Real Conversations. — V. A Dialogue between Conan Doyle and Robert Barr

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

Real Conversations. — V. A Dialogue between Conan Doyle and Robert Barr is an interview of Arthur Conan Doyle written by Robert Barr published in McClure's Magazine in november 1894.

This is an updated version of the earlier interview: A Chat with Conan Doyle published in The Idler (october 1894).


A Dialogue between Conan Doyle and Robert Barr

McClure's Magazine (november 1894, p. 503)
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In the very beginning I wish to set down the fact that I am not a professional interviewer, but that I have some acquaintance with the principles of the art. The observant reader will notice that I understand the business, because I have managed to run in five capital "I's" in the first few lines of this article. There you have the whole secret of interviewing as practiced A.D. 1894, in England. The successful interviewer blazons forth as much of his own personality as possible, using his victim as a peg on which to hang his own opinions. If the interviewer could be induced to hang himself as well as his opinions, the world would be brighter and better. I loathe the English pompous interview.

But the interview in England is an imported article ; it is not native to the soil. In America you get the real thing, and even the youngest newspaper man understands how it should be done. An interviewer should be like a clear sheet of plate glass that forms the front window of an attractive store, through which you can see the articles displayed, scarcely suspecting that anything stands between you and the interesting collection.

Yet some people are never satisfied, and there arose a man in the United States who resolved to invent a new kind of interview. His name is S. S. McClure, and he is the owner and editor of this Magazine. I hope I may be allowed to praise or abuse a man in his own magazine, and I hereby give him warning that if he cuts out or changes a line of my copy I will never write another word for him. He may disclaim what I say in any other portion of this periodical, if he likes, but I alone am responsible for this section. He would have no hesitation in asking Gabriel to write him an article on the latest thing in trumpets, and the remarkable thing is, he would actually get the manuscript.

So one day S. S. McClure invented what he thought was a new style of interview, which he patented under the title of "Real Conversations." The almanac of the future, which sprinkles choice bits of information among weather predictions and signs of the zodiac, will have this line: "April 14, 1893 — Real Conversations invented by S., S. McClure."

Yet the idea was not new; we all have practiced it as boys. We got two dogs together who held different opinions on social matters, and urged them to discuss the question, while we stood by and enjoyed the argument. This is what McClure now does with two writers, and the weapon in the Real Conversation, as in the dog-fight, is the jaw.

The only fault that I have to find with these Real Conversations is that they are not conversations, and that they cannot be real. Try to imagine two sane men sitting down deliberately to talk for publication! Only a master mind could have conceived such a situation — a mind like that of Mr. McClure, accustomed to accomplishing the impossible. Now, if he were to station a shorthand reporter behind a screen, as Louis XI. placed Quentin Durward when the king interviewed the Count of Crevecoeur, he might perhaps get a Real Conversation, but otherwise I don't see how it is to be done.

To show the practical difficulties that meet a Real Conversationalist at the very beginning, I pulled out my note-book and pencil, and, looking across at my victim, solemnly said :

"Now, Conan Doyle, talk."

Instead of complying with my most reasonable request, the novelist threw back his head and laughed, and, impressed as I was with the momentousness of the occasion, so hearty and infectious is his laugh that after a few moments I was compelled to join him.

We had looted two comfortable wicker chairs from the house, and were seated at the farther end of the long lawn that stretches from the Doyle residence towards the city of London. It is one of those smooth, exceedingly green, velvety lawns to be found only in England, yet easy of manufacture there ; for, as the Oxford gardener said to the American visitor, all you have to do is to leave the lawn outdoors for five hundred years or so, cutting and rolling it frequently, and there you are. Little, white, hard rubber golf balls lay about on the grass, like croquet balls that had shrunk from exposure to the weather. Mr. Doyle is a golf inebriate, and practices on this lawn, landing the balls in a tub when he makes the right sort of a hit, and generally breaking a window when he doesn't.

I put away my note-book and pencil.

"I have a proposal to make," I said. "You and I have frequently set the world right, and solved all the problems, with no magazine editor to make us afraid. We have talked in your garden and in mine, at your hospitable board and at mine, at your club and at mine, on your golf ground and — yes, I remember now, I haven't one of my own ; now I know your views on things pretty well, so I will 'fake' a Real Conversation, as we say in the States."

"But that wouldn't be quite fair to McClure's readers, would it ?" objected Doyle, who is an honest man and has never had the advantage of a newspaper training. "I read all of those Real Conversations in the magazine, and I thought them most interesting. The idea seems to me a good one."

