late with novels and romances …”

This is surprising given that Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, three years earlier, is often credited with being the first English novel, though we know better of course (see for instance my posts Mothers of the Novel and Aphra Benn (1640-1689)). There must have been more going on at this time in the world of fiction than is generally recognised.

It seems novels arose out of drama, but also out of biographies- Benn’s Oroonoko (1688), Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Moll Flanders (1722) are all fictional biographies or autobiographies – and coincided with an increase in literacy in the general population. So for instance, way back here I noted: “In 1696 the Church [in Scotland] ordered the establishment of a ‘school in every parish’, and the result was widespread literacy, which [my Clacher ancestors] evidently shared.”

Of course the other important “first English novel” is Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) which I last read nearly 60 years ago. It was my maternal grandfather’s and unless mum still has it, is now lost. The other book of Grandad’s we boys read repeatedly was The Go Getter, a paean to muscular capitalism, which I’m pretty sure B2 has and he’s not letting it go. The importance of Pilgrim’s Progress to Moll Flanders is that Moll goes through cycles of sinning and seeking redemption until finally she is truly contrite and is reformed.

Moll Flanders as a Project Gutenberg/Librivox audiobook, which is how I read it, has a number of readers, mostly unobtrusive, and spans 15 or 20 hours, I forgot to check. I love having books that just go on and on as I ‘work’, but of course that doesn’t suit everyone. We’re at the dawn of the novel here, and there is quite a bit of first I did this, then I did this, but we’re also a century and a bit beyond Shakespeare, so perhaps a bit more drama could have been expected. Still, as lives go, it’s an interesting one, if relatively uninformative about the times.

If you want a proper synopsis I’m sure you can find one, but here is Moll Flanders according to wadholloway. The narrator – and no one in the novel is named – is born to a prostitute in Newgate prison, ends up with a loving foster mother, who trains her in needlework but also, I think, to read. The foster mother runs what is basically a sewing factory. Moll is a favourite and goes to a prosperous local family (in Berkshire, from memory) with two sons and two daughters as companion/servant. When she is of age, the older brother secretly takes her as his fiancee and lover. The younger brother, not knowing this, insists on marrying her. Soon after, he dies and she is a widow. The next husband leaves the country just ahead of his creditors and tells her to treat the marriage as null and void. At some stage she makes her way to London. If you’re wondering about children, she has them off and on throughout but they are all left with other people – even Moll wonders at one stage if this is another way of saying they are taken away and murdered.

I think she works as a genteel prostitute for a while, but the striking thing is just how middle class Moll is – literate, Christian, more often in funds than not. She marries a plantation owner from Virginia, they live happily for some years until, Spoiler Alert, here is the central drama of the novel, she discovers that his mother is also her mother, her husband is her brother. Her husband/brother is willing to overlook this but she insists on separation and returns to England.

Time passes. While waiting for her banker to divorce his ‘harlot’ wife and marry her, she tries living in Lancashire and is there scammed into marrying a con man, with both parties believing the other more well off than is in fact the case. They nevertheless discover a considerable affection for each other and have an enjoyable honeymoon, resulting in a pregnancy which Moll must conceal from the banker. Back in London, she is rescued by a midwife, whom she calls her “governess”, who runs a home for unfortunate women. We learn that children may only be born in a parish which is willing to accept them, which these parish fathers do on the understanding that the Governess will make sure the children are fostered out.

She marries the banker. She’s getting on now, but I think she still has a couple of kids who fail to impinge on the story, or on her life. He loses all their money and dies of shame. She returns to live with the Governess, who now combines midwifery with receiving and pawnbroking. So for a number of years she rebuilds her fortune by stealing lace, cloth and silver until at last she is caught, jailed, tried and sentenced to hang.

In Newgate she turns or returns to religion and her sentence is commuted to transportation. She finds her ‘Lancashire husband’, for many years a successful highwayman, in jail too, and together they are shipped to Virginia, where she has enough money to negotiate their release, and then to Maryland where they establish their own plantation with ‘servants’ – English convicts and African slaves (the only difference being that the convicts were released when they’d served their time).

