Facts about Fiction (1894)

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

On friday 12 october 1894, Arthur Conan Doyle gave a lecture entitled "Facts About Fiction", for the Twentieth Century Club held at the residence of H. N. Higinbotham, No. 2838 Michigan avenue, Chicago, USA. There were 300 members and friends of the club.


  • President
    • George E. Adams
  • Attendees
    • Mr. and Mrs. Edwin Walker
    • the Misses Kimball
    • Mr. and Mrs. Marvin Hughitt
    • Miss Harriet Hosmer
    • Mr. and Mrs. S. E. Gross
    • Mr. and Mrs. J. H. Robinson
    • Mrs. Margaret Robinson
    • Miss Laura Robinson
    • Mr. and Mrs. B. W. Kendall
    • the Rev. Dr. and Mrs. J. H. Barrows
    • the Rev. Dr. and Mrs. Frank M. Bristol
    • Mr. D. A. Kimball
    • Miss Leonice W. Kimball
    • Mr. and Mrs. M. A. Allen
    • Judge and Mrs. John Barton Payne
    • Mr. and Mrs. J. H. Long
    • the Misses Drake
    • John B. Drake Jr.
    • Joseph Fair
    • Franklin H. Head
    • Miss Alice Fair
    • Mr. and Mrs. Will Derby
    • Miss Florence Haywood
    • Mr. and Mrs. John J. Mitchell
    • the Misses Mitchell
    • Mr. and Mrs. Eugene Field
    • Mrs. Mary Keyes Babcock
    • Mr. and Mrs. George Seaverns Jr.
    • Mr. William A. Fuller
    • the Misses Gaylord
    • Miss Mary Fuller
    • Miss Risser
    • Mr. Beauclerk
    • Charles King
    • Orville Babcock
    • Mr. and Mrs. Henry Wade Rogers
    • Mr. and Mrs. J. W. Scott
    • Mr. and Mrs. George E. Adams
    • Mr. and Mrs. Charles L. Allen
    • Mr. and Mrs. Sidney F. Andrews
    • Miss Anne Baldwin
    • Mr. and Mrs. Elwyn A. Barron
    • Mr. and Mrs. A. C. Bartlett
    • Mr. and Mrs. Frederick W. Becker
    • Louis J. Block
    • Mrs. Harriet C. Brainard
    • Mr. and Mrs. Emerson H. Brush
    • Mr. and Mrs. Le Grand Burton
    • Mrs. Emma Williams Case
    • Mr. and Mrs. Lewis L. Coburn
    • Judge and Mrs. L. C. Collins Jr.
    • Mr. and Mrs. Harland W. Cooley
    • Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Dent
    • Mr. and Mrs. Dr. George F. Fiske
    • Mr. and Mrs. Henry S. Fitch
    • Miss Julia Fitch
    • Miss Jessie Gray
    • Charles D. Hamill
    • Adrian C. Honoré
    • Miss Florence Hutchinson
    • Fernando Jones
    • Mr. and Mrs. Elbridge G. Keith
    • Mr. and Mrs. Wallace F. Kirke
    • Mrs James McKindley
    • Mr. and Mrs. Dr. John McKinlock
    • Robert R. Manners
    • Mrs. O. H. Matz
    • Mr. and Mrs. Clifford Mitchell
    • Mr. and Mrs. William H. Moore
    • William Morton Payne
    • Mr. and Mrs. Charles F. Raymond
    • Mr. and Mrs. Earl H. Reed
    • Mr. and Mrs. E. B. Sherman
    • Dr. Sarah Hackett Stevenson
    • Dr. C. H. Vilas
    • H. H. Walker
    • Mrs. Lewis H. Watson
    • Arthur Wheeler
    • Mr. and Mrs. John Wilkinson
    • Mrs. H. M. Wilmarth
    • Miss Anna Wilmarth
    • Miller Winterbotham

Conan Doyle lecture

"It is in the literature of a great country that there lies the most permanent of its glories. All else may pass away. Nations have been rich and have become poor, have founded empires and have lost them, but in these days a national literature cannot be lost. That is an asset upon which one can always count. Come what may it still remains like a signet ring upon a poor man's finger to tell of past greatness.

"There have been many wails in the critical press about the decay of literature. We must remember, however, that in every age critics have been inclined to take a gloomy view of the era in which they have lived. Each generation lives in the shadow of that which preceded it. It is not a peculiarity of the literary critic, but it is a trait of general human nature that the thing which is far off should seem superior to that which is near.

