Arthur Conan Doyle (article by J. E. Hodder Williams)

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

Arthur Conan Doyle is an article written by J. E. Hodder Williams published in The Bookman (UK version p. 6-13) in april 1902 and in The Bookman (US version p. 647-651) in august 1903.


Arthur Conan Doyle

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Twenty-five years ago, a young Scotch-born Irishman, studying at a small German University, founded and edited a newspaper for the benefit of his fellow students. During its short and somewhat chequered existence, the paper fully lived up to the editor's motto, "Fear not, and put it in print."

The paper came to an untimely end; the motto has been the guiding star of the career of Arthur Conan Doyle. He has followed it into many strange places. It has led him during these last months to spend himself — his time, his money, his strength — in the furtherance of what he considers the cause of truth and justice. "Fear not, and put it in print," might stand at the head of everything that Dr. Conan Doyle has written upon the Boer War. It is certainly the reason of the existence of his pamphlet — "The War in South Africa, its Cause and Conduct," of which over 300,000 copies have been sold of the English edition alone.

Twenty years ago a medical student was mustering the patients in the consulting room of Professor Joseph Bell. The doctor — a man with sharp, piercing grey eyes, eagle nose and striking features — sat in his chair with fingers together, and "just worked at the men or women before him," diagnosing not merely their maladies but their lives. "Gentlemen," he would say to the students standing round, "I am not quite sure whether this man is a cork-cutter or a slater. I observe a slight callus, or hardening, on one side of his forefinger, and a little thickening on the outside of his thumb, and that is a sure sign he is either one or the other." His great faculty of deduction was at times highly dramatic. "Ah!" he would say to another man, "you are a soldier, a non-commissioned officer, and you have served in Bermuda. Now, how did I know that, gentlemen? He came into the room without taking his hat off, as he would go into an orderly's room. He was a soldier. A slight, authoritative air, combined with his age, shows he was a non-commissioned officer. A slight rash on the forehead tells me he was in Bermuda, and subject to a certain rash known only there."

And to-day the eagle eyes of Sherlock Holmes, the "literary embodiment" of Dr. Conan Doyle's memory of the Edinburgh professor, glare down from every hoarding, searching the heart and life of the man in the street, while men even forsake their discussions of "clean slates," "tabernacles" and "lonely furrows" in order to offer their solution of the latest Sherlock Holmes mystery.

Sherlock Holmes has, indeed, entered into the nation's gallery of types; his exploits are familiar as household words. Every one knows that he keeps his cigars in the coal-scuttle, his tobacco in the toe-end of his Persian slipper, and his letters pinned to the wooden mantelpiece with a jack-knife.

It is given to few authors to see one of the children of their imaginings take his seat among the immortals; of fewer still can it be said that they helped to make history. Whatever may be Dr. Conan Doyle's personal estimate of the great detective, however he may minimise his achievement — and it is said that at times he has expressed a wish that Dr. Watson had never met Sherlock Holmes — it is not a small thing to create a character who will live in the nation's language. And whatever may be said or thought of Dr. Conan Doyle's attitude on the burning questions of the war, it must be admitted by all, independent of party or politics or personal antipathies, that Dr. Conan Doyle has done more than any living man to justify the conduct of his county in the eyes of the world and before the bar of an impartial posterity. As the historian of the war, he has helped to make history.

Arthur Conan Doyle was born at Edinburgh on the 22d of May, 1859. He comes of an artistic family. His grandfather, John Doyle, was the political caricaturist, recognised as Gillray's rightful successor, whose pictorial skits appeared for more than thirty years under the initials "H. B." without the disclosure of his identity. John Doyle's four sons were likewise artists, the author's father, Charles Doyle, holding also an appointment in the Civil Service. The first noteworthy event in the life of Conan Doyle was a literary achievement at the early age of six, a story of adventure, of terrible adventure, written in a bold hand on foolscap paper, four words to the line, and accompanied by original pen-and-ink illustrations. "There was a man in it, and there was a tiger," he writes of this youthful production. "I forget which was the hero; but it didn't matter much, for they became blended into one about the time when the tiger met the man. I was a realist in the age of the romanticists. I described at some length, both verbally and pictorially, the untimely end of that wayfarer. But when the tiger had absorbed him, I found myself slightly embarrassed as to how my story was to go on. "It is very easy to get people into scrapes, and very hard to get them out again," I remarked; "and I have often had cause to repeat the precocious aphorism of my childhood. On this occasion the situation was beyond me, and my book, like my man, was engulfed in my tiger."

