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Joseph Conrad

Conrad the seaman
Conrad the writer
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Conrad the writer

His first work

In February 1894, a month after he left the sea for the last time, his uncle died leaving him an inheritance. Two months later he completed his first novel Almayer's Folly.

This was published in 1895 under the pen name Joseph Conrad. All his books were published under this name, although he always used his original name with his friends and in official life.

The Duke of Sutherland in April 1888.
View full size imageThe Duke of Sutherland in April 1888. © NMM
He was not an instant success. Far from it - the very quality and complexity of his writing meant that despite critical acclaim, the public found his work too demanding. He endured almost 20 years of financial hardship until the success of his novel Chance (1913) - ironically, in the American rather than the British market - brought him security.

Conrad's style and themes

Growing up in a Polish literary family in the Russian Empire, Korzeniowski would have spoken Polish at home, Russian in his official dealings, and would have been taught French. However, he did not speak a word of English until he was 19. Despite this, he came to be regarded as the most stylish writer in the English language.

Circular Quay, Sydney.
View full size imageThe Circular Quay, Sydney. © NMM

Korzeniowski was not a writer of sea stories. He was interested in ethics and human behaviour, and his novels reflect this interest, using ships and the sea as the background to the plot. His descriptions of the sea, ports and ships are superb, being accurate and highly sensitive.

The port of Calcutta, c. 1870
View full size imageThe port of Calcutta, c. 1870. © NMM
Many of his works use autobiographical elements. Heart of Darkness owes much to his days as the captain of a river steamer in the Belgian Congo, and other works contain snippets from his seafaring past - ports he had visited, ships he had served on, and seamen he had known.  

London in Conrad's work

Korzeniowski referred to London and the Thames many times in his work. A passage in Chance (1913) describes the Marine Board examinations conducted on Tower Hill. Several chapters in The Mirror of the Sea (1906), a novel dealing mainly with his experiences as a smuggler, describe the river and the port in prose never matched by any other writer.

The following sections include the account of the examinations from Chance and the lengthier descriptions of the Thames and the docks from The Mirror of the Sea.  



Find out more
StoriesThe port in literature
Many writers have used references to the Thames and London's port districts in their works
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National Maritime Museum/Royal Observatory GreenwichNew Opportunities Fund 
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