Dr. Conan Doyle: A Character Sketch by W.J. Dawson 1904
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THE first impression which one takes of Conan Doyle is that of strength, and the more one knows of him the more dominant does the impression become. He is at the furthest possible remove from the traditional conception of the author, "sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought." He might readily be taken for a person of seafaring experiences, an ex-soldier of the Guards, a Central African explorer, an adventurer and sportsman worthy of the comradeship of Mr. Selous, or indeed anything implying a life of resolute and daring action. And in conveying this impression, Nature does not lie. Edward Fitzgerald, in one of his delightful letters, speaks of the substantial goodness of the peasantry, as being the “funded virtue” of generations of sturdy and much-enduring men and women. There must he a good deal of funded manliness in Conan Doyle, for he comes of a fighting race. If I am not misinformed, no fewer than five of his family fought at Waterloo. He himself has had a career calling for very high qualities of courage, and no one who knows him can doubt that in a life of stirring action he would display fine elements, and find a theatre admirably adapted to his tastes.
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The blunt honesty and manliness of his nature come out in all he does and says. He forms clear and straightforward judgments on men and things, and expresses them with fearless frankness. He will never be a partisan, or a member of a literary clique. He will never go out of his way to win an audience, or even to conciliate a prejudice. He once told me that he had no faith whatever in criticism, and thought that in the long run neither adulation nor depreciation had much to do with the fortunes of a book. A book might be puffed into notoriety, but never into fame: it might be neglected or depreciated, but if it deserved fame it would assuredly win it. His faith was not in the professional critics, but in the great public itself, which had a shrewd idea as to what suited it, and after all bought not what the critics liked, but what it liked. Moreover, the public did not need to be told that a book was good: it found it out for itself, and not all the mob of gentlemen who write with ease could prevent that discovery, though occasionally they might do something to accelerate it. For whatever else he is not, Conan Doyle is a very ardent democrat, with the most complete faith in the people, not merely in the matter of the soundness of their general judgment on books, but also in all the great questions of social welfare, and political life and progress.
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There will be no divergence of opinion as to Conan Doyle’s faculty for telling a story, and with him it is not merely a faculty but a faith. We were talking once of a book, the first half-dozen chapters of which pass without anything happening. Such incident as there is might easily have been compressed into a single chapter of moderate dimensions, instead of which the thin stream of narrative trickles away over fifty pages.
“That is fatal,” he said. “The first object of a novelist is to tell a tale. If he has no story to tell, what is he there for? Possibly he has something to say which is worth saying, but he should say it in another form."
I told him that I had once seen a couple of school-boys waiting their turn to read one of his stories, each one jealously measuring the minutes during which the other held the book. What was it that fascinated them? Obviously the story. The school-boy likes brisk movement, clear narrative, fine incident, and is impatient of prosings by the way. The conversation recalled to me, perhaps also to him, a fragment of discussion at an earlier period, when he said, “There is no finer judge of the merits of a story, as a story, than the British school-boy. I should be very well pleased to write for the applause of the school-boy, for what the school-boy likes the majority of readers will like too." Here, again, we hear the democratic note which is distinctive of Dr. Doyle. Of course he did not mean to say, nor do I mean to imply, that the only test of a novel is narrative power, and that the school-boy should be the chief judge of literature. The man who writes a great story cannot help impregnating it with many ideas that are beyond the range of the school-boy. But Mr. Doyle’s point was that the chief quality of a story is that it shall be a story, and not a pamphlet or sermon disguised in the attire of ineffective fiction. In this respect, at least, he himself has shown a splendid mastery. No one tells a tale better: few with anything like the same degree of succinctness, of dramatic movement, and sometimes of dramatic intensity.
