A Talk with Dr. Conan Doyle
From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
A Talk with Dr. Conan Doyle
A great big, breezy athlete, not in the least one's ideal litterateur, came forward to meet me as I entered Dr. Conan Doyle's little house in Norwood, wherein, having altogether given up his medical practice, he now devotes himself entirely to books and bookmaking. He told me he was looking forward with great joy to the cricket season. He talked of his travels, and how he had once spent seven months in the Arctic regions — "Never had such a jolly time in my life." He spoke of his experiences in Vienna, where he had lived a year in order that he might make a special study of the eye. We discussed mutual friends in Southsea, where he had practised as a doctor for eight years. We exchanged opinions on America and the Americans. He would fain establish a more friendly and familiar footing between the two countries. And then at last we got to his books. I asked him how on earth he had evolved, apparently out of his own inner consciousness, such an extraordinary person as his detective Sherlock Holmes, with which readers of the Strand, are so familiar. "Oh ! but," he cried, with a hearty, ringing laugh — and his is a laugh it does one good to hear — "Oh! But, if you please, he is not evolved out of any one's inner consciousness. Sherlock Holmes is the literary embodiment, if I may so express it, of my memory of a professor of medicine at Edinburgh University, who would sit in the patients' waiting-room with a face like a Red Indian and diagnose the people as they came in, before even they had opened their mouths. He would tell them their symptoms, he would give them details of their lives, and he would hardly ever make a mistake. 'Gentlemen,' he would say to us students standing around, 'I am not quite sure whether this man is a cork-cutter or a slater. I observe a slight callus, or hardening, on one side of his forefinger, and a little thickening on the outside of his thumb, and that is a sure sign he is either one or the other.' His great faculty of deduction was at times highly dramatic. 'Ah!' he would say to another man, 'you are a soldier, a non-commissioned officer, and you have served in Bermuda. Now how did I know that, gentlemen ? He came into the room without taking his hat off, as he would go into an orderly room. He was a soldier. A slight authoritative air, combined with his age, shows he was an N.C.O. A slight rash on the forehead tells me he was in Bermuda, and subject to a certain rash known only there.'
"So I got the idea for Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock is utterly inhuman, no heart, but with a beautifully logical intellect. I know nothing about detective work, but theoretically it has always had a great charm for me. The best detective in fiction is E. A. Poe's Mons. D.; then Mons. Le Cocq, Gaboriau's hero. The great defect in the detective of fiction is that he obtains results without any obvious reason. That is not fair, it is not art. I have written two little books about him. 'A Study in Scarlet,' the first thing I wrote, and ' Sign of Four.' I get many letters from all over the country about Sherlock Holmes. Sometimes from schoolboys, sometimes from commercial travellers who are great readers, sometimes from lawyers pointing out mistakes in my law. One letter actually contained a request for portraits of Sherlock at different periods of his life."
"This is very interesting. Dr. Doyle ; but I suppose your heart is in your historical novels?"
"Yes, that is the only work I really fancy. The 'White Company' is the best thing I have ever done. I endeavoured in that to reconstruct the whole of the fourteenth century. Indeed, I had to do it. Scott always avoided it, I had nothing to go by in the way of previous fiction concerning that period. I read up no less than 150 books in preparation for that novel alone."
"Yours, then, is indeed the genius that comes of a capacity for taking infinite pains," I replied, in wondering admiration; and I bid my hearers think for a moment what such an appalling amount of study implies, what resolution, what energy, what valiant hopefulness!
"Well," said Dr. Doyle, very modestly, "I don't know that; you see, I was obliged to do it. I really wanted to get an idea of the century from every point of view—from the point of view of the soldier, of the monk, of the artisan. But it pays in the end. I really think I have succeeded in reconstructing the fourteenth century. Any one who in the future wants to write on it, will refer to 'The White Company' as a standard work on that special period. I consider it was the most glorious epoch in English history. The English alone were never so strong as just then."
"But how did you reconstruct the language ?"
