Every cloud, and all that. Thanks to the lockdown, I have found myself with time to read a few volumes that have been demanding my attention for quite some time. And so here are a few thoughts on some (almost) recent publications tackling different aspects of the life and work of Conan Doyle
by Stefan Bechtel and Laurence Roy Stains (St. Martin’s Press, 2017).
I suspect I am not alone among Doyleans in finding spiritualism the most problematic aspect of Conan Doyle’s life and work. Every time I read his writings on the subject, he is sadly diminished in my eyes. I am sure this says more about me than Conan Doyle, but the result is that I treat books about his beliefs with trepidation. Perhaps that is why this short volume has stayed unread on my bookshelf for almost three years. In fact, I should have read this book sooner.
Bechtel and Stains are fundamentally interested in understanding how Conan Doyle came to believe in spiritualism, making them rather more sympathetic to Conan Doyle than most biographers. The authors take time to explore Conan Doyle’s scientific training and mindset, his early fascination with the subject, and the decades-long tension between his demand for proof and his heartfelt desire for the existence of life after death. Consequently, we see the subject matter as though through Conan Doyle’s eyes, and almost with the benefit of his doubt (or lack of).
Occasionally, this approach is deeply frustrating. Controversial episodes from the history of spiritualism and psychic enquiry are fleetingly critiqued: the confession (and withdrawal thereof) by the Fox sisters is barely picked up outside the chapter in which they heavily feature, while the wholesale debunking of Eileen Garrett’s channelling of the R101’s captain is glossed over. But this is, after all, a story of one man’s quest for the truth as he saw it and not a debate about spiritualism itself.
Nevertheless, Bechtel and Stains treat the material with skill, providing a pacey and enjoyable read that covers all the major themes and debates in one volume. Other works treat aspects of this topic in more detail (see Christopher Sandford’s work on Conan Doyle and Houdini) but few are quite so willing to make sense of Conan Doyle’s point of view. Ultimately, the answer to the big question – why Conan Doyle believed what he did – rings hollow but that is hardly the authors’ fault. For a stimulating introduction to this difficult topic, and a very entertaining read, this book is heartily recommended.
(Incidentally, this book led me to Bob Loomis’ Houdini’s Final Incredible Secret (2016), which provides a plausible explanation of the famous slate trick that convinced Conan Doyle that Houdini had psychic powers. A fun read and, no, I'm not going to tell you how it was done).
The Annotated White Company
by Doug Elliott and Roy Pilot (Wessex Press, 2020)
I picked up this volume (and had the pleasure of talking to Doug Elliott) at the Baker Street Irregulars weekend in New York in January 2020. Having heard the book was to be launched in the dealer’s room, I quickly made my way to the Wessex Press stand and snapped up a copy. As Steve Doyle passed it over and told me mine was the last copy available that day, the person behind eyed me with cool disdain. I am sad to inform them that they most definitely missed out.
Put simply, this is one of the most important volumes of Doylean studies published. To understand its significance, we should remember what makes the source material so wonderful in the first place. Conan Doyle’s genius in The White Company is the framing device: we see the fourteenth century through the eyes of Alleyne Edricson, a clerk from Beaulieu Abbey who, like us, is a stranger to the world outside. His journey of discovery is our journey of discovery as we experience the sights, sounds and smells of western Europe at the time of Edward, the Black Prince. Conan Doyle peppers the story with everyday historical details, as though they were as normal to us as breathing, but it is not necessary to understand them to enjoy the adventure. We get the sense without the meaning.
Now, Elliott and Pilot have given us this layer of meaning, providing a new way into this fascinating and important work and into the fourteenth century as Conan Doyle saw it. The annotations are more than a dry word-for-word translation: the authors explore the historical context, the way mediaeval society functioned, and the culture and expectations of the protagonists. Yes, you can finally understand why palfreys gambade or what bancals are, but there is more to discover. Elliott and Pilot are never better, nor more valuable to the modern reader, when explaining mediaeval allusions, deepening our understanding of critical parts of the story. The result is that the authors’ annotations have, like good seasoning, heightening the flavour of what was already an immensely rich meal.
Praise must also be heaped on the publishers, Mark Gagen and Steve Doyle at Wessex Press. The book is beautiful, balancing the immense volume of material with readability. The calligraphic lettering that opens each chapter, the use of illustration (particularly the lovely reproductions of N. C. Wyeth’s superb illustrations from the 1922 edition), and the facsimiles of Conan Doyle’s notebook (what wouldn’t you give for an hour or two in its company?) all speak to the care, attention and love lavished on the text. The volume really deserves to be hardback, but I presume this was cost-prohibitive. Nevertheless, 25 years on from their landmark publication of The Annotated Lost World, co-written by the same Roy Pilot, they have done it again – a fitting tribute for their silver jubilee.
Conan Doyle’s Wide World – Sherlock Holmes and Beyond
by Andrew Lycett (Bloomsbury Tauris Parke, 2020)
Conan Doyle’s travelogues do not exist as travelogues as we would characterise them today. His travel writing is typically set-dressing for another topic and incidental to the main action – Australia is not central to the message of The Wanderings of a Spiritualist (1921). Often these sequences are the most interesting part of Conan Doyle’s work, particularly his post-war writings. They are always evocative, often lyrical, invariably beautiful. That Conan Doyle could create this effect is obvious from his description of place in his fiction, even when he was not drawing on life experience (when Conan Doyle wrote the sweeping descriptions of Canada in The Refugees in 1891-2, he hadn’t stepped foot in North America).
But, the barren Arctic of The Hope voyage aside, these are not empty landscapes. Conan Doyle draws people, personalities and cultures throughout. As Lycett says at the end of the book, ‘Conan Doyle's travel writing is at its best when he was trying to convey something of the complex interplay between people, their history and their environment.’ In this way, his travel writing often feels contemporary in a way that his fiction sometimes does not.
After demonstrating his Conan Doyle credentials in his excellent 2008 biography, Lycett sensibly opts to take a back-seat role and lets Conan Doyle do the talking. Lycett’s linking narrative is perhaps only a few thousand words but he lightly chaperones us through the writings, making biographical and literary connections. His greatest contribution is the latter, taking us briefly out of the real world to the Edinburgh of The Firm of Girdlestone, the Egypt of The Tragedy of the Korosko and, of course, the London of Sherlock Holmes.
Conan Doyle’s Wide World is a welcome contribution to the wider literature on Conan Doyle. I was lucky enough to hear the author speak at a book launch where he said he had planned to make more of the contents of private documents and papers but this proved too expensive. A shame as that would have added more to what is, nevertheless, a valuable piece of work.