The Rescue: A Romance of the Shallows

  • Benita Parry


The consensus that The Rescue is a negligible work, interesting because of the prolonged difficulties Conrad had with its writing rather than because of any intrinsic properties, has overlooked its originality in telling a sumptuous tale of colonial adventure as a bleak political allegory divesting colonialism’s heroic age of its eminent reputation.1 In the body of Conrad’s fictional engagements with the imperialist experience, this work is conspicuous for honouring and refuting colonialist myth, since the narrative discourse laments the ignominious failure of those noble impulses it set out to celebrate, the figurations animate the forms of the colonial imagination and display these as a mode of perception which signally fails to see, and the action, which dramatises the confrontation of the ‘primitive’ East with the ‘sophisticated’ West, supersedes its own conventional terms of reference to contemplate the conflict as one between two authentic universes ordered on dissimilar principles and adhering to different systems of value.2 Initially conceived as the retrospective foundation of Almayer’s Folly (1895) and An Outcast of the Islands (1896) to comprise an informal trilogy written in reverse chronological order, The Rescue in working out its themes breaks with the predominant outlook of the companion pieces and it is these divergent tendencies, incipient in the manuscript text and major discontinuities in the final form, that are the source of the fiction’s stature as the work of an enlarged and disenchanted historical imagination, reviewing representations of an era that had already been constituted as history.


Tropical Night Pale Hair Sexual Passion Colonial World Western Mode 
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  1. 1.
    Vernon Young, ‘Lingard’s Folly: The Lost Subject’, Kenyon Review, 15 (1953), dismisses the novel as the most egregrious of Conrad’s failures; Thomas Moser, ‘ “The Rescuer” Manuscript: A Key to Conrad’s Development — and Decline’, Harvard Library Bulletin (Autumn 1956), argues that the finished work demonstrates an atrophy of Conrad’s symbolic imagination; and Frederick Karl, Joseph Conrad: The Three Lives (London: Faber, 1979), considers it suffers from a ‘potpourri of mannerisms’ and that in terms of his career Conrad would have done better to let it lie dormant.Google Scholar
  2. Eloise Knapp Hay, The Political Novels of Joseph Conrad (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), does pay the novel serious attention in discussing it as a political fable about relations between East and West,Google Scholar
  3. and Avrom Fleishman, Conrad’s Politics: Community and Anarchy in the Fiction of Joseph Conrad (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1967), approaches it as a tragic interpretation of the Rajah Brooke myth, but does not deal with the literary realisation of this theme.Google Scholar
  4. Gareth Jenkins, ‘Conrad’s Nostromo and History’ in Literature and History, No. 6 (Autumn 1977), maintains that Conrad sidestepped the question of imperialism in the novel and attributes Conrad’s writing difficulties to an inability to deal with the ideological problem: ‘just how was he to understand and depict metropolitan society, the nature of its interrelationships, the nature of its relationship to other societies — in short, its complex imperialist structure?’ (p. 139).Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    The shifts in the conception of Lingard leave the basic contours of the characterisation intact, whereas the incompletely effected alterations in the portrayal of Mrs Travers result in capricious inconsistencies. In ‘The Rescuer’, where she is referred to as Edith Travers, sympathy for her person and plight as an idealist cheated of a cause is repeatedly invited; in The Rescue she has become Mrs Travers, an appellation imposing a distance which is further established by allusions to her brittle and disingenuous nature, although admiration for her charm, intelligence and honesty continues to be solicited. Conrad’s own enchantment with this figure of his imagination is apparent from his remark to Edward Garnett in a letter written on 11 July 1920, commenting on a criticism which had been made of her conceptualisation in a review: ‘I cared too much for Mrs Travers to play pranks with her on the lines of heroics or tenderness; and being afraid of striking a false note I failed to do her justice — not so much in action, I think, as in expression’. (Gérard Jean-Aubry, Joseph Conrad: Life and Letters (London: Heinemann, 1927) II, pp. 243–4.)Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    ‘The worst is that while I am thus powerless to produce, my imagination is extremely active: whole paragraphs, whole pages, whole chapters pass through my mind. Everything is there: descriptions, dialogue … reflexion — everything — everything but the belief, the conviction, the only thing needed to make me put pen to paper.’ (Letters to William Blackwood and David S. Meldrum, edited William Blackburn (North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1958), pp. 26–7; letter dated 1 August 1898.) The author’s note to the published version discusses the earlier abandonment of the work: ‘The contents and the course of the story I had clearly in my mind. But as to the way of presenting the facts, and perhaps in a certain measure as to the nature of the facts themselves, I had many doubts. I mean the telling, representative facts, helpful to carry an idea’ (p. viii).Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    The original title was The Rescuer: A Tale of Narrow Waters; this was changed during the early years of its writing to The Rescue: A Romance of Narrow Waters. What these permutations and the final title have in common is the enactment of cataclysmic events within a confined and isolated space. For discussion on the evolution of the title, see J. D. Gordan, Joseph Conrad: The Making of a Novelist (London: Russell and Russell, 1963; first published 1940).Google Scholar
  8. 9.
    For discussion of Conrad’s interest in the history of Brooke of Sarawak, see J. D. Gordan, ibid., Hay and Fleishman, op. cit. and C. T. Watts, editor, Joseph Conrad’s Letters to R. B. Cunninghame Graham (Cambridge University Press, 1969). In the Appendix to this collection, ‘Conrad and the Dowager Ranee of Sarawak’, the wife of a descendant of the original Rajah, Watts suggests that Conrad’s reading of the Ranee’s My Life in Sarawak may conceivably have encouraged him to resume work on and complete The Rescue. The fulsome tones of Conrad’s letter to the Ranee acknowledging a communication from her in praise of The Rescue are a telling contrast to the fictional enterprise which invalidates a legend to which Conrad was personally attracted: I am immensely gratified and touched you have been good enough to write to me. The first Rajah has been one of my boyish admirations, a feeling I have kept to this day strengthened by the better understanding of the greatness of his character and the unstained rectitude of his purpose. The book which has found favour in your eyes has been inspired in a great measure by the history of the first Rajah’s enterprise and even by the lecture of his journals as partly reproduced by Captain Mundy and others. (Letter dated 15 July 1920; quoted Watts, p. 210.)Google Scholar
  9. 13.
    In a letter to Edward Garnett lamenting yet again the difficulties he was having with the original draft, Conrad wrote: ‘You see I mustjustify- give a motive — to my yacht people, the artificial, civilised creatures that are brought in contact with the primitive Lingard’. (Letters From Conrad: 1895–1924, edited Edward Garnett (London: The Nonesuch Press, 1928); letter dated 5 August 1896, pp. 42–3.)Google Scholar
  10. 26.
    Quoted in Elsa Nettels, James and Conrad (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1977); the letter dated 15 February 1919 is in the Berg Collection.Google Scholar
  11. 27.
    Undated letter, estimated by the editor as having been written at the end of 1918, quoted in Gérard Jean-Aubry, Joseph Conrad: Life and Letters, Vol. II, p. 212. The editor adds in a footnote that The Rescue was serialised in the American magazine Romance between November 1919 and May 1920, and not in Cosmopolitan.Google Scholar

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© Benita Parry 1983

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  • Benita Parry

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