She locates and visits her son who has taken over his father’s/her brother’s estates, discovers she has inherited plantations from her mother, retires to England and dies prosperous, happy, and virtuous.

If you have the time, read it for yourself. It’s not the bawdy romp we are led to believe. More the life of second generation feminist three centuries ahead of her time.


Daniel Defoe, Moll Flanders, first pub. 1722. Text and audio versions available from Project Gutenberg (here)



Waverley, Walter Scott

Waverley by Walter Scott — Reviews, Discussion, Bookclubs ...

My father was an old fashioned man, an Anglophile until he actually went there, in his forties, and discovered he preferred Europe. So, although I was never permitted to read his books, he made sure I had copies of Scott’s Ivanhoe and Waverley from a young age. Now he’s gone, in my study and in my lounge my rude Australians stare across at his hardback, embossed pocket versions of Scott, Dumas, Hazlitt’s Essays etc., etc. with their tiny print and prayer book paper. Though for safety’s sake I’m doing this review from a Penguin paperback, 491pp and still in 8 point maybe. I may go blind.

I think it may be said that Jane Austen (1775-1817) and Walter Scott (1771-1832) were the progenitors of the modern English novel. I’ve been discussing off and on in these pages the writers who came before Austen, and there’s a lot to like in the writing of Fanny Burney (1752-1840), Austen’s immediate predecessor, but Austen’s clear writing and exact descriptions of everyday upper middle-class life, mark a clean break with those who came before her. In the same way, Scott’s historical fiction, in its adherence to known events, the absence of melodrama, and in the easy flow of its plot lines, if not in the actual writing, was a major step forward.

Jane Austen’s first published novel was Sense & Sensibility in 1811, followed by Pride & Prejudice in 1813. Scott began publishing poetry around 1796, and by 1813 he was sufficiently well respected to be offered the position of Poet Laureate (of the UK). Brought up in Edinburgh and on the family estate on the Borders (of Scotland and England) at Sandyknowes, Scott had an abiding interest in Scottish folk history and Waverley (1814), his first novel, is a fictionalised account of the Jacobite uprising of 1745.

Like Austen, Scott the novelist was anonymous – to protect his reputation as a poet he said. In his Introductory to Waverley he  refers to himself as ‘the author of Waverley’, and so he was known until 1829 – by which time he had published 20-odd novels – when he acknowledged what was already well known, with a revised edition of Waverley whose prefaces and introductions amount to 50 pages.

I have written previously on Scott’s view of Austen as a new direction in literature (here and here), and Sue/Whispering Gums has only recently discussed Scott, Waverley and Austen (here), but I would like to set out my own views (not that we differ) before, hopefully, going on to Ivanhoe. Scott wrote in the original Introductory

By fixing, then, the date of my story Sixty Years before this present 1st November 1805, I would have my readers understand, that they will meet in the following pages neither a romance of chivalry, nor a tale of modern manners …

and goes on at some (excruciating) length to describe the sort of scenes the reader will not find in his work – neither Udolpho, nor “mysterious associations of Rosycrucians and Illuminati”, nor damsels reduced “to the primitive nakedness of a modern fashionable at a rout”.

Then in the General Preface to the 1829 edition he says he had initially thought of writing a romance in the style of The Castle of Otranto (the first Gothic novel) but the success of his narrative poem the Lady of the Lake and some local knowledge led him to begin Waverley –

I had been a good deal in the Highlands at a time when they were much less accessible, and much less visited, than they have been of late years, and was acquainted with many of the old warriors of 1745, who were, like most veterans, easily induced to fight their battles over again, for the benefit of a willing listener like myself.

and so the genre of Historical Fiction was born.

The history with which Scott’s readers were familiar is as follows (and if you want dates, look them up). The Stuarts (Stewarts until Mary adopted the French spelling), kings of Scotland became the royal family of England when James VI of Scotland succeeded Elizabeth (Tudor). Parliament and the Stuarts were at loggerheads throughout 1600s, and eventually, in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 Catholic James II was deposed in favour of his Protestant daughter Mary, and her husband William of Orange, followed, on William’s death, by Mary’s sister Anne. After which, the Elector of Hanover, some sort of second cousin, was called in from Germany and a string of Georges were King (the last Hanover was Queen Victoria).

