35. A Literary Mosaic (1886)


Illustration by Louis Bailly, 1914

This episode, we join a cast of Conan Doyle’s literary heroes in his amusing short story, ‘A Literary Mosaic,’ also known as ‘Cyprian Overbeck Wells,’ which first appeared in December 1886.

You can read the story here: https://www.arthur-conan-doyle.com/index.php/Cyprian_Overbeck_Wells._A_Literary_Mosaic 

And you can listen to the episode here: 


Smith is an aspiring young writer whose confidence in his own abilities is unfortunately at odds with the opinions of publishers and their editors. He is also currently suffering from a severe bout of writer’s block. However, one evening, as he dozes by his fireside, following a satisfying meal, a pint of beer, and a pipeful of tobacco, he mysteriously finds himself in the company of some of English literature’s luminaries who promptly embark on a collaborative literary adventure, both salutary and improbably.

Writing and publication history

You know what this is...
Little, if anything, is known about the story’s writing, but Smith’s experience with publishers mirrors Conan Doyle’s own in mid-1886, when both The Firm of Girdlestone and A Study in Scarlet were doing the rounds.

Conan Doyle later wrote that “Girdlestone used to come circling back with the precision of a homing pigeon.” He was more hurt when the same occurred with Study which he felt “deserved a better fate.”

Smith says his story begins “about twenty minutes to ten on the night of the fourth of June, eighteen hundred and eighty-six” which is as fair an approximation of time of writing as any.

The story first appeared in The Boy’s Own Paper, Christmas 1886. The magazine had previously published Conan Doyle’s ‘An Exciting Christmas Eve’ in December 1883 (Episode 9), and it was about to start serialising ‘Uncle Jeremy’s Household’ in January 1887 (Episode 17).

The story was later included in The Captain of the Polestar and Other Tales (1890) as ‘Cyprian Overbeck Wells’ and now subtitled ‘A Literary Mosaic.’ That collection was dedicated to Major-General Alfred Wilks Drayson, President of the Portsmouth Literary and Scientific Society, who made an introduction of Conan Doyle to The Boy’s Own Paper.

Conan Doyle had plans to reissue the story again c.1910 but this was aborted. He intended to remove the references to James Payn, Walter Besant, Ouida and Stevenson as ‘amongst the living’  as they had all then passed. The reference to ‘amongst the living is still’ in Tales of Twilight and the Unseen (1922) as The Conan Doyle Stories (1929).

The narrator

Prior to Girdlestone, Conan Doyle had written a novel, The Narrative of John Smith, which was lost in the post. He rewrote it and it was eventually published in 2011. The name Smith might be a call back to this novel. Conan Doyle also used the name Smith when playing football in Southsea.

The experience of the “paper boomerangs” is very much Conan Doyle’s own. There is also references to the small cylinders in which he used to send manuscripts to publishers.

Smith’s crisis is both writer’s block and trying to find a voice of his own. Much early Conan Doyle unconsciously mimics other authors, with Girdlestone being an amalgam of sensationalist novelists such as Collins and Dickens.

Henry Highland Garnet
The West African trade, both here and in Girdlestone, draw on Conan Doyle’s experience as a ship’s surgeon aboard the SS Mayumba (October 1881 – January 1882). The poem that Smith writes to a captain describes the route the Mayumba took. One fellow passenger on the journey was the American Consul to Liberia, Henry Highland Garnet (1815-1882), with whom Conan Doyle discussed American authors. There may be something of their conversation reflected in the concept of ‘A Literary Mosaic.’

Smith also says he wished to produce “some great work which should single me out from the family of the Smiths, and render my name immortal.” Conan Doyle felt the pressure of his famous Grandfather and Uncles, especially Richard Doyle. He, like Smith, also sought his own independence, and rejected the offer of money from his Catholic relatives to build his general practice in Southsea.

Conan Doyle’s method may be that of Smith here, namely to read extensively and seek inspiration that way. In Through the Magic Door, Conan Doyle describes how each book “enfolds the concentrated essence of a man. The personalities of the writers have faded into the thinnest shadows, as their bodies into impalpable dust, yet here are their very spirits at your command.”

Forerunner – ‘Selecting a Ghost’

Illustration by G. Dutriac, 1928
Conan Doyle had previously toyed with this format in ‘Selecting a Ghost - The Ghosts of Goresthorpe Grange’ which first appeared in London Society, Dec 1883. It tells of a well-to-do grocer, Argentine D’odd, who acquires a stately home and seeks to procure a ghost from a tradesman. He auditions several ghosts, each by different authors including Bulwer-Lytton (“the great ethereal sigh-heaver” and “killer of dogs” – a reference to Haunted and the Haunters), Scott (“the original manor-house apparition”), Dickens (“the leaver of footsteps and the spiller of gouts of blood”) and Poe (“the American blood-curdler”). It is a scam, and he awakes to find his house burgled.

