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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

Robert Barr and Conan Doyle

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

Robert Barr and Conan Doyle is an article published in The Bookman (US version) in december 1912.

The article mainly contains extracts of the 1894 interview Real Conversations. — V. A Dialogue between Conan Doyle and Robert Barr.


Robert Barr and Conan Doyle

The Bookman (december 1912, p. 350)
The Bookman (december 1912, p. 351)
The Bookman (december 1912, p. 352)
The Bookman (december 1912, p. 353)

About twenty years ago Mr. S. S. McClure conceived the idea of a series of "Real Conversations" between persons of interesting achievement, and one of these conversations was a dialogue between Conan Doyle and Robert Barr, recorded by the latter. Mr. Barr died last month, and Conan Doyle is a somewhat sedate Knight come to three and fifty years. But twenty years ago, or to be more exact, eighteen, Robert Barr was in the full swing of his achievements, a conspicuous figure among the clever story-tellers of the day; while Conan Doyle, after years of unremunerative struggle, both as a writer and as a medical practitioner, had found his "Open Sesame" in the creation of Sherlock Holmes, and was becoming a prominent literary light in England and in this country. This "Real Conversation" was genuine, because the men talked shop. As it was designed for publication in an American magazine it was naturally exceedingly polite to Americans, but for all that there was no reason to doubt seriously the sincerity of the talkers. Mr. Barr had a characteristic fling at the other conversations in the series by pointing out that in them everybody had agreed with everybody else, whereas, as a mater of fact, no literary man ever agrees with any other literary man. He sometimes pretends to like the books another fellow has written, but that is all humbug. He doesn't in his heart; he knows he could have done them better himself.

On this point Dr. Doyle chose emphatically to disagree. His argument was that a fellow-author knows the difficulties to overcome; appreciates the effect aimed at; his criticism, even if severe, would be necessarily helpful and intelligent. Then the two turned to an amiable discussion of the writers of the day, Mr. Barr pointing out that Mr. Howells, who had no English axe to grind, considered literature in England to be a thing of the past, maintaining that authors no longer understood even the rudiments of their business. But Doyle did not concur in this view. To his mind there were at least a dozen men and women who had made a deep mark.

BARR. "A dozen! You always were a generous man, Doyle. Who are the talented twelve, so that I may cable to Howells?"

DOYLE. "There are more than a dozen — Barrie, Kipling, Mrs. Olive Schreiner, Sarah Grand, Miss Harraden, Gilbert Parker, Quiller-Couch, Hall Caine, Stevenson, Stanley Weyman, Anthony Hope, Crockett, Rider Haggard, Jerome, Zangwill, Clark Russell, George Moore — many of them under thirty and few of them much over it. There are other, of course. These names just happen to occur to me."

BARR. "You think a man improves up to fifty?"

DOYLE. "Certainly, if he keeps out of a groove and refuses to do his work in a mechanical way. Why, many of the greatest writers in our fiction did not begin until after forty. Thackeray was about forty. Scott was past forty. Charles Reade and George Eliot were as much. Richardson was fifty. To draw life, one must know it."

BARR. "My experience is that when a man is fifty he knows he will improve until he is sixty, and when he is sixty he feels that improvement will keep right on until he is seventy whereas, when he is twenty he thinks that perhaps he will know more when he is thirty, but is not sure. Man is an amusing animal. Now I would like an American dozen, if you don't mind."

DOYLE. "I have not read a book for a long time that has stirred me as much as Miss Wilkins's Pembroke. I think she is a very great writer. It is always risky to call a recent book a classic, but this one really seems to me to have every characteristic of one."

BARR. "Well?"

DOYLE. "Well!"

BARR. "That is only one. Don't you read American fiction?"

DOYLE. "Not as much as I should wish, but what I have read has, I hope, been fairly representative. I know Cable's work and Eugene Field's and Hamlin Garland's and Edgar Fawcett's and Richard Harding Davis's. I think Harold Frederic's In the Valley is one of the best of recent historical romances. The danger for American fiction is, I think, that it should run in many brooks instead of one broad stream. There is a tendency to over-accentuate local peculiarities; differences, after all, are very superficial things, and good old human nature is always there under a coat of varnish. When one hears of a literature of the West or of the South, it sounds aggressively sectional."

BARR. "Sectional? If it comes to that, who could be more sectional than Hardy or Barrie — the one giving us the literature of a county and the other of a village? You know that a person in a neighbouring village said of Barrie, that he was 'no sae bad fur a Kerrimuer man.' When you speak of a section in America, you must not forget it may be a bit of land as big as France."

DOYLE. "Barrie and Hardy have gained success by showing how the Scotch or Wessex peasant shares our common human nature, not by accentuating the points in which they differ from us."

BARR. "Well, I think Howells is demolished. What do you think of him and of James?"

DOYLE. "James, I think, has had a great and permanent influence upon fiction. His beautiful, clear-cut style and his artistic restraint must affect every one who reads him. I'm sure his 'Portrait of a Lady' was an education to me, though one has not always the wit to profit by one's education."

BARR. "Yes; James is a writer of whom you English people ought to be proud. I wish we had an American like him. Still, thank goodness, We have our William Dean Howells. I love Howells so much that I feel sure you must have something to say against him; what is it?"

DOYLE. "I admire his honest, earnest work, but I do not admire his attitude toward all writers and critics who happen to differ from his school. One can like Valdes and Bourget and Miss Austen without throwing stones at Scott or Thackeray and Dickens. There is plenty of room for all."




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