In his tenth year Dr. Conan Doyle was sent to Stonyhurst, in Lancashire, where he developed remarkable powers as a raconteur, a gift he turned to profitable account among his schoolfellows. Elevated on a desk before an audience of small comrades, he grew grievously hoarse with much description of bloodcurdling adventure. He has humorously remarked that he stipulated for "Tarts down and strict business," and paused suddenly at the most thrilling crisis solely that apples or more pastry should be offered as an inducement to continue. This, too, was the scene of early editorial effort, in which, as has already been told, he persevered when he left Stonyhurst for Feldkirch, in Germany. At the age of seventeen Doyle entered Edinburgh University as a medical strident, and obtained his diploma five years later. But an intense longing to devote his time to literature remained always with him, and the account of his early struggles toward the desired goal is of real interest. In 1878, two years after the commencement of his medical studies, his first accepted work was published in Chambers's Journal, a periodical for which he has always retained a kindly feeling. He received three guineas for this story, which was entitled "The Mystery of Sasassa Valley," and was based on an old Kaffir superstition concerning a "gloomy, boulder-studded passage," notoriously haunted by a demon "with glowing eyes under the shadow of the cliff." In the development, the glowing eyes are found to consist of diamonds embedded in rock-salts, and the youthful searchers after demons are rewarded finally by a capture of far greater intrinsic value.

In 1880, Dr. Doyle quitted the university, and paid a seven months' visit to the Arctic Seas in the capacity of unqualified surgeon on board the whaler Hope, then under the command of Captain John Gray. The inducement was "two pounds ten a month and three shillings a ton oil money," inclusive of an Arctic kit. "One of the charms of the work," writes Conan Doyle of whaling, "is the gambling element inherent in it. Every man shares in the profits, and woe betide the harpooner or the boat-steerer who by any clumsiness has missed a fish! He has taken a five-pound note out of the pocket of every meanest hand upon the ship. Black is his welcome when he returns to his fellows." "It is brutal work," he adds, speaking of sealing, "though not more brutal than that which goes on to supply every dinner-table in the country. And yet those glaring crimson pools upon the dazzling white of the ice-fields, under the peaceful silence of a blue Arctic sky, did seem a horrible intrusion." There was no great demand for surgery aboard the Hope, and Doyle's chief occupations were keeping the captain in cut tobacco, working in the boats after fish and teaching the crew to box. Four whales and four thousand seals were the fruits of the voyage, and the Hope reached nearly the 81st degree of north latitude. From the unexpected occurrence of suddenly shooting off a thin sheet of ice and vanishing into the sea between the two ice-blocks, Conan Doyle earned from the genial captain the nickname of "The Great Northern Diver." Some trace of his varied Arctic experiences may be seen in his story, "The Captain of the Polestar." Originally written for Temple Bar, it was published later, together with a number of other short stories, and passed through some four editions.

It was on his return to Edinburgh that he became acquainted with Dr. Joseph Bell, and then commenced the final struggle between his inclination toward literature and his dependence upon medicine. In 1882, after a four months' voyage to the West Coast of Africa, he established himself as medical practitioner at Southsea, where he remained until 1890. During these years, however — years in which he found literature too slender a prop upon which to lean for a livelihood — he came to regard the calls of the profession he had adopted as interruptions in the real work of his life. His apprenticeship in letters was a long and trying one. There is a world of encouragement for the struggling young author in Dr. Conan Doyle's account of his early experiences. "Fifty little cylinders of manuscript," he writes, "did I send out during eight years, which described irregular orbits among publishers, and usually came back, like paper boomerangs, to the place that they had started from." Slowly, by dint of untiring perseverance, he won his way into such magazines as the Cornhill, Temple Bar and Belgravia; but as his contributions to these journals — some fifty or sixty stories in all — were anonymous, he remained as unknown as though he had never penned a line. He has left it on record that, though he worked hard for ten years, he never in any one year earned fifty pounds by his pen.

And yet another literary disappointment lay in store for the much-harassed doctor-author. The long story, entitled "The Narrative of John Smith," was lost in the post, and never afterward discovered. It bore, according to his own assertion, a personal, social-political complexion, and though its disappearance was naturally regarded as a great loss at the time, this was nothing to the horror he would experience if it suddenly appeared again — in print. Dr. Doyle's life at this time was a weary round of clashing interests, medical and literary, of unlucrative patients and of seamed paragraphs; but at length, in 1886, a product from his pen appeared in Beeton's Christmas Annual under the title of "A Study in Scarlet," which, published later in book-form, may be described as his first novel. This story he sold outright, receiving for it the small sum of five-and-twenty pounds. To-day it is still one of the most popular of his books, which has appeared in countless editions, and it would be interesting to know how many thousands of pounds the publishers made by their bargain. In this book Sherlock Holmes made his bow to the British public.