"Now that ought to show you how easy it will be for me to make up a Real Conversation with you. Your opinion and mine are always the opposite of each other. All I would have to do would be to remember what I thought on any subject, then write something entirely different, and I would have Conan Doyle. That proves to me the hollowness of the other interviews McClure has published. Howells agreed with Boyesen, Hamlin Garland agreed with James Whitcomb Riley, and so on all along the line. This isn't natural. No literary man ever agrees with any other literary man. He sometimes pretends to like the books another fellow has written, but that is all humbug. He doesn't in his heart; he knows he could have done them better himself."

"Oh, you're all wrong there ; all wrong — entirely wrong! Now, if I had to choose my critics, I would choose my fellow workers, or schoolboys."

"Just what I said. You are placing the other authors on a level with schoolboys! That is worse than—"

Doyle. Listen to me. A fellow-author knows the difficulties I have to contend with ; he appreciates the effect I am trying to attain; his criticism, even if severe, would be helpful and intelligent. A schoolboy, on the other hand, seems to give his verdict on a book by intuition, but he rarely makes a mistake. See how the schoolboys of the world have made "Treasure Island" their own. Of course, I would not expect an accurate estimate of "Robert Elsmere" from a schoolboy.

Barr. I suppose an author would hardly like to slate another author's work — publicly. Besides, he would be compelled, as a matter of self-protection, to keep up the pretence that there is such a thing as literature in England at the present moment. But there is Mr. Howells, who has no English axe to grind, and he, from the calm, serene, unprejudiced atmosphere of New York, frankly admits that literature in England is a thing of the past, and that the authors of to-day do not understand even the rudiments of their business. Of course you agree with him?

Doyle. I think there never was a time when there was a better promise. There are at least a dozen men and women who have made a deep mark, and who are still young. No one can say how far they may go. Some of them are sure to develop, for the past shows us that fiction is an art which improves up to the age of fifty or so. With fuller knowledge of life comes greater power in describing it.

Barr. A dozen! You always were a generous man, Doyle. Who are the talented twelve, so that I may cable to Howells?

Doyle. There are more than a dozen — Barrie, Kipling, Mrs. Olive Schreiner, Sarah Grand, Miss Harraden, Gilbert Parker, QuiUer-Couch, Hall Caine, Stevenson, Stanley Weyman, Anthony Hope, Crockett, Rider Haggard, Jerome, Zangwill, Clark Russell, George Moore — many of them under thirty and few of them much over it. There are others, of course. These names just happen to occur to me.

Barr. You think a man improves up to fifty ?

Doyle. Certainly, if he keeps out of a groove and refuses to do his work in a mechanical way. Why, many of the greatest writers in our fiction did not begin until after forty. Thackeray was about forty. Scott was past forty. Charles Reade and George Eliot were as much. Richardson was fifty. To draw life, one must know it.

Barr. My experience is that when a man is fifty he knows he will improve until he is sixty, and when he is sixty he feels that improvement will keep right on until he is seventy ; whereas, when he is twenty he thinks that perhaps he will know more when he is thirty, but is not sure. Man is an amusing animal. Now I would like an American dozen, if you don't mind.

Doyle. I have not read a book for a long time that has stirred me as much as Miss Wilkins's "Pembroke." I think she is a very great writer. It is always risky to call a recent book a classic, but this one really seems to me to have every characteristic of one.

Barr. Well?

Doyle. Well!

Barr. That is only one. Don't you read American fiction?

Doyle. Not as much as I should wish, but what I have read has, I hope, been fairly representative. I know Cable's work and Eugene Field's and Hamlin Garland's and Edgar Fawcett's and Richard Hardirig Davis's. I think Harold Frederic's " In the Valley" is one of the best of recent historical romances. The danger for American fiction is, I think, that it should run in many brooks instead of one broad stream. There is a tendency to overaccentuate local peculiarities ; differences, after all, are very superficial things, and good old human nature is always there under a coat of varnish. When one hears of a literature of the West or of the South, it sounds aggressively sectional.

Barr. Sectional? If it comes to that, who could be more sectional than Hardy or Barrie—the one giving us the literature of a county and the other of a village ? You know that a person in a neighboring village said of Barrie, that he was "no sae bad fur a Kerrimuer man." When you speak of a section in America, you must not forget it may be a bit of land as big as France.

Doyle. Barrie and Hardy have gained success by showing how the Scotch or Wessex peasant shares our common human nature, not by accentuating the points in which they differ from us.

Barr. Well, I think Howells is demolished. What do you think of him and of James ?

Doyle. James, I think, has had a great and permanent influence upon fiction. His beautiful clear-cut style and his artistic restraint must affect every one who reads him. I'm sure his "Portrait of a Lady" was an education to me, though one has not always the wit to profit by one's education.

