Two Rediscovered Early Books by Conan Doyle

I’ve been read­ing some early works by Arthur Conan Doyle. Some of this mate­r­ial was only redis­cov­ered in recent years.

At the age of twenty, while still in med­ical school in Edin­burgh, he shipped out on a whal­ing ship for six months. The ship went to the remote arc­tic islands of Spitzber­gen [Sval­bard] and Jan Mayen, and Doyle had his twenty-first birth­day on the rim of the polar icepack. This was no tame adven­ture. It was 1880, and Doyle’s ship reached within three degrees of the record point that the British Arc­tic Expe­di­tion had turned back from in 1876. A year later, George DeLong’s Amer­i­can expe­di­tion would per­ish at a sim­i­lar lat­i­tude. The pole would not be reached with cer­tainty until 1926, when Doyle was an old man. Peary and Hen­son, often cred­ited with reach­ing the pole in 1909, are now con­sid­ered doubt­ful. Doyle’s voy­age was on a com­mer­cial whaler and sealer, dri­ven by profit, not glory, but it was cer­tainly a dan­ger­ous and spec­tac­u­lar adven­ture for a book­ish young Scott, and he later wrote that he left as a boy and came back as a man. He kept a diary, quite well writ­ten, but rather terse, and dec­o­rated with his draw­ings. On his return, he became caught up with his exams and his first attempts to build a med­ical prac­tice, and so the diary was for­got­ten. It was not pub­lished until 2012, when it appeared as Dan­ger­ous Work: Diary of an Arc­tic Adven­ture.

Doyle was already a pub­lished writer at the time of the arc­tic adven­ture, hav­ing sold a story just before he left. After a few more sales, he attempted a novel, The Nar­ra­tive of John Smith, in 1883. After the usual long wait for the inevitable rejec­tion, he learned that it had never reached the edi­tor — it was lost in the post. There was only the one copy. Doyle vowed to re-write it from mem­ory, and got fairly far before work and finan­cial pres­sure com­pelled him to stop. But he con­tin­ued to write, and struck gold in 1886 with A Study in Scar­let, which intro­duced Sher­lock Holmes. The incom­plete re-written man­u­script of his first novel was also for­got­ten, and did not see pub­li­ca­tion until 2011.

The Nar­ra­tive of John Smith is not exactly a good book, but it is read­able, and a rather odd thing to be pro­duced by a 24-year old. It’s not really a “novel”, but more some­thing along the line of Oliver Wen­dell Holmes’ The Auto­crat at the Break­fast Table, a salma­gundi of mus­ings within a fram­ing device. The nar­ra­tor is an old man, nor­mally an active out­door type, who sud­denly finds him­self con­fined indoors by gout. There is no plot. He merely spouts his opin­ions on a wide range of top­ics, some­times directly to the reader, and some­times in dia­logue with an assort­ment of vis­i­tors. Doyle, always an opin­ion­ated man, must have thought it great fun to put his notions in the mouth of some­one far his older than himself.

Both the arc­tic diary and this first attempt at writ­ing a book form a win­dow into the mind of a remark­able young man in the Vic­to­rian era, and show aspects of the period that one will not find else­where. On the whal­ing ship, Doyle grew to respect and admire men that most Vic­to­rian era writ­ers would have con­sid­ered beneath them. He remained remark­ably free of class snob­bery through­out his life, no mean accom­plish­ment in his cir­cum­stances. It might best be summed up by the scene in A Scan­dal in Bohemia, where an imag­i­nary King of Bohemia is try­ing to cover up an affair with a com­moner, an Amer­i­can actress:

“What a woman — oh, what a woman!” cried the King of Bohemia, when we had all three read the epis­tle. “Did I not tell you how quick and res­olute she was? Would she not have made an admirable queen? Is it not a pity that she was not on my level?”

“From what I have seen of the lady she seems indeed to be on a very dif­fer­ent level to your Majesty,” said Holmes coldly.

In the fine tele­vi­sion adap­ta­tion of 1984, the actor Jeremy Brett deliv­ers this line with a splen­did under­stand­ing of its deep and echo­ing sarcasm.

But noth­ing pre­pared me to read this remark­able pas­sage in Doyle’s appren­tice “novel”. It is far removed from one’s nor­mal image of Vic­to­rian era sen­ti­ments in Britain:

“I should like to see a lit­tle more trans­fu­sion in the Empire,” he remarked after a pause. “More black faces in the streets of Lon­don and more white ones in the coun­try parts of India. We should find bil­lets in Eng­land for a thou­sand bright Hin­doo youths every year, and send out as mnay of our own young fel­lows to work at the tea and indigo. It would help us towards con­sol­i­dat­ing the union between the coun­tries. A few Indian reg­i­ments in Eng­lish gar­ri­son towns would have the same effect. As to our par­lia­ment, it should be a piebald assem­bly with every hue from jet to brown, red and yel­low, with occa­sion­ally a bronze-coloured pre­mier at the head of them. What’s the odds how much pig­ment a man has in his skin, if he has a level head and a loyal heart. Gad, sir, I’ve seen our British reg­i­ments glad enough of their help on the day of bat­tle — why shouldn’t we be equally ready to have their assis­tance at our councils?”

Con­sid­er­ing that a “bronze-coloured” Eng­lish Prime Min­is­ter would still be con­sid­ered an improb­a­bil­ity today, when the U.K. has become a multi-ethnic soci­ety, this is a most sur­pris­ing idea to be floated in 1883. Doyle was indeed an inter­est­ing man.

26087. (Arthur Conan Doyle) The Nar­ra­tive of John Smith
26101. (Arthur Conan Doyle) Dan­ger­ous Work: The Diary of an Arc­tic Adventure

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