Review of Micah Clarke (The Cosmopolitan, november 1889)
From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
"MICAH CLARKE" is the most welcome surprise that has come to story readers in a long time. Did not the publishers call it a novel, the book might be taken for what the author calls it on the title-page, the statement of one Micah Clarke "as made to his three grandchildren during the hard winter of 1734, wherein is contained a full report of certain passages in his early life, together with some account of his journey from Havant to Taunton with Decimus Saxon in the summer of 1685. Also of the adventures that befell them during the western rebellion, and of their intercourse of James, Duke of Monmouth, Lord Grey, and other persons of quality. Compiled, day after day, from his own narration, by Joseph Clarke, and never previously set forth in print." Certainly a more natural and life-like recital has not been made in fiction since "Robinson Crusoe" appeared, and the reality of it is enhanced by the author's speaking in the first person and never allowing exciting incidents to rob him for an instant of the simplicity and directness of the character.
Other novelists have based stories on incidents of Monmouth's rebellion, and failed to make great books — probably because they worked on the conventional lines of the historical novel. Mr. Conan Doyle, the author of "Micah Clarke," has escaped their fault by ignoring their method, and by the still greater literary heresy of almost ignoring woman. Several women appear in his pages, but no one of them approaches the dignity of a heroine. Micah Clarke " is a man's story, — if to have all the prominent characters men makes such a book, — yet women will read it with delight, for each man is a very distinct character in himself, and appears in sharp contrast with the others. Micah, the alleged relator, is a great-hearted, large-limbed, serious-souled Englishman, just of age, and son of a tanner who had been one of Cromwell's best swordsmen and praying men. Micah's friend Reuben was chosen by the law of opposites, being a merry little grig, who follows him everywhere. Micah's mother is the subject of some wonderful pen-pictures, which form a "composite view" long to be remembered and admired.
Indeed, the charm of the book is pictorial rather than literary. The author, who is son of Punch's famous artist of the same name, and grandson of a famous caricaturist also named Doyle, seems to have inherited the faculty of perceiving individuals and scenes clearly, and putting them upon paper with the fewest possible lines. Fully two-score people appear in the book under proper names there are noblemen, boors, fops, ministers, farmers, tradesmen, apprentices, sailors, and soldiers; but the least important is as carefully pictured as the greatest — pictured so distinctly that the beholder can not forget any of the details.
The scenes are handled with equal skill. Whether the reader's ideas of England as it was two centuries ago are obtained from old prints, old books, or descriptions which modern historians have evolved after examination of all available information, they will surely be vivified by the author's narratives. Town scenes, rides from village to village, the ways of the inhabitants of different grades of social standing, the hatreds and enthusiasms born of religious convictions, the bonds and feuds of special localities, succeed one another as naturally in Mr. Doyle's pages as they would in an experience such as Micah Clarke is supposed to have had. Whether the hero dines with the chief magistrate of a town, chats with a bankrupt nobleman from the city, takes his ease in an inn, or camps with a lot of Puritans flocking to Monmouth's standard, he invests everything with an air of reality which is sure to take the reader backward two centuries and keep him there — as long as the book is in his hands.
A remarkable feature of the story is the skill with which the author expresses the feelings of the Puritans and rebels, who are almost the only characters. Mr. Doyle is a Catholic; were he not, the reader would believe that he wrote of his characters with warm sympathy and affection. Such fairness as his is rare enough in history: it is almost indiscernible in fiction. It is true that his sympathy is wholly that of great-hearted humanity and manliness and not at all theological, but it is none the less wonderful on that account. Another marvel is that a man so young — he is said to be far under thirty — could have imagined so fine a story. Unless "Micah Clarke" is, as its title-page implies, based upon an actual record, a new and great writer of historical stories has appeared.