"Well, of course, I am not archeologically correct; I now and again threw in a Chaucerian word to give, as it were, a general flavour of the age. And I endeavoured to use as pure Anglo-Saxon as possible in all my conversations."
"But with all that, Dr. Doyle, with all linguistic accuracy, and accuracy as to technical details and habits of life, I do not yet see how you could so completely throw yourself out of this century as to be able to reproduce the spirit of the fourteenth, its thought, its mode, its joys, its sorrows."
"Well, now," replied he, "read Chaucer, and you will always find there a certain broad Anglo-Saxon humour which for centuries has been the characteristic of Englishmen. Our present humour of exaggeration we get from America. In my book the humorous effects are mostly unconscious. The rapacity which Decimas the Saxon shows is always funny to us, but with him it was quite natural and unconscious. And so it was with moods of thought right through. ' Micah Clarke ' I sent to six publishers, and quite despaired of ever placing it. One publisher said ' It only lacks interest.' Another said that long experience had taught him that the historical novel was never a financial success. This is absurd! Look at 'Lorna Doone,' and almost all of Scott's. As a rule, where historical novels fail is in the fact that there is too much history and too little novel. They want wakening up. Mr. Andrew Lang read ' Micah Clarke,' and liked it. One man criticised it as having no plot, but a plot in an historical novel is an insult. Who cares whether so-and-so married so-and-so or not ? We must regard great national events, the great national life. The distance between them and us is very great. A vast chasm yawns between us. Who cares about Rowena's marriage? It is the tournament, the battles that live. It is a mistake to take away the reader's eyes from the grand panorama. Therefore I avoided any attempt at a plot deliberately from artistic motives."
"And how do you work up to individuals of the period?"
"I throw myself into the whole literature of the period. I have a note-book indexed 'Archer,' 'Knight,' 'Squire.' All lived again in my eye. I have just finished a book for Harper. I take a New Englander, a Puritan, as one type of the seventeenth century ; and a New Yorker, the woodman, as another; and I precipitate these two into the court of Louis XIV., and mix them up in the European history of that time — very much as Scott threw Quentin Durward, the young Scotchman, into the French court. I have taken a lot of pains to make these two types exact studies. Then I shift the scene back to America, It will be something new in the way of an American historical novel. You see, it will be a story of the two continents. The woodman will use the phrases of the wood, and the New Englander is rather Biblical."
"Have you written much, Dr. Conan Doyle?"
"Yes; I took to writing at seventeen. I wrote a story for 'Chambers.' Had it been rejected, I should not have gone on. For ten years I wrote anonymously, producing in that time forty or fifty short stories. A few I have republished under the name of 'The Captain of the Polestar.' Lately I have turned myself towards stories of character instead of adventure."
"Are you fond of the present tendency to realism?"
"Well, we have hitherto neglected realism too much. These men who now go to the extreme do good by pushing the average farther out. For instance, that splendid story, 'The Wages of Sin,' could not have been written twenty years ago. Look at 'Tess,' again. So it is that the extreme men pave the way. That is their mission. Hitherto we have been too much under the spell of Puritanism in England. To return to my historical novels, I would say that a man, to write such books, must have an enthusiasm for the age about which he is writing. He must think it a great one, and then he must go deliberately to work to reconstruct it. Then his is a splendid joy."
As he said these last words tea came in, and with it his wife and sister, and somehow or another the conversation turned to America, about which the novelist is evidently very enthusiastic.
"I take the greatest possible interest in all things American," said he. "There is, or ought to be, so little difference between them and us. And we must remember this : they are the coming Power. The centre of gravity of the whole race has shifted to the West, and I believe in time that every Saxon will be united under one form of government. Home Rule, with a centre of authority, and the Anglo-Saxon will swing the sword of justice over the whole world. We will not permit then the horrors of Siberia or the like. America and England, joined in their common Anglo-Saxonhood, with their common blood, will rule the world. We shall be united. And the sooner that day comes the better."