Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (article 6 september 1914)

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New-York Tribune
(6 september 1914, magazine section, p. 1)

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is an article written by Filson Young published in various American newspapers on 6 september 1914.

In the same issue, the article was followed several page after with a double-page of 8 illustrations by Joseph Clement Coll titled Characters from the Books of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.


Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

New-York Tribune
(6 september 1914, magazine section, p. 3)
New-York Tribune
(6 september 1914, magazine section, p. 4)

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is a big subject. You feel that the first time you see him: the great, powerful, bulky, yet active body, the strong head and neck, the big, firm hands, all impress you with a sense almost of the gigantic. The impression of bulk and size is rapidly followed by the impression of strength and power; and it is not until one has been conscious of these for sometime that the further impression of activity is added; the activity, let us say, of a great locomotive engine, which is slow and deliberate in the motion of starting, but can gather a pace and an impetus that are irresistible. And all these impressions are pervaded by another, — an impression of bigness of heart, of kindness, of simplicity and strength of character.

There are no subtleties about Conan Doyle. To say that may seem in some eyes like disparaging him as an author; but one cannot have everything, and if it be a defect not to be subtle, then Conan Doyle must be credited with the defects of his qualities. But you do not ask a mountain or the southwest wind to be subtle; and the strength of a simple character lies in its simplicity. There is a great deal of the big dog too about Conan Doyle, — the kind of big dog that walks about a room and upsets a table by the swish of his tail. Conan Doyle has upset more than one table; for behind all his good nature and kindness of disposition lies a power of indignation, of righteous anger and intolerance of injustice, that is extremely formidable when it is roused, and extremely awkward and upsetting for whatever forces or institutions it happens to be ranged against. For this big watch dog has a big bark. One cannot say that his bark is worse than his bite, because fortunately it has not hitherto been necessary for the world to experience his bite: his bark has so far been enough.

There are three aspects in which one must consider Sir Arthur Conan Doyle if one is to arrive at any just portrait or knowledge of him as a man; for the river of his life runs in three very clearly defined courses. One, and of course the most famous, is concerned with his work as an author; another lies in his devotion to every form of outdoor sport; the third has to do with his work as a public man, his services to his country and humanity at large. So no wonder I started by saying that, in more senses than one, he is a big subject.

It is as an author that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is chiefly interesting to his American readers. No contemporary Englishman has in his books covered so large a field of adventurous life and appealed to so wide a public. The reasons for any success are always interesting, and in Sir Arthur's case they are not difficult to discover. He is, first of all and above all, a teller of stories; and that is the first, the most ancient, and the most essential business of all literature. But there are many ways in which a writer can succeed as a teller of stories, — by the beauty of his style, by the subtlety of analysis by which he probes the inner recesses of the human mind and heart, or by the ruthlessness with which he lays bare the facts of life.

None of these is characteristic of Conan Doyle. His style has no particular graces or beauties. It is good in the sense that it is sound, straightforward English; but otherwise Sir Arthur makes no attempt to use prose as a vehicle of beauty. He is no subtle psychologist either. It is actions rather than motives that interest him, and separate him from the other great division of authors, whose interest is in the play of motives of which action is merely the result.

Nor is he in any sense of the word a realist. He is no Zola: the fevers of the boudoir and the passions of the farmyard alike leave him cold. But he is a teller of stories; and the stories he tells are stories of the adventures of more or less simple men in contact with danger or difficulty. Wherever man comes into conflict with the forces of nature, or the elements of life that make for opposition and difficulty, there Conan Doyle has his subject. He treats it with the directness and simplicity that are alone suitable to it.

Moreover, he has one great secret, almost the greatest that a writer of fiction can have, — he knows how to tell a story. By that I mean he knows where to begin, where to end, where to throw light and emphasis, where to blur and subordinate the details. This is a gift of nature. The proper telling of a story is like the placing of a portrait on canvas: there is a right and a wrong way to do it. But there is this difference, — the right way to place a portrait on canvas can with much toil and difficulty be learned; the way to tell a story practically never be learned. That is why a man who has it, even if he has no every wonderful gifts of imagination or fancy, can rise to the greatest eminence as a writer. He has the ear of the world; the world has need of him, not to teach or instruct, but to charm and entertain it with his stories.

