- Conrad, Joseph
- "The Sisters", autograph manuscript
- ink on paper
[with:] carbon copy typescript of "The Sisters", 46 pages, probably c.1920s; typescript copy of a letter by John Quinn to Anderson Galleries requesting the withdrawal of the manuscript from the sale of his collection ("...I think Conrad would consider it a violation of my implied agreement with him to hold it myself..."), New York, 5 September 1923, and two related letters; 14 letters and documents relating to the publication and copyright of "The Sisters", including an incomplete copy of The Bookman (January 1928), 1928-29
"...He set off on his search for a creed - and found only an infinity of formulas. No angel's voice spoke from above to him. Instead, he heard, right and left, the vociferations of idle fanatics extolling this path or that with earthly and hoarse voices that rang out, untrustworthy, in empty darkness..."
The narrator describes Stephen's departure from the “endless Steppes”, his alienation from his family and restless travels throughout Europe before settling just outside Paris, where he becomes involved with the family of a Spanish orange merchant, José Ortega. The sisters of the title are Ortega’s orphan nieces, one of whom is in the care of José whilst her sister lives with his brother, a “mystical fanatic” priest in the Pyrenees. The geographical range of the fragment is striking. It includes deft sketches of rural Russian peasantry, pretentious European artistic coteries, the country around Paris, and a remote Basque village. According to Ford Madox Ford the story would have had Stephen marrying the elder girl and then having an affair with her sister, and would have concluded with the priest murdering the younger sister and her illegitimate child. However, Ford’s later pronouncements on Conrad and his works are notoriously unreliable so it is not clear how far this melodramatic plot really corresponds to Conrad’s intentions. What is clear, however, it that this abandoned work marked an important milestone in Conrad’s development as a writer. On this, at least, Ford’s comments are incisive:
“Conrad, then, at one time wished to be what I have called a straight writer, treating of usual human activities in cities and countrysides normal to the users of Anglo-Saxon or Latin speech. He desired in short to be a Dostoyevsky who should also be a conscious artist writing in English or preferably in French. Think of what gorgeous visions that opens up!” (Introduction to The Sisters, p.3)
‘The Sisters’ was begun in late 1895 but was abandoned in March of the following year. This decision is usually traced back to rigorous criticism of the manuscript by Conrad’s friend and early literary mentor Edward Garnett, so the presence of Garnett’s unpublished comments are a highly significant feature of the current manuscript and provide a valuable insight to Conrad’s close working relationship with Garnett during the early part of his writing career. Garnett notes include detailed comments and suggestions, for example in suggesting a different opening to the piece: “…Begin by a vivid description of the man himself, seated in the pavilion at Passy, to give what follows its horizon of the past, & sharp value ? Hang the long subjective analysis on a scene with Stephen thinking about himself…” Most of Garnett’s comments are, in fact, encouraging: the manuscript is scattered with comments like “all charming” and “exquisite”, and enthusiasm for Conrad’s descriptive gifts. He warns against sudden disjunctures in tone and characterisation – “too sudden” is a repeated criticism – as well as infelicitous phrasings, but his comments urge Conrad forward (“…Describe Stephen again, his face, expression psychologically to give reality…”) rather than suggesting that the entire plot is misconceived. It seems, however, that Garnett did suggest to Conrad that he was moving away from his natural subject, the sea, as Conrad wrote to him on 23-24 March 1896, agreeing to write instead a story of adventure at sea: “I surrender to the infamous spirit which you have awakened within me … You had better help O Gentle and Murderous Spirit! You have killed my cherished aspiration and now must come along and help to bury the corpse decently” (Collected Letters, I, p.268).
Garnett’s comments are unlikely to have been the only reason for Conrad’s abandonment of ‘The Sisters’. His letter to Garnett was written on the day of his marriage, and his changed domestic circumstances encouraged Conrad to take his writing in a more commercial direction. This was a period of uncertainty in Conrad’s writing: he abandoned ‘The Sisters’ to begin work on The Rescue – a novel that would take him some 23 years to complete. Nor did he entirely abandon ‘The Sisters’, as critics have shown that elements were reused in his late novel The Arrow of Gold.
Conrad eventually sold the manuscript to John Quinn in July 1913. He explained to Quinn that he had abandoned the work “in despair of the being able to keep up the high pitch”, and explained the presence of Garnett’s marginal comments: “at that time 1896-7 [Garnett] used to see all my work before it ever went to be typed” (Collected Letters, V, p.255). He writes of being “scared off” the story by “thinking it out ahead, one winter evening, alone in my lodgings a fortnight or so before we were married”; it was, he considered, “an impossible novel for the public – at that time”. Conrad gave Quinn copyright to the story and gave him permission to have it published, but only after his death. This last stipulation led Quinn to withdraw it from his sale (this was the only Conrad manuscript that Quinn retained), and the fragment was eventually published in 1928.