Dr. A. Conan Doyle and his Work
Report of an interview with Arthur Conan Doyle.
Dr. A. Conan Doyle and his Work
Dr. A. Conan Doyle, the novelist, whose public utterances on the platform are arousing so much interest, receives all flattering attentions with the greatest modesty. Although Dr. Doyle is the author of Micah Clarke, The Great Shadow, The White Company, and The Refugees, four of the acknowledged great novels of recent years, and though he is the creator of Sherlock Holmes, one of the most remarkable characters in modern fiction, Conan Doyle has no desire to be hero-worshiped. Any one who has met him can not help but be charmed with his simplicity. Consistent with all this, we have Dr. Doyle's own word to the effect that he will positively not write his impressions of America. An English magazine offered him a big price for his impressions, but the novelist refused.
Dr. Doyle is better known in America as the inventor of Sherlock Holmes, the famous detective, rather than as the author of historical novels. For this reason it seems that there is a widespread supposition that he is a son of practical detective. As a matter of fact, however, Conan Doyle says that he has not even the instincts of a detective, adding that he is not in the least degree either a sharp or an observant man himself. When he is confronted by a particularly difficult problem he simply tries to get inside the skin of a sharp man and see how he would solve it. The fact is, Conan Doyle does not wish to pose as an authority on detective service, though he has expressed his opinion that the finest detective service is done in Paris. If the actual detective service of Paris, however, is the best in practice, France has turned out no detective stories to compare with Doyle's own detective narratives.
It is obvious to anyone who has talked with Conan Doyle that he prefers to go on record as a novelist rather than as a writer of detective stories. His novels are works that required long and laborious research, and present the life of the times they depict in the most faithful and realistic manner. They fasten the interest from the beginning, and though realistic they can yet be classed among the most stirring of historical romances. In his lectures Dr. Doyle is giving us some idea of the labor of writing a historical romance, and yet it has been noticed that the public prefers to hear how he conceived and worked out the mysteries involved in his detective stories. When I asked Dr. Doyle to explain not only how he put his puzzles together, but how he manufactured them, he simply replied that he thought the stories themselves fully explained the mechanism.
Conan Doyle, in personal appearance, looks more like an athlete than a literary man. The stoop in his broad shoulders is the only outward sign of his calling. He has big, bright, blue eyes that are sympathetic and inspire confidence, and there is a ruddy glow of good health, of cheerfulness of mind, and of kindliness of heart in his face. He converses in a simple, off-hand way, which, however, never drops into absent-mindedness.
Dr. Doyle is thirty-five years old. In a casual meeting with him it is impossible to determine whether he hailed from England, Scotland, or Ireland, but he himself has informed to that he was born in Edinburgh, where he spent the first nine years of his life. At a time when most boys would have contented themselves with the fantastic masonry of alphabet blocks, he was building stories with his limited vocabulary. "My companions used to tease me for stories day and night," says he, "and it was only necessary to bribe me with a tart to set me going." He went to Stonyhurst College when a boy of nine, and remained there seven years. After a term of study in Germany he went to Edinburgh, and took the regular course in medicine. It did not cure him of his literary tendencies, however. There was no remedy for them, but he found relief in trying his hand at a short story. "I sent it to Chambers's Journal," he says, "and I suppose its return would have utterly discouraged me. But they kept it, and sent me a check for £3." He then secured the post of surgeon on a whaling ship bound from Peterhead to the Arctic seas, where he passed his majority, near N. lat. 81 degrees, and had some exciting adventures with the rifle and the harpoon. The head of a Polar bear killed by him on this voyage adorns his book-case at his present home in Norwood, just out of London. He qualified in medicine on his return and shipped again as surgeon bound for the west coast of Africa. He finally settled in Southsea, Wales, and began the practice of medicine with only £3 in his pocket. Meanwhile, he continued to write stories, but never earned more than £50 a year by their sale. Habakuk Jephson's Statement, a short story written while he was at Southsea, appeared in the Cornhill anonymously, according to the law of that distinguished periodical, and was credited to Robert Louis Stevenson. Then he conceived the character of Holmes, whose adventures were to be harmonized with a correct science of deduction. The Study in Scarlet was produced, and had a very large sale.
"I had entertained the notion for a long time," he said to an interviewer, "that a historical novel could be made successful without the conventional plot, but simply through the interest that could be created in a string of characteristic scenes and incidents. Micah Clarke was written agreeably with this plan. Then I went back to Holmes again, and wrote The Sign of Four. The White Company followed, presenting a picture of what to me is the most interesting period of English history."
While this work was progressing, the doctor came to London, where he made a special study of eye surgery, intending to limit his practice to the treatment of that organ. But orders began to pour in upon him for stories, and it soon became evident that he would have to shift out of his practice, and he did. The Refugees followed, and when he came to London to give himself wholly to a new profession, his fame had gone before him and had crossed the sea, and was on the tongues of men in the remotest outposts of Britannia. Since then, his stories have become popular in America, and in this, his first visit to us, he finds that his name is by no means a strange one to the majority.