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Evelina's Choice: Conrad in Vologda.


Less than a year before the Polish rising of 1863, Evelina and Apollo Korzeniowski were convicted of conspiring against the Russian authorities. On May 8, 1862, escorted by two soldiers, they set out towards Vologda, the place determined for their Russian exile. There, Apollo wrote, "The wind from the White Sea, held up by nothing, brings constant news of polar bears. The population is a nightmare: disease-ridden corpses" (Baines 28). In winter, the temperature can fall as low as minus forty degrees centigrade.

Evelina and Apollo brought with them their only child, the four-year-old Conrad. The prospects for his survival were slim. But for a chance encounter on the way, he would have died of pneumonia even before reaching Vologda. Did Conrad have to share his parents' exile? Were other options open to them?

The relevant Russian penal law (1) had been proclaimed in 1846 by Tsar Nicholas I and remained in force until 1903. Rule 31 states that a wife may voluntarily follow her husband into exile or request a divorce; however, Evelina was convicted in her own right. The second paragraph deals with children born or conceived before the verdict: if they do not go with the condemned to the place of exile, or if they leave it later, then parental rights over them are terminated. In that case a guardian is appointed officially. Inheritance after the decease of the condemned is preserved, as Rule 46 states that the loss of rights and privileges of the condemned does not extend to his wife, or children born or conceived before the verdict, or their descendants.

It seems likely that the drastic rule on terminating parental rights, rather than being merely punitive, aimed at populating remote regions of Russia. In practice, family members were not excluded from guardianship of children left behind. For example: "Maria Kovalevskaya, daughter of the landowner Vorontsov, was sentenced in 1879 to 13 years of katorga followed by lifelong exile in Siberia. Her husband was sent to Minusinsk, while their young daughter Galya remained in Kiev in the care of Kovalevskaya's sister" (Pasko). After Conrad was orphaned in 1869, two years after Apollo was allowed to return to Poland, his maternal grandmother was appointed his guardian.

To keep Conrad safe, Evelina and Apollo would have had to give up their parental rights over him. As a guardian there might have been appointed a family member or a stranger. A present-day perspective on the risk of the latter case may be gained by recalling the Kindertransports of Jewish children to Britain in 1938-39, when thousands of parents gave up their children to unknown carers in a foreign country. Even some eighty years earlier in Poland, the sacrifice of parental rights might not have been regarded as too high a price for a child's best chance of survival. Conrad's parents' choice therefore merits a deeper examination.


If a guardian for Conrad was to be appointed by Russian authorities, one of his maternal family members would probably would have been selected, as that family was undoubtedly known to the omnipresent tsarist secret police as politically moderate and opposed to agitation towards an uprising. To Apollo and Evelina, that choice would have meant giving up their parental rights to the very family that had opposed and long delayed their marriage because they judged Apollo to be an ineligible, incompetent fantast. Conrad's parents would thus surrender the only fruit of their union to a family that did not consent to their marriage until Evelina's health was undermined by years of pining for Apollo.

If such personal resentments did not justify hazarding Conrad's survival, there were also nobler considerations. Apollo and Evelina knew well that her sober, moderate family would not bring up Conrad in the fervent patriotism of his parents. Apollo's poem for Conrad's christening includes:
   If I should be defiled
   By the enemy's favours--
   Renounce your renegade father [...]
   Baby son, tell yourself
   You are without land, without love,
   Without country, without people,
   While Poland--your Mother is in her grave. (Najder 33)

The mature Conrad recalled the shade of his father in Nostromo: "A man haunted by a fixed idea is insane. He is dangerous even if the idea is an idea of justice; for may he not bring the heaven pitilessly upon a loved head?" (379) With Evelina apparently overcoming maternal protective instincts, both parents brought down Russian exile on the four-year-old's head.

The hardships of Vologda were known in Poland from earlier exiles, especially from the thousands of Polish soldiers deported after the failure of the 1830 insurrection. The choice made for Conrad by his parents would have probably been the subject of intense debates and controversies. Evelina's family was likely to have done their utmost to keep Conrad in Poland, under their or any other guardianship. All that likely drama appears to have been deleted from recollections and memoirs of contemporaries, notably from the extensive memoir of Evelina's brother, Thaddeus Bobrowski. We can only guess why. Inclusion would have to have been prefaced by an account of the available options outlined above, which might have led readers to weigh up the wisdom of Conrad's parents' choice. Deletion has left a large gap in subsequent Conrad studies, but it has facilitated the presentation of Evelina and Apollo to posterity in the simplest patriotic terms. Thus Evelina, according to Thaddeus, "always succeeded in fulfilling the role imposed by the duties of a wife, a mother and citizen, sharing her husband's exile and worthily representing the ideal of Polish womanhood. She thus gained the respect and veneration of her own people and of others" (Baines 19). The mature Conrad did not venture to go deeper than Thaddeus: in chapter 2 of his A Personal Record he merely repeats his uncle's eulogy in conversational terms.