It is characteristic of the modesty and sound judgment of Conan Doyle that he should have so clear a conception of his own powers and limitations. It is no reflection upon his great merits to say that he is not a student of words in the sense that Walter Pater or Robert Louis Stevenson are students. We do not search his pages for the happy phrase, the ingenious collocation of unfamiliar words, the quaintness and harmony of sentences which linger in the memory as much by their subtlety as their originality. In reading Mr. Stevenson one knows not which to admire most—the splendid episode, or the ingenious phrasing in which it is conveyed. Conan Doyle offers us few felicities of this kind. If they come they are natural and spontaneous, and in any case they are rare. But, on the other hand. the style is always direct, simple, and unstrained. It can rise also into passion when occasion calls for it. There are few finer bits of narrative, on a small scale, than the description of Waterloo given in the Great Shadow. In dealing with soldiers, sailors, and men of action, he is always at his best. As far as research can make a book perfect and accurate, he will never spare pains to get the right lights for his picture. It is to his great advantage that he has had a thorough training in medical science, for it has taught him the art of thoroughness in all that he does. This thoroughness is finely illustrated in the opening chapters of The Refugees, which give as clear a picture of the French Court as one can fairly hope or even wish for. Every touch is laid on with knowledge, and every page has meant research. Indeed, it may be said that no writer of our time has a better natural equipment for the mile of historical romancer. What is chiefly wanted in such a writer is patience, simplicity of style, power of invention, an imagination that can harmonise details, and a temper that can be attuned to the spirit of a time. Perhaps the last is the chief gift. To get at the spirit of a period needs something of the same spirit in a writer. One of the stories Conan Doyle has been known to tell is of an old Waterloo veteran, from whom he asked a description of the great fight. The old man put all he knew into a phrase. He said that when the French came on against the British square for the second time, the cry of the British Infantry was, “Why, here come those blessed fools again!” The amusing arrogance of this speech is delicious. But it is an arrogance which Conan Doyle himself would have felt, and it is this touch of kinship which makes him tell the story of Waterloo so finely.
I have touched in the main upon Conan Doyle’s more serious work, because it is by that he should be judged, and would wish to be judged. It is no sort of secret that the creator of Sherlock Holmes has grown a little impatient of the attention given to that nimble-witted gentlemen, and that be displayed an eagerness to hurry him off the stage of action which certainly was not justified by the impatience or hostility of the audience. No author, however, need be ashamed of Sherlock Holmes. So far as I can recollect, he is the one creature of fiction who has attained world-wide notoriety since Charles Dickens gave us his Pecksniff's and Chadbands. Colonial judges quote him in their addresses to the jury, and London magistrates tell stammering and stupid police-officers to go to Sherlock Holmes if they would be clever and wise. He is spoken of with familiarity in newspaper articles, and his shade is invoked with every fresh episode of undiscovered crime. He is even treated as a real and living person, and victims of the burglar have been known who were quite ready to retain his services, if his whereabouts could be discovered. There is no character of Rudyard Kipling or Stevenson who has attained more than a tithe of this world-wide popularity. He is a genuine creation, and to create a character that lives before the minds of all sorts and conditions of men needs a species of power very closely allied to genius.
No doubt the detective story can never be other than one of the lower forms of art, but it is instructive to notice how futile and feeble all other stories of the kind appear by contrast with Sherlock Holmes. It is the ingenuity and verisimilitude of the Holmes stories which arrest us. Even when they deal with the most palpable improbabilities they persuade the imagination. In one or two of them the ingenuity is really superb. Then, also, there is just that flavour of science, that touch of method, which gives them an interest even for the serious reader. In this respect Conan Doyle’s master is Edgar Allan Poe. The art of deduction was never carried to a finer point than by Poe. The entire principle of his wonderful stories is to build up, out of trifies, an imposing structure of deduction, which is everywhere regulated by a logic so acute, an observation so searching, and an imagination so powerful, that the total result is an artistic whole of unsurpassed excellence. But, as we know, the method of Sherlock Holmes owes as much to the suggestions of an actual experience in the writer's life as to Poe: perhaps far more. At all events, the fact remains that there are only two writers who have ever given the detective story the excellence of real art, and they are Poe and Conan Doyle. This is no mean praise, for Poe is the greatest inventor, the most ingenious and imaginative artist who has ever handled the short story, and especially the detective story. We should be sorry to suppose that Conan Doyle’s name was destined to be linked alone to the detective story; but it is only fair to admit that he is the first English writer since Poe who has treated it with a touch of real genius, and considering the difficulty of the task, this is one of the most remarkable achievements of modern fiction.
