My Contemporaries in Fiction
From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
My Contemporaries in Fiction. XIII - The Young Romancers is an article written by David Christie Murray, published in The Canadian Magazine in october 1897.
My Contemporaries in Fiction
XIII.—THE YOUNG ROMANCERS.
In the combined spelling and reading book which was in use in schools more than forty years ago there was printed a story to the following effect : Certain Arabs had lost a camel, and in the course of their wanderings in search of him they met a dervish, whom they questioned. The dervish answered by offering questions on his own side. "Was your camel lame in one foot?" he began. "Yes," said the owners. "Was he blind in one eye ?" he continued. "Yes," said the owners again. "Had he lost a front tooth ?" "Yes." "Was he laden with corn on one side and with honey on the other ?" "Yes, yes, yes. This is our camel. Where have you seen him ?" The dervish answered: "I have never seen him." The Arabs, not without apparent reason, suspected the dervish of playing with them, and were about to chastise him, when the holy man asked for a hearing. Having secured it, he explained. He had seen the track of the camel. He had known the animal to be lame of one foot because that foot left a slighter impression than the others upon the dust of the road. He had argued it blind of one eye because it had cropped the herbage on one side of the road alone. He knew it to have lost a tooth because of the gap left in the centre of its bite. Bees and flies argued honey on one side of the beast, and ants carrying wheat grains argued wheat on the other. The name of this observant and synthetic-minded dervish was not Sherlock Holmes, but he had the method of that famous detective, and in a sense anticipated the plots of all the stories which Dr. Conan Doyle has so effectively related of him. Possibly the best stories in the world which depend for their interest on this kind of induction are Edgar Allan Poe's. "The Gold Bug," "The Murder in the Rue Morgue," and "The Stolen Letter," have not been surpassed or even equalled by any later writer ; but Dr. Doyle comes in an excellent second, and if he has not actually rivalled Poe in the construction and development of any single story, he has run him close even there, and has beaten him in the sustained ingenuity of continuous invention. The story of "The Yellow Band" has a flavour almost as gruesome and terrible as Poe's "Black Cat," and an unusual faculty for dramatic narrative is displayed throughout the whole clever series. The Sherlock Holmes stories are far, indeed, from being Dr. Doyle's best work ; but it is to them that he mainly owes his popularity. They took the imaginative side of the general reader, and their popular properties are likely to keep them before the public mind for a long while to come. To estimate Dr. Doyle's position as a writer one has to meet him in "The Refugees," in "The White Company," and in "Rodney Stone." In each of these there is evident a sound and painstaking method of research, as well as a power of dramatic invention ; and in combination with these is a style of unaffected manliness, simplicity, and strength, which is at once satisfactory to the student and attractive to the mass of people who are content to be pleased by such qualities without knowing or asking why. The labour bestowed on "The White Company" may very well be compared to that expended by Charles Reade on "The Cloister and the Hearth." It covers a far less extent of ground than that monumental romance, and it has not (and does not aim at) its universality of mood, but the same desire of accuracy, the same order of scholarship, the same industry, the same sense of scrupulous honour in matters of ascertainable fact, are to be noted, and being noted, are worthy of unstinted admiration. It is, perhaps, an open question as to whether Dr. Doyle, in his latest book, has not run a little ahead of the time at which a story on such a theme could be written with entire safety. " Rodney Stone " is a story of the prize-ring, and of the gambling, hard-drinking and somewhat brutalized days in which that institution flourished. There are many of us (I have made public confession half-a-score of times) who regret the abolition of the ring, on grounds of public policy. We argue that man is a fighting animal, and that in the days of the ring there was a recognized code of rules which regulated his conduct at times when the combative instinct was not to be restrained. We observe that our commonalty now use the knife in quarrel, and we regret the death of that rough principle of honour which once imposed itself upon the worst of rowdies. But there is little doubt that the feeling of the community at large is overwhelmingly against us, and it is for this reason that I am dubious as to the success of Dr. Doyle's last literary venture. The makings of romance are in the story, and are well used. There are episodes of excellent excitement in it ; notable amongst these being the race on the Godstone roads, which is done with a swing and passion not easy to overpraise. In the narrative of the fight and of the incidents which preceded it the feeling of the time is admirably preserved and the interest of the reader is held at an on yielding tension. But the prize-ring is a little too near as yet to offer unimpeachable matter for romance ; and people who can read of the bloodthirsty Umslopogaas and his semi-comic holocausts with an unshaken stomach, or feel a placid historic pleasure in the chronicles of Nero's eccentricities, will find "Rodney Stone" objectionable because it chronicles a "knuckle fight," and because a "knuckle fight" is still occasionally brought off in London, and more occasionally suppressed by the police.