Politically, Whigs supported the Hanovers and a constitutional monarchy and Tories were for the restoration of the Stuarts. The novel commences with Edward Waverley’s father, a prominent Whig, and his childless older brother, Sir Everard, a Tory. Edward is Sir Everard’s heir, and is largely brought up by him.

Edward’s father gets him a commission in the army, and he is posted to Scotland, where he takes leave to visit his uncle’s friend, Bradwardine, who has a property in the Lowlands. From there he goes on an excursion to the Highlands, to recover Bradwardine’s milk cows stolen by raiders and then on to Glennaquoich, the home of local chieftan MacIvor. At each stop there is a beautiful girl – Bradwardine’s daughter Rose, the cattle thief’s daughter Alice, and MacIvor’s sister Flora, brought up in the French court, but now living in splendid isolation and praying for the return of the Stuarts. It is Flora Edward falls for but she cannot give him her heart in return as he is an officer in the King’s – her enemy’s – army.

At the end of six weeks incommudicado in Glennaquoich, Edward discovers his father has been disowned by the Whigs,  he has been dismissed from the army as a deserter, and all his family are counted as supporters of Prince Charles Stuart who has landed in Scotland and will shortly march on Edinburgh.

Edward leaves Glennaquoich, and after various injuries and misadventures, is imprisoned, rescued by Highlanders and conveyed to Edinburgh where he swears allegiance to the Pretender. Over the course of a few days Edward is outfitted in MacIvor tartan, meets and is rebuffed by Flora, and finally one late autumn day sets out on the great adventure.

When he had surmounted a small craggy eminence, called St Leonard’s Hill … [the valley below] was occupied by the army of the Highlanders, now in the act of preparing for their march… The sort of complicated medley created by the hasty arrangements of the various clans under their respective banners, for the purpose of getting into the order of march, was in itself a gay and lively spectacle.

The leading men of each clan were well armed with broadsword, target and fusee, to which all added the dirk, and most the steel pistol … But in the lower rank to these, there were found individuals of an inferior description, the common peasantry of the Highland country, who, although they did not allow themselves to be so called … bore nevertheless, the livery of extreme penury, being indifferently accoutred, and worse armed, half naked, stinted in growth, and miserable in aspect.

Disaster isn’t immediate. The English are engaged at Prestons, outside Edinburgh and flee. Charles holds court at Holyrood for some weeks while his forces lay siege to Edinburgh castle. Both Flora and Rose are amongst the ladies of the court. Discussing Romeo and Juliette, Flora makes clear to Edward that he would be sensible to transfer his favours from ‘Rosalind’ to ‘Juliette’.

Edward is an odd hero. He does not much like the trade of soldiering, he enters Charles’ service in a pique, and while he is honour bound not to change back to the English side, it is clear that he wishes to, or rather that he was peacefully back home on the family estate. And the Flora/Rose situation is an analogy for that. Edward is told more than once that he causes problems by not knowing his own mind.

It barely needs saying that things don’t go well for the rebels. However, Edward survives. Scott sets Edward’s history within well-known historical events, but rarely describes much more than Edward’s part in them. And he describes lovingly the countryside and people, whom he obviously knows very well.

I was interested in what languages were spoken. An English officer comments, “the Lowlanders talk a kind of English little better than the Negroes in Jamaica” and Scott generally transliterates this, with footnotes for unfamiliar words. The Highlanders speak Gaelic, and very few of them except the chiefs seem to have any English. But most of Edward’s conversation is with educated men and women and so there is not an awful lot of dialect to endure.

Did I like it? Yes I did. There is not the sheer joy in reading that you get with Austen, and Edward is sometimes more wishy-washy than you’d like, but his story is well, though archaically, told.


