H. G. Wells on Joseph Conrad

At first he impressed me, as he impressed Henry James, as the strangest of creatures. He was rather short and round-shouldered with his head as it were shrunken into his body. He had a dark retreating face with a very carefully trimmed and pointed beard, a trouble-wrinkled forehead and very troubled dark eyes, and the gestures of his hands and arms were from the shoulders and very Oriental indeed. He reminded people of . . . Svengali and, in the nautical trimness of his costume, of . . . Captain Kettle. He spoke English strangely. Not badly altogether; he would supplement his vocabulary—especially if he were discussing cultural or political matters—with French words; but with certain oddities. . . . He had formed the wrong sound impressions of many familiar words; he had for example acquired an incurable tendency to pronounce the last “e” in these and those . . . He was often at a loss for phrases. . . . Wringing his hands and wrinkling his forehead [he would ask,] “What is all this about Jane Austen? What is there in her? What is it all about? . .

He had set himself up to be a great writer, an artist in words, and to achieve all the recognition and distinction that he imagined should go with that ambition, he had gone literary with a singleness and intensity of purpose that made the kindred concentration of Henry James seem lax and large and pale. . . .

When Conrad first met Shaw in my house, Shaw talked with his customary freedoms. “You know, my dear fellow, your books won’t do'—for some Shavian reason I have forgotten—and so forth.

I went out of the room and suddenly found Conrad on my heels, swift and white faced. “Does that man want to insult me?” he demanded.

The provocation to say “Yes” and assist at the subsequent duel was very great, but I overcame it. “It’s humour,” I said, and took Conrad out into the garden to cool. One could always baffle Conrad by saying “humour.” It was one of our damned English tricks he had never learnt to tackle.