Notes on Conan Doyle
From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
Notes on Conan Doyle
Entirely too much has been written about Conan Doyle as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, the most widely known character in all fiction, and entirely too little about him as the author of Rodney Stone, The White Company, The Adventures of Gerard, The Refugees, Uncle Bernac and The Great Shadow, not to mention the very delightful book of essays, Through the Magic Door. As a matter of fact we wonder how many persons there are, considering themselves familiar with his works, who will be just a little bit puzzled by some of these titles. How many of them will recall readily Beyond the City, or The Doings of Raffles Haw? Yet it is in these comparatively neglected books, and not in the Sherlock Holmes stories, that Conan Doyle's best work has been done. Not only that, but his heart was never in the making of Sherlock Holmes as it was in the making of Colonel Etienne Gerard. He loved Gerard for his dash, his daring, and his devotion, and still more for the very human shortcomings with which he endowed him. This partiality has always been marked, ever since the day, in Uncle Bernac, he first introduced a Gerard quite as different from the Brigadier of the later stories as the embryonic Sherlock Holmes of A Study in Scarlet was different from the Sherlock Holmes of "The Final Problem."
Keen as has been Conan Doyle's interest in the Hundred Years War between France and England (The White Company and Sir Nigel) the Rebellion of Monmouth (Micah Clarke), and the court of Louis the Magnificent (The Refugees), to him the surpreme dramatic chapter of all history is that which tells the story of the great Napoleon and the men with hairy knapsacks and hearts of steel whose tramp shook the continent for so many years. In the twenty odd stories which tell of the exploits of Gerard he has shown us every phase of that epic struggle. Throughout, if we except the brief appearance on the scene in Uncle Bernac, the Brigadier is always consistent. He is lacking in subtle perception, as became a dashing lieutenant-colonel of Hussars of the Napoleonic campaigns, but is by no means devoid of native wit. That he is brave and generous goes without saying. In the babble of his old age he is reminiscently vain of his early physical prowess and personal fascinations, although he is always discreet, and always stops short of mentioning the lady of the particular story by name. There was hardly a corner of Europe in which he had not served. He had been a prisoner in England and there engaged in fisticuffs, to his wondering discomfiture, with the Bristol Bustler. In the terrible retreat from Russia he had found shelter in the carcases of dead horses. At Waterloo, had not the face of history been against him, as the face of history was against Athos, Porthos, Aramis and d'Artagnan in their efforts to save the head of Charles I, his individual stratagem would have turned the fortunes of the day and made Napoleon once more master of Europe.
But it was in Spain that Gerard was at his best. Countless there were his performances of dash and intrepidity. To the end of his days he delighted in narrating the story of his uninvited participation in the fox hunt of the English officers, outriding them all, cutting the fox in two with a sweep of his sword, and riding away with the profound belief that the yells of execration at the unhallowed deed were simply shouts of generous admiration. Perhaps as typical an exploit as any was that which brought him into the merciless hands of the Portuguese "Smiler." Massena was about to retreat and wished to apprise another French army, that was seriously threatened, of his move. The beacon that had been prearranged for this signal was on top of a mountain held by the bandit. Two French officers had been sent to light it, and had apparently met dreadful fates. It was Gerard's turn. After various adventures the Brigadier fell into the hands of the "Smiler." The latter offered him his choice of deaths in return for certain information. Gerard had an inspiration. He gave the information and then made his conditions. "I choose to be burned on yonder beacon at the stroke of midnight." Even with the final fall of the Empire Gerard's activities do not cease. In a fast adventure we find him, some six years after Waterloo, on an expedition to St. Helena to set the Emperor free. It is too late. Gerard arrives only to witness strange ceremonies and to catch one brief glimpse of the dead face of the master he has served so long and so well. To Conan Doyle the story of the Napoleonic years is the story of all stories and Gerard is its personification.
To say that in the veins of Arthur Conan Doyle are commingled the three bloods that flowed at Fontenoy and the battle of the Boyne is far from being a mere rhetorical flourish. It is in expressing it in just that way that the significance lies. When associated with his work it suggests the British sturdiness, tempered by the Irish wit and mellowness, and the French finesse and dash. It explains the catholicism of his personal enthusiasms, and his unvarying historical partiality whether the background of the story be Gascony during the Hundred Years War, or the Iberian Peninsula, when Wellington was grappling with Napoleon's marshals. Always the dominant note is one of generous appreciation of a valiant enemy. His British heroes who fought at Waterloo never fail in giving credit to that last intrepid stand of the Old Guard. His weather-beaten naval officers who served under Nelson cannot find epithets strong enough to ex-press their hatred of the French and of the French leader. Yet that does not prevent them from being outspoken in the recognition of the prowess of a worthy foe. Gerard himself is contemptuous in speaking of those who are so blind as to imagine that the virtues of valour and fortitude belong exclusively to any one nation. "I who have fought in all countries," he tells us in one story, "against the Russians, the Prussians, the English, the Austrians, the Italians, the Spaniards — against all the world in short, tell you, my children, that the soldiers of all these countries are equally brave. Except," he adds with a touch of gorgeous Gascon naïveté, "that the French have rather more courage than the rest." Mr. Sherlock Holmes upon one occasion imparted to Watson the information that his grandmother had been a French woman. Inevitably, some day, in a similar sudden burst of confidence, he will allude to another line of his ancestry which will carry superbly back to the Irish kings.
