Arthur Conan Doyle Long Fiction Analysis
Arthur Conan Doyle’s epitaph can also serve as an introduction to the themes of his novels, both those that feature actual medieval settings and those that center on Sherlock Holmes. Doyle’s central character is always the knight on a quest, living and battling according to chivalric ideals. Micah Clarke, Alleyne Edricson, and Sir Nigel Loring all engage in real battles; Sherlock Holmes combats villains on behalf of distressed young women and naïve and frightened young men; Professor Challenger takes on the unknown—a prehistoric world, the realm of the spirit, the threatened extinction of life on Earth.
Doyle’s first historical novel, Micah Clarke, is set in seventeenth century England against the background of Monmouth’s Rebellion. As he always did in his historical fiction, in which he intended to portray the actual conditions of life at the time the novels were set, he paid meticulous attention to actual detail. In the Sherlock Holmes stories, Doyle seems not to have cared whether Dr. Watson’s old war wound was in his shoulder or his knee, whether the good doctor’s Christian name was John or James, whether there were one or two Mrs. Watsons, but his period novels show none of this casualness. For Micah Clarke, the author had carefully explored the area around Portsmouth, where most of the action takes place. He also did careful research into the dress, customs, and speech of the era. Indeed, it was its “mode of speech” that caused both Blackwoods and Bentley, Ltd. to reject the novel; this same period diction makes the novel extremely slow going for the modern reader.
Like most of Doyle’s characters, those in Micah Clarke are modeled on real individuals. Micah Clarke, the gallant young man fighting zealously for a lost cause, is largely based on young Doyle himself, protesting hopelessly at Stonyhurst against outmoded courses of study, unfair punishments, and censorship of his letters home. Ruth Timewell, the cloyingly sweet young heroine, depicts the quiet, meek Touie Doyle, who at the time the novel was written represented her husband’s ideal of womanhood. In spite of the critical acclaim Micah Clarke received when it was originally published, few people would consider it the stirring tale of adventure that its author did, although parts of it, especially the description of the climactic Battle of Sedgmoor and the portrait of the evil Judge Jeffreys, retain some interest for the modern reader.
The White Company
The White Company, Doyle’s second venture into the historical genre, and its companion piece, Sir Nigel, have worn slightly better. Like its predecessor, The White Company is distinguished by its scrupulous re-creation of the entire spectrum of life in fourteenth century England. Once again, Doyle’s preoccupation with noble causes is reflected in the interests of his characters, members of a small but dedicated mercenary company who set off for the Continent to fight for England during the Hundred Years’ War.
The hero of The White Company, after whom Doyle later named his eldest son, is Alleyne Edricson, a landless young squire who leaves the monastery where he has been reared with his two companions, the lapsed monk Hortle John and the former serf Samkin Aylward, to join the White Company under the command of Sir Nigel Loring. Alleyne, his friends, his leader, and later his prince represent a microcosm of English society in the Middle Ages, depicting an idealized vision of the English character and contrasting with that of the country’s main enemies: the French, the Spanish, and the Germans. Departing from his usual historical accuracy, Doyle presents the Germans as the worst foes of the English, reflecting his own late Victorian perspective. Alleyne and his friend are mercenaries who live by their wits, but their fighting, looting, and pillaging are always conducted according to the rules of the chivalric game. At the end of the novel, Alleyne wins his knighthood, his inheritance, and his lady fair in the person of Sir Nigel’s daughter Maude. The virtues Sir Nigel embodies and Alleyne learns are those that Doyle taught his own sons: sympathetic treatment of social inferiors, courtesy and respect for women, and honesty in financial dealings.
The novel is particularly interesting for its two main themes: the rise of the English middle class and of English patriotism. The White Company depicts a world where individuals are judged not by their birth but by their accomplishments, in much the same manner as Doyle rose from poverty to affluence through his own efforts. The book, however, also reflects its author’s belief that the English character was the best in the world; Doyle clearly insists that the language, history, customs, and beliefs of England are far superior to those of any other nation.
Sherlock Holmes novels
At first glance, the four Sherlock Holmes novels (A...
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