Arthur Conan Doyle (article 26 november 1905)
From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
An Appreciation of the Author of "Sir Nigel," the Great Romance Which Begins Next Sunday
"When the Most Successful Novelist Writes His Masterpiece the Eyes of the World Who Read Are Upon Him"
"Doyle Has Painted More Wonderful Pictures in Words Than Any of His Forbears With Palette and Brush"
By H. J. W. Dam
There is much in the career of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle which is of exceeding interest as to the facts; of exceeding value as to the lessons. Many write and few succeed. In these days of universal education, when stories and books are coming from a million pens, an American author offers a dinner to all the novelists whose literary in-comes average five thousand dollars a Year and does not fear that his dining-room will be overcrowded. The truth is that, viewed from this point, Conan Doyle is a rarer and more novel creation than Sherlock Holmes. The Sherlock Holmes idea, the basic principle on which this modern detective wrought his wonderful results, was well developed by the elder Dumas and others. Doyle, as a story-teller, is entirely his own creation. He holds the priceless secret of success, and it is a quest of no little interest to all his readers to discover, if possible, what that secret is.
The first impression, the major cause, the dominant note, that strikes one as he considers him and his work, is physical energy. Whenever and wherever the powerful body is united with the active imagination, success in any line of endeavor is certain, and greatness, as the word goes, is possible. Such are our great statesmen, our great artists, our great lawyers. It is useless for the mind to conceive greatly unless the body can stand the severer strain of executing greatly. With the gift of superabundant energy, however, Sir Arthur has the unusual characteristic of bigness. He is over six feet in height, stalwart, muscular, seeing all things in a big, large-hearted way. In this he is unique, as most, of the world's great men and nearly all of the world's great novelists have been short in stature — they have never lacked in physical energy, but their visible development has been mental rather than physical. He is a member of the Athenaeum and the National Sporting Clubs of London, two organizations as far apart in all things as the Poles. And this is one way of saying that he is a man of high physical and mental ideals, which indeed is the first and most prominent peculiarity manifest in his novels, his characters and his general literary plan.
And it is most interesting to note how this big lumbering boy in school at Stonyhurst, this boy who wanted to he and easily could have been one of England's famous cricketers, was led into the path of his great success. We hear much of the "destiny which shapes our ends"; but here is that destiny in active operation before our eyes, revealing its action step by step. He knew nothing of his future. He had no definite ambition beyond the desire to be a doctor, and all the while his future was making through causes of which he had no knowledge. "Sow an act and you reap a habit. Sow a habit and you reap a character. Sow a character and you reap a destiny" — is one of the best practical definitions of the dominant force in human lives that has appeared. Underneath all these lies an inherited tendency, a ruling instinct, which lies within ourselves and molds the life of each of us. This eliminates all superhuman influences, and there is no need to seek for superhuman influences in the present instance. Heredity is all-sufficient as the primal cause.
Ireland, through his ancestry, gave him the quick imagination and the versatility of its race. On the walls of his home at Hindhead hang many original pictures which show the strong artistic bent of his family. His grandfather, John Doyle, was a famous caricaturist. His uncle, Richard Doyle, was the famous "Dicky" Doyle of "Punch." The quaint, strange water-colors of his father, Charles Doyle, there to be seen, rival if they do not exceed in originality the work of his uncle. And in their peculiar individuality, in their ghosts and fairies, in their goblin-trees and cloud-framed faces, their fantastic, smiling landscapes and mystic, wraith-haunted graveyards, a breadth of imagination joined to a delicacy and certainty of execution which were the direct heritage of the son. All who are familiar with Sir Arthur's books will know how strong an influence this imaginative gift has exercised upon his work.
Better than this, however, they gave him the draftsman's eye and the draftsman's hand, the power of close observation and the ability to reproduce faithfully what is observed. The most notable feature of Sir Arthur's historical novels is not so much the elaborate and painstaking fidelity in details, but the convincing power of the result. In his greatest novel up to now, "The White Company" we are chiefly impressed, artistically speaking; by the tremendous reality of it all. We breathe the very atmosphere of the dead century. We live the life, we are an actual part of the time, and we cannot escape this feeling. The illusion, in short, is complete, and this proves strong conception, per: feet drawing and wonderful completeness of detail. Emerson said that the laws underlying all the arts were the same, and the truth of this was never better exemplified than in the work of Conan Doyle, son and grandson of artists, who has painted more wonderful pictures in words than did any of his forbears with palette and brush.
Without any dreams of a literary career he went to Edinburgh to become a doctor, and was graduated with distinction at the age of twenty-one. And then he discovered that he wanted to do a great many things which were highly inconsistent with the career of a dignified English practitioner. He wanted to see the world; not the world of cities, but those isolated regions in which strong man met, in daily conflict for his existence, the majestic forces of nature. As the doctor of a whaling-ship, he spent two years in the Arctic. Still holding to the sea, he crossed and re-crossed the ocean and saw and learned life in West Africa. He was a rolling stone, but he was rolling toward a goal of which he was not aware. Finally repressing his desire to wander, he settled down at Southsea to become a conventional doctor. Fees were slow in coming, but he did not lack humor, and waited his opportunity, until a prominent and wealthy local resident was thrown from his horse in front of the doctor's office. He rushed out, bound up the bruises, called a handsome open carriage and rode slowly through the town, supporting the injured man in an attitude of scientific devotion which would have made the fame of an old master. The admiring populace rose to the picture and said: "How beautiful!" Fees flowed in, the practice was established, and the doctor sighed. Medicine had claimed him, and his life was to be that of a conventional doctor after all.