Barr. Yes ; James is a writer of whom you English people ought to be proud. I wish we had an American like him. Still, thank goodness, we have our William Dean Howells. I love Howells so much that I feel sure you must have something to say against him ; what is it?

Doyle. I admire his honest, earnest work, but I do not admire his attitude towards all writers and critics who happen to differ from his school. One can like Valdes and Bourget and Miss Austen without throwing stones at Scott and Thackeray and Dickens. There is plenty of room for all.

Barr. But there is the question of art.

Doyle. We talk so much about art, that we tend to forget what this art was ever invented for. It was to amuse mankind — to help the sick and the dull and the weary. If Scott and Dickens have done this for millions, they have done well by their art.

Barr. You don't think, then, that the object of all fiction is to draw life as it is ?

Doyle. Where would Gulliver and Don Quixote and Dante and Goethe be, if that were so? No ; the object of fiction is to interest, and the best fiction is that which interests most. If you can interest by drawing life as it is, by all means do so. But there is no reason why you should object to your neighbor using other means.

Barr. You do not approve of the theological novel then?

Doyle. Oh yes, I do, if it is made interesting. I think the age of fiction is coming — the age when religious and social and political changes will 'all be effected by means of the novelist. Look, within recent years, how much has been done by such books as "Looking Backward" or "Robert Elsmere." Everybody is educated now, but comparatively few are very educated. To get an idea to penetrate to the masses of the people, you must put fiction round it, like sugar round a pill. No statesman and no ecclesiastic will have the influence on public opinion which the novelist of the future will have. If he has strong convictions, he will have wonderful facilities for impressing them on others. Still his first business will always be to interest. If he can't get his sugar right, people will refuse his pill.

At this point nature revolted. She thought the subject too dry, and she proceeded to wet it down. A black thundercloud came up over the Crystal Palace, and the first thing we knew the shower was upon us. Both of us, luckily, knew enough to come in out of the rain. Two men hastily grasped two wicker chairs and bolted for the house, leaving literature to take care of itself in the back garden.

Conan Doyle's study, workshop, and smoking-room is a nice place in a downpour, and I can recommend the novelist's brand of cigarettes. Show me the room in which a man works, and I'll show you — how to smoke his cigarettes. The workbench stands in the corner — one of those flat-topped desks so prevalent in England. The English author does not seem to take kindly to the haughty, roller-top American desk, covered with transparent varnish and twenty-three patents.

There is a bookcase, filled with solid historical volumes for the most part. The most remarkable feature of the room is a series of water-color drawings done by Conan Doyle's father. The Doyle family has always been a family of artists, and the celebrated cover of " Punch" is, as everybody knows, the work of Dicky Doyle.

The drawings by Mr. Doyle's father are most weird and imaginative, being in art something like what Edgar Allan Poe's stories are in fiction.

There are harpoons on the wall, for Doyle has been a whale fisher in his time, and has the skull of a polar bear and the stuffed body of an Iceland falcon to show that his aim was accurate. There are but two other Iceland falcons in England. The novelist came nearer to the North Pole than New York is to Chicago, and it has always struck me as strange that he did not take a sleeping-car and go through to the Pole and spend a night there. But he was young then and let opportunities slip. He spent his twenty-first birthday within the Arctic Circle.

Here are three stories of his Arctic experiences. You see, I am going to sugarcoat the Real Conversation.

The whaler sailed from Peterhead, and the crew were Scotsmen with one exception. Doyle was supposed to be the surgeon of the craft. He brought two pairs of boxing-gloves with him, and one of the men, who was handy with his fists, was ambitious to have a bout. Doyle accommodated him. The man was strong, but had no science. Finding himself hard pressed, Doyle struck out, and the cabin table being fastened to the floor with no give to it, the sailor, when he struck it after the blow, found his feet in the air and his head on the floor behind the table.

The man was heard afterwards to say to a companion in tones of great admiration:

"Man! McAlpine, yon's the best surgeon we've ever had. He knocked me clean ower th' table an' blacked ma e'e."

Few men have had such a compliment paid to their medical qualifications.

The man who was not a Scotsman was a gloomy, taciturn person, popularly supposed to be a fugitive from justice, and held in deep respect on that account. He went on the principle that deeds speak louder than words. On one occasion the cook took the liberty of being drunk for three days. On the third day the murderer thought this had gone far, just far, enough. The cooking was something awful. He rose without a word, seized a long-handled saucepan and brought it down on the cook's head. The bottom of the pan broke like glass, and the iron rim remained around the astonished cook's neck like a collar. The man, still without a word, walked gloomily to his seat. There was no more bad cooking on that voyage.