Walter Scott, Waverley, first pub. 1814. Penguin Popular Classics (pictured), 1994

Trilby, George du Maurier

Trilby 1

When I saw a few of you were reviewing du Mauriers I thought, I’ve got a du Maurier on a flash drive somewhere, Trilby, started listening, sounds C19th, must be historical. But of course Trilby (1894) is by George du Maurier (1834-1896), Daphne’s grandfather. Then to my further surprise I learned also that Svengali was was not an historical figure but du Maurier’s invention.

You’ll be pleased to learn that George Louis Palmella Busson du Maurier was not of French aristocratic stock, escaped to London to avoid the guillotine, but was in fact the grandson of a tradesman, Busson, who left Paris in a hurry to avoid fraud charges. George studied art in Paris but seems to have lived mostly in London. He joined the staff of Punch as an artist in 1865 and all the drawings on this page are by him. I couldn’t find a name for the crowd scene in the artists’ studio but the others are “Au clair de la lune”, “Wistfull and sweet”, and “Repentance”. If you want to see more, the Project Gutenberg ebook (here) is fully illustrated.

Trilby 2

The novel opens with some lines from a French popular song –

“Mimi Pinson est une blonde,
Une blonde que l’on connaît;
Elle n’a qu’une robe au monde,
Landérirette! et qu’un bonnet!”

listening, there’s quite a bit of French which went straight over my head, but reading, I can make out the gist – and goes on to describe the large, airy studio above with views out over the street and to the Seine in the distance, walls lined with reproductions of famous paintings, a kitchen in one corner, a piano, and lots of sporting equipment. The studio is occupied by three English artists – Taffy, an ex-soldier, the Laird, and Little Billee. Taffy and the Laird paint for popular consumption, while Little Billee is more serious.

Enter two musicians –

First, a tall, bony individual of any age between thirty and forty-five, of Jewish aspect, well-featured but sinister. He was very shabby and dirty, and wore a red béret and a large velveteen cloak, with a big metal clasp at the collar. His thick, heavy, languid, lustreless black hair fell down behind his ears on to his shoulders, in that musicianlike way that is so offensive to the normal Englishman… He went by the name of Svengali, and spoke fluent French with a German accent … His companion [Gecko] was a little swarthy young man—a gypsy, possibly—much pitted with the small-pox, … and carried a fiddle and a fiddlestick under his arm, without a case, as though he had been playing in the street.

I don’t know what to say about du Maurier’s depiction of Jewishness. Racial/ethnic/religious stereotyping was so common up until the 1960s that what can you do but throw up your hands (I have been planning forever to review Scott’s Ivanhoe simply because the female lead is Jewish and favourably described).

Svengali and Gecko give an impromptu performance, on piano and violin, interrupted by a knock on the door and in walks a tall, beautiful young woman, dressed in an army greatcoat over a petticoat, an artists model from nearby, “Ye’re all English, now, aren’t ye?” she exclaimed. “I heard the music, and thought I’d just come in for a bit, and pass the time of day: you don’t mind? Trilby, that’s my name—Trilby O’Ferrall.”


This is a book of two halves. In the first, Trilby hangs out with the painters, we discover she has an atrocious singing voice, she and Little Billee fall in love, on his twentieth proposal she gives in and says Yes, he makes the mistake of writing and telling his proper, middle class mother and she comes over to Paris. Trilby readily agrees with her that it would be a mistake for Little Billee to marry her. She goes away into the country, and LB goes into a decline.

Three years later the painters are now in London. At a party the latest singing sensation from Europe is being discussed –

“You are talking of la Svengali, I bet,” said Signor Spartia.

“Oui, parbleu! You have heard her?”

“Yes—at Vienna last winter,” rejoined the greatest singing-master in the world. “J’en suis fou! hélas! I thought I could teach a woman how to sing till I heard that blackguard Svengali’s pupil. He has married her, they say!”

“That blackguard Svengali!” exclaimed Little Billee … “why, that must be a Svengali I knew in Paris—a famous pianist! a friend of mine!”