"In surveying the fiction of the day it is impossible to deny that we have no living writer who can be said to occupy anything approaching the position which was held by Dickens or by Thackeray in the last generation. In Thomas Hardy and in George Meredith we have two novelists of remarkable power, but neither of them has been able to attain the hold of the public which would entitle him to rank in popular estimation with his great predecessors. And yet if name for name writers might compare unfavorably now with the men and women who threw a luster upon the first half of the Victorian era, it is none the less a fact, I think, that fiction, as an art, has improved during that time, that writers have a more clear conception of the laws which govern it, and if very great writers are wanting the average remains as high as ever.

Cosmopolitan in Its Character.

"The worldwide expansion of the English-speaking races has, I think, had a marked effect upon British literature in general by rendering it less insular and broadening the scope of its interests. It is remarkable how cosmopolitan our literature has become, and that in a comparatively short time, with a tendency to become more accentuated from year to year. There was a time when, not so long ago, British literature meant practically the literature of London. It has so outgrown the mother country that we import as much as we export. We have only to compare it in fiction with the fiction of France or of Germany to see how worldwide is its character. The most brilliant philosophical romance of recent years was written in the South African Veldt, reproducing something of the glamour and sadness which hangs over its place of origin. The greatest master of the short tale has been furnished to us by India. Stevenson is giving us a literature of the South Seas full of the beat of the waves and the rustle of the palm leaves. Rider Haggard has shown us the romance which always hangs over the frontier line of civilization, the debatable land where the white pioneer is impinging on the black. Australia and Canada have not bean silent. The one has given us Ralph Bolderwood and Hornung, the other Gilbert Parker and Robert Barr. Across all the seas we have Ango-Celtic voices telling of their trials and their pleasures, their joys and their sorrows. With these branches still sprouting from the sound old mother stem, it is, I think, permissible to hope that the future of our literature may be not less but more brilliant than the past.

"Hardy and Meredith have been before the public too long to come fairly within the scope of these remarks. Meredith, I think, on account of his subtle intellect, his originality of phrase, and his sympathy with woman will always have a niche of his own in our literature. The danger is that his obscurity may impair the permanent value of his work, for we cannot help feeling that that which we ourselves find difficult to understand, although we live in the very days of which he talks, will present a more formidable problem to our descendants who live under different surroundings. Yet with every deduction his very best still remains the very best we have. Thomas Hardy, again, on account of his bold treatment of life, his pure English and his knowledge of and sympathy with nature both in its largest and in its smallest manifestations, is worthy of rank with the highest.

"If the last generation of novelists were all largely under the influence of Dickens, it is no less true that those who are now rising are strongly tinged with Robert Louis Stevenson. Stevenson is one of the very few English writers who has been successful both in the book and in the short story. He can claim to have mastered the whole gamut of fiction. While both his short and long stories are good, his short ones are the more characteristic and the more certain to retain their position in English literature. With some choice authors as with some rare vintages a sip gives the real flavor better than a draught. It is eminently so with Stevenson. His novels all possess conspicuous virtues, but they have usually some flaw, some drawback, which may weaken their permanent value. In the best of the tales the virtues are as conspicuous as ever, but the vices have disappeared. In all Stevenson's novels woman plays a subordinate part. His work and that of his school marks the reaction against the abuse of love in fiction — a reaction which certainly goes too far when it shuts out the most picturesque half of humanity. But the fact is that this one phase of life, ending in the orthodox marriage, has been so hackneyed and worn to shreds in our fiction that it is not to be wondered at that there should be a tendency to swing to the other extreme, and to give love less than its fair share in the affairs of men. In British fiction nine books out of ten have held up love and marriage as the be-all and the end-all of life. Yet we know in actual practice this is not so. [Laughter.] In the career of the average man his marriage is the most momentous incident, but only one out of several. He is swayed by many strong emotions, his business, his ambitions, his friendships, his struggles with recurrent difficulties and dangers which tax a man's wisdom and his courage.

Love Themes Are Overdone.

Love will often play a subordinate part in his life. Many luckless ones may go through the world and never love at all. It jars upon truth then to have it continually held up as the predominating, all-important fact in life, and there is not an unnatural tendency to avoid a source of interest which has been so misused and overdone. [Applause.]