And then, under more favourable circumstances, he commenced the writing of Micah Clarke, a story of the Monmouth Rebellion. A year's reading and five months' writing completed the book, and the author hoped that here at last he had accomplished something worthy of his ambitions. He despatched it primarily to a friend, a reader for one of the leading publishers, who, having been bitten by the historical novel, naturally distrusted it. "How can you waste your time and your wits writing historical novels?" So ran the letter of rejection. Thence it passed from house to house, refused by all. One asserted that its principal defect was a complete absence of interest; another that people did not talk so in the seventeenth century; while the experiences of a third proved that an historical novel could never achieve a commercial success. "I remember," says the author, "smoking over my dog-eared manuscript when it returned for a whiff of country air after one of its descents upon town, and wondering what I should do if some sporting, reckless kind of publisher were suddenly to stride in and make me a bid of forty shillings or so for the lot." But the path was smoothed from the very day on which the book fell into the hands of Mr. Andrew Lang, then at Messrs. Longmans, and Micah Clarke attained a remarkable success, passing through five editions in less than twelve months. It still, after twelve years, sells more freely than any of Dr. Conan Doyle's longer books, with the exception of The White Company.

The publication of The Sign of the Four, in 1889, further enhanced Dr. Doyle's rapidly rising reputation, and Sherlock Holmes was beginning to make his problems of compelling interest to the reading public, when their author, determining to test his own powers to their utmost, delayed the production of detective mysteries in order to devote the better part of two years to the study of the fourteenth century in England. His aim was to reconstruct an heroic age, the most splendid joy of a novelist, as he himself confesses, to represent the life of the century from every point of view, that of the soldier, of the monk, of the artisan, to call back to life the typical archer of the days of Edward III., "the first soldier the world has ever seen, rough, hard-drinking, hard-swearing, but full of pluck and animal spirits." This study resulted, in 1890, in the appearance of The White Company. One hundred and fifteen volumes, French and English, dealing with the period he had chosen, were mastered before he wrote a single line of manuscript. Dr. Doyle grudges no labour on his work, nor leaves the veriest trifling detail to chance. Whatever he has done bears the stamp of thoroughness from title-page to colophon.

It was about the time of writing The White Company that Dr. Doyle abandoned his practice at Southsea and came to London as an eye specialist, a branch of his profession in which he was particularly interested. He studied at Paris and Vienna, and in the latter city wrote The Doings of Raffles Haw, a curious study of political economy in the form of a novelette. On his return to England he took rooms in Wimpole Street, and again commenced to practise. He had a waiting-room, but, in his own phrase, "he soon found out who did the waiting." So strong, however, were literary claims upon his time that, three months later, he gave up medicine entirely, and, removing to Norwood, set to work seriously on The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Of the marvellous success of his stories, of the way in which they inaugurated a new class of fiction as opposed to the old mysteries, in which the detective obtained results without obvious reasons — "which was not fair and was not art" — it is unnecessary to say anything.

If Micah Clarke had proved with certainty that Dr. Conan Doyle was capable of painting history in brilliant colouring and with master strokes on a large canvas, The White Company, The Refugees, with its striking pictures of the French Court, confirmed his own conviction that in historical romance lay his true power. Dr. Doyle's taste in literature has always inclined toward the romance of history. With his favourite authors he classes Scott, Dumas, Maupassant; but the novel to which he awards the palm of excellence is Charles Reade's Cloister and the Hearth. "Some books are great on account of the intellect which is shown in them," he writes, "and some on account of the heart; but I do not know where I can find a book in which the highest qualities of head and of heart go together as they do in this one." Ivanhoe he considers the second greatest historical novel ever penned in English. He believes there are many who place Esmond first, and though he comprehends their view, it is not his. He recognises fully the beauty of the style, the consistency of the character-drawing, the absolutely perfect Queen Anne atmosphere. Never to his mind was an historical novel written by a man who knew his period so thoroughly. But vital as he holds these virtues, they are not to him the sole essential qualities. The most compelling characteristic of all he sums up in the one word "interest." In his judgment, this is not equally sustained throughout the whole of Esmond; to him long passages appear to be heavy reading. His law asserts that, to attain pre-eminence, a novel must advance always, never mark time. Ivanhoe marches onward without halt, and on this fact he bases its superiority over Esmond as a novel, though as literature he allows the latter is more nearly perfect. But were three votes accorded him, "he would plump them all" for The Cloister and the Hearth as being the greatest English historical novel, and, indeed, our greatest novel of any kind.