“That’s the man! also une fameuse crapule (sauf vot’ respect); his real name is Adler; his mother was a Polish singer; and he was a pupil at the Leipsic Conservatorio. But he’s an immense artist, and a great singing-master, to teach a woman like that! and such a woman! belle comme un ange—mais bête comme un pot. I tried to talk to her—all she can say is ‘ja wohl,’ or ‘doch,’ or ‘nein,’ or ‘soh’! not a word of English or French or Italian, though she sings them, oh! but divinely! It is ‘il bel canto‘ come back to the world after a hundred years….”

“But what voice is it?” asked Little Billee.

“Every voice a mortal woman can have—three octaves—four!

The painters attend La Svengali’s first London concert. She is of course Trilby, mesmerized by Svengali into overcoming her tone deafness – but only it later turns out if she is looking him straight in the face – and also into marrying him.

There is an accident. Trilby becomes ill, loses her memory of being La Svengali. The rest you will have to read for yourselves. It is is well written, describing a London (and Paris) that I think du Maurier knew well, and I enjoyed it.

Trilby 3

George du Maurier, Trilby, first pub. 1894. Audio book: LibriVox (here)

(Daphne) du Maurier reviews:
Booker Talk, Jamaica Inn (here)
Brona’s Books, Jamaica Inn (here)
Brona’s Books, My Cousin Rachel (here)
ANZLitLovers, Rule Britannia (here)
ANZLitLovers, The Scapegoat (here)
Grab the Lapels, Rebecca (here)
Reading Matters, Rebecca (here)

The Vicar of Wakefield, Oliver Goldsmith


This was a very popular book once (back when there weren’t so many to choose from, 150 years ago) and I like old books, appreciate the formality of the language, so was happy to take my chances, despite a recent adverse review by Karen at BookerTalk, and downloaded it as an audiobook from LibriVox, to play while I “work”. I loved it, and incline to Lisa (ANZLL)’s view that it is a gentle satire on romances of the time – of which there may not have been very many. The Vicar of Wakefield was written and published in the 1760s. Robinson Crusoe, the ‘first’ novel only came out 1719, Eliza Haywood began writing in the 1720s, Fanny Burney was still a schoolgirl and Jane Austen was not yet born.

Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774) is often referred to as an Irish novelist. He was in fact the son of an Anglican clergyman in Ireland, so, of the occupying class, was educated at Trinity College and later at Edinburgh, and after living by his wits bumming around Europe, was by the age of 28 in London leading a dissolute life as a hack writer. Which is all background as to why his vicar’s homilies, while harmless enough, were probably meant to be read satirically.

In the first chapter the Rev Primrose is vicar of Wakefield – there is a Wakefield in England, in west Yorkshire, and the story is pretty clearly set in England rather than Ireland as I had initially supposed – raising six children on ten thousand a year, when the merchant to whom he has entrusted the management of his capital absconds with it and the Primroses are suddenly become poor.

His oldest son, George must call off his planned marriage to Arabella, the daughter of another wealthy vicar, and his two beautiful daughters, Sophia and Olivia, both given names from romance novels despite his wishes, must cut their cloth and more particularly their lace and ribbons, to suit their new circumstances. He finds a lowly position as a curate in the gift of squire Thornhill (Goldsmith was employed for a time at Thornhill Grammar School) in a distant shire, and there rents a small house and farm which is run by his second son, Moses. The other two children are young boys.

My house consisted of but one story, and was covered with thatch … Though the same room served us for parlour and kitchen, that only made it the warmer… There were three other apartments, one for my wife and me, another for our two daughters, within our own, and the third, with two beds, for the rest of the children.

Throughout, there are a series of calamities and coincidences in the manner of all the best romances, and the vicar is always both surprised and sanguine. Crossing a river on the way to their new home Sophia comes off her horse and is almost drowned while her father is looking the other way, until their travelling companion Mr Burchell plunges in to rescue her. Squire Thornhill is both a known womaniser and a considerate companion, paying constant attention to Olivia, but believed also to be considering marrying Arabella. Mr Burchell favours Sophia. He is always around, but disregarded.