But now another shaping force made its appearance and grew in volume despite continued discouragement. While in college at Edinburgh he had written a story called "The Mystery of the Sassassa Valley." He was full of untold stories. An ardent reader all through his youth of all that is heroic in fiction, these seeds had germinated in his imagination, and the artist's son wanted to draw, to portray, to create, but in the way of letters. "The Mystery of the Sassassa Valley," his first story, was published by "Chambers's Journal" in 1878, but served no other office at that time than to prove to him that he could write for the public. Four years afterward, however, the spirit again moved him, and he began to steal hours from his practice at Southsea to write other stories. Many were they in number, and wide was their scope. He wrote stories of the sea, stories of the Arctic, stories of war, stories of dead centuries and far countries, and received no encouragement whatever.
Bret Harte once told me that even late in his life he had not been able to realize that his stories were commercial commodities — were actually worth money — that but for his vigilant agent he would have starved to death — being totally unable to sell one of his stories himself. Much this view of things was forced upon the Southsea doctor. He wrote between fifty and sixty stories, all of which were accepted and published by "The Cornhill," "Temple Bar" and other magazines, but the pay was in shillings, and they were published anonymously, not being deemed worthy of his unknown signature. In ten years of such ardent and active literary creation he earned less than fifty dollars per annum by his pen.
And herein lies one great lesson. That he persisted showed that it was a labor of love and not of profit. Literature was his instinct; he could not help it. No man ever rose or ever will rise to greatness in any branch of human endeavor which he does not love. It is the love of the work which defies discouragement, which causes constant practice and leads to ultimate perfection. Only love can thus finally endow an artist's work with that ease of execution which we call great. To be great is to be able to do without effort that which others find to be impossible.
A potent result of these ten years of unsuccessful writing was thus a steady improvement in style. "The disappointed," said Disraeli, "are always young," and Doyle as a writer remained disappointed, fresh, young, ardent and ever more painstaking. Early recognition by his public would have spoiled him as it has spoiled many. But as the goal eluded him, he strove ever harder to attain it, was developing himself in a way that he knew not of. Finally he wrote "Micah Clarke," his first important book. It was refused so firmly and so consistently by so many publishers that even his courageous spirit grew weary. He finally sat down before the dirty dog's-eared manuscript, lighted his pipe, the consoler of all sad hours, and wondered if he could sell it to anybody for forty shillings. Before trying this, however, he sent it to "Longman's" and it fell into the appreciative hands of Andrew Lang. It was accepted, published in 1888, and the young author's fame was established. The way opened, literature was revealed as his true career, and medicine passed into the background, a secondary, though always important, element in his daily life.
Strange to say, Sherlock Holmes, his most famous creation, had made his introduction a year prior to "Micah Clarke" without arousing any exceptional interest. Holmes' first public appearance was in the "Study in Scarlet." This too had met with numberless refusals, but was finally sold for twenty-five pounds to "Beeton's Christmas Annual" and appeared at the close of 1887. It is an interesting commentary upon the ethical condition and literary taste of our time that this detective has penetrated all countries and appeared in all the leading languages of civilization. It is doubtless true that the appetite for the detective story is based upon certain elementary impulses common to all human nature which will make its vogue undying. But never will the detective of any set of detective stories oust Sherlock Holmes from his pedestal in the popular mind. He is close to the ideal. He has the unique honor of having died and been recalled to life by the urgent popular outcry.
Doyle wearied of him and finally put him to death in an Alpine chasm, locked in the arms of his rival, Moriarity; but publisher and public alike insisted upon his return to life and activity. And though the detective story, per se, can never take rank among the higher forms of literature, it is the solid basis of Doyle's popular fame. However he has assailed and may assail the highest planes of the literary art, he will ever be popularly known as the creator of "Sherlock Holmes," as is John Hay of "Little Breeches" and Bret Harte of "The Heathen Chinee." Thus widely differs the taste of the critic and of the hoi polloi.
After the success of "Micah Clarke," he worked all the harder, became all the more painstaking, developed still higher ideals. Money did not tempt him from artistic conscientiousness. He proved, in short, that he could stand success — and there are few who can. Only the love of art, whatever the art may be, can survive this greatest test. In 1890 appeared "The White Company," up to this time he had not been taken seriously. He had been viewed as a story-teller of great gifts, as one who could please the people. But the powerful realism, the capacity for detail, the virile sympathy, the heroic pattern, the oneness with nature, the unfettered imagination, that were strikingly evident in the book revealed undeniably the soul and hand of a master.
