Mr. A. Conan Doyle
From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
Mr. A. Conan Doyle
An English critic told his readers the other day that the historical novel is defunct. Whether the statement, like the ancient one which imputes unveracity to the entire race, was made in haste does not appear; but it certainly must have been made in ignorance, or without consideration.. True, the historical novel has not the vogue it once had. The spell of the past, as exercised by most of the latter-day magicians, has lost somewhat of its old potency. The magic wand is frequently not magic at all; so that the events and characters summoned up are too often shadowy and unreal, and consequently a mere weariness of spirit. But historical romance is not dead. On the contrary, there are distinct signs of a revival. In spite of frivolity and the noisy gospel of "modernity," the modern reader is reverting with quickened interest to his ancestors, finding, perhaps, with pleasurable surprise that the terse speech and ready jest of hunters and men-at-arms, faithfully rendered, is every whit as entertaining as the minor commonplaces of the nineteenth century tea table, and that the record of accidents and adventures by flood and field may yield as much wholesome excitement as the recital of qualms about infant baptism, or tedious details of the useful but prosaic domestic duties of seared and angular spinsters. In a word, "the age" is beginning to discover that it does not itself monopolize the great and moving qualities of human nature.
To no living English novelist are we more indebted for the renewal of interest in things fresh and natural than to Mr. A. Conan Doyle. He has made a strenuous effort to rehabilitate and quicken "the old dead time," and his success has been conspicuous. The White Company, hitherto his most important work, is not only excellent as a story, rich in incident, and strong in characterization, but gives the best picture of the life of England and France in the fourteenth century that is to he found in fiction. That splendid period, a period during which,as some think, England reached the summit of her greatness, is depicted with not a little of the power and felicity of the poet, and with all the accuracy of the historian. Nor is this accuracy attained by prolix and tiresome descriptions; for Mr. Doyle's writings are remarkable for their liveliness and briskness of movement.
Mr. Doyle has not, however, confined himself exclusively or even mainly to the past. Of the dozen books which he has written only three are strictly historical, The White Company, Micah Clarke, and The Refugees, the last of which is now being published serially in HARPER'S MAGAZINE. Perhaps it is as a writer of detective stories that Mr. Doyle is most widely known, and it is interesting to note that these stories had their origin in the author's irritation at the perfectly arbitrary manner in which the detective of fiction always appears to attain his results. A Study in Scarlet was written to show what Mr. Doyle conceived to be the true deductive and analytical method of solving detective problems. The success of the hook led to the writing of The Sign of the Four, and the later Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. This last has had an immense popularity in serial form — indeed, has been by far the most popular thing of its kind that has appeared in England for years, and the work is being continued in the new series of "Adventures" now appearing in HARPER'S WEEKLY. Then he is the author of some volumes of short stories, and of an ultra-sensational novel representing his 'prentice work, entitled The Firm of Girdlestone. In all these there are freshness, force, and originality; the detective tales are extremely clever, and are not unlikely to mark an epoch in their own order of fiction. Henceforth readers will be apt to demand more reason and less miracle in the achievements of the ordinary detective.
But while Mr. Doyle has done well in all the departments he has entered — and he has been a singularly versatile writer — his highest claim to critical consideration must rest on his historical work. In it he has made his most serious efforts, and by it he would probably wish to be judged. He is, no doubt, aware that in taking "the high historic ground" he subjects himself to a more searching criticism and more dangerous comparisons than if he delineated contemporary life. But he has taken the risk, and must abide the consequences.
In these days a man is not permitted to be himself, but must be compared to some one else. Rather inconsiderately and hastily, I think, Mr. Doyle has been compared to Scott. The verdict is inevitable, even if tradition were without force. Mr. Doyle is not Scott any more than Hawthorne was Scott, any more than Scott himself was Shakespeare or Cervantes. Dogberry observed quaintly that comparisons are odorous; they are often unjust, and generally misleading. The more a writer is himself, the less. he can resemble any one else. In literature there ought to be no insistence or imitation, for imitations will always abound so long as mediocrity persists in writing. If there is nothing in The White Company like the famous tournament scene in Ivanhoe, are we on that ground to pronounce the former book inferior to the latter? Surely not. It ought rather to stand to Mr. Doyle's credit that, following the master in a perilous enterprise,he has preserved his independence and his individuality. He is, in fact, too richly endowed to need to be a borrower from anybody. Touches there doubtless are in The White Company that remind one of the author of Quentin Durward; but they are incidental, or such as must result from similarity of theme. Mr. Doyle does indeed take material that had been utilized by Scott, but he regards it from a point of view of his own. Scott, in a way that is incomparable and inimitable, has drawn the English bowman as an outlaw; Mr. Doyle has presented him as the flower of infantry soldiers, fighting under his country's flag partly from patriotism, partly to mend his fortune, and partly for the fun of the thing; and has added a new attraction to English fiction.
In the most difficult part of the novelist's art Mr. Doyle has given promise of very high achievement. His characters have the vitality and the variety of life. They move us as friends and companions; we share their joys, suffer in their defeats, and sympathize even in their failings. Sir Nigel Loring, the model of chivalry, the pink of courtliness, the gentlest as well as the bravest of knights, is a character that Cervantes or Scott might have been proud of; and Hordle John, uncouth, generous, and utterly fearless, is a man whom the reader is certain to remember with affection. There are others hardly less delightful, and in general Mr. Doyle's characters are perfectly discriminated from each other.
As to his style, a word will suffice. It is vigorous rather than subtle, broad rather than fine. There is little or no sacrifice to the graces; but in the midst of richness and power daintiness will scarcely be missed. There are multitudes who all too successfully cultivate the vice of preciousness. Mr. Doyle is not precious. But he is a born story-teller, with gifts of narrative and characterization that have already made him the delight of thousands, and are likely to make him the delight of many thousands more.
J. A. STEUART.