When the morning arrived on which we were to entertain our young landlord, it may be easily supposed what provisions were exhausted to make an appearance. It may also be conjectured that my wife and daughters expanded their gayest plumage upon this occasion. Mr Thornhill came with a couple of friends, his chaplain, and feeder. The servants, who were numerous, he politely ordered to the next ale-house: but my wife, in the triumph of her heart, insisted on entertaining them all; for which, by the bye, our family was pinched for three weeks after. As Mr Burchell had hinted to us the day before, that he [Thornhill] was making some proposals of marriage, to Miss Wilmot, my son George’s former mistress, this a good deal damped the heartiness of his reception: but accident, in some measure, relieved our embarrasment; for one of the company happening to mention her name, Mr Thornhill observed with an oath, that he never knew any thing more absurd …

Moses takes one horse to market but is duped, so the vicar takes the other, and he is duped. Olivia elopes with Thornhill. Dr Primose goes off to rescue her. In a distant village they take adjacent hotel rooms and so meet up. On returning home they find their house burning down. Unable to pay Thornhill his rent, the vicar is imprisoned, along with the man who duped him over the horses. He’s told  Sophia has pined away and died. After an absence of years, George comes home and he too is imprisoned.

And they all live happily ever after. Really! It’s lots of fun. Read it for yourself.


Oliver Goldsmith, The Vicar of Wakefield, first pub. 1766.

Available on Project Gutenberg (here), LibriVox (here)

see also reviews by –
Lisa/ANZLitLovers (here) who loved it
Karen/BookerTalk (here) who didn’t
My posts about other pre-Jane Austen writers –
Mothers of the Novel (here)
Evelina, Fanny Burney (here)

Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad


Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) was Polish, a seaman, and one of the great writers of English prose. That is about what we “all” know of him. Researching, I find that he was born into the Polish intelligentsia in Russian- ruled Poland, was well-read in Polish literature, his father was if not a revolutionary, at least anti-Russian. He was mostly home-schooled, but received some formal education in western Poland which was under Austrian rule, spent four years in the French Merchant Marine, then another 15 years in the British merchant marine. He became a British subject in 1886, though shades of our own dual citizenship pollies, he was not released from Russian citizenship for another three years.

My introduction to Conrad came via The Secret Agent which I see my father inscribed for my 15th birthday in 1966 and which was the eleventh of Conrad’s 20 novels and novellas. I have always been a Conrad fan though I am not particularly knowledgeable about either the author or his work. Heart of Darkness (1899) I own, in a Bantam paperback together with Youth and Typhoon but I chose the Penguin cover above for its realistic portrayal of the river steamer at the heart of HoD. I also have a downloaded audiobook copy from Project Gutenberg, and when my cd player jammed (with 2 cds to go of a 19 cd SF space opera) this last trip, I dug out some old flash drives and re-listened to HoD (and Howard’s End).

The novel is framed as a story told by Marlowe, a captain in the merchant marine, to a group of his businessmen friends whiling away the evening on the deck of a yacht moored in the Thames estuary. This is an old-fashioned gambit now, but the writing is timeless, spare and descriptive (ie. both efficient and effective). It reminds me of the factoid I’ve quoted a couple of times recently that Murakami pares down his prose by writing first in English before rewriting in Japanese. Conrad, for whom English was his fourth or fifth language – after Polish, Russian, German and French – was probably also working from a limited – for a writer -English vocabulary.

While listening, I thought also of two other great writers who were contemporaneous with and stylistically similar to Conrad – Jack London and Henry Lawson, also self-taught, working men and who probably also worked from limited vocabularies. Conrad is described variously as being at the tail end of C19th Realism and at the beginning of C20th Modernism, and perhaps he, London and Lawson were just caught up in the zeitgeist, but I think also their similar backgrounds played a part.

The story is that Marlowe, at a loose end, and wishing to extend his considerable experience as a seaman by working as “a fresh water sailor for a bit” in Africa, applies to rellos on the Continent to gain him an introduction. This is soon achieved and after a cursory interview in a city like a “whited sepulchre” (Marseilles?) he finds himself making his way down the coast of Africa.

