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Conrad in the British Museum Reading Room.

Once a part of the Jean-Aubry estate, and now located at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, are Conrad's admission ticket to the Reading Room of the British Museum and twenty-one inscribed slips for requesting books, manuscripts, and maps. Signed by Conrad, the admission ticket permitted use of the Reading Room for the six-month period from 7 June until 7 December 1920. (1)

In the appendix to Angoisse, his French translation of Suspense, Jean-Aubry provides an explanation for the existence of twenty of these twenty-one request slips, along with his record of the titles listed on them:

   I had sent Joseph Conrad the completed library slips for these
   volumes to help him waste the least amount of time at the
   Library during his rare visits to London. After the writer's
   death, I found them totally unused except for two: the one for
   Marcellin Pellet's work Napoleon a l ile d'Elbe, and the one for
   Souvenirs et anecdotes de l' ile d'Elbe by Pons (de l'Herault).

      The proof that Joseph Conrad had examined these two French
   works at the British Museum Reading Room was furnished to me
   by notes in a notebook that figured, at the time of his death,
   among the writer's papers, notes taken in French and English,
   and in which, sometimes, the two languages converged. (349) (2)

No evidence disputes the claim that Jean-Aubry prepared the slips in advance for Conrad's use. The cursive is definitely not Conrad's. In preparing them, Jean-Aubry sometimes truncated titles and omitted bibliographic information, but in all except one instance, Wolseley's The Decline and Fall of Napoleon, provided press marks for Conrad's convenience in requesting books. The list below provides fuller information on each of the titles than Jean-Aubry provided, this acquired by matching the short titles with the fuller titles found in The British Museum General Catalogue of Printed Books to 1955. We could not locate either Firmin-Didot's Napoleon souverain de l'ile d'Elbe or Potocka's Memoires de la Comtesse Potocka-Wonsowicz, 1794-1820 in the General Catalogue, but were able to observe both volumes firsthand.

1. Correspondance de Napoleon avec le Ministre de la Marine, depuis 1804 jusqu'en avril 1815. Extrait d'un portefeuille de Saint-Helene. 2 tomes. Paris, 1837.

2. Fabry, J. B. G. [Jean-Baptiste-Germaine]. Itineraire de Buonaparte, depuis son depart de Doulevent, le 28 mars [1814], jusqu'a son embarquement a Frejus, dans la nuit du 28 au 29 le 28 avril; avec quelques details sur ses derniers moments a Fontainebleau, et sur sa nouvelle existence a Porto-Ferrajo; pour servir de suite a Regence a Blois. Paris, 1815. 111e edition, augmentee de quelques nouveaux details, et d'une description de l'ile d'Elbe. Paris, 1815.

3. Firmin-Didot, Georges. Pages d'histoire, la naissance du roi de Rome; l'affaire Maubreuil, Napoleon souvrain de l'ile d'Elbe. Firmin-Didot, et cie, Imprimeurs-Editeurs. Library of Paris [n. d.]

4. Foresi, Emanuele. Napoleone I. all' isola dell Elba. Firenze, 1884.

5. Gruyer, Paul. Napoleon, roi de l'ile d'Elbe. Ouvrage contenant vingt-quatre gravures hors texte. Paris, 1906.

6. The Island of Elba up to the Time of Napoleon. Portoferraio, 1914.

7. Lamartelliere, Jean-Henri-Ferdinande. Conspiration de Buonaparte contre Louis XVIII, Roi de France et de Navarre, ou relation de ce qui s'est passe depuis la capitulation de Paris du 30 mars 1814 jusqu'au 22 juin 1815, epoque de la seconde abdication de Buonaparte. Paris, 1915.

8. Monier, A. D. B. (Lieutenant de Grenadiers). Une Annee de la vie de l'empereur Napoleon, ou Precis historique de tout ce qui s'est passe depuis le 1er avril jusqu'au 21 mars. Deuxieme edition, 1815.

9. Napoleon a l'ile d'Elbe; chronique des evenements de 1814 et 1815, d'apres le Journal du Colonel Sir N. Campbell, le Journal d'un Detenu et autres documents inedits ... Recueillis par M. A. Pichot, etc. Paris, 1873.

10. Napoleon. Adieux de N. Bonaparte a la France et a l'Europe, laisses en manuscrit a l'ile d'Elbe a son depart, en 1815. Paris, 1848.

