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Prince Roman was written by Joseph Conrad in 1910 and first published in 1911 in The Oxford and Cambridge Review. It was posthumously collected in Tales of Hearsay, which was first published by T. Fisher Unwin in 1925. The tale is based on the real life story of Prince Roman Sanguszko of Poland (1800–81). The other tales in the collection are The Black Mate, The Warrior’s Soul, and The Tale
Prince Sanguszko’s coat of arms
Prince Roman – critical commentary
This is an unashamedly patriotic piece of writing on Conrad’s part. Prince Roman is a Pole who gives up his comfortable position in the aristocracy to fight as a (virtually) unknown soldier resisting Russian oppression. When captured, he has every opportunity to escape punishment, but declares himself unequivocally committed to Polish liberation. As a result he suffers a quarter of a century in the nineenth century Tsarist equivalent of the GULAG – the Siberian mines – before returning to live in humble circumstances on what should have been his own estate before devoting his life to helping other people. There is none of the ambiguity and complexity that is normally found in Conrad’s other works, nor any of the light ironic touches in his commentary within the narration.
The story is based on the real life history of Prince Roman Stanislaw Sanguszko (1800–1881) who was a Polish aristocrat, patriot, political and social activist. Conrad’s fictional account is remarkably faithful to the historical details of Sanguszko’s life – though in some regards the truth is even more remarkable than the fiction. For instance, part of the punishment for taking part in the insurrection was that he should walk in chains to his place of exile. This was a distance of 3,300 kilometres which took ten months to complete.
The main problem with the tale, from a technical point of view, is that it mixes narrative modes in a way that reflects adversely on the overall artistic effect. The story begins in first person narrative mode: the un-named narrator recalls having seen as a child this fabled Polish patriot, when Roman was an old man. That is, the narrative starts at the end of its chronological events.
The narrator then fills in the details of Roman’s background – information of a biographical nature which could be publicly available. But gradually, the narrative slips into third person omniscient mode. We are presented with Roman’s thoughts and feelings whilst he is in the Polish army of resistance – information which would not be available to anyone but Roman himself.
Then at the end of the tale, Conrad returns to a first person narrative mode, with the un-named narrator rounding off the sad but heroic account of Prince Roman’s life story. Conrad makes these transitions quite smoothly, and most readers are unlikely to complain, but in terms of strict narrative credibility and logic they are illegitimate.
Prince Roman – study resources
Tales of Hearsay – CreateSpace editions – Amazon UK
Tales of Hearsay – CreateSpace editions – Amazon US
The Complete Works of Joseph Conrad – Kindle eBook
Prince Roman – eBook versions at Project Gutenberg
Joseph Conrad: A Biography – Amazon UK
The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad – Amazon UK
Routledge Guide to Joseph Conrad – Amazon UK
Oxford Reader’s Companion to Conrad – Amazon UK
Notes on Life and Letters – Amazon UK
Joseph Conrad – biographical notes
Prince Roman – plot summary
An un-named narrator recalls as a child once meeting Prince Roman, who by that time was a bald and deaf old man. This reminiscence forms the springboard for a potted life history, which is the substance of the narrative. Roman comes from an aristocratic Polish family. His wife dies two years after the birth of their daughter, and Roman is badly affected by the loss. He finds solace by retreating into the countryside, and whilst there hears news of a successful patriotic uprising against the occupying Russians. Roman renounces his position as a military office in the Tsar’s army and announces his intention of joining the nationalist rebels. His father understands Roman’s patriotism, but thinks this is rather rash and impolitic.
Roman summons an old family servant and confides in him his intention of volunteering in the partisan army. He enlists under a false name (Sergeant Peter) and distinguishes himself for courage and valour. However, although unharmed, he is eventually taken prisoner by the Russians. There he is recognised by his captors. News of his arrest is sent to St Petersburg, where his family use their wealth and influence to plead for clemency.
The military commission that tries his case attempts to guide his responses to questioning to bring about an acquittal, but he states quite bluntly that he joined the rebellion from ‘political conviction’. He is condemned to the Siberian mines, which at that time was considered a living death. Because of his disgrace, his daughter inherits his estates, and lives abroad – in the South of France and Austria. Twenty-five years later, on his release, Roman goes to live in a modest house on one of the estates and dedicates himself to doing public good.
