The Passing of Conan Doyle
Herbert Greenhough Smith was the editor of The Strand Magazine at the same time than Conan Doyle published in the magazine (1891-1930).
The Passing of Conan Doyle
By THE EDITOR OF "THE STRAND MAGAZINE"
On the eve of this number of THE STRAND MAGAZINE going to press (July 8) comes the news of the passing of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; news which I am sure all readers of this magazine, to whom his writings were so well known, will have received with as deep regret as myself.
For nearly forty years, almost from its first number, the late Sir Arthur was a regular contributor to the pages of this magazine. There is no need to speak here of his fame as a great writer of short stories, and, for the moment, I can only express a sense of the great loss that English letters has sustained in his death. Of my mini long personal relationship with the late Sir Arthur I can only say, in this hurried note, how much I admired the personal character of the man. His interests were widespread, and whatever he did, he did with utmost sincerity of heart, and abundant enthusiasm. We think of him first as a great story writer, and next, in his later years, as the burning crusader in the cause of Spiritualism. But he lived life, and enjoyed life, to the full. In his younger days he had some reputation as a cricketer, a boxer, a golfer, and he was a great lover of outdoor life. Just to illustrate this last point I remember once when I Was spending a few days with him at his house at Hindhead, as the party was sitting round the hall fire after dinner, the wild wind suddenly drove a thick spatter of rain against the window.
"Hullo! exclaimed our host, "rain! I should like to go for a stroll in this." I thought he was joking; nothing could to me have been less tempting than a tramp across the downs in such a tempest. But no, not at all. Recruiting a younger member of the party; out they started, in caps and waterproofs, across the stormy hills. An hour or so afterwards they reappeared, rosy, laughing, and dripping at every angle, like Neptune rising from the sea. When they had rid themselves of these "dank weeds" we proceeded to the billiard-room, Where, his opponent (myself, alas!) having scored a couple of points by the assistance of a fluke, he proceeded to run out with a break of a hundred. Truly such versatility has an annoying side to it sometimes.
Some other time, perhaps, I shall be able to dwell on another side of the character of this remarkable man, his literary achievement, and methods of work. He was ever the first to champion the cause of his beloved country; no less was he generous and impetuous in his efforts in the cause of justice, whenever it seemed to him that there was a suspicion of a miscarriage of justice. Whether in these matters his judgment was right or wrong (and oftener than once he was proved to be right), the fact of his passion for justice and fair play is plain and is the main thing.
I shall not speak of him at the moment in his capacity of a writer. It is too soon to estimate the value of what he has left in several fields of literature. He wrote, in all, I believe, some sixty books.
By the readers of this magazine he will be, perhaps, best remembered by his Sherlock Holmes detective stories. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are household words; both names have passed permanently into the language. This is a feat any author might feel proud of. Sherlock Holmes, without question, is the most familiar and most widely known character in modern English fiction. It is perfectly true, as a late Chief of Scotland Yard pointed out, in an article contributed to some journal, that Conan Doyle's aim had not been so much to stir us to admiration of detective ability as to teach us how to observe and think. It is legitimate to assume as much from the character of the particular person who served as Conan Doyle's prototype of Sherlock Holmes. It was that person who, all unconsciously, imparted to Doyle the lessons in the art and necessity of seeing, hearing, and thinking about the facts of life. That, maybe, is one reason, at least, why we can read these stories of Holmes again and again.
It was in 1891 that, as Editor of THE STRAND MAGAZINE, I received the first of these stories which were destined to become famous over all the world as "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes." I have cause to remember the occasion well. THE STRAND MAGAZINE was in its infancy in those days; good story-writers were scarce, and here to an editor, jaded with wading through reams of impossible stuff, comes a gilt from Heaven, a godsend in the shape of a story that brought a gleam of happiness into the despairing life of this weary editor. Here was a new and gifted story-writer; there was no mistaking the ingenuity of plot, the limpid clearness of style, the perfect art of telling a story. I saw the great possibilities of a fine series, and said so to Sir Arthur, who has generously written in his memoirs how encouraged he was to go ahead.