If a certain famous romance is called a novel without a hero, Conan Doyle may be regarded as a novelist without a heroine. For certainly, there has never been another writer of equal achievement in whose books woman has played so Oriental a part. The name of Conan Doyle conjures up a great number and variety of men, all distinct, definite, sharply out-lined. Etienne Gerard swings lightly into the saddle. Buck Tregellis superbly crushes a bore's presumptuous familiarity. Sir Nigel Loring makes a knightly vow. Corporal Gregory Brewster shakes his head and mutters, "It wouldn't have done for the Duke." To ascribe to any one of these male characters the action or the words belonging to another would be a glaring inconsistency. But the women of his books! Is there a Doyle heroine who can be regarded as much more than a marionette? How many of them are remembered at all? In what story does Winnie La Force appear? Who is the heroine of The Firm of Girdlestone? Of Micah Clarke? Of The Refugees? True, there is individuality in the historical characters, the Empress Josephine, Lady Hamilton, Madame de Maintenon. Doyle is too good a transmuter to have failed there. But out of the Doyle heroines in the strict sense of the term we know only that she is a well-behaved young person, fond of lawn tennis, and addicted to afternoon tea. Perhaps it is enough.
Some Frenchman has said that the most dramatic situation in all literature is where Robinson Crusoe finds the human footprint in the sand. That is an opinion with which a good many of us will be inclined to take issue. To the modern way of thinking it is not enough for a writer to present a great situation. He must prepare the reader's mind to receive it in the proper spirit. The stage must be set. 'There must be the preliminary period of suspense. The finding of the footprint in Robinson Crusoe comes at the beginning of a chapter, out of a clear sky. It surprises but it does not thrill. It was precisely the same fundamental idea that Doyle used at the beginning of The Hound of the Baskervilles. To point out that the modern writer made the most of it does not in the least imply any comparison of the two books. But in the Doyle story the reader listened to the strange old-world legend of the demon hound that tore out the throat of the evil Sir Hugo Baskerville. He caught the spirit of the lonely moor, and something of the fear that inspired Sir Charles. He heard the story of the Baronet's sinister death — the tales of the peasantry about the hound and the uncanny sounds coming from the Grimpen Mire — in a word, he was keyed up to just the proper pitch to receive the climax. Dr. Mortimer contradicted the statement that had been made at the coroner's inquest that there were no traces upon the ground near Sir Charles's body. He had seen some, fresh and clear. "Footprints? Footprints. A man's or a woman's?" "Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound."
In contemporary fiction one must look far for a more dramatic incident than the rescue of Sir Nigel and Bertrand du Guesclin by the English archers in The White Company. Here again the basic idea is one of the conventional stock properties of fiction. It is the idea that found expression, for example, in verse when associated with the siege of Luck, now during the Sepoy Rebellion. Within the citadel, the hard-pressed little English garrison. Outside the merciless enemy. Hope practically gone, when a Scotch lassie, Jessie Brown, wakes from sleep, crying that she has heard the pipes of the Highlanders. The elation of a moment is followed by deeper depression.
- The Colonel shook his head
- And they turned to the guns once more.
Soon, however, others besides Jessie Brown start and listen, and a great cheer goes up.
- It was the pipes of the Highlanders,
- And now they played "Auld Lang Syne."
- And it came to our men like the voice of God,
- And they shouted along the line.
The last two lines may be very mediocre verse, but the situation is one of sound dramatic force. In The White Company, the castle in which Sir Nigel and Du Guesclin are guests is attacked by a savage peasantry. Side by side the Englishman and the Gascon hold the stair. There, too, hope is practically gone, and the flames are leaping high, when there comes to the ears of the besieged, borne on the night wind, the marching song of the rescuing archers:
- What of the bow?
- The bow was made in England,
- Of yew wood, of true wood,
- The wood of English bows.
In a decidedly lower key but no less essentially dramatic is an episode in Beyond the City. Again it is an old idea presented with surprising freshness. Admiral Hay Denver, after years of splendid service, is living in comfortable retirement. He learns that his son's honourable name is threatened by the defalcation of a rascally partner. At any cost disaster must be averted. The Admiral decides to sell his pension outright and go back to the sea for a living. He applies at a shipping office for a position as first or second mate.
The manager looked with a dubious eye at his singular applicant.
"Do you hold certificates?" he asked.
"I hold every nautical certificate there is."
"Then you won't do for us."
"Your age, sir."
"I give you my word that I can see as well as ever, and am as good a man in every way."
"I don't doubt it."
"Why should my age be a bar then?"