The principal authors

Daniel Defoe (1660-1731): Defoe’s section, and creation of Cyprian Overbeck Wells, is a paraphrasing and pastiche of the opening of Robinson Crusoe (1719). Defoe’s reference to how Lord Rochester’s word might “make or mar” a young novelist, implies the pressure Conan Doyle felt under. As John McVeogh pointed out, Defoe had a difficult relationship with Rochester’s works, being attracted to it while being repelled by some of the moral philosophy. McVeogh argues this is why Crusoe’s world-view is contradictory. John McVeogh, Rochester and Defoe: A Study in Influence (1974) Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 14, No. 3 (Summer, 1974), pp. 327-341.

Jonathan Swift (1667-1745): “Dean Swift” in reference to him being an Anglican clergyman. Swift’s work is a pastiche of Gulliver’s Travels (1726) which results in Cyprian Overbeck Wells being shipwrecked. Swift’s tart exchange with Laurence Sterne alludes to Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey (1768). Swift’s nautical detail amuses Smollett (see below) and irritates Captain Marryat, author of Peter Simple (1834), Mr. Midshipman Easy (1836) and the children’s classic, The Children of the New Forest (1847)

Tobias Smollett (1721-71): Father of the picaresque novel whose influence can be seen on Dickens and especially The Pickwick Papers. Author of The Adventures of Roderick Random (1748), which is directly referenced. Known for his absurdist comic scenes, which find their way into Cyprian’s voyage. The character of Jebediah Anchorstock echoes Commodore Hawser Trunnion in The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle (1751). Another absurdist character, Humphry Clinker (The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, 1771) was well regarded by George Eliot and referenced in Middlemarch (1872).

The St Louis Star, 4 Feb 1912
Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832): Immediately sends Cyprian back to 1450 into the midst of Jack Cabe’s Rebellion. Conan Doyle said his first books were by Scott and he rated Ivanhoe the second greatest knowledge in the English language (after Charles Reade’s The Cloister and the Hearth (1861). Conan Doyle’s adoration of Scott is worth a podcast of its own, but it was not blind hero workship and he accepted there was “an intolerable amount of redundant verbiage in Scott's novels,” echoing Stevenson’s view that they were “full of sawdust.” Nevertheless, Scott cast’s a long shadow over Scottish gothic and the English novel more broadly. Timothy C. Baker, ‘A Scott-Haunted World’ in Contemporary Scottish Gothic: Mourning, Authenticity, and Tradition (Macmillan, 2014).

Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-73): Diplomat, occultist, and author of The Coming Race, which we discussed with Terror of Blue John Gap in Episode 14, and most famously The Haunted and the Haunters, which Conan Doyle regarded as the greatest ghost story written. Bulwer-Lytton’s Scott pastiche can be seen in some of his historical novels, e.g. Harold, the Last of the Saxon Kings (1848). He was teased mercilessly by contemporaries, especially William Makepeace Thackeray. In ‘Mosaic,’ Conan Doyle briefly confuses Bulwer-Lytton with his son who was Viceroy of India.

Who is missing?

Charles Reade
As the focus is on the English novel, we can expect American authors to be missing, but one would have expected Poe to be around the table if otherwise. Fielding and Richardson, whom Conan Doyle admired, also do not participate, probably because their style does not tend the absurdist. For the same reason, the Brontes are not present. Women are underrepresented - Eliot and Ouida, though present, do not talk. One might have expect Conan Doyle to include Jane Austin, who he read and enjoyed.

The San Francisco Chronicle (3 August 1890) observed that ‘Mosaic’ is “a fantasy in the style that Hawthorne was so fond of.” Certainly multiple perspectives and consecutive narrators are a feature of his work. However, Conan Doyle was not enamoured of Hawthorne who he found “too subtle, too elusive, for effect.”

One might have expected Charles Reade, author of The Cloister and the Hearth, to make an appearance. Another missing individual was Mayne Reid, and one might have expected to hear from Marryat, both of whom would have appealed to the readership of The Boy’s Own Paper.

Literary Parlour Games

Conan Doyle would contribute to Fate of Fenella (1891-92), a collaborative novel in which each chapter was a different author, mostly alternating between male and female. Other authors included Bram Stoker, Mrs. Trollope and F. Anstey (author of Vice-Versa, the inspiration for ‘The Great Keinplatz Experiment’).

In his spiritualist years, Conan Doyle claimed (or it was claimed of him) to be in contact with deceased authors, among them Dickens, Tolstoy and Thackeray. On the material plane, he finished Grant Allen’s novel Hilda Wade on the author’s death-bed instructions.

Next time on Doings of Doyle

We are joined by Linda Bailey and Isabella Follath, writer and illustrator respectively of Arthur Who Wrote Sherlock, a new children’s biography of Conan Doyle.