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On this day in history in 1857, was born Joseph Conrad.

Conrad was a Polish aristocrat who learned English as a merchant seaman and became one of the most accomplished authors of the Modernist genre.

Jozef Teador Konrad Korzeniowski was born on 3rd December 1857, in that part of the Russian empire we now know as Ukraine, the son of a poet and Polish nationalist, who had been exiled to the Ukraine for his part in the 1863 insurrection against Russian rule. His parents suffered the effects of the harsh climate, and he was left an orphan at the age of 12, when he was left in charge of an uncle, who sent him to a boarding school in Cracow, and then to a school in Switzerland. In 1874, bored with academic activity, Conrad left for Marseilles, in the hope of taking up a career as a seafarer.

He served first as an apprentice and then as a steward with a French shipping line, sailing to the West Indies. In 1876, he became involved in some criminal activity, possibly gun running, along the coast of Venezuela, and in 1877 returned to Marseilles, where he appears to have been deeply in debt and, on one occasion, attempted suicide. As a sailor in the French merchant navy, he was liable to conscription and, to avoid this peril, he signed on a deckhand on a British freighter bound for Constantinople. Here he learned a few words of English and in 1878, landed in Lowestoft, where he remained for a year until he was offered a job on the London Sydney run of a wool ship. He spent 16 years in the British merchant navy, sailing mostly to the Far East, undergoing gales, mid sea collisions and one shipwreck caused by the cargo of coal catching alight.

In 1894, Conrad was stunned by the death of his uncle, who he had not seen for 20 years, but nevertheless was the only family he had. At this time he was between voyages and decided to stay a while in Kent, where he happened to be at the time. He tried to express his feelings of grief by writing and this writing turned into a short novel, which he named Almayer's Folly, and sent to a publisher. Also in 1894, he met Jessie George and after a brief courtship married her in 1895. His first novel was accepted by the publisher who, finding the name Korzeniowski too much to handle, renamed the author by one of his middle names. Conrad, as he was now called, went on to write further novels.

Conrad’s prose was elegant without being elaborate, and straightforward in its descriptions of characters. His stories told of the dangerous life at sea and the exotic places in Africa, South America and the Far East. He exposed men’s characters and wrote of the inner battles between good and evil, and the tragedy of loneliness at sea. His novels were in Modernist style, which at the time was a new approach to writing, which used the indirect approach. But this is not to say that Conrad’s work was obscure or could not be comprehended by the average reader. His works dealt with complex emotions in a setting of exotic realms and the ocean, that were outside the ordinary reader’s experience, but this did not obscure their meaning. He did not portray emotional settings at sea, but rather recognisable circumstances which happened to take place on board ship. The conditions of isolation from a normal setting, make the human emotional entanglement stand out in clear perspective.

Conrad earned very little from his writing but managed to scratch out a living. In 1911, he was awarded a Civil List pension of £100 per annum. He died on 3rd August 1924, at Canterbury and was buried in Canterbury Cemetery. Although one of his forenames was ‘Konrad’, his penname ‘Conrad’ appears on his tombstone. [Canterbury Cemetery, Westgate Court Avenue, Canterbury, Kent CT2 8DW]

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