There is striking confirmation of this in the facts of Sir Arthur's life. He had the instinct for telling stories always in him, and wrote his first book when he was six years old and illustrated it himself. For the inherited an artistic gift not only from his grandfather John Doyle, the famous political caricaturist, but also from his father, whose gifts as an artist, although quite unknown to the public at large, are of a much higher order than either those of John Doyle or even of his brother Richard, the famous contributor to Punch in early days.

At school, then, Arthur Conan Doyle was already known as a teller of tales, and little as boys care as a rule to acknowledge or tolerate any artistic gift in one of their number, so great was his hold upon them that they used to bribe him with pastry and apples to continue some narrative that he had left off at an exciting point.

But although he is a born teller of tales he does not rest simply on the ability of his natural gift. In nearly all his books there is some solid stuff of fact or history on which the narrative rests, and this is not supplied without a certain amount of serious work in preparation. Sir Arthur, like all writers who are worth anything, is a great reader, and as an instance of his faithful preparation for giving his public sound value one may cite the case of "Micah Clarke." This book took five months to write; but the reading for it occupied a year.

About some of his juvenile attempts at storytelling that were concerned with the most sanguinary adventures Sir Arthur has said that he always found it "easier to get people into scrapes than to get them out." One might accept this from almost anyone else, but not from the creator of Sherlock Holmes.

That brings us to what, little as he may like it, is the character with which his name will always be most widely associated. It is not to be wondered at if he does not care to talk very much of Sherlock Holmes. The tragedy of the author who has made a great hit with a me subject or one character is that people insist on associating him with that alone, talking about it, writing about it, demanding more and more of it, until the poor author begins to recoil from the monster whom he has created and who threatens to devour him. Sherlock Holmes has brought his creator great fame and considerable wealth; but it is possible that he has also robbed him of something, — of literary reputation.

The public never just in these matters. The Sherlock Holmes stories, delightful and fascinating as they are, are not Sir Arthur's best work; but they are by far his most popular, and one could well sympathize with him if he resented a little the public's habit of ignoring the other and perhaps better work that he has done for the sake of its favorite.

But there is no escape him from in Sherlock Holmes. It was Sherlock Holmes who rescued him from his early humdrum career as a medical practitioner in an English country town; it was Sherlock Holmes who gave him one lift after another into the world of fame and prosperity, who opened one delightful door after another of life and travel for him, and served him in a thousand ways, and is now exacting his payment in requiring his author to be in some kind of bondage to him.

There is indeed a kind of romance about Sir Arthur's literary beginnings. He wrote through all his student days at Edinburgh University, and when he was a doctor at Southsea he was practising the craft of writing, but entirely without success. His first published story appeared in Chambers's Journal in 1878 when he was nineteen years old, and he got three guineas for it. But it was not until 1887 that "A Study in Scarlet," in which Sherlock Holmes made his bow to the public, appeared in Beeton's Christmas Annual.

Conan Doyle never earned more than fifty pounds in any one of the first ten years in which he wrote assiduously "Micah Clarke," one of the best of his historical romances, was rejected by one publisher after another until it came under the eyes of Andrew Lang, who was then reader to Longmans'; and they published it in 1889. This was followed by another Sherlock Holmes story, "The Sign of Four"; and then the fruits of success began to appear.

Still fostering his ambitions as a doctor rather than as a writer, Doyle used the first financial fruits of his success in moving from Southsea to London, and establishing himself as an eye specialist. During that period, however, it was editors rather than patients who began to cone to his door; and in the undoubted success of Sherlock Holmes and "The White Company" — that delightful story of fourteenth century England, the England in which, to quote his own words, the "pioneers of the new era were marching with the stragglers of the old, where the knight errant and the democratic politicians impinged upon each other" — decided him to abandon his profession as a doctor and declare himself as an author. But he has often said that he never abandoned his profession until that abandoned him.

How full his literary activities have been can be realized only by someone who has read all his books; but even a mere list of them as an indication of the subjects they cover is impressive.

Apart from the great series of detective stories with which the character of Sherlock Holmes is associated, there is a group of historical novels which cover a considerable period of history, chiefly the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries. At least four other novels are rooted in the Napoleonic period. The two novels whose hero is Brigadier Gerard are perhaps the most popular of these, full as they are of a rollicking vitality and spirit of adventure. In "Round the Red Lamp," which I shall always regard as one of his best, works, he gets as near realism as he has ever got, and agitates the grim and somber curtain behind which pathological tragedies are enacted. He has written two books of poetry, and also of literary criticism. His historical work, "The Great Boer War," suffers probably as little as any such work could from the speed with which it was written and the nearness and complexity of the subject; and if it does not stand as a permanent history of England's struggle for South Africa, it has at any rate admirably served its immediate purpose of giving the world a right and spirited view of England's military conduct of that campaign.