Something of this gift of ingenuity which has lifted the stories of Sherlock Holmes into such remarkable popularity is probably hereditary. In Mr. Doyle’s house at Norwood are many water-colour drawings, executed by his father, which display a fantastic and phenomenal power of invention. Some of them suggest the most sombre visions of William Blake, others his more delicate fancies. But in all of them there is a certain richness of invention, and while the charm of both form and colour is not wanting, the real force of their attraction lies in this astonishing ingenuity of design. In Conan Doyle there is the same gift, but working in another medium. I might almost add the same limitations of gift, for in his work, as in his father’s form and colour do not count for so much as powerful and often startling invention. The vein of the fantastic is very distinct in him, and should not be too closely worked. Happily in him the vein runs through a solid body of common sense; or, to speak without metaphor, the faculty of mere invention, which may easily be nurtured into excess, is balanced by great soundness of judgment and wide knowledge of life.
I have already spoken of Conan Doyle’s democratic sympathies; perhaps I should add that his imperial instincts are equally strong. They do not take the form of an unreasoning Jingoism, but of a deep and enduring pride in the position and prospects of the Anglo-Saxon race. And under that term he would include the great peoples of America. He loses no opportunity of impressing it upon the popular imagination that the best thing for the peace and prosperity of the whole world is a firm alliance between Great Britain and America. From Mr. Kipling's view of the Americans he wholly dissents, and thinks it wrong both in temper and method. “But I love them,” said Mr. Kipling; “and it is because I love them that I point out their defects.” “Love should be patient of faults,” is Conan Doyle’s reply. “A nation is not born in a day. It has to learn many things, and to unlearn more. Give it time, and it will grow; but it will not help its true growth to be perpetually irritating a nation with a caustic satire." In such a contention Conan Doyle is undoubtedly right. America has no warmer friend and no fairer judge than he. When he crosses the Atlantic in the autumn to fulfil his lecturing engagements in the United States, he should receive the heartiest of welcomes. It is by such men that the bond of sympathy is woven which holds nations together more surely than protocols and treaties, and they are the true ambassadors of peace between great peoples.
When a man finds himself in the freshness of his years set free from the embarrassments of a profession, and engaged on tasks which draw out his best powers, we have a right to expect for him a notable career. Conan Doyle is not a man who takes a light or mercenary view of the profession of letters. He believes that he who would truly fulfil the vocation of a literary artist must find in that vocation his entire life. He must be free from distraction, from the excitement of money-making, from the mixture of pursuits which is so common among us today. And with Conan Doyle these are not merely speculative beliefs, but they are the spirit of his life. Success has not injured the fine democratic simplicity of the man. The excitement of the race for fame has never blinded him to the excellence of artists very different from himself. No man has ever heard Conan Doyle speak an ill-natured word of a brother artist. No-one ever will. He is a man whose character is wrought out upon a plan of great simplicity and strength, and there is no room in his nature for any meanness. His special gifts are ingenuity and imagination, but these are only gifts of the mind. A finer gift still is the large charity which governs all his views of men and things, and the simple earnestness with which he believes in all things manly, honest, and of good report. Such a man should not only produce books in which the spirit of a past heroism is embodied, but he should be a steadying influence in the whirl and tumult of new literary tendencies, as also amid the confusion of ideals, which is inevitable with the emergence of a new democratic period.