Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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Arthur Conan Doyle Long Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2058

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.

Micah Clarke

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 Study in Scarlet, The Sign of Four, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and The Valley of Fear) might seem to have little in common with Doyle’s historical fiction. A closer look, however, shows that whatever the surface differences, the author’s underlying concerns and prejudices are the same. Indeed, Sherlock Holmes can be seen as a knight-errant who ventures forth from Baker Street on a series of quests. In the earlier novels and stories, he battles dragons of crime on behalf of individuals. Mary Morstan in The Sign of Four is the epitome of a damsel in distress. In Holmes’s later adventures, both the suppliants and the dragons are different. There is an increasing tendency for those seeking Holmes’s assistance to be representatives of the government itself or, as in “The Illustrious Client,” a person no less exalted than King Edward VII himself, and for the villains to be international criminals or even foreign governments.

Holmes’s relationship with Dr. Watson reflects that of a knight and his squire. The detective and his intellect operate according to the rules of detection that Holmes himself establishes at the beginning of The Sign of Four, rules analogous to the chivalric code, and squire Watson accompanies Holmes as much to learn how to conduct himself according to these rules as to assist in the solution of the crime. Dull, plodding, faithful Watson may never win his spurs, but at least he wins the hand of Mary Morstan.

The Holmes novels also exhibit Doyle’s characteristic xenophobia. With the possible exception of Moriarty, who, after all, is an international rather than an English criminal, the villains with whom Holmes contends frequently are foreigners, or else the crimes he investigates have their origins in foreign or distant events. A Study in Scarlet is a story of the revenge exacted for a crime committed in the mountains of Utah twenty years earlier. The novel’s “victims” are in fact villains who have mistreated an old man and a young girl, those most deserving of protection, and so deserve their own deaths, while its “villain” is a just avenger who is saved from the gallows by a “higher judge” and dies with a smile on his face as if looking back on a deed well done. The crime in The Sign of Four similarly has its origins years before in India, and its victims also turn out to have brought their doom on themselves. Rodger Baskerville, the father of Stapleton the naturalist, who perpetrated the hoax in The Hound of the Baskervilles, had fled to South America before his son was born. As in the fictional press report at the end of A Study in Scarlet, Doyle appears eager to distance the true Englishman from responsibility for crime.

The Lost World

Although Doyle himself favored his historical fiction while the public preferred the Sherlock Holmes adventures, the author’s finest works have largely been ignored. The Lost World, The Poison Belt, and The Land of Mist are novels that belong to a series of science-fiction works featuring the eccentric Professor George Edward Challenger. By the time The Lost World was published in 1912, Doyle was already becoming a figure of fun among the intelligentsia because of his ardent defense of psychic phenomena and his reactionary political views. The critics’ disdain for this series unfortunately affected its popularity, and in subsequent years scholars and others have had a consequent tendency to overlook them as examples of Doyle’s literary skill at its finest.

The Lost World resulted from Doyle’s interest in prehistoric footprints near his home in the New Forest. After he made casts of the prints, he consulted with zoologist Edwin Ray Lankester and came away with the idea for the novel. The Lost World is narrated by Edward Dunn Malone, a journalist who comes to act as a Watson-like chronicler of the exploits of Professor Challenger, an eccentric scientist with a great physical resemblance to Arthur Conan Doyle. After knocking Malone down the stairs at their first meeting, Challenger recruits him for a proposed expedition to South America in search of a prehistoric monster believed to exist on a plateau in the Amazon River basin.

Doyle’s penchant for realistic description deserts him in The Lost World. His details are fifty years out of date; he instead presents a fantastically imaginative vision of the unexplored jungle wilderness. The beauty of the jungle vanishes as the explorers reach the historic plateau. With almost surrealistic horror, Doyle depicts the filthy, fetid nesting ground of the pterodactyls and the dank and dirty caves of the ape-men who inhabit the plateau. A marvelous comic ending has Challenger revealing the results of the expedition to a skeptical London audience of pedants by releasing a captured pterodactyl over their heads.

The characterization in The Lost World is among Doyle’s finest achievements. The members of the expedition are well balanced: the eccentric and pugnacious Challenger, the naïve and incredulous Malone, the cynical and touchy Summerlee, and the great white hunter Lord John Roxton. The one woman in the novel, Malone’s fiancé, Gladys, bears no resemblance to the Ruth Timewells and Lady Maudes of Doyle’s earlier work. She is spunky and independent, refusing to marry Malone until he has done something worth admiring, and in his absence marrying someone else because she decides money is a more practical basis for marriage than fame.

Later works

The series retains its high quality in The Poison Belt, but the subsequent related works are less consequential. In The Land of Mist, Challenger becomes a spiritualist convert when the spirits of two men whom he believes he has killed return to tell him of his innocence. “When the World Screamed,” one of the stories in The Maracot Deep, and Other Stories (1929), reverts to the morbid sexuality of The Parasite. When Challenger attempts to drill a hole to the center of the earth, the world turns out to be a living female organism. When Challenger’s shaft penetrates the cortex of her brain, she screams, setting off earthquakes and tidal waves.

Few of Doyle’s writings from the last decade of his life are read by other than specialists, dealing as they do with the propagation of spiritualism. Thecanon of his fiction can thus be said to have ended with science-fiction novels. These novels too all deal with Doyle’s characteristic themes and concerns. Challenger and Maracot uncover hidden truths about the nature of the past, the present, the future, and life after death much in the same way Sherlock Holmes discovered the truth about human nature in the course of his investigation of crime. The historical fiction had sought to explore the truth about a specialized human nature, that of the archetypal Englishman, in the same manner. Even the obsession with spiritualism that cost him his credibility among intellectual circles was but another example of Doyle’s lifelong search for the truth about human existence.

In whatever guise he portrayed that search, Doyle never deviated from the devotion to the ideals that were instilled in him in childhood and that are recorded on his gravestone. Similarly, all his literaryprotagonists embody these same ideals: a devotion to truth and a belief in the rightness of their cause. Few other authors have managed to create such a coherent body of work as did Arthur Conan Doyle, and fewer have matched the content of their work so closely to the conduct of their lives.

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