“She was a ship-child, a sea-girl if there ever was one”—Conrad’s Freya of the Seven Isles

Twenty years after Stevenson’s Falesá, Joseph Conrad published Freya of the Seven Isles, centered on the more civilized—or, better, more trafficked—islands of the East Indies. Its narrator is spurred by a letter from a friend still in the Eastern islands to reminisce about old Nelson, more properly called Nielsen but vaguely posing as an Englishman. Nelson set up a house and small tobacco farm in an isolated spot at least nominally controlled by the Dutch and once he was fairly settled he invited his daughter Freya to join him.

Freya is young, beautiful, blonde, and rather spectacular as a person and as a woman. Conrad foreshadows if not inspires Jane Campion in the narrator’s first encounter with Freya, before she even arrives:

As the first and most important preparation for that event the old fellow ordered from his Singapore agent a Steyn and Ebhart’s “upright grand.” I was then commanding a little steamer in the island trade, and it fell to my lot to take it out to him, so I know something of Freya’s “upright grand.” We landed the enormous packing-case wtih difficulty on a flat piece of rock amongst some bushes, nearly knocking the bottom out of one of my boats in the course of that nautical operation. Then, all my crew assisting, engineers and firemen included, by the exercise of much anxious ingenuity, and by means of rollers, levers, tackles, and inclined planes of soaped planks, toiling in the sun like ancient Egyptians at the building of a pyramid, we got it as far as the house and up on to the edge of the west verandah—which was the actual drawing-room of the bungalow. …It was certainly the heaviest movable object on that islet since the creation of the world. The volume of sound it gave out in that bungalow (which acted as a sounding-board) was really astonishing. It thundered sweetly right over the sea.

Bringing a feminizing influence to these islands has the appearance of civilization, with all its attendant difficulties and the impressiveness of masculine strength and human resourcefulness. But it’s the thunder—sweet as it may be—that Freya, as a woman, really brings.

The narrator becomes quite good friends with Freya and understands her in a way the other characters do not. Her suitor is Jasper Allen, a brash young man with a lovely little brig called the Bonito. He and Freya plan to run away together on it when she comes of age. But the Dutch Lieutenant Heemskirk, captain of a steamer, also has his eye on the young woman. Freya’s father, unaware of her feelings of love for Jasper and disdain for Heemskirk, is most concerned with avoiding entanglements with the Dutch authorities and so encourages the friendly visits of the steamer captain. Allen and Heemskirk clash quietly and fruitlessly until a final ineradicable break that Freya both causes and handles beautifully.

Heemskirk succeeds in dashing the hopes of the young couple by dashing Allen’s beautiful brig on a reef. Again, only the narrator can understand what’s really happened. Allen is a broken man not simply because his ship is lost, but because his whole future life and love was predicated on that ship. Freya doesn’t simply succumb to tropical illness; even years later the narrator must shout at her father, now back in London and an old and broken man himself, that she died for love.

The novella is an ode to Freya, lauded for being so “sensible” but in the end inscrutable to so many around her. Does Conrad get women right here? For me, in a surprising way perhaps, he does. Freya makes the island bungalow into a home; she maintains lines of communication and conversation between men; she loves genuinely but with a grounded core that the excitable Jasper Allen doesn’t have. She reigns over this domain of the seven isles but has a better idea than anyone how slight is her power to attain her goals. “Upon my word you are wonderful,” the narrator tells her, and she is never more so than when she stands on her verandah throwing kisses across the water to Jasper, then thundering out furious chords from her upright grand in Heemskirk’s unloveable wake.

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