11. Napoleon. Lettre au grand Turc, datee de l'ile d'Elbe, Paris, 1914.

12. Potocka-Wonsowicz, Anna. Memoires de la Comtesse Potocka-Wonsowicz, 1794-1820. publies par Casimir Stryienski ... Deuxieme edition. Paris, 1897.

13. Napoleon. Proclamation de Napoleon Buonaparte a ses nouveaux sujets. Constitution de l'ile d'Elbe. Paris, 1914.

14. Le registre de l'ile d'Elbe. Lettres et ordres inedits de Napoleon 1er, 28 mai 1814-22 fevrier 1815. Publies par L. G. Pelissier ... Deuxieme edition. Paris, 1897.

15. Regnault-Warin, Jean Baptiste Joseph Innocent Philadelphe. Cinq mois de l'histoire de France, ou fin de la vie politique de Napoleon. Paris, 1815.

16. Thiers, Louis-Adolphe. Le Retour de l'ile d'Elbe par A. Thiers (dans son Histoire du Consulat et de l'Empire) ... De Vaulabelle ... De Chateaubriand. Nouvelle edition, revue ... et ... amelioree. Paris, 1873.

17. Vernon, G. V. Sketch of a Conversation with Napoleon at Elba (Communicated by S. van de Wever), 1863-64. See: London Philobiblon Society. Bibliographical and Historical Miscellanies. Vol. 8. 1854.

18. Vincent, (Nicolas Charles de) Baron. Memorial de l'ile d'Elbe, ou details sur l'arrivee et le sejour de Napoleon dans l'ile d'Elbe. 1834.

19. Wolff, Sir Henry Drummond. The Island; or the Scenes of the First Exile of the Emperor Napoleon, together with a Narrative of His Residence on the Island of Elba. By the Author of "Blondelle" ... with illustrations and a map. [T. Bosworth], 1855.

20. Wolseley, Viscount Garnet Joseph. The Decline and Fall of Napoleon ... with plans and illustrations. 1895.

21. Young, Norwood. Napoleon in Exile: Elba: From the Entry of the Allies into Paris on the 31st March 1814 to the Return of Napoleon from Elba and His Landing at Golf Jouan on the 1st March 1815. With a Chapter on the Iconography by A. M. Bradley ... With 51 Illustrations from Mr. Bradley's Collection. London: Stanley Paul & Co., 1914.

With the exception of one slip, Potocka-Wonsowicz's Memoires, all slips were inscribed first in pencil, then traced over in black ink. The anomaly among the slips, Memoires was probably tipped into the batch by accident, accounting for the survival of twenty-one rather than twenty slips. It is inscribed entirely in black ink, and it is the only variant in format among the request forms. Jean-Aubry does not list this title in Angoisse. Further, on the left of the slip is the outline of a paper clip, probably caused by rust, showing that this slip was once a part of another batch. Questioning the value to Conrad of two titles, Adieux de N. Bonaparte a la France and Lettre au grand Turc, Jean-Aubry inscribed douteux in pencil in the upper left corner of each.

The request slips are printed front and back. The following example, representative of the twenty slips Jean-Aubry identified, is reduced from the actual size of 7 1/2 inches by 3 1/2 inches.


The instructions on the back of the slip explain Jean-Aubry's comment that he found the forms "totally unused except for two." None of the surviving slips carries a date, signature, or the letter and seat number required for delivery of books to a person requesting them. Additionally, as the example shows, Conrad, while returning books, would have reclaimed slips for them, perhaps bringing into question Conrad's use of the two slips to acquire Marcellin Pellet's Napoleon a l'ile d'Elbe (Paris: G. Charpentier et Cie, 1888) and Pelissier's edition of Pons (de l'Herault) Souvenirs et anecdotes de l'ile d'Elbe (Paris: Plon, 1897). However, the evidence argues otherwise.