Conan Doyle had contributed a previous story to the magazine, but the first of "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" appeared in the issue of THE STRAND dated July, 1891; this was the seventh number of the magazine. Holmes as a character had been used in two short novels previously published.
The late Sir Arthur himself has told us that the redoubtable Sherlock had a prototype in real life. Here is an account of this person as written by Sir Arthur, relating his student days in Edinburgh: "But the most notable of the characters whom I met was one Joseph Bell, surgeon at the Edinburgh Infirmary. Bell was a very remarkable man in body and mind. He was thin, wiry, dark, with a high-nosed, acute face, penetrating grey eyes, angular shoulders, and a jerky way of walking. His voice was high and discordant. He was a very skilful surgeon, but his strong point was diagnosis, not only of disease, but of occupation and character. For some reason which I have never understood, he singled me out from the drove of students who frequented his wards and made me his out-patient clerk, which meant that I had to array his out-patients, make simple notes of their cases, and then show them in, one by one, to the large room in which Bell sat in state surrounded by his dressers and students. Then I had ample chance of studying his methods and in noticing that he often learned more of the patient by a few quick glances than I had done by my questions. Occasionally the results were very dramatic, though there were times when he blundered. In one of his best cases he said to a civilian patient: 'Well, my man, you've served in the Army?'
"Not long discharged?'
"A Highland regiment'
"A non-com. officer ?'
"'Stationed at Barbadoes?'
"'You see, gentlemen,' he would explain, the man was a respectful man, but did. not remove his hat. They do not in the Army, but he would have learned civilian ways had he been long discharged. He has an air of authority and he is obviously Scottish. As to Barbadoes, his complaint is elephantiasis, which is West Indian and not British.'
"To his audience of Watsons it all seemed very miraculous until it was explained, and then it became simple enough. It is no wonder that after the study of such a character I used and amplified his methods when in later life I tried to build up a scientific detective who solved cases on his own merits and not through the folly of the criminal. Bell took a keen interest in these detective tales, arid even made suggestions, which were not, I am bound to say, very practical. I kept in touch with him for many years, and he used to come upon my platform to support me when I contested Edinburgh in 1901."
After Sir Arthur had written two long series of Sherlock's Adventures for THE STRAND he decided to kill off Sherlock Holmes. The public were as eager as ever to read the stories — nay, clamoured for them, and no doubt the creator of Sherlock was capable of continuing them indefinitely. but he had other views. He was a little weary of inventing plots, but there was also something else. He was ambitious of a literary reputation that would be higher than an author of detective stories ; he regarded that as a lower standard of literary achievement. He had already written one or two books, "The Refugees," for example, which had been highly praised. At any rate, as I have said, he decided to plan a fatal adventure for Sherlock. He says in his memoirs:—
"The idea was in my mind when I went with my wife for a short holiday in Switzerland, in the course of which we walked down the Lauterbrunnen Valley. I saw there the wonderful falls of Reichenbach, a terrible place, and one that I thought would make a worthy tomb for poor Sherlock, even if I buried my banking account along with him. So there I laid him, fully determined that he should stay there — as, indeed, for some years he did. I was amazed at the concern expressed by the public. They say that a man is never properly appreciated until he is dead, and the general protest against my summary execution of Holmes taught me how many and how numerous were his friends. 'You Brute!' was the beginning of the letter of remonstrance which one lady sent me, and I expect she spoke for others besides herself. I heard of many who wept. I fear I was utterly callous myself, and only glad to have a chance of opening out into new fields of imagination, for the temptation of high prices made it difficult to get one's thoughts away from Holmes."
As everybody knows, the adventure in Lauterbrunnen Pass was not the end of Sherlock Holmes. The end, alas, has come now, with the death of his creator. Doyle's work is done — and, in whatever sphere, it was well done.