EXCEPTIONALLY RARE CONRAD ITEM: THE FOUR-ACT SECRET AGENT, 1921—ONE OF ONLY 52 COPIES—WARMLY INSCRIBED BY JOSEPH CONRAD TO HIS FRIEND, FITZWILLIAM MUSEUM DIRECTOR SYDNEY COCKERELL, EXTRA-ILLUSTRATED WITH A PRINT OF A DRYPOINT ETCHING OF CONRAD BY MUIRHEAD BONE, A TELEGRAM FROM CONRAD'S WIFE INFORMING COCKERELL OF CONRAD'S DEATH, AND A TWO-PAGE AUTOGRAPH LETTER WRITTEN AND SIGNED BY CONRAD
CONRAD, Joseph. The Secret Agent. Drama in Four Acts. Canterbury: for the Author by H.J. Goulden, 1921. Quarto, contemporary half vellum original. Housed in a custom cloth clamshell box. $13,800.
Extremely rare first edition of Conrad’s stage adaptation of his 1907 novel, one of only 52 copies published, inscribed on the title page to Sydney Cockerell, Conrad's friend, the director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, and a member of the literati: "To Sydney C. Cockerell with friendly regards from Joseph Conrad," extra-illustrated with a photo-printed drypoint portrait of Conrad, three photographic prints of Conrad, a telegram from Conrad's wife to Cockerell informing him of Conrad's death, and a lengthy autograph letter to Cockerell written and signed by Conrad.
Conrad published The Secret Agent as a novel in 1907. He then adapted the material to the stage in this dramatic, four-act version. In 1922, "the play opened at the Ambassadors Theatre the night of November 3, was damned by the critics and public and closed November 11 after 11 performances" (Cagle). Conrad published only 52 copies of this four-act version. In 1923, the author would publish a signed limited edition of the play in three acts—as, judging from the program, it was apparently performed, with the "short [original] third act [combined] with the second as Act II, Scene 3… Conrad made a number of deletions in the dialogue as well as smaller word and punctuation changes. The stage directions also were somewhat reduced in the interest of readability" (Cagle A54b).
This copy has been inscribed to Sydney Cockerell, who first entered literary circles by sending seashells to John Ruskin, who collected them. Cockerell then met William Morris, for whom he would later act as a private secretary. Later, Cockerell became a secretary to Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, the English poet, as well as Thomas Hardy's executor. For nearly three decades, Cockerell served as Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, in Cambridge. He greatly improved the museum's collections of private-press books and manuscripts, prints, drawings, paintings, antiquities, and more. Cockerell was known for holding modern literary salons and had close relationships with a number of the period's literati. Conrad, however, was a particularly close friend, with whom he regularly corresponded. Notably, unlike many of Conrad's friends, Cockerell was accepting of Conrad's somewhat uncultured wife, Jessie, perhaps because of his own early background in the coal industry.
Additionally, this copy has been illustrated with four Conrad-related items. First, a photo-printed drypoint portrait entitled "Conrad Listening to Music" has been tipped in as a frontispiece. "Sir Muirhead Bone was a Scottish printmaker and watercolor artist noted for his depictions of architectural subjects, city views, landscapes, and his work as a war artist in both the First and Second World Wars" (The Met). Bone was also an occasional portraitist. The portrait of Joseph Conrad is one of three Bone executed—this one attempts to show Conrad engage in one of his favorite activities, listening to music. Conrad met Bone in 1923 on the Tuscania where they had connecting ship cabins. Bone's brother, David, was the ship's captain. In fact, since Conrad was a 16-year veteran of the British merchant marine and a former certified Master Mariner, David Bone instructed his officers to call Conrad "Captain." Muirhead Bone and Conrad became good friends during the voyage. On May 22, 1923, Conrad sat for his portrait in Great Barrington while listening to Brahms.
Three black-and-white photographic prints have been tipped onto the front pastedown. They depict Conrad with two Polish friends—young women with blond hair—at Bishopsbourne, his home, in 1924.
A telegram to Cockerell at "5 Shaftesbury Rd Cambridge" has also been tipped in. It reads "Our dear Conrad died suddenly yesterday morning. My mother and the boys are here. My love, Jessie." Jessie (neé George) was Conrad's wife of nearly 30 years. Jessie Conrad was a working-class Englishwoman. Many of Conrad's friends—who tended toward the rich and literary—found Jessie Conrad a poor choice of wife. However, scholars have regarded Jessie as essential to Conrad's literary output. Calm and level-headed, she was a good cook and homemaker. Her tolerance for frequent moves and frugalness distinguished her from many women in Conrad's circle. She was often perplexed by Conrad's behaviors but grew closer to him as she learned more about what he had endured in his early life. Ultimately, she was buried beside him when she died.
Finally, the tipped-in letter, written by Joseph Conrad on his own stationary, reads: "4. Ap. '23. My dear Cockerell, I have already answered the communication from the University of Cambridge. Thank you for your two letters. I doubt whether I will have time to see any museum or collections during my stay with the Doubledays in Oyster Bay—which will be short. I ask myself at times what I have to do 'dans cette galere' [in this mess]. But the dice are cast—(I mean the ticket is paid for) and there can be no drawing back. It is not that I do not appreciate the extreme kindness of Mr & Mrs Doubleday, or doubt the general friendliness of my reception—but I fear I may disappoint or even displease unwittingly of course. You who know me well by this time will understand my feelings. Jessie joins me in love to you both and in my thanks to dear Mrs Cockerell and yourself for the offered in hospitality. Affect'ly yours. Joseph Conrad." In 1913, "publisher Frank Nelson Doubleday invited Conrad to lunch, in London, and proposed purchasing his existing American copyrights and reprinting his books. Conrad welcomed the idea, but, fearing it wouldn't come off, asked Galsworthy if he could write to his friend Alfred A. Knopf, the Doubleday, Page employee who, in Conrad's words, had formulated 'this plan of "taking me up"'… Conrad became a best-selling Doubleday author… In 1923, at Doubleday's invitation, Conrad sailed to New York, where he was constantly pursued by reporters. (Time, which had débuted the previous month, put him on the cover)" (New Yorker). For Conrad, who suffered from anxiety and grew up with great instability, the entire affair would have felt unmanageable and unwanted.
Cagle A54a. See Wise, Conrad Library
, 43. Tiny owner notations to inscription and captioning of the photographs, possibly by Cockerell.
Toning to letter. A few tiny spots of foxing, light foxing to rear boards, mild toning to spine. Near-fine condition.