“I left in a French steamer, and she called in every blamed port they have out there, for, as far as I could see, the sole purpose of landing soldiers and custom-house officers. I watched the coast. Watching a coast as it slips by is like thinking about an enigma. There it is is before you – smiling, frowning, inviting, grand, mean, insipid or savage, and always mute with an a air of whispering, Come and find out. This one was almost featureless, as if still in the making, with an aspect of monotonous grimness.

Marlowe is landed, walks 200 miles to his station, finds his “ship” has been sunk in a shallow part of the river, spends months recovering and repairing it. Sets out on a voyage up river with various passengers to the isolated station of the famed Kurtz. Rescues Kurtz who is dying. Sails (sorry, steams) back.

The heart of the story concerns the atmosphere around Kurtz, who is believed to be favoured back home, and who is phenomenally successful at securing ivory for the Company, and so is regarded with both awe and jealousy by his colleagues. I’m not competent to add to the century of learned commentary around this great work, so this ‘review’ is just a token to say I’ve read it.

French colonies in Pink (how counter-intuitive is that!)

The specific location is never stated, or not that I noticed anyway, but I believe is generally held to be the Congo River. My first thought was that the Congo was not then even a colony, but the personal possession of the Belgian King. However, more research shows that the French had a neighbouring colony (now Congo) which bordered the River, but only well upstream and hence the 200 mile walk.

Since writing the above I have read a learned introduction (in my 1960 Bantam edition) which states that Conrad’s intention was to expose the heartlessness of King Leopold’s rule of the Belgian Congo and that Marlowe in fact signed on in Brussels. Make of that what you will. My memory is that Marlowe talks all the time of working for the French. (Which reminds me that the one defect of the novel is that all the characters are so English in their speech).

In his initial remarks Marlowe muses on young Romans coming up the Thames to their British possessions:

They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force – nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind – as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness, The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look at it too much …

Not surprising maybe from an author whose own homeland was a colony, but heresy in the pre-War Britain of Empire.

We are made conscious all the time of the ill treatment of the locals, and of the worthlessness and casual brutality of the colonists. At one point Marlowe remarks that English villages would be deserted too if every passing party raided them for supplies and manpower. But I’m afraid that in the end I read these great works for the flow of the language, and am barely conscious – and not at all retentive -of the ideas being expressed. Not very satisfactory for a reviewer I know.


Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, first published 1899. Available (free) for download as an audiobook from Librivox (catalogue).




Draganned again

Journal: 024

It’s time to imagine Dragan in a dress.

If I thought I had been Draganned last week, it only got worse! I upset a customer, Dragan got angry. I loaded my trailers on Thursday, he held me over (in Sydney) till Friday. We argued. He harangued me about how ungrateful I was. I spent all Friday stacking freight for one customer around the freight of another customer, on another driver’s trailers, and took off for Perth the minute we were finished. An hour out … it goes on and on. In the next 24 hours I was diverted around the countryside and swapped the combination I was towing twice, as other drivers had problems. And still we’re fighting.

I’ve had my truck serviced – the oil alone costs $600 – on the basis that the company will want me to do one more trip before Christmas, but that is looking increasingly problematic. Last night I picked Milly up from her Tuesday meeting and we went for a late meal at Neho, a Korean fusion restaurant in Vic Park. Very popular. Great food. And happy to squeeze us in before they closed the kitchen. Anyway, Milly: it’s time I stopped living the Legend and spent some time in Perth doing family stuff. So one way or another, no more Dragan in 2019.