Here was a man strong and sincere, who was brimming over with that primal charm which we call humanity. Here was an eye that saw life cleanly and sanely and one who painted it with wonderful power. The book passed through edition after edition — they now number twenty-five — and Doyle came into his own.
Study was his gift and his delight, and despite success his study was incessant. He became the leading member of the Criminal Club of London, and read essays on crime in all its aspects, pathological and social. He joined the Society for Psychical Research and delighted in original supernatural investigations. Fletcher Robinson, editor of London "Vanity Fair," an intimate friend and collaborator of Doyle's, writes in this connection:
- It may not be without interest to give the record of one of these excursions as Doyle told it to me. It was reported to the Psychical Research Society that manifestations had occurred in an old manor-house in Lancashire, and Doyle and two other members journeyed down to make investigation. They found the house to be squarely built, with a big central hall. In it there lived a widow, her daughter and her only son. They all seemed nervous and ill at ease.
The first night they heard curious noises, but nothing unusually remarkable On the second Sherlock Holmes got to work. After the household had gone to bed he searched the house carefully, sprinkled flour to catch foot-steps, tied fine black thread across all the stairs, locked all communicating doors, and then posted his two companions in convenient places for observation. He himself sat in the kitchen doorway that looked out into the hall. About five minutes past twelve the whole house shook with a gigantic crash. It was, Doyle told me, as if some one had dropped a cement barrel from the roof into the central hall. In an instant the watchers darted off — to find nothing. It remained an inexplicable mystery. The doors were all locked, the threads untouched. The flour unmarked. They could discover no place from which a weight could have been dropped When they left the place it was to report a failure. Certain private suspicions Doyle had, but there was no evidence to verify them. If indeed the tremendous noise was due to supernatural agency, the failure of Sherlock Holmes to detect may be excused.
A ruling characteristic of Doyle as a novelist has ever been the desire to draw from nature, to see with his own eyes the scenes which his stories pictured, to feel as his characters were to feel upon the actual ground. It was tireless roaming over the New Forest from his home in Southsea, tilled as it is with historical souvenirs and little changed in the passage of years, that placed him in touch with the dead-century days described in "The White Company." An illustration of this tendency is given by Robinson, which relates to another book.
One of the most interesting weeks that I ever spent was with Doyle on Dartmoor. He made the journey in my company shortly after I had told him, and he had accepted from me, the plot which eventuated in "The Hound of the Baskervilles." Dartmoor, the great wilderness, of bog and rocks that cuts Devonshire into two parts, appealed to his imagination. He listened eagerly to my ... of the ghost hounds, of the headless riders and of the ... that lurk in the hollows — legends upon which I had been ...ed, for my home lay on the borders of the moor. How well he turned to account his impressions will be remembered by all readers of the "Hound."
Two incidents come especially to my recollection. In the center of the moor lies the famous convict prison of Princetown. In the great granite buildings, swept in the rains and clouded in the mists, are lodged over a thousand criminals, convicted of the more serious offenses A tiny village clusters at the foot of the slope on which ... ... and a comfortable old-fashioned inn affords accomodation to travelers.
The morning after our arrival Doyle and I were sitting in the smoking-room, when a cherry-cheeked maid opened the door and announced "Visitors to see yeou, gentlemen." In marched four men, who solemnly sat down and began to talk about the weather, the fishing in the moor, ... and other general subjects. Who they might had had not the slightest idea. As they left I followed them into the hall of the inn. On the table were their .... The governor of the prison, the deputy governor, the ... and the doctor had come, as a pencil note explained to call on Mr. Sherlock Holmes."
One morning I took Doyle to see the might bog a thousand acres of quaking slime, at any part of which a horse and rider might disappear, which figured so prominently in the "Hound." He was amused at the story ... him of the moor man who on one occasion saw a hat near the edge of the morass and poked at it with a long pole he .... "You leave my hat alone!" came a voice from beneath it. "Whoi! Be there a man under the 'at?" cried the startled rustic. "Yes, you fool, and a horse under the man."
From the bog we tramped eastward to the stone fort of Gromspound, which the savages of the Stone Age in Britain, the aborigines who were earlier settlers than Saxons or Danes or Norsemen, raised with enormous labor to act as a haven of refuge from marauding ... to the south. The good preservation in which the Gromspound fort still remains is marvelous. The twenty-feet slabs of granite — how they were ever hauled to their places is a mystery to historian and engineer — still encircle the stone huts where the tribe lived. Into one of these Doyle and I walked, and sitting down on the stone which probably served the three thousand-year-old chief as a bed we talked of the races of the past. It was one of the ... spots in Great Britain. No road came within a long distance of the place. Strange legends of lights and figures are told concerning it. Add thereto that it was a gloomy day overcast with heavy cloud.
Suddenly we heard a boot strike against a stone without and rose together. It was only a lonely tourist on walking excursion, but at sight of our heads suddenly emerging from the but he let out a yell and bolted. Our subsequent disappearance was due to the fact that we both sat down and rocked with laughter; and as he did not return I have a small doubt Mr. Doyle and I added yet another proof of the supernatural to tellers of ghost stories concerning Dartmoor.
Mr. Robinson says further, referring to the coming publication of "Sir Nigel":