Another department of his literary activity is represented by books and pamphlets on certain great criminal cases in England where there was reason to believe that there had been a miscarriage of justice, on the Kongo atrocities, and also on certain controversial matters connected with the Boer war.

There is also a series of short stories or studies in the volume called "The Last Galley" which are remarkable in their way and unlike anything else that I know of in fiction. Each of them, although it preserves the form of a short story is based on the reconstruction of some bit of actual life as recorded in the history of the world. Roman, Carthagenian, European, and British history are laid under contribution. In each case the author has absorbed his atmosphere and produced a series of stories that would leave any boy who read them with considerably more knowledge of the history of the world than it fennel hint with. Apart from its interest as good fiction, "The Last Galley" has not, in my opinion, received the recognition that it deserves as a work of great educational valise in elementary history.

Like so much of the rest of Sir Arthur's best work, it is blanketed, so to speak, by the ubiquitous Sherlock Holmes. There is no getting away from Sherlock. When one series came to an end with his almost certain death in the ravine, two continents were wrung with sorrow, and Sir Arthur was bombarded with demands for more amounts of his prowess. Indeed, this creation has passed into the common life of those who speak the English language. He is and will remain among the immortals who are the companions of every generation, who come ultimately to represent groups of qualities or types rather than individual characters.

And to complete this extremely representative list there is a group of plays, one dealing with Waterloo, one with an Egyptian adventure, described in "The Tragedy of the Korosko," and two dealing with Sherlock Holmes.

There remain two other aspects of this remarkable man to be considered, — his career as a sportsman, and as one who, outside of politics and all organized machinery, has played no inconsiderable part in the public life of England during the last decade or so.

As a sportsman Sir Arthur is distinguished by his all-round capacity. I am not sure whether he has ever played baseball. I should not like to assert that he has not. If not, it has been from lack of opportunity rather than lack of capacity or desire. He has been a lifelong cricketer and has made his century at Lords, which means that he has earned the blue ribbon of first-class amateur cricket. He has played football. He was devoted to boxing, and some if the best descriptions in his English stories are concerned with the old life of the ring. He is a good big game shot, and his pleasant house overlooking the weald of Sussex is full of trophies of his gun. As a fisherman he has not been merely content with the trout and salmon, but in his affinity for big things has successfully hooked the tarpon and harpooned the whale. He plays billiards well, and golf pretty well.

He has always been, in his own expression, "a second-rater and all-rounder" in sport rather than one who has specialized to the point of preeminence in any one game; and yet I should say that it is not, so much his all-round devotion to games that is remarkable, as his all-round excellence ill them. This feature of his character, so characteristically English, may or may not be of much concern to those who are chiefly interested in him as an author: but it is a very essential part of the man himself.

Reading the lists of works I have quoted one might easily imagine them to be the result of the activities of a peering and spectacled bookworm, industriously driving a pen from morning till night in the dusty atmosphere of a library. But you see now how far that is from the truth. No one meeting Sir Arthur would take him at first glance for an author; indeed, what would interest a stranger at once about lain would not be what hit does, but what he is. Above all things he is a man, who has shown his capacity for manly strength and a straight, manly outlook in every department of life that lie has touched. Until you know Conan Doyle you may think of him chiefly as the author of delightful books; but once you have known him and grasped his hand and looked into his eves you think of him not as a doctor, an author, a cricketer, or a sportsman, but simply as a man.

And that brings me to the last and in some ways the greatest at of his character. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in common with other people great and small, — soldiers, sailors, actors, grocers, bankers, politicians, artists, ambassadors, anti scholars, — has received the accolade final the King of England and been dubbed a Knight. And of all the men who bear that title I honestly know of none who is So entirely worthy of it in its ancient chivalrous significance; for all the manly attributes of this big man there is none so fine as his hatred of injustice, his tender-heartedness, his valorous activity in the cause of what is clean and right and against what is wrong and unjust.

