Critical Evaluation

(Masterpieces of British Fiction)

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is best known for his most lasting and loved creation, Sherlock Holmes. The cycles of stories involving Holmes were written between 1891 and World War I. Less well known are his historical novels, which include MICAH CLARKE, THE EXPLOITS OF BRIGADIER GERARD (1896), and RODNEY STONE (1896). Quite successful in their time, these novels have received little or no attention since the Boer War, and none is currently in print. Doyle was a doctor of medicine by profession and graduated from Edinburgh University. He took up practice until 1890, when, encouraged by the popular reception of his first literary efforts, he closed his practice and began to devote himself to writing full time.

Historical novels being then much in fashion, he undertook MICAH CLARKE from what is obviously a more than adequate knowledge of history. Narrated in the first person, it is a retrospective view of the speaker’s adventures as a young man in the uprising associated with the Rye House Plot that sought to support the cause of James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, the natural son of Charles II, as successor. The anti-Church faction, composed for the most part of laborers and lower-middle-class nonconformists, provided Doyle with the perfect vehicle for an accurate and interesting view of the Whig armed uprising. Doyle devoted much time and care to his characterization of Clarke and companions and went so far as to include an appendix of relevant material on such various subjects as the speed with which couriers were able to deliver messages over long distances, the current law code concerning the borrowing and lending of horses, seventeenth century pronunciation, and the documentation of Monmouth’s claim to legitimacy.

Despite Doyle’s reasonably readable style of narration, the novel is one that lacks interest for the modern audience, few of whom can be expected to know the historical background of the novel and even fewer whose interest would be so abiding as to struggle through the complexities of plot and dialogue. Doyle’s adherence to historical fact, while admirable, does not include enough general information to explain his references. His extreme attention to detail, his less than sophisticated ability to handle his plot line (an ability which he later developed superbly, as the Sherlock Holmes stories testify), and his essentially heavy-handed narrative approach make this novel a period piece rather than a work of general interest.