Conrad survived Russian exile, but Evelina did not. She died of consumption, aggravated by profound despair "slowly eating like rust into her constitution," wrote Apollo (Najder 92). Many thousands of Polish prisoners were arriving at that time in Russian exile, bringing news of the defeat of the 1863 rising in which Evelina and Apollo invested all their hopes, efforts, and sacrifices. All the sober warnings of Evelina's family came true.

Inevitably, Conrad assisted his impractical father in nursing Evelina, changing sheets and nightwear drenched in her sweat and blood. Helping to move his mother's wasting but still feminine body, in the intimacy of the confined space necessary to conserve warmth in the brutal climate, would have had a profound effect on the seven-year-old boy. Respectable circles in mid-nineteenth century were prudish. Only a few years earlier, one glimpse by the four-year-old Freud of his mother's nakedness became an important element in his self-analysis (Freud 287). Evelina's physical and emotional suffering would have introduced Conrad at close range to extremes of adult anguish. The two mothers, Evelina approaching her grave and Poland, "Your Mother in her grave" of Apollo's poem, may have become associated or even fused unconsciously in Conrad's psyche by their joint agony. Apollo wrote to Casimir Kaszewski in February 1865, "I cannot read her eyes. Only sometimes, a stronger pressure of her hand in mine, or Conrad's, testifies to her courage" (Baines 31). That pressure would have left an indelible imprint, as in Keats:
   This living hand, now warm and capable
   Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
   And in the icy silence of the tomb
   So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
   [...] see here it is--I hold it towards you.

Evelina died two months later, living on to haunt Conrad's days and dreaming nights.

When the five-year-old Conrad wrote to his beloved maternal grandmother, he signed himself with supreme confidence: "Pole, Catholic, nobleman" (Baines 28). In 1914 he said to Marian Dabrowski, "I can't think of Poland often. It feels bad, bitter, painful. It would make life unbearable" (Najder 201). Can we attempt to clarify Conrad's transition between these two statements? Such an attempt is possible in established psychoanalytical terms. In 1917 Freud published a paper entitled "Mourning and Melancholia" (Gay 584) in which he contrasted those two related but distinct depressive states. In melancholia the ego, sorrowing severely for a lost object, incorporates that object into itself; that extension of the ego may be permanent, in contrast to transient mourning. The ego is then assailed by the superego, as "the loss of love object is an excellent opportunity for the ambivalence in love-relationships to make itself effective" (Gay 587). It is this ambivalence that can bring about the harsh, even sadistic treatment of the ego by the superego, resulting in the despair which is a characteristic of severe depression.

We may speculate that Conrad's lost and then internalized maternal love-objects--Evelina and Mother Poland--would have provoked particularly harsh attacks of the superego, as Conrad consciously distanced himself from his mother country and his mother tongue throughout his creative life; hence his recurrent nervous breakdowns and intermittent despair glimpsed in his words to Dabrowski.

What other effects could be expected from that unceasing internal conflict?

The complex structure of Conrad's mature ego, with its special vulnerability resulting in exceptional suffering, may have been needed to generate the force driving his artistic talent. Freud noted that an urge for communication is a characteristic of melancholia.

Indeed, how would Conrad have developed if his parents had left him in Poland? He would have been spared the brutal traumas he experienced in exile. He would have grown up in comfort amongst his loving Bobrowski family, or at least supported generously by them: a Polish boy growing up to a Polish life.

It is likely that English literature is indebted to Evelina's choice.


(1.) Available digitized from Podlaske Library: d=4524&from=&dirids=1

(2.) I am grateful to Professor Mecislav Borak for this crucial information and to Professor Robert Hampson for valuable discussions.


Baines, Jocelyn. Joseph Conrad. Penguin Books, 1971.

Conrad, Joseph. Nostromo. Dent's Uniform Edition, 1923.

Freud, Sigmund. Briefe an Wilhelm Fliess. Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer, 1986.

Gay, Peter. The Freud Reader. Penguin Books, 1995.

Keats, John. "To Fanny Brawne." The Complete Poetry and Prose of John Keats, Random House, 1951.

Najder, Zdzislaw. Conrad Under Familial Eyes. Translated by Halina Carroll-Najder, Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Pasko, Grigori. "Land of Exiles and Convicts." Robert Amsterdam, Amsterdam & Partners, 2007.


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Author:Bass, Ludvik
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:4EXPO
Date:Dec 22, 2015
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