Now and then I stumble across some article or essay whose author claims to have pinpointed the real life Lord Jim – and every time I can’t help wondering: does it really matter? What changes, story-wise, whether Jim was based on Rajah Brooke, Stephen Crane or a combination of the two?
And yes – in Patusan Jim builds a de facto kingdom after the manner of Sarawak, only smaller and more tragic. And Marlow’s half protective and half impatient affection towards Jim might mirror Conrad’s own attitude towards the younger and tormented Crane. But then there are James Lingard, another unofficial English rajah who always wore white and went by Tuan Jim, and Augustine Podmore Williams, a merchant navy officer who wrecked his career jumping from a ship full of pilgrims that didn’t sink after all. And it only takes to read up the relevant page on Wikipedia to find out that Conrad himself decided to become a sailor when he was sixteen, on the very sound basis of a few adventure stories….
All of it very interesting – until someone claims that there is the real Jim. Which is, if you ask me, utter nonsense. Brooke may have provided Patusan, and Williams’s woes certainly served as inspiration for the Patna incident – especially at the beginning, when Conrad only meant to write a short story, and surely Lingard, Crane and Conrad himself enter into the composition of Jim. But the fact remains that the real Jim is the man in the novel, the one made of ink and paper, the one who is so human in his fears, thoughts and actions, and yet never ages.
There is a passage in an early draft, where Marlow describes Jim when he visits him in Patusan, and finds him a little older, a little heavier, a little less immaculately elegant… But later Conrad deleted this description, and to the reader Jim, after years of sufferings and toiling in a tropical climate, must appear still impossibly young. To my mind, this is the author telling us that the real Jim is not to be found in the annals of the Merchant Navy or the Encyclopedia Britannica. He is a literary character, an artistic creation, a symbol – complex and stylized at the same time.
So Crane, Williams, Lingard, Brooke, Conrad… none of them is Jim, while Jim is a bit of them all – but it doesn’t, it shouldn’t really matter. What matters is what Conrad made out of them all. The man and the story he wrote – far more true than they are real. But I suppose it must be like that question living writers get asked all the time: How much of yourself did you put in your novel/story/play? Not content with craving stories, we must also try to find out how much truth – or reality – there is in them.