The loose-leaf notebook to which Jean-Aubry refers is also at the Beinecke. Exactly as Jean-Aubry describes it, this small notebook contains Conrad's notes, in a curious mixture of French and English, on both the Pellet and Pons works. Further, it lists a third title for which no slip has survived and which Jean-Aubry does not include in his list of titles supplied to Conrad: Sir Neil Campbell's Napoleon at Fontainebleau and Elba (London: John Murray, 1869). In his "In Defense of Suspense," Gene M. Moore provides a discussion of these three works as sources for this novel, and shows that "[s]ince these notes all have to do with the situation in Elba, and Suspense ends before Cosmo's arrival there, one cannot find direct echoes of this reading in the novel proper, for which the most important source remains the memoirs of the Comtesse de Boigne" (108). This kind of evidence, coupled with the possibility that Conrad used only two of the twenty-two request slips which Jean-Aubry provided, would appear to reduce the significance of these slips to a mere literary curiosity. And perhaps such is their ultimate value. However, their survival authenticates the account of Jean-Aubry, a man not always reliable in Conrad matters, of how they came about; and their existence provides a working bibliography for anyone wishing to pursue the possible sources for Suspense beyond Conrad's reading in the British Museum, if, indeed, he read there. In a curious contradiction of his assertion that Conrad used two of the slips in the British Museum, one of which was the work by Pellet, Jean-Aubry states in the Appendix to Angoisse that at the beginning of 1921, when in Ajaccio, Conrad borrowed, among other works, Pellet's Napoleon a l'ile d'Elbe from the municipal library (12). (3)


(1) We are grateful to Ms. Maureen Hehrer, Public Services Assistant at the Beinecke, for supplying photocopies of the admissions ticket and the slips for ordering books. The reproduction reduces the admission ticket from its actual size of 3 1/2 inches by 2 1/4 inches.

(2) De ces volumes j'avais remis a Joseph Conrad les fiches toutes preparees pour lui permettre de perdre moins de temps a la bibliotheque lors de ses rares venues a Londres. Apres la mort de l'ecrivain, je les retrouvai toutes inutilisees, l'exception de deux; celle de l'ouvrage de Marcellin Pellet, Napoleon a l'ile d'Elbe et celle des Souvenirs et anecdotes d l'ile d'Elbe, par Pons (de l'Herault).

La preuve que Joseph Conrad avait, a la salle de lecture du Musee Britannique, examine ces deux ouvrages francais, me fut fournie par les notes d'un carnet qui y figurait, a sa mort, parmi les papiers de l'ecrivain, notes prises en francais et en anglais, et ou, parfois, les deux langues se melent.

(3) At the beginning of 1921, the novelist paid a fairly long visit to Corsica, in Ajaccio, not really so much to gather information as to absorb the general atmosphere, some of the local color of the Mediterranean setting. His work gave him no satisfaction, and he hardly used the visit except for some readings borrowed from the municipal library in Ajaccio, and of which we have been able to locate the list; these were Sainte-Helene, by baron Gourgaud; the Napoleon by Stendhal; the Souvenirs diplomatiques et militaires du general Thiard; Napoleon a l'ile d'Elbe, by Pellet; Napoleon roi de l'ile d'Elbe, by Gruyer (the only work on the subject that he had already read at Montpellier in 1907); Paris sous Napoleon, by Lanzac de Laborie; the Memoires of General Rapp; all of this within a space of three weeks.

Au debut de 1921, le romancier fit un assez long sejour en Corse, a Ajaccio, non pas a vrai dire pour se documenter, mais pour s'impregner de l'atmosphere general, de la couleur de ces parages mediterraneens. Son travail ne lui donna pas satisfaction et il n'employa guere ce sejour qu'a des lectures empruntees a la bibliotheque municipale d'Ajaccio et don nous avons pu retrouver la liste; ce furent: Sainte-Helene, du baron Gourgaud; le Napoleon de Stendhal; les Souvenirs diplomatiques et militaires du general Thiard; Napoleon a l'ile d'Elbe, de Pellet; Napoleon roi de l'ile d'Elbe, de Gruyer (seul ouvrage sur le sujet qu'il eut deja lu a Montpellier en 1907); Paris sous Napoleon, de Lanzac de Labore; les Memoires du general Rapp; tout cela en l'espace de trois semaines. (Jean-Aubry 12)


British Museum General Catalogue of Books to 1955. Compact Edition. New York: Readex Microprint Corporation, 1967.

Jean-Aubry, G. Angoisse, traduit de l'anglais avec une introduction et des notes par G. Jean-Aubry. Paris: Gallimard, 1956 [1944].

Moore, Gene M. "In Defense of Suspense," Conradiana 25 (1993), 99-114.


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Author:Michael, Marion C.; Daniell, Steven J.
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Sep 22, 2004
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