But a more serious criticism awaits Dr. Conan Doyle's last work. It is offered respectfully, and with every admiration for the high qualties already noticed. In the re-embodiment of a bygone age in fiction three separate and special faculties are to be exercised. The first is the faculty for research, which must expend its energy not merely on the theme in hand, but on the age at large. The second is the imaginative and sympathetic faculty, which alone can make the dry bones of social history live again. The third is the faculty of self-repression, the power to cast away all which, however laboriously acquired, is dramatically unessential. Two of these powers belong in generous measure to Dr. Conan Doyle. The third, which is as necessary to complete success, he has not yet displayed. In "Rodney Stone" an attempt has been made to cover up this shortcoming, in the form in which the story has been cast, and in the very choice of its title. But when the book comes to be read it is not the tale of Rodney Stone (who is a mere outsider privileged to narrate), but of his fasionable uncle's combat with Sir Lothian Hume, with the ring in which their separate champions, appear as a battle ground. Many pages are crowded with people who are named in passing and forgotten. They have no influence on the narrative, and no place in it. Their presence assuredly displays a knowledge of the time and its chronicles, but they are just so many obstacles to the clear run of the story, and no more. This is really the only fault to be found with the book, but it is a grave fault, and the writer, if he is to take the place which his powers and his industry alike join in claiming for him, must learn to cast "as rubbish to the void" many a painfully acquired bit of knowledge. To be an antiquary is one thing, and to ,be an antiquarian romancer is another. Mr. Doyle has aimed at being both one and the other in the same pages. A true analogy may be taken from the stage, where the supernumeraries are not allowed to obscure the leading lady and gentleman at any moment of action.
Mr. Stanley Weyman, who is not Dr. Doyle's equal in other matters, is in this sole respect his master. He keeps his hero on the scene, and his action in full swing. He gives no indication of a profound or studious knowledge of his time, but he knows it fairly well. Dr. Doyle's method is at bottom the truer, when once the detailed labour is hidden, but when it bares its own machinery it loses most of its gain. Mr. Weyman tells a rattling story in rattling fashion. His is the good old style of easy-going romance, where courage and adventure never fail. He has chosen the realm of D'Artagnan and Aramis, of I orthos and Athos, and he has plenty of viva-city, and can invent brilliantly on the lines on which the brave Dumas invented long before him. He is a cheerful and inspiriting echo. He cannot wind the mighty horn the elders sounded, but he can imitate it fairly from a distance. It is only when that crass reviewer comes along to tell us that the old original hunter of romance is back again that his music gives us anything but pleasure. For my own part, I hope he may flourish long, and give us stories as good as "A Gentleman of France" as often as he can. My "Bravo!" shall be as ready as any man's and as hearty. Why — to change the simile used just now — when a man is resting his legs in a comfortable auberge, and drinking the honest light wine of the country (which doesn't pretend to be better than it is), should the asinine enthusiast come to spoil his enjoyment by swearing that he sits in the enchanted palace of Sir Walter, and has before him the mighty wine Sir Walter bottled ? The enthusiast provokes to wrath. It's a very good auberge — it's a capital, comfortable house of call, and we should like to sit there often. And the wine — we found no fault with the wine. It's an honest tap, and a wholesome and a palatable, and here's the landlord's health in it. But the magic vintage ? Rubbish! Mr. Anthony Hope has been so lucky as to please the public in two styles. In the one genre he has displayed an undoubted capacity, marred here and there to some tastes by a not very defined seeming of superciliousness, and in the other he has taken us into the most agreeable regions of unrestrained romance in which English readers have had leave to wander this many a day. He has caught the very tone of simple-hearted sincerity in which his later stories demand to be told. As an ex-ample of the adaptation of literary method to the exigencies of narrative it would not be easy to light on anything better.
It has been seen that the art of fiction as practised in Great Britain at this hour includes almost all known forms of romance, and that no school may be said to have its own way to the exclusion of another. It has been seen, too, that though this is not a day of pre-eminent -greatness, we can boast an astonishing industry and fertility. The output of literary work has never been so large, nor has the average of excellence ever been so equal or so high. It has been demonstrated—it is being demonstrated in new instances two or three times a year—that literary talent is not at all the uncommon and half-miraculous thing it was once supposed to be. Genius is as rare as ever, and is likely to continue so, but talent multiplies its appearances in full accordance with economic rules. No age ever submitted so constantly as ours to be amused or soothed by the romancer's art. The permission has opened the door to a great number of capable, industrious and workmanlike men and women, who have learnt their business of amusement well. To the vast majority of us literature is as much a trade as any of the accepted businesses of Holborn or Cheapside, and, apart from a lingering sentimentalism, there is no reason why the fact should not be owned. There is no shame in honest craftwork done for hire, and when the work is so excellent as at least a score of living English writers can make it we have a right to take some pride in it. But with this day's newspaper before me I learn that Mr. —, who is the thin mimic of a fine imitator, has surpassed his last "masterpiece," and that a lady of name to me unknown has "rivalled" his masterpiece, and that a gentleman to me unknown has produced a book which must necessarily be "a classic." A masterpiece is a rare thing, and words have a definite meaning. We call "Vanity Fair" and "Esmond" masterpieces when we desire to be enthusiastic. We call "David Copperfield" a masterpiece, and we find plenty of people to dispute the judgment. A masterpiece is the master work of a master hand. It must needs be a rare thing. It is not for the dignity of our work that it should be greeted by that sort of hysteric hiccoughing against which these pages have protested. It is a shame-less insult to letters at large when the hysteria is bought and paid for, as does sometimes happen, and not less insulting when the gentleman who grinds the axe is fee'd in kind by the other gentleman who rolls the log.
And now, what is done is done, and I leave my task with some misgivings. If here and there I have given pain, I have not written a word in malice. The pleasantest part of my work has lain in the fact that with every desire to be honest I have so often been compelled to praise.