"Well, I must put it plainly. If a man of your age, holding certificates, has not got past a second officer's berth, there must be a black mark against him somewhere. I don't know what it is, drink or temper, or want of judgment, but something there most be."
"I assure you there is nothing; but I find myself stranded, and so have to turn to the old business again."
"Oh, that's it," said the manager, with suspicion in his eye.
"How long were you in your last billet?"
"Yes, sir, one-and-fifty years."
"In the same employ?"
"Why, you must have begun as a child."
"I was twelve when I joined."
"It must be a strangely managed business," said the manager, "which allows men to leave it who have served for fifty years, and who are still as good as ever. Whom did you serve?"
"The Queen. Heaven bless her!"
"Oh, you were in the Royal Navy. What rating did you hold?"
"I am admiral of the fleet."
If among the many literary influences which have moulded Conan Doyle's work any one influence is paramount, it is that of Macaulay. Doyle has always held that Macaulay could have written a great historical novel. "He could have made the multiplication table interesting reading." True, Macaulay was a great transmuter, and, in a lesser way, a great transmuter is Arthur Conan Doyle. The very heart of Froissart's Chronicles went to the making of The White Company. In addition over one hundred and fifteen volumes, French and English, dealing with the period, were mastered before he wrote one line of the manuscript. Micah Clarke, which dealt with the Monmouth Rebellion, was the result of a year's reading and five months' writing. For the American chapters of The Refugees he drew freely from Parkman. To all kinds of obscure memoirs he turned for the building of his perspective of the Napoleonic legend. The inspiration of Rodney Stone is to be found in the sev-eral crude volumes dealing with the British prize ring when that institution was at its apogee — from 1795 till 1810 — and if one would sec how the master workman can take inferior material and illumine it with the fire of his own talent, let him read through the stilted and grotesque pages of Pugilistica, and Boxiana, with the battered slang, the pompous jokes, the abominable verse, and then turn to Rodney Stone.
Rodney Stone has been called "the best story of the ring ever written." It is that and it is a great deal more. Designed, first of all, as a rousing tale, it possesses a plot that is almost flawless; and the manner in which event after event, with cumulative intensity, leads up to the battle on Crawley Downs, and the interests of all concerned hang upon the issue of that struggle, raising it from a mere contest between two professional bruisers to an almost epic dignity, is real dramatic art. But above all is the atmosphere of the tale. The book begins as countless other books begin — the man of mellow age jotting down his story for the grandchildren that gather about his knee. But the triteness goes no farther. Contrast the simplicity and genuineness of the opening of this story with the stilted tone and the purely artificial style of even so fine a novel as Lorna Doone. The England that Rodney Stone recalls is still very near and vivid to hiin. Again in memory he feels the national dread of the Corsican — "that great and evil man." Again he sees the beacons on the white cliffs, and strains his eyes, peering out over the Channel for the war ships of the tricolour. He kindles with the reminiscent thrill of war, and his heart beats fast as he remembers the tales of splendid sea fights told in the village taverns. Once again he is a boy about to leave his mother's side and his simple home at Friars Oak, to go up to the great world of London, to meet the Prince, and the Corinthians, and the men of the ring, and the officers of Nelson's fleet in the company of his famous uncle, Sir Charles Tregellis. Had Rodney Stone no other merit, it would deserve a niche for this character alone. All that history has to tell of Brummel serves only to make him seem pale and colourless when placed side by side with the strange, preposterous, impertinent, yet wholly likeable fribble of Conan Doyle's book.
One day some ten years ago the writer of these notes was discussing various bookish matters in the library of the Liverpool home of the late Dr. John Watson. The conversation ranged from the novels of Balzac to the shockers of Ponson de Terrail, a writer who has been called "the Shakespeare of secret murder." Finally it found its way to the fiction of Conan Doyle. The author of The Bonnie Briar Bush was emphatic in his appreciation. "Doyle is a splendid workman. He possesses a wonderful gift of narrative and he knows how to make everything that he reads count. But his books are entertaining to a degree that is at times unfortunate. People find his yarns so amusing as yarns that they are inclined to overlook entirely how well they are written." Commenting upon this verdict, it may be said that most persons considered Ian Maclaren during his lifetime so exclusively as a spinner of tales of the Scottish kailyard that they failed utterly to appreciate him as a sound judge of literary matters. Remote as Drumtochty was from the scenes of Madame Bovary and Bel-Ami, its historian was a close student of his Flaubert and his Maupassant. But if Conan Doyle has never been appreciated for what he really is, the case is far from being an isolated one. It is very seldom that a man who is regarded essentially as a story-teller is generally appraised at his real value as a literary workman. For his full mead of serious appreciation he has to look to a small circle of men of his own profession. To them Conan Doyle is not merely a writer who happened to stumble upon a character which has become the most widely known in all fiction. He is an author of unusual imagination, of fine constructive powers, the possessor of an effective style, in short, a craftsman to be placed, by virtue of many sturdy attributes, not very far below the apex among contemporary English story spinners.