Conan Doyle's New Romance
From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
Conan Doyle's New Romance
["Sir Nigel,"] by Arthur Conan Doyle. (Smith, Elder, and Co.) 6s.]
"Elsewhere, in the Chronicle of the White Company, it has been set forth what manner of man was Nigel Loring. Those who love him may read herein the things which went to his making." The opportunity thus granted by Sir A. Conan Doyle to amounts to irresistible temptation. Not that a preliminary affection for Nigel Loring, or even so much as recollection of his name, is required for the complete enjoyment of the story of how "England lost a brave squire and gained a gallant knight," to quote the Black Prince when giving him the "accolade" the field of Poictiers.
Nigel is the ideal knight-errant at the time when the spirit of chivalry was crystallising into a science previously to its decay; the interval between the "Black Death" of 1348, the birth-year of a new order, and the Wars of the Roses, wherein sounded the death-knell of the old. The like-to-be landless and penniless heir of a once wealthy and potent knightly race, nursed on old romances by a grand-mother who might be taken for their incarnate ghost, and wholly secluded from the world, Nigel Loring of Tilford, in the County of Surrey, while little more than a lad, defied the power of the Abbot of neighbouring Waverley; held a challenge to all comers, with the King and the best knights of England for accidental witnesses, on Tilford Bridge; and rescued a fair damsel and the honour of her house from the direst of all dangers. Then the real business begins. The "Little Cock of Tilford Bridge" finds service with no less a personage than Sir John Chandos; and before leaving home tor the French wars makes a solemn vow before the shrine of St. Catherine, by Guildford, to do three deeds in honour of his lady-love before setting eyes on her face again. More fortunate than the last and greatest of all knights errant, Don Quixote de la Mancha, he achieves them all. The first deed is the successful pursuit of a French knight who had stolen and carrying off the King's pan of invasion. Surely never before or since has been such duel as was fought between the Marie Rose of Winchelsea and the Gascon sloop La Pucelle; nor any with chivalrous an end! The second is the surprise of the apparently impregnable castle of the Baron, better known as the "Butcher," of La Brohinière — a veritable representative of the race of ogres, whose cruelties and whose doom are likely be answerable for many a nightmare. The third is nothing less than the capture of King John of France at Poictiers — that is to say, the actual capture and the honour of it, despite certain technicalities that induce common histories to ascribe it to Denis de Morbec, of Arras. Then comes knighthood, and then the reward of the vow fulfilled.
How ought the novel to be classed — as historical romance, or as romantic history? It certainly savours of the latter, on account of the prominence given to actual events and to actual personages, such as John Chandos, Walter Manny, with many others of renown in the chronicles of the time. Sir A. Conan Doyle has extracted from a long list of authorities the spirit of an age when callous recklessness of life and suffering were in sharp contrast with scrupulous regard for every point of courtesy and honour. He has even caught the pride and pleasure of mediaeval herald in its blazonry, of which a very fair account might be compiled from his pages. The general construction of his story is certainly too typical an example of what has been for many years the set form of the historical novel. Thus the feminine interest is minimised: Mary Buttesthorn, its representative, does not enter till the eleventh chapter, remains on the stage for two chapters more, and hen disappears until the twenty-seventh and last demands the wedding bells. The equally indispensable reflection of Sancho Panza is supplied by Samkin Aylward, a gallant archer, whose comedy consists in indiscriminate flirtation, and in uncomfortable sensations on shipboard from which his master is heroically free. But if the framework suggests the skilful craftsman, the picture proclaims the artist. And what but the picture matters, overflowing as it is with action and life and colour and glow?
A few points, not altogether of little moment, seem to call for correction. King Edward III. would not speak of "Clarencieux" — a heraldic dignity not created till some reigns later. Nor would he have alluded to "racks" in the Tower. Except in the unique case of the Knights Templars, and then under foreign influence, torture was not practised in England till nearly a hundred and twenty years after the battle of Poictiers. And, though very remarkable gymnastic feats are legitimate matters of course in fiction, the achievement of one John Widdicombe in lying "prone upon his back" is surely beyond human power. If the notice of such points be throught hypercritical or pedantic, it at any rate serves to show that the impression sought to be given of Sir A. Conan Doyle's fine romance, inspired by the whole spirit of chivalry at its ideal best and bravest, has not been obtained without closely interested attention to its every touch and word.