Joseph Conrad: a British gentleman and a Polish romantic

Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski was born on the 3rd of December 1857 in the Polish town of Berdyczów (in modern-day Ukraine). He grew up in a family where Polish poetry was part of everyday life. As a young child, he was already able to recite full poems from the legendary Adam Mickiewicz. Later in his life, the future writer was reported as saying that he also loves the iconic Juliusz Słowacki whom he described as “the soul of all Poland”.

In the context of the Russian empire’s occupation, both his parents were actively working in collaboration with several insurrection groups who were dreaming about an independent state of Poland. That is why they were deported to Siberia by the Russian authorities. He became an orphan at the age of 12. 

At the age of 17, he travelled to Marseille and joined a merchant ship there as a seaman. His career in the French Navy was interrupted by the refusal of the French to extend his passport. In 1878, he moved to the British Navy where he spent 17 years at sea and obtained a British Navy captain’s license. He sailed in many different parts of the world, which is to be felt in his numerous novels. 

At the age of 20, Korzeniowski began to learn the English language. Interestingly, researchers note that in Conrad’s literary style, echoes of Polish syntax can be found. As a matter of fact, Korzeniowski’s relatives confirmed that he never learned to speak English without a Polish accent.

His first novel, „Almayer’s Folly” was published in 1895 when he was 38. Soon after, he married an English woman and settled permanently near London, deciding to make a living out of his writing activity. 

Over the next 30 years, he wrote numerous novels and volumes of short stories. They are all related to the sea in some way. Korzeniowski, known now as Joseph Conrad, became famous and gained in popularity. 

His philosophical reflections on topics such as honour, fidelity, betrayal made him a key figure of British literature. He had the particularity of adding characters derived directly from real life into his novels. 

The Polish-British author was a true visionary. In his essay „Autocracy and War” published in 1905, he predicted the imminent outbreak of the First World War and even outlined a vision of a „Europe without borders” which reminds of the yet to be created European Union. 

Despite the fact that Joseph Conrad did not explicitly write about his home country, he tried to raise the awareness of his readers to the aggressive policy which characterised the Kremlin already back in the 19th century. 

He always kept Poland in his heart even though he finished his life in Great Britain where he died on the 3rd of August 1924. 

Author: Sébastien Meuwissen

Picture: Twitter @StateOfPoland




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