Saturday, June 8, 2019

The True Story of Lord Jim - Petronella Elphinstone

Turnstile One (1948), edited by V S Pritchett is an anthology of contributions to the New Statesman and Nation, mostly from 1931 onwards. It contains, under ‘Essays and Reviews’, a piece entitled ‘Tuan Jim’ by Petronella Elphinstone, from 1932.

This is an unusual piece of Conradiana. The five page sketch is an alternative version of Lord Jim (1900) in which the title character did not, as in the original story, abandon a ship full of pilgrims, but instead steered it safely into port, won praise for his coolness, continued his career in the merchant navy, and eventually settled on shore to run a ship’s chandler’s. It concludes, ‘This is the true story of Tuan Jim, as told me by himself.’ It is very nicely done.

The mystery is, who was the author? There is no Petronella Elphinstone in the catalogues of the major public libraries, so she probably never published a book. Her surname is that of an eminent line of Scottish nobles: but she does not seem to appear in the extensive peerage records for that house.

Her name, however, does occur in an unexpected context. A poem by Guy Davenport, ‘The Resurrection in Cookham Churchyard’, on Stanley Spencer’s celebrated painting of that scene (1924-7), lists in resonant phrases some of the supposed figures emerging from their graves. It includes the beautiful lines: ‘In pleated light and diamond bone/Comes Petronella Elphinstone.’

Most of the other characters in Davenport’s poem are well-known: they include the Tudor judge Sir Edward Coke; Karl Marx; John Ruskin; and Edward Lear. But no annotator, to my knowledge, is able to explain where he got the name of Petronella Elphinstone. Spencer’s painting does include portraits of some friends and contemporaries, and possibly Elphinstone was one of these. Or perhaps Davenport had read the New Statesman piece or some similar literary work and decided to make use of the author’s memorable name in his poem.

I have a feeling I am missing something obvious either about the author or her enjoyable piece of Conradiana. Any information or speculation will be welcome.



  1. I've been sporadically reading *Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner* of late. Unfortunately, the only mention of Petronella E., in a Davenport letter of October 1971, gives no indication of where he learned of her: "Funny names may be a guarantee of quality in a female. Petronella Elphinstone, for example." His "Resurrection in Cookham Churchyard" is discussed at various points, but nothing specifically about P. E.

    1. Thank you, that's an interesting, if tantalising, reference. Mark

  2. Funny, I reviewed the Guy Davenport-Hugh Kenner letters last fall for my regular weekly column in The Washington Post but was recently asked to write a longer piece about this two-volume work for a magazine, so I've begun reading around in my Guy Davenport books. I'll keep my eye out for Petronella Elphinstone.
    Of course, as Mark suggests, it's possible that Guy simply liked the name. I recently copied the name Sir Pertinax Macsycophant into my commonplace book for just that reason. He's a character in the play "The Man of the World," by Charles Macklin.-md

  3. Apropos of nowt, when I was a comely lad I knew a grounds keeper at our local playing fields in Renfrew, 'cradle of the Stuarts'. His Christian name was Elphinstone and his surname equally exotic. All us chaps had to body swerve near him as he had a worrying penchant for hugging us close. Perhaps he was part of the decadent Scottish nobility...