They used to throw an ice-anchor on a berg when they lay for some hours beside an ice-field, and then was the time to take a rise out of the innocent polar bear, who is not accustomed to the Peterhead brand of humor. They would put all the grease, bones, and galley refuse into the furnace, and the scent of the burning spread along the Arctic Circle for miles. In a few hours all the bears between there and the Pole would come trooping along with noses high in the air, wondering where the banquet was. When they read the signal, "April Fool," flagged from the mast-head, the bears grunted and trudged off home again. Conan Doyle is not a man who goes to extremes, but it seems to me that he did in the matter of his voyaging. He came home from the Arctic Circle, took his degree at Edinburgh, and at once shipped for the west African coast.

Here is a tragedy of the sea which occurred when Doyle was a boy. He read an account of it at the time, and it made a powerful impression on his young mind. An American ship called the "Marie Celeste" was found abandoned off the west coast. Nothing on her was disturbed, and there were no signs of a struggle. Her cargo was untouched, and there was no evidence that she had come through a storm. On the cabin table was screwed a sewing machine, and on the arm of the sewing machine was a spool of silk thread, which would have fallen off if there had been any motion of the vessel. She was loaded with clocks, and her papers showed that she left Baltimore for Lisbon. She was taken to Gibraltar, but from that day to this no one knows what became of the captain and crew of the "Marie Celeste."

This mystery of the sea set the future Sherlock Holmes at work trying to find a solution for it. There was no clew to go on, except an old Spanish sword found in the: forecastle, which showed signs of having been recently cleaned. Doyle's solution of the problem appeared in the form of a story for the "Cornhill Magazine," entitled, "J. Habbakuk Jephson's Statement." Jephson was supposed to be an American doctor who had taken passage on the ship for his health. Shortly after the story appeared, the following telegram was printed in all the London papers: "Solly Flood, Her Majesty's advocate general at Gibraltar, telegraphs that the statement of J. Habbakuk Jephson is nothing less than a fabrication."

Which indeed it was ; but the telegram was a compliment to the realism of the story, to say the least.

On the bookcase in the study there stands a bust of a man with a keen, shrewd face.

"Who is the statesman ?" I asked.

"Oh, that is Sherlock Holmes," said Doyle. "A young sculptor named Wilkins, from Birmingham, sent it to me. Isn't it good?"

"Excellent. By the way, is Sherlock Holmes really dead?"

"Yes; I shall never write another Holmes story."

Dr. Conan Doyle is a methodical worker, and a hard worker. He pastes up over his mantel-shelf a list of the things he intends to do in the coming six months, and he sticks to his task until it is done. He must be a great disappointment to his old teacher. When he had finished school the teacher called the boy up before him and said solemnly :

"Doyle, I have known you now for seven years, and I know you thoroughly. I am going to say something to you that you will remember in after life. Doyle, you will never come to any good!"

The making of an historical novel involves much hard reading. The results of this hard, reading, Doyle sets down in a note-book. Sometimes all he gets out of several volumes is represented by a couple of pages in this book. In turning over the most recent pages I saw much about Napoleon, and I knew that some marvellously good short stories which Doyle has recently written, are set in the stormy period of Napoleon's time. (One of these stories will appear in the December number of this Magazine.)

"I suppose you are an admirer of that unscrupulous ruffian? " I said gently.

"He was a wonderful man — perhaps the most wonderful man who ever lived. What strikes me is the lack of finality in his character. When you make up your mind that he is a complete villain, you come on some noble trait, and then your admiration of this is lost in some act of incredible meanness. But just think of it! Here was a young fellow of thirty, a man who had had no social advantages and but slight educational training, a member of a poverty-stricken family, entering a room with a troop of kings at his heels, and all the rest of them jealous if he spoke a moment longer to one than to the others. Then, there must have been a great personal charm about the man, for some of those intimate with him loved him. His secretary, Méneval, writes of him with almost doting affection."

"Yes; and then a dealer in fiction must bow down to Napoleon as the most accomplished liar that ever lived."

"Oh, no one could ever compete with him in that line. If he intended to invade Africa, he would give out that he was going to Russia ; then he would tell his intimates in strict confidence that Germany was the spot he had his eye on ; and finally he would whisper in the ear of his most confidential secretary that Spain was the point of attack. He was certainly an amazing and talented liar."

"Do you think his power in this direction was the secret of his success, and is lying a virtue you would advise us all to cultivate?"

"The secret of his success seems to me to have been his ability to originate gigantic schemes that seemed fantastic and impossible, while his mastery of detail enabled him to bring his projects to completion where any other man would have failed."

At the time this appears in print, Dr. Conan Doyle will be in America. He goes there ostensibly to deliver the series of lectures that has been so successful in England, but the real object of his visit is to see the country. This is a laudable ambition, and 1 hope the United States and Conan Doyle will mutually like each other.