The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard, in 1896 — a clash of arms and boisterous movement — was followed in the same year by Rodney Stone, a realistic depiction of various sporting phases of life and character in England at the commencement of the century, for which the author spared no efforts in gathering together reliable information on the subject of the ring; while, in 1898, some thirty short poems by Dr. Doyle were collected under the expressive title of Songs of Action.

At the time of the Soudan campaign Dr. Doyle, who happened to be in Egypt, wrote a series of letters to the Westminster Gazette. His newspaper work at this period excited comment in the nature of a prophecy. "What a war correspondent he may make," declared an acute observer, "some day when there is real war." Even beneath the shadow of the Pyramids his reputation of detective story writer had grown to vaster proportions than he himself had ever contemplated. In Egypt he first was made aware that "Sherlock Holmes" had been translated into Arabic, and issued to the local police in the form of a reliable and handy text-book!

Of Dr. Conan Doyle's later novels it is hardly necessary to make mention, for they are all well known to readers of THE BOOKMAN. "Round the Red Lamp" (1894), and "The Stark Munro Letters" (1895), are the outcome of his medical experiences, the latter being, with the exception of one chapter, very close autobiography, with the literary side omitted. "Uncle Bernac" (1897), a delightful sketch of Napoleonic days, and "The Tragedy of the Korosko" are two novels of exciting adventure ; while "A Duet with an Occasional Chorus" is in quieter vein.

The outbreak of the war in South Africa roused Dr. Conan Doyle to feverish activity. His medical and military knowledge were freely placed at the service of the country. Early in March, 1900, he set sail for South Africa on board the Oriental as Honorary Senior Physician of the Langman Field Hospital — the hospital founded by John L. Langman, "who devoted his fortune, and that which was more valuable to him than his fortune, to the service of his country and to the relief of suffering." So runs the dedication of "The Great Boer War," which refers, of course, to Mr. Archie Langman, Mr. Langman's only son, who went out as Chief of the Expedition — a dedication which Mr. Langman looks upon as the highest honour which has been done him in connection with his work.

Of Dr. Doyle's personal experiences in South Africa little can be written, for if there is one thing he dislikes above everything else, it is the idea of "posing as a soldier." We may, however, be permitted to say that all who came in contact with him during the war are full of praise for his untiring devotion, his great medical skill, his kindness, his sympathy, his unflagging spirits. Mr. Langman cannot speak too strongly of Dr. Conan Doyle's services and of the great debt which the country owes to him. When the hospital reached Bloemfontein enteric had just broken out, the resources of the hospital were strained to the utmost, and for months Dr. Doyle was working day and night in the fever-stricken tents. His labours did not cease with his medical work. He turned his hand to any task. He wrote letters for the soldiers, he nursed them, in fact, he did everything which a human being could for his patients. He was, as Mr. Archie Langman v/rote to his father, "a perfect Colossus for work." As there seems to be some impression: that Dr. Doyle went out to South Africa merely as a spectator, it is only right that such a testimony from Mr. Langman should be made public.

Dr. Conan Doyle went to South Africa as a volunteer — to work, not to write. And that is why every line he has written on the war bears the stamp of one who has not only seen but done.

The outcome of the visit to South Africa was the remarkable history of "The Great Boer War," which is now in its fifteenth edition. Admirable in tone and temper, impartial, clear, concise, full of graphic and picturesque touches, vigorous and vital, it is a masterly piece of work. "The Great Boer War" is a contribution to history. Absolute accuracy is impossible at so early a date, but each fresh addition has been an approximation to it.