"Stevenson, like one of his characters, has an excellent gift of silence. He invariably sticks to his story, and is not to be diverted off to discourse on views of life or theories of the universe. A story-teller's business is to tell his story. [Applause.] If he wishes to air his views upon other matters he can embody them in small independent essays as Stevenson has done. Where a character gives vent to opinions which throw a light upon his own individuality that is another matter, but it is an offense, I think, against the first rules of story-telling that an author should stop the action of his story in order to give his views, however brilliant they might be, upon things in general. [Applause.] We have never had in English letters a man who had so delicate a sense of the meaning of words as Stevenson. To anyone who has any perception of style it is a continuous joy to find the unerring way in which he lays his pen to the one word which is suited to his purpose. His phrases come upon us with a pleasant sense of novelty, and yet express the meaning with admirable conciseness. And then, what a power he has of saying in the briefest space just those few words which stamp the impression upon the reader's mind.

Praise for Olive Schreiner.

"But I will pass on to speak of one who strikes a deeper note than Stevenson, and yet is couched in a style which is hardly inferior to his own. I allude to Miss Olive Schreiner in "The Story of an African Farm." Now, if this book were quite new to you, and of course it isn't, but if it were and you were asked to deduce from it what manner of person the writer was, would you not say that it was some man of science, some deep thinker who was endeavoring to reconcile his large material knowledge with his high spiritual aspirations? And yet it was really written by a young unmarried girl, living in mental isolation in a lonely African farm-house. It is one of the greatest books, in my opinion, that has ever at any time been written by a woman. If ever a writer used her heart for an ink pot it is this one. The passionate energy of it, the condensed strength, the cry of pain which rings in every chapter, all speak so plainly of a great and noble nature which finds itself isolated, which is driven in upon itself, which has too much spirituality to be able to pass the great problems of the universe and which grapples them alone, single-handed, without flinching or illusions. The thoughts and emotions which under happier circumstances might have been confided to sympathetic friends have been poured straight from her weary soul to her manuscript. In her loneliness she has broken through that narrow circle and taken the world into her confidence.

"In the accurate drawing of our homely peasant folk of the last generation Mr. Hardy has, of course, taken the lead. But within the last few years Scotland has produced, in Mr. J. M. Barrie, a writer who has so keen an insight into the character of her people, so sympathetic a tone in drawing their joys and their sorrows, that I believe that some of his work will be handed down in Scotland with a pride of national possession. It has the eternal value which lies in truth. There is a magnificent simplicity about his style, but it is the simplicity which is the outcome of the highest art.

"Another writer whom it would be impossible to overlook in any sketch, however slight, of the younger influences in British fiction is Mr. Quilles Couch, or 'Q' as he prefers to call himself upon the title page of the book. He is the product of the Cornish coast and of an Oxford college, with his associations oscillating between the wild cliffs of Fower and the scholarly charm of the old university. Something of these two influences may be seen in his style, varying from delicate finish of some of his shorter stories to the large dashing effects of his books of adventure. In the short story 'Q' has few equals, and his 'Noughts and Crosses' is one of the most brilliant collections of this sort which I can name.

Dash of Rudyard Kipling.

"And now I come to a writer who is more difficult to place than any of those of whom I have already spoken, because he is less consistent and because if his virtues are more brilliant his flaws are also more apparent. I mean Mr. Rudyard Kipling. It is easy in cold blood to speak about those flaws, but who can stop to criticise when he is reading the tales themselves? One is carried off one's feet by the rush and go of them. His enthusiasm, his full-blooded virility, his sympathy with all that is most dear to our nature, with horses, with ships, with outdoor life, and gallant deeds, these are the things which win our hearts. His only novel, 'The Light That Failed,' was, I think, in spite of many brilliant passages, less satisfactory as a work of art than his short stories. He has been and is a political force to a greater extent than any other writer of fiction. So much, ladies and gentlemen, for our younger writers of fiction. And you must not look upon fiction as an evil thing nor as a mere luxury and pastime either. It is one of the most vital things in the world. It is what the people mainly read, and what they read they think and what they think they do. It molds the characters and the actions of men, and when one thinks what a single novel could do, of the thousands of weary hours that it has lightened, of the sad-hearted whom it has taken from their troubles of the sick men who have been cheered by it, of the spent business-men whose thoughts have been taken into other channels, it is, I think, doubtful whether any other form of human work can confer so much pleasure to one's fellow-creatures.

"If you could follow the ultimate effects of one good cheery novel you would realize that the novelist is very close to the philanthropist, and I am sure that you agree with me that a man can have no higher aim and no nobler ambition than that of lightening by one feather the load of care which darkens so many lives."

Speaking of the American people in general he said:

"All types of the world are found here, Americans have only begun to use their opportunities. It is obvious that culture will grow rapidly here. Refinement will be more widespread than ours in England. It doesn't tend to coalesce into single cities as it does in England."

Full Report