On this day in 1894, Joseph Conrad returns to London to settle down after a long career at sea. There, he begins rewriting a story he had been working on during his travels, which becomes his first novel, Almayer’s Folly.
Conrad was born in Poland, as Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, the son of a Polish poet and patriot. Conrad’s father was arrested in 1861 for political activism and exiled to northern Russia. His wife and toddler son joined him. Both parents died of tuberculosis when Joseph was about 12. An uncle raised Joseph, until the boy set out at age 17 for Marseilles, France, where he joined the merchant marine and sailed to the West Indies. Conrad’s many harrowing adventures at sea inspired much of his work.
In 1878, when Conrad was 21, he traveled to England as a deck hand on a British freighter. He learned English during six voyages on a small British trade boat, then spent 16 years with the British merchant navy. He had numerous adventures around the world and got his first command in 1888. The following year, he commanded a Congo River steamboat for four months, which set the stage for his well-known story Heart of Darkness (1902).
Almayer’s Folly was published in 1895. Conrad’s work progressively grew from hearty sea adventure tales to sophisticated and pessimistic explorations of morals, personal choices, and character. His best-known works, including Lord Jim, Nostromo and The Secret Agent, were published between 1900 and 1911, but he did not become financially secure from his fiction until late in his career. He died in 1924.