Joseph Conrad was born Teodor Jozef Konrad Korzeniowski on December 3, 1857, the only child of a patriotic Polish couple living in the southern Polish Ukraine. Conrad's father was esteemed as a translator of Shakespeare, as well as a poet and a man of letters in Poland, and Conrad's mother was a gentle, wellborn lady with a keen mind but frail health.
When Conrad was five, his father was arrested for allegedly taking part in revolutionary plots against the Russians and was exiled to northern Russia; Conrad and his mother went with him. His mother died from the hardships of prison life three years later; she was only thirty-four.
Conrad's father sent him back to his mother's brother for his education, and Conrad was never to see him again. The poet-patriot lived only four more years. Conrad was eleven years old, but the emotional bond between him and his father was so strong that a deep melancholy settled within the young boy; much of his writing as an adult is marked by a melancholy undercurrent.
Conrad received a good education in Cracow, Poland, and after a trip through Italy and Switzerland, he decided not to return to his father's homeland. Poland held no promise; already Conrad had suffered too much from the country's Russian landlords. Instead, the young lad decided on a career very different from what one might expect of a boy brought up in Poland; he chose the sea as his vocation.
Conrad reached Marseilles in October of 1874, when he was seventeen, and for the next twenty years, he sailed almost continually. Not surprisingly, most of his novels and short stories have the sea as a background for the action and as a symbolic parallel for their heroes' inner turbulence. In fact, most of Conrad's work concerns the sea. There is very little old-fashioned "romance" in his novels.
Part of this romantic void may be due to the fact that while Conrad was in Marseilles and only seventeen, he had his first love affair. It ended in disaster. For some time, Conrad told people that he had been wounded in a duel, but now it seems clear that he tried to commit suicide.
Conrad left Marseilles in April of 1878, when he was twenty-one, and it was then that he first saw England. He knew no English, but he signed on an English ship making voyages between Lowestoft and Newcastle. It was on that ship that he began to learn English.
At twenty-four, Conrad was made first mate of a ship that touched down in Singapore, and it was here that he learned about an incident that would later become the kernel of the plot for Lord Jim. Then, four years later, while Conrad was aboard the Vidar, he met Jim Lingard, the sailor who would become the physical model for Lord Jim; in fact, all the men aboard the Vidar called Jim "Lord Jim."
In 1886, when Conrad was twenty-nine, he became a British subject, and the same year, he wrote his first short story, "The Black Mate." He submitted it to a literary competition, but it was unsuccessful. This failure, however, did not stop him from continuing to write. During the next three years, in order to fill empty, boring hours while he was at sea, Conrad began his first novel, Almayer's Folly. In addition, he continued writing diaries and journals when he transferred onto a Congo River steamer the following year, making notes that would eventually become the basis for one of his masterpieces, Heart of Darkness.
Conrad's health was weakened in Africa, and so he returned to England to recover his strength. Then, in 1894, when Conrad was thirty-seven, he returned to sea; he also completed Almayer's Folly. The novel appeared the following year, and Conrad married Jessie George, a woman seventeen years his junior. She was a woman with no literary or intellectual interests, but Conrad continued to write with intense, careful seriousness. Heart of Darkness was serialized in Blackwood's Magazine, and soon after it appeared as a single volume, Conrad turned his time to Lord Jim. it would be his twelfth work of fiction.
After only a cursory reading of Lord Jim, it is almost impossible to believe that its author did not learn English until he was twenty-one. The novel has a philosophical depth that is profound and a vocabulary that is rich and exact. In addition, the structure of the novel is masterfully inventive; clearly, Conrad was attempting a leap forward in the genre of the novel as he constructed his novel with multiple narratives, striking symbolism, time shifts, and multi-layer characterizations. Lord Jim, like many great achievements by many artists, was produced at a time when Conrad was in dire financial straits and was living in a state of great emotional unhappiness.
After Lord Jim, Conrad produced one major novel after another Nostromo, Typhoon, The Secret Agent, Under Western Eyes, Victory, and Chance, perhaps his most "popular" novel. He was no longer poor, and, ironically, he was no longer as superlatively productive. From 1911 until his death in 1924, he never wrote anything that equaled his early works. His great work was done.
Personally, however, Conrad's life was full. He was recognized widely, and he enjoyed dressing the part of a dandy; it was something he had always enjoyed doing, and now he could financially afford to. He played this role with great enthusiasm. He was a short, tiny man and had a sharp Slavic face which he accentuated with a short beard, and he was playing the "aristocrat," as it were. No one minded, for within literary circles, Conrad was exactly that — a master.
When World War I broke out, Conrad was spending some time in Poland with his wife and sons, and they barely escaped imprisonment. Back in England, Conrad began assembling his entire body of work, which appeared in 1920, and immediately afterward, he was offered a knighthood by the British government. He declined, however, and continued living without national honor, but with immense literary honor instead. He suffered a heart attack in August, 1924, and was buried at Canterbury.