Of Dr. Conan Doyle's pamphlet in defence of the British cause, mention has already been made. Its success has been extraordinary. Some idea of the way in which it has been distributed may be gained from the following list of editions, most of which have already been issued:—

British Edition, Smith, Elder and Co. (300,000); Colonial Edition, G. Bell and Sons, London (20,000); English on the Continent, Baron von Tauchnitz; Welsh edition, D. W. Thomas, Cardiff (10,000); American edition, McClure, Phillips and Co., New York (50,000); Canadian, Morang and Co., Toronto (25,000); Norwegian, Office of the Verdensgang (3,000); French, Galignani et Cie., Paris (20,000); German, N. B. Bloch, Berlin (20,000); Switerland, Dr. H. Angst, Zurich (special independent German translation) (1,000); Italian, Fratelli Treves, Milan (5,000); Russian, B. Searle, Office of Topics, Odessa (5,000); Spanish, Bailly-Bailliere E. Hijos, Madrid (10,000); Portuguese, Col. Greenfield de Mello, Lisbon (1,000); Hungarian, Szilagyi Bela, Budapest (5,000); Dutch, Smith, Elder and Co., London (5,000).

The pamphlet has also been issued in Braille type for the blind. In some instances the difficulty of finding a publisher has been very great, and in the case of Holland it proved impossible, so' that the Dutch edition has been produced in this country, and is being distributed by Messrs. George Newnes and Co., who, together with Messrs. Smith, Elder and Co., have been responsible for the enormous amount of work entailed in publishing these huge editions.

The strain of seeing these various editions through the press, of arranging for translations and publishers, has been very severe. Letters have poured in upon Dr. Doyle from every part of Europe, as many as 129 having been received in one day. His health has suffered to some extent, and at the present time he is arranging to take a well deserved rest on the Continent. He has, of course, come in for his share of abuse and contumely, and the columns of the Times bear witness to his vigour as a controversialist. "It's a good sign when your enemy squeals," said he, in allusion to some opposition pamphlet written in a violent tone.

The publication of the pamphlet has not brought him in a penny, indeed it has cost him much, for although something like £2,000 have already been contributed by the public to defray the expense of translation and distribution in foreign countries, the loss of time and strength expended upon such work cannot be calculated in pounds, shillings, and pence.

The work, says Dr. Doyle, has been its own reward. "I have simply done what I conceived to be my duty. I have fought for what I believe to be the cause of justice and truth, and I am well paid when I find that I have convinced many opponents that the cause of England is a just one. If so many brave men have given their blood for their country, it is a small thing that I should give a little ink."

Dr. Conan Doyle is an enthusiast in everything he undertakes, work or play. He is no mean cricketer, and had an average of 31 in first-class cricket last year, playing for the M.C.C. against Leicestershire, Derbyshire, and London County. He " bowls a bit," and had the good fortune to get Grace's wicket the only time he ever bowled to him — a fact be is tempted to have engraved on his tombstone. He has lately started a rifle range at Hindhead, and is responsible for the organisation of a local rifle corps, from which thirty others, all over the country, have taken their rules and their inspiration. In the hope of gaining a seat for what he considered to be the more patriotic party, he stood as Unionist candidate for the Central Division of Edinburgh, in October, 1900, and although he was defeated, his gallant fight will be remembered for many years in the constituency. He decreased the hostile majority by fifteen hundred.

A few last words upon Dr. Conan Doyle's most recent work, "The Hound of the Baskervilles," which is now being issued as a book, after having run as a serial in England and in America. There has been a grave controversy in several papers as to the literary ethics of resuscitating a character who is dead. "It is not art," was the verdict. But, of course, these critics could not have read the story, for Holmes is not resuscitated. The whole action occurs years before his death. There is no reason why Watson should not have whole portfolios full of reminiscences of the deceased detective.

At the same time. Dr. Conan Doyle fully intended at the time that he wrote the last of the "Memoir" series that he would do no more such stories, and the lapse of six years with many very tempting literary offers failed to shake his resolution. He believed himself, rightly or wrongly, that his inferior was obscuring his better work, and that he should not permit himself to be tempted by money to write what his literary conscience disapproved. That was his ideal; but ideals are difficult things to preserve. His falling away from it was brought about in this fashion. With his friend Mr. Fletcher Robinson he found himself at Cromer, where a long Sunday was spent together in friendly chat. Robinson is a Devonshire man, and he mentioned in conversation some old county legend which set Doyle's imagination on fire. The two men began building up a chain of events, and in a very few hours the plot of a sensational story was conceived, and it was agreed that Doyle should write it. When he came to working out the details, he found, however, that some masterful central figure was needed, some strong man who would influence the whole course of events, and his natural reflection was: "Why should I invent such a character when I have him already in the form of Holmes?" So Sherlock Holmes came back into the Strand Magazine, and the public has shown that during an absence of six years they have not entirely lost interest in him.