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22 May 1859, Edinburgh M.D., Kt, KStJ, D.L., LL.D., Sportsman, Writer, Poet, Politician, Justicer, Spiritualist Crowborough, 7 July 1930

Fiction as a Part of Literature

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On thursday 10 august 1893, Arthur Conan Doyle gave a lecture "Fiction as part of Literature" at the Old Catholic Church, Lucerne (Switzerland).



Conan Doyle contribution

The agenda for the week in connection with the Reunion Conferences convened by the Rev Dr Lunn included a lecture by Dr Conan Doyle. It was originally to have been on "George Meredith," but instead of dealing with that novelist exclusively the lecture included the whole subject of the fiction of the younger school of writers. At the outset the lecturer premised that in the literature of Great Britain lay her most certain claim to lasting glory. The work of the statesman and the soldier might and would crumble away, but that of the author and the poet continued. Critics of every age had been prone to take a gloomy view of the generation in which they lived, but after all it was pure pessimism to chant jeremiads over the decay of literature. Thomas Hardy and George Meredith both had shown remarkable powers, but neither had been able to lay hold of the public mind like some of their predecessors. On the whole, fiction considered as an art had improved in the present generation, inasmuch as literature had become more cosmopolitan. Literary federation, in fact, had preceded the federation of the Empire. For example, Rudyard Kipling with his volcanic style, showed some traces of his ruddy glow of the East; Stevenson was engaged in giving us the literature of the South Seas, in which could be recognised the beat of the waves and the rustle of the palm leaves; and among other writers Rider Haggard was showing a romance hanging over the frontier line of civilisation, and painting the debateable land where the white man is displacing the black. All this pointed to the reasonable hope that the literature of the future would be more brilliant than that of the past.

Dr Doyle confined himself strictly to the younger writers of fiction, among whom he gave great prominence and first mention to Robert Louis Stevenson. Mr Stevenson, he said, was one of the few English writers who had proved successful both with longer works and with short stories, branches of literature which were quite distinct. Neither Thackeray, nor Scott, nor Captain Mayne Reid, nor George Eliot had written short stories. And even Mr Stevenson in his earlier writings was largely under the influence of George Meredith. England had never produced a man so nice in the selection of the words he used as Mr Stevenson. In proof of this Dr Doyle cited, among other passages these; "His eyes clung coasting round to me" — taken from a description of a guilty man —; "His laugh rang forth like a cracked bell"; "His voice shook like a taut rope"; "His blows resounded on the grave as thick as sobs." What could be more etfective and picturesque than such direct and familiar comparisons?

Olive Schreiner was noticed with unstinted praise, and then Dr Doyle passed to a Scotch production in Mr J M Barrie, a writer of so sympathetic a tone that his work would be handed down to future generations of Scotchmen, a heritage nearly as precious as the poems of Robert Burns. As an example of literary style the lecturer quoted a long passage of felicitous description, on which he based his opinion that there was a simplicity about Barrie's style which could be achieved by the highest art only. Nothing could be more clear-cut, nervous, and delicate. This man author of only thirty-three years pointed to a long life for his works. Another writer of promise he said, was Qeiller Couch, or "Q," as he styles himself, a man who knew his own powers and had absolute confidence in them. Passing on to notice Rudyard Kipling, Dr Doyle said it was easy to point to faults of style. There was a "cock-sureness" in him which reminded one of the hot-headed school boy who backed his own side and had no word to say for the other. He gave the impression of being curiously wanting in the power of self-criticism — as witness the republication of certain of his works. Although he was English there was in Rudyard Kipling a touch of the burning East, like a vivid Indian orchid amid English roses. Kipling had been, and was still, a great political force. He had in his literature brought India nearer to England than the Suez Canal had done. When it was remembered that he was only 27 years of age it must be admitted that few men of letters had shown suck promise so early in life. Thackeray and Scott and other great authors had passed 40 years when they began to make a mark.

In conclusion, Dr Doyle pointed the moral that literature was not an evil thing, nor yet a luxury; it was what people read, and what they read they thought, and what they thought they did. It was open to doubt whether in the whole of human work there was any so productive of good to one's fellow. The novelist was really the philanthropist of literature, and no man could have a nobler work or higher ambition than lightening by one feather's weight the burden which darkens so many lives.


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