On the way here I listened to Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). I thought I had a copy at home and could write a proper review. As it turns out I have lots of Orwell, but not that one, not on the shelf where it should be anyway. What I do have is a biography, The Unknown Orwell (1974) by Peter Stansky & William Abrahams. They write:

It can be argued that of all the books he discovered while at Eton, the one that was most to affect him was Jack London’s The People of the Abyss. Years later it would have a direct influence upon the writing of the first book he was to publish, Down and Out in Paris and London. As an Etonian, [he] read of the ‘abyss’ and incorporated it into his fantasies and life. Written in 1903, the book was (and still is) a vivid,  powerful and appalling first-hand account of poverty in the East End of London in the summer of 1902 …

I was a big Jack London fan years ago, but that was one book I could never find. Orwell, born Eric Blair (1903-1950) was at Eton from 1917-21. From there he went directly into the Imperial Police in Burma, from which he resigned to become a writer in March, 1928. He began almost straight away to get essays accepted, including, in 1929, The Spike, an account of his experiences living as a tramp in England [And also the name of chapter in London’s book]. I say “living as” because it was clear he always had options available to him, to borrow or earn money, which real tramps didn’t, and his account was actually the conflation of a series of experiences separated in time. Interestingly, he says he never attempted to modify his Etonian accent, and in fact was sometimes offered, and accepted, better treatment on the basis of his obvious gentleman-ness. A ‘spike’ if you’re wondering was a dormitory for the homeless. Tramping was mandated by the law that specified a man (or woman) could only stay in a given spike once in any month. Amazingly, it was an imprisonable offence to enter a spike with more than a few pence in one’s pocket.

Although Paris precedes London in the book, he was actually in Paris after this, in the Latin Quarter, and became a scullion – my son says “dish pig”, a job he often turned to as he scraped through his seven year Bachelors degree – after having all his money stolen by a prostitute he brought back to his room. In the book, not to offend his mother’s sensibilities, he says it was a young Italian.

He put the two stories together and eventually found a publisher in Victor Gollancz, who also came up with the title. (I looked, unsuccessfully for a Gollancz cover, but don’t you love the one I did come up with). It was at this stage that he adopted the pen name George Orwell. Down and Out is journalism/memoir with the names changed, a form I think he used again in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), but I’m pretty sure Homage to Catalonia (1938) which I reviewed here, is straight memoir.

Orwell, like London, was confirmed in his socialism by his experience of the actual living conditions of the underclass. But he had a strong libertarian streak which made it impossible for him to be a Party member, and which enables the Right to present him, wrongly, as on their side. He doesn’t judge his fellows, neither the fact that they have fallen so low, nor their behaviour, and is scathing of government policies which forced men willing to work to spend all their time and energy tramping between spikes and cheap lodging houses. He even suggests an alternative, accommodation with land attached which the homeless could use to grow their own vegetables. As it is, their principal sustenance was cups of tea, bread and margarine. I think that what he finds saddest is the loneliness, the impossibility of these men even meeting women, let alone being in the position to marry. He is also scathing about the cleanliness – or lack of – of French hotel kitchens, so you’ve been warned!

Orwell doesn’t mention the Depression. I have a very clear conception of the Depression years (1929-39) from Australian and American literature, but not so much from British and European lit. and perhaps anyway the bulk of his experiences predate the Wall Street Crash of September 1929 from which the Great Depression is usually dated. Stansky & Abrahams say extreme poverty (in Britain) was very similar in London’s and Orwell’s works, which are a generation apart, and no doubt right up to and beyond the War (as we see in Cotter’s England for example).

Last but not least, he relates some shockingly anti-semitic stories for no discernable reason, and I think it is more than “just the times”. Orwell is a writer I admire, and I need to follow this up.


George Orwell (M, Eng), Down and Out in Paris and London, first pub. Gollancz, London, 1933. Blackstone Audio, read by Frederick Davidson

Peter Stansky & William Abrahams, The Unknown Orwell, Paladin, London, 1974

More Orwell: Homage to Catalonia (here). 1984 (here)

Recent audiobooks

Ken Bruen & Jason Starr (M, USA/Ire), Slide (2015)
Terry Brooks (M, USA), A Princess of Landover (2009)
Irena Gut Opdyke (F, Poland), In My Hands (1999) – Holocaust memoir
CJ Box (M, USA), The Disappeared (2018)

Currently reading

Dale Spender, Mothers of the Novel
Alexis Wright, Tracker (2017)