Fortunately or unfortunately, — and I think on the whole fortunately, — he has not the power as a writer of fiction to make the serious causes that he has most at heart time subject of his stories. For these, as we have seen, he has to go into the realms of imagination. But no man with a heart like his can live his life and be content to take no part in some of the great affairs that agitate his own time; and as Sir Arthur has been unable to make his novels a vehicle for polemics, his fighting and crusading have been done outside his ordinary work as an author.

Thus on many great questions, all concerning human justice, he has left his mark. The misrepresentation of England in foreign quarters at the time of the Boer war was a most difficult thing to combat, and no existing machinery was able to do it. Practically single handed Sir Arthur took the vindication of England on his own shoulders, wrote a pamphlet which was translated into every European language, and not only paid its own way in vindicating England all over the world, but made a substantial sum of money in addition, which, after being contributed to various charitable funds, expended itself finally in a scholarship at Edinburgh University.

In the same way, when the Kongo atrocities were first discovered, it was his clear, straight view and his pen that did more than anything else to show them to the world in their true light. In the cause of Divorce Law reform in England he has also been valiantly active, fighting for flat principle that the poor should have the same benefits from the law as the rich, and that this ancient tangle of legislation, founded on a mixture of ecclesiastical and property privileges, should be straightened out, and English family life in all classes purified thereby.

And last of all, on the great subject of crime he has proved himself a kind of private Scotland Yard. In two great cases, which are well known to the English public, but which will only be names to American readers, — the case of Oscar Slater and time case of Edalji, — be detected a practically certain miscarriage of justice. In such cases most men are content with their discovery, or with talking about it to their friends, or writing a few letters to the newspapers or to officials. But that is not Sir Arthur's way. Having been convinced that wrong had been done, he threw his mighty strength and energy into the righting of it. With a patience and tenacity that were worthy of his own Sherlock Holmes he studied and disentangled the complicated evidence in both cases, wrote clear and lucid presentations of them in pamphlet form, and has not ceased to agitate and harass the official organizations.

In neither case has he yet been successful in attaining the end that he set out to at but incidentally he has quickened the whole criminal administration of England, has awakened public opinion and public spirit, and has had a most wholesome and tonic effect on officialdom by letting it know that there is one formidable observer and critic at least who will not let pass any blunder or injustice that comes to his notice.

I have mentioned these four campaigns; but they are only a few out of many instances of the way in which he is ever ready to use his gifts, his reputation, and his strength in the cause, not of any individual interest, but of cleanness and justice in English public life. Men do not now go forth with a sword to right what is wrong and succor those who are in distress. The weapon of the modern knight errant is the pen, and his only armor is his sense of right, of what is due to himself and his country.

And right lustily does Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wield this weapon, which lie keeps bright in its sheath for whatever need may arise. He does not think of it as a means merely of serving his own ends: it is always ready and at the service of any cause that can be helped by it. He is indeed the modern knight errant of our time; strong and fearless to go forth to vanquish the oppressor and succor the oppressed. Wherever there is a wrong in England you will find Arthur Conan Doyle not passively but actively ranged against it, glorying in the battle as he has gloried in many a contest in sawdust ring or cricket field; ever ready to show forth that he is superlatively that of which the world always has had and always will have need, — a man.

Complete Works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

A Study in Scarlet (1887).
Micah Clarke (1888).
The Captain of the Pole-star (1888).
The Sign of Four (1889).
The White Company (1890).
The Firm of Girdlestone (1890).
Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1891).
The Refugees (1891).
The Great Shadow (1892).
The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1893).
Round the Red Lamp (1894).
The Stark Munro Letters (1895).
The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard (1896).
Rodney Stone (1896).
Uncle Bernac (1897).
The Tragedy of the Korosko (1898).
Songs of Action (1898).
A Duet with an Occasional Chorus (1899).
Halves, a play (1899).
Story of Waterloo, a one-act play for Sir Henry Irving (1900).
The Green Flag and Other Stories (1900).
The Great Boer War (1900).
Cause and Conduct of the War (1900).
The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902).
Adventures of Gerard (1903).
Return of Sherlock Holmes (1904).
Brigadier Gerard, a comedy. (1906).
Sir Nigel (1906).
Through the Magic Door (1908).
The Fires of Fate: A Modern Morality Play (1909).
The Crime of the Congo (1910).
Songs of the Road (1911).
The Lost World (1912).
The Poison Belt (1913).