Joseph Conrad – video biography
Joseph Conrad’s writing
Manuscript page from Heart of Darkness
The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad offers a series of essays by leading Conrad scholars aimed at both students and the general reader. There’s a chronology and overview of Conrad’s life, then chapters that explore significant issues in his major writings, and deal in depth with individual works. These are followed by discussions of the special nature of Conrad’s narrative techniques, his complex relationships with late-Victorian imperialism and with literary Modernism, and his influence on other writers and artists. Each essay provides guidance to further reading, and a concluding chapter surveys the body of Conrad criticism.
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Joseph Conrad’s writing table
Amar Acheraiou Joseph Conrad and the Reader, London: Macmillan, 2009.
Jacques Berthoud, Joseph Conrad: The Major Phase, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978.
Muriel Bradbrook, Joseph Conrad: Poland’s English Genius, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1941
Harold Bloom (ed), Joseph Conrad (Bloom’s Modern Critical Views, New Yoprk: Chelsea House Publishers, 2010
Hillel M. Daleski , Joseph Conrad: The Way of Dispossession, London: Faber, 1977
Daphna Erdinast-Vulcan, Joseph Conrad and the Modern Temper, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Aaron Fogel, Coercion to Speak: Conrad’s Poetics of Dialogue, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1985
John Dozier Gordon, Joseph Conrad: The Making of a Novelist, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1940
Albert J. Guerard, Conrad the Novelist, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1958
Robert Hampson, Joseph Conrad: Betrayal and Identity, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1992
Jeremy Hawthorn, Joseph Conrad: Language and Fictional Self-Consciousness, London: Edward Arnold, 1979
Jeremy Hawthorn, Joseph Conrad: Narrative Technique and Ideological Commitment, London: Edward Arnold, 1990
Jeremy Hawthorn, Sexuality and the Erotic in the Fiction of Joseph Conrad, London: Continuum, 2007.
Owen Knowles, The Oxford Reader’s Companion to Conrad, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990
Jakob Lothe, Joseph Conrad: Voice, Sequence, History, Genre, Ohio State University Press, 2008
Gustav Morf, The Polish Shades and Ghosts of Joseph Conrad, New York: Astra, 1976
Ross Murfin, Conrad Revisited: Essays for the Eighties, Tuscaloosa, Ala: University of Alabama Press, 1985
Jeffery Myers, Joseph Conrad: A Biography, Cooper Square Publishers, 2001.
Zdzislaw Najder, Joseph Conrad: A Life, Camden House, 2007.
George A. Panichas, Joseph Conrad: His Moral Vision, Mercer University Press, 2005.
John G. Peters, The Cambridge Introduction to Joseph Conrad, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
James Phelan, Joseph Conrad: Voice, Sequence, History, Genre, Ohio State University Press, 2008.
Edward Said, Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography, Cambridge Mass: Harvard University Press, 1966
Allan H. Simmons, Joseph Conrad: (Critical Issues), London: Macmillan, 2006.
J.H. Stape, The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996
John Stape, The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad, Arrow Books, 2008.
Peter Villiers, Joseph Conrad: Master Mariner, Seafarer Books, 2006.
Ian Watt, Conrad in the Nineteenth Century, London: Chatto and Windus, 1980
Cedric Watts, Joseph Conrad: (Writers and their Work), London: Northcote House, 1994.
Other writing by Joseph Conrad
Lord Jim (1900) is the earliest of Conrad’s big and serious novels, and it explores one of his favourite subjects – cowardice and moral redemption. Jim is a ship’s captain who in youthful ignorance commits the worst offence – abandoning his ship. He spends the remainder of his adult life in shameful obscurity in the South Seas, trying to re-build his confidence and his character. What makes the novel fascinating is not only the tragic but redemptive outcome, but the manner in which it is told. The narrator Marlowe recounts the events in a time scheme which shifts between past and present in an amazingly complex manner. This is one of the features which makes Conrad (born in the nineteenth century) considered one of the fathers of twentieth century modernism.
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Heart of Darkness (1902) is a tightly controlled novella which has assumed classic status as an account of the process of Imperialism. It documents the search for a mysterious Kurtz, who has ‘gone too far’ in his exploitation of Africans in the ivory trade. The reader is plunged deeper and deeper into the ‘horrors’ of what happened when Europeans invaded the continent. This might well go down in literary history as Conrad’s finest and most insightful achievement, and it is based on his own experiences as a sea captain. This volume also contains ‘An Outpost of Progress’ – the magnificent study in shabby cowardice which prefigures ‘Heart of Darkness’.
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© Roy Johnson 2013
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