As France entered strictly regulated ‘confinement‘ in mid-March I was finishing a book chapter about spaces of reading (and writing) on the purpose-built fast passenger clipper the Torrens. With her unusually long poop deck she carried only about 50 first and second class cabin passengers on the London-Port Adelaide run each year. Outbound she sailed non-stop via the South Atlantic and the ‘roaring forties’, passing the Crozet and Kerguelen Islands, and homebound via Cape Leeuwin (Western Australia) into the Indian Ocean, calling at Cape Town and St. Helena. She also had a famous literary first officer: the novelist, Joseph Conrad.
Normally here in South Western France I have in clear weather a visual horizon south to the central Pyrenean peaks and borderlands, a landscape written about in great detail by Martyn Lyons. Confined within the legally permitted radius of 1 km yet always gazing towards the wide southern horizon under an (unusually) silent sky, I felt an extraordinary resonance with the passengers and crew of the Torrens. Joseph Conrad, her first officer from 1891-92 and again in 1892-3 wrote in his essays that ‘the silence of the universe lay very close to the sailing ship with her freight of lives from which the daily stresses and anxieties had been removed as if the circle of the horizon had been a magic ring laid on the sea’. When not on watch, Conrad not only wrote much of his first novel, Almayer’s Folly (1895), but he also read voraciously, as his friend Ford Madox Ford later remembered; Conrad himself recorded little about his maritime reading. But during the Torrens’ 26 voyages, and in nine extant testimonies, many passengers and crew recorded their reading practices during the monotonous empty days of those 3-5 month voyages. Others undertook a round-trip, desperately or optimistically to cure pulmonary tuberculosis, which claimed the lives of some on board.
Thomas Hamilton, a 30-year-old second class passenger headed for New Zealand, left many records of where he read, always highly weather dependent. In the ‘roaring forties’ on 7 February 1892, with the main deck inaccessible because of high seas, he wrote: ‘I used my bunk as a lounge and lay reading for most of the day’ and at times he read all night, though on 13 January he had been able to read on deck by moonlight. Yet to embark on a successful writing career, the young law graduate John Galsworthy, travelling from Adelaide to Cape Town in 1893 and bound for the Cape Province hinterland, read for personal fulfilment, for local knowledge, and for entertainment. He wrote to his sister: ‘I have finished reading Monte Cristo—-6 vols., in French—and have read The Story of an African Farm again and like it awfully; it is crammed full of thought, and most pathetic in parts’. He also read The Seamy Side by Walter Besant and James Rice, and Foul Play by Charles Reade and Dion Boucicault, judging ‘both good of their kind’. Leonard Garbett, a literate and book-hungry young apprentice on his second outbound voyage, noted on 2 January 1898 that he had ‘finished reading Jacob Faithful’ by Marryat. On his return voyage crossing the Indian Ocean at warmer latitudes, he read Mrs Humphry Ward’s recently published novelSir George Tressady (1896).
Some of the passengers on the Torrens clearly read for their personal wellbeing. On Christmas morning 1891, Thomas Hamilton even provided some palliative bibliotherapy to another passenger when he ‘spent some time […] reading to Mr. Mclean who has been confined to his bunk ever since we left Plymouth…he is very weak and nervous […] and gets excited when he spits up blood’. Leonard Garbett did the same on 3 January 1899 in the southern Atlantic, he read aloud to ‘Todd’, another terminally ill passenger: ‘felt very bad today, he thought he was going to die so he sent for me and I sat and read to him’, Garbett noted.
Rather than engaging in immersive reading, passengers on the Torrens might read, alone or in groups, to distract and calm themselves, by recalling ‘Home’ and stability in an uncomfortable, unpredictable and potentially dangerous environment, and a book like The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens was ideal in such circumstances. Hamilton Vey, a 44 year old Liverpool coffee merchant travelling to Adelaide and back on the Torrens for health reasons wrote: ‘The saloon in the evenings is like a Turkish Bath, and the moisture can be smelt and almost seen. Pickwick is being read aloud by three of us in turn to an audience of six or so. What a mine of fun and humour it is, and how one can wade through all the adventures of Mr. P. again and again and still find it interesting.’
My mobility similarly restricted by a pandemic quarantine more than 120 years later, I have been sitting on my own terrestrial deck, looking out over a long horizon and an empty sky. I have been reading Ford Madox Ford’s trilogy The Fifth Queen and have re-read five John le Carré novels, noting their often subtle echoes of Conrad. Under a lime and a fig tree in my garden, I have savoured Charmian Clift’s almost forgotten 1950s Greek island memoir, Peel me a Lotus. This for me, is reading for wellbeing during the pandemic.
Helen Chambers is an Honorary Associate in English at The Open University. Her book Conrad’s Reading: Space, Time, Networks was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2018.