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Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski a.k.a. Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad was a best-selling and critically renowned British author of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, but he began life as Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in the Ukraine. Conrad’s youth was traumatised by social unrest and revolution. Later in his life, Conrad would produce novels and short stories focused on conflict between individuals, domestic discord and larger political and international problems. The majority of Conrad’s fiction can be considered to originate, in a variety of different ways, from his childhood years. Conrad’s father was involved with clandestine revolutionary action which resulted in his arrest. While his father was in prison, Conrad’s mother wrote letters of support which would eventually lead the couple to be exiled to Northwest Russia. Despite the influence of sympathetic officials and family, both Conrad’s mother and father would die as a result of the punishment. Conrad was left to be cared for by his uncle. Finding himself an orphan at the age of 11 would have a dramatic effect on Conrad. He was not quiet old enough to be able to support himself and act independently. However, he was also fully aware of what had happened to his parents. Ultimately, Conrad’s loss of his parents and lack of immediate family would cause him to leave his homeland in his teenage years and eventually naturalise himself as a British citizen.

Conrad left Poland in 1874 and sought work on French ships and spent most of the next twenty years sailing across the world. Conrad worked on merchant ships that searched for profit in the far reaches of the globe. The working conditions were at times difficult and despite reasonable success, Conrad was unsatisfied and in 1878 attempted to commit suicide by shooting himself in the chest. After spending a couple of months in hospital, Conrad moved to England where he continued his career at sea.

Conrad moved to England despite having no knowledge of the language. He would study hard and not only learnt the language to such a standard that he would eventually write fiction in his adopted language, but also rose to the position of officer. Ultimately, a life at sea was not for Conrad. He spent a short time as captain of one ship before leaving a life at sea for the rest of his life. In 1889, Conrad took a holiday in London and began writing Almayer’s Folly. The novel was not complete until five years later when it was submitted to the publisher Fisher Unwin. The novel was published a year later. Conrad did not receive a great deal of money for his first novel and financial concerns would provide him with considerable anxiety for many years.

In 1896, Conrad married Jessie George. Their relationship was tense and typified by conflict and financial difficulty. Conrad was prone to bouts of manic depression and Jessie would stoically support his outbursts and nurture his depression. The couple had two sons, John and Borys. Conrad achieved some financial stability in 1910 as a result of a civil list pension which provided him with an annual income in recognition of distinguished service to the arts. The stress of writing would take its toll on Conrad and he suffered a nervous breakdown in 1910 after completing Under Western Eyes. Conrad’s period of literary productivity spans 30 years during which he produced 20 novels and wrote extensively for periodicals in England and America. Conrad’s writing was collected in anthologies of essays and short stories and his work marks an important moment of transition between the nineteenth and twentieth century. His work achieves a breath of contemporary concerns that embraces issues of individual identity often in conflict with greater concerned of nationhood or social influences. Conrad was not afraid to experiment with his writing both thematically and stylistically, although many of his narratives and characters are drawn from his own personal experience.

The publication of Chance in 1913 started a change in Conrad’s financial and critical fortunes. He had previously received some measure of critical recognition for his work. After the success of Chance, Conrad previous novels were more widely acknowledged. Conrad was a hard working writer whose life was difficult and full of conflict. It is the struggle and turmoil of Conrad’s life that often arises as a powerful element of his work. After declining a knighthood in 1924, Conrad died of a heart attack and was buried in Canterbury, Kent.

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Conrad's birth

Conrad was originally born in the Ukraine as Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski to gentry parents in a time of conflict and revolution.

Father was arrested

Conrad’s father was involved in revolutionary actions against Russia and was arrested.

Exiled to Vologda

While his father was in prison, Conrad’s mother wrote letters of support which would eventually lead the couple to be exiled to Northwest Russia. They decided to take their 4 year old son.

Conrad's mother died

Conrad’s mother died of tuberculosis as a result of the journey, climate and conditions from being exiled.

Conrad's father died

Only four years after his mother died, Conrad's father died and his uncle became his guardian.

Left Poland for France

During this time, Conrad felt incredibly guilty for leaving his homeland.

Attempted suicide

Conrad left Poland in 1874 and sought work on French ships, the working conditions were at times difficult and in 1878 he attempted to commit suicide by shooting himself in the chest. Only months after attempting suicide, Conrad had left France and moved to join British merchant ships.

Started writing Almayer’s Folly

His novel started as a way to pass a lengthy holiday in London. The novel took five years to complete.

Almayer’s Folly was accepted by Unwin

Conrad's first novel was accepted by Unwin, where he met Edward Garnett who became a friend who helped Conrad throughout his writing career.

Met Jessie George

During the same year as his first novel being accepted by a publisher, Conrad met his soon-to-be wife Jessie George. He was over 15 years older than her and they had contrasting temperaments which caused conflict in their marriage.

Almayer’s Folly was published

Conrad was not well paid for his first novel, but it did enable him to retire from life at sea.

An Outcast of the Islands published

Just like Almayer’s Folly, An Outcast of the Islands used Conrad’s voyages as source and inspiration.

The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ was published

The Narcissus was the only ship that Conrad named after a vessel on which he had actually travelled.

‘Heart of Darkness’ serialised in Blackwood’s Magazine


Lord Jim was published

Conrad’s status as a writer was at its peak when Lord Jim was published.

Nostromo was published

More ambitious than Lord Jim, Nostromo was a critical failure in its time. However, F Scoot Fitzgeral said that "I'd rather have written Nostromo than any other novel."

The Secret Agent was published

From a modern perspective the title of The Secret Agent is misleading. There is no suave hero, instead Conrad has produced a complex cast of characters who provide a insightful look at human motivation and emotions.

Read The Secret Agent here.


Conrad experienced a nervous breakdown

Once he completed Under Western Eyes Conrad experienced a nervous breakdown. On his recovery he moved to Capel House, Orlestone.

Chance published

Chance brought Conrad a wider audience and financial success.

Conrad visited America for the first time

When Conrad arrived in New York, he was besieged by a torrent of fans and reporters. During his stay, he met F. Scott Fitzgerald, gave interviews and spoke in front two hundred people.

Refused Knighthood

Although offered a knighthood, Conrad declined.

Conrad's death

Conrad died of a heart attack and was buried at Canterbury. An anchor-shaped monument to Conrad at Gdynia, on Poland's Baltic Seacoast, features a quotation from him in Polish: "Nic tak nie neci, nie rozczarowuje I nie zniewala, jak zycie na morzu" ("[T]here is nothing more enticing, disenchanting, and enslaving than the life at sea"

The UK Jospeh Conrad Society was established

In their words the society is ‘to offer scholars, advanced students, and persons interested in the work and life of Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) an opportunity to share in the study and appreciation of this writer of worldwide reputation.’

Visit the offical website of The Jospeh Conrad Society

About the Contributor

Dr Tony W Garland is Head of Subject for English Language and Literature at a large sixth form college.

The Secret Agent Comprehensive Guide for A Level
Intelligent commentary and analysis notes on each chapter, character and contextual influence for this studying this novel at A Level