48. The Great Shadow (1892)

This episode, we travel to the Scottish borders at the end of the Napoleonic Wars for Conan Doyle’s 1892 novella The Great Shadow.

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

Listen to the podcast below or at the Podcaster of your choice.

The episode will be released on our YouTube channel and available for viewing with closed captions in a day or two. Subscribe to the channel here: www.youtube.com/@doingsofdoyle.


West Inch, on the east coast of the Anglo-Scottish borderlands, seems miles from anywhere, especially to young Jock Calder, while the Napoleonic wars are raging across Europe. One false alarm when the invasion beacons were lit has been the limit of his involvement, otherwise the current of life has been uneventful, disturbed only by the presence of his more sophisticated cousin Edie and the wedge she drives between Jock and his best friend Jim Horscroft. All changes, however, with the arrival of a mysterious and debonair shipwrecked stranger on their shore who sets Jock on a path which will end at the fateful Battle of Waterloo…

Writing and publication history

Conan Doyle’s fascination with the Napoleonic era has its roots in a family connection. His relative Sir Denis Pack commanded the Scottish regiment at the Battle of Waterloo.

Conan Doyle began writing about the period in 1890, possibly inspired by the 75th Anniversary of Waterloo. First, there was ‘A Straggler of ’15’’ (1891) and its play equivalent (A Story of) Waterloo which we discussed in Episode 10. Brigadier Etienne Gerard followed in 1894, as discussed in Episode 15 and Episode 40, and with Cliff Goldfarb in Episode 12.

The Great Shadow was commissioned by James Williams Arrowsmith for the Arrowsmith’s Christmas Annual 1892. Arrowsmith’s was a Bristol-based publisher that branched into publishing fiction in the 1870s and found success with Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (1891), the Grossmiths’ The Diary of a Nobody (1892) and Anthony Hope’s Rupert of Henzau (1898).

James Williams Arrowsmith was a spiky character and had run ins with both W. G. Grace and Conan Doyle. ACD refused offers from Arrowsmith that were consistently under his market rate until Arrowsmith relented in December 1891.

The story was written between April and June 1892 for an August 1892 deadline. It was syndicated first in US newspapers in the Autumn, before appearing in Arrowsmith’s Christmas Annual 1892 which was released on 31 October 1892. The first print run of 30,000 sold out before Christmas. The first US single volume edition was published by Harper’s in November 1892 but is dated 1893 on the title page.

The Pavilion on the Links

The story owes much to Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Pavilion on the Links, which was first published in The Cornhill in 1880 (Cornhill version here) and later appeared, in edited form, in New Arabian Nights (1882). Conan Doyle regarded the story (as it appeared in The Cornhill) as the height of dramatic fiction.

The Pavilion on the Links follows the story of Frank Cassilis who, after falling out with his friend Northmoor, finds himself returning years later to Northmoor’s pavilion on the east coast of Scotland and becoming embroiled in a mystery involving a mysterious banker and his beautiful daughter.

The story heavily influenced Conan Doyle who drew on it for a range of stories including ‘The Man from Archangel’ (1885), ‘The Story of the Sealed Room’ (1898), and ‘The Adventure of Black Peter’ (1903). The Graben Flow – a pit of quicksand – is a possible inspiration for the Cree in The Mystery of Cloomber (1888) and the Grimpen Mire in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902).

Another writer heavily influenced by Stevenson was John Buchan whose The Free Fishers (1934) is a Napoleonic period adventure set in Scotland and London at the time of the Regency. Buchan was possible influenced by The Great Shadow.

Semi-autobiographical elements

The love triangle seems to borrow on the story of Conan Doyle’s engagement to Elmo Weldon (or Welden) during the period 1881-3. Conan Doyle met Elmo when visiting his Foley relatives in Lismore, Ireland, in 1881. Although Elmo was independently wealth, Conan Doyle determined to make a career of his own, taking a role as a ship’s surgeon on the S. S. Mayumba (October 1881-January 1882). It was an on-off affair which eventually came to an end, probably on the insistence of Conan Doyle’s mother, before the marriage was due to take place in Spring 1883.

Other semi-autobiographical nods of The Great Shadow include the reference to Jock sleeping in a bed with his head north of the border and his legs south. In addition, Jim Horscroft studies medicine at Edinburgh University and Jock and Jim attend Berwick Academy which owes something to Stonyhurst. The Berwick school bully is Ned Barton, a surname shared with the bullying miner in ‘The Croxley Master’, which is perhaps a reference to a real person.

Buonaventure de Lissac, alias Lapp

We discover that the mysterious French visitor who washes up on the Scottish shore is a military hero and aide-de-camp to Napoleon. De Lissac’s military experience rivals that of Brigadier Gerard, with adventures in the Peninsular, central Europe and Russia.

The reviewer in The Daily News, 31 October 1892, noted that de Lissac “may have been suggested by General Marbot’s unconscious description of himself” – a reference to the Memoirs of Baron de Marbot which were translated into English in 1892 and which Conan Doyle read and owned in the original French. Marbot was the primary influence on the character of Etienne Gerard.

De Lissac is revealed to have been the leader of the death squad that captured and executed Louis Antoine de Bourbon, Duc d’Enghien, in March 1804. The murder was a political blunder by Napoleon which turned many in the European aristocracies against him, including Alexander I of Russia. Had he survived Waterloo, de Lissac would have been executed for treason by the restored Bourbon monarchy.

Waterloo sources

The third act recounts the Battle of Waterloo from the perspective of Jock, a new recruit to the 71st, a Light Infantry unit held in reserve for much of the battle, but which paid a pivotal role in turning Napoleon’s Old Guard.

Conan Doyle had studied the battle extensively and felt the best strategic study was Henri Houssaye’s three volume history which tells the story from the French perspective. He also praised the memoirs of the Welsh grenadier officer, Captain Gronow.

Many of the incidents in the battle are drawn from real life. Conan Doyle’s most likely source was Henry Siborne’s Waterloo Letters (1891), a selection of first-hand accounts collected by William Siborne. The French cavalry officer who warns the Allies of the advance of the Old Guard and the chalking of “71st” on a captured French gun both have their roots in eyewitness accounts.

Reviewers noted Conan Doyle’s ability to capture the horror of war in his depiction of the battle. The Bristol Mercury, 4 November 1892 observed that ‘the description of Waterloo, from the point of view of a soldier who took part in the memorable fight, and can only describe what occurred in front of him, is the finest passage in the book, and is enough to make it popular.’

The Western Daily Mail, 7 November 1892 noted: ‘The man in the ranks sees little or nothing of the great game. He sees merely what transpires in his own very restricted sphere; and what the British linesman has to tell of the horrors of war is told with great skill and point, depending least of all on high-sounding phrases.’

There is a fleeting reference to Sir Denis Pack’s brigade, but Conan Doyle does not go into any detail. The real-life commander of Jock’s regiment, Colonel Reynel, would marry Pack’s widow.

Literary inspirations

French authors Émile Erckmann and Alexandre Chatrian (who wrote collaboratively under the pen name Erckmann-Chatrian) wrote Waterloo (1865), a grandiose novel that concludes a three-volume series that tracks various characters, soldiers and civilians.

Victor Hugo’s account of Waterloo in Les Miserables (1862) takes up nineteen chapters but is often criticised for historical inaccuracies, notably the infamous sunken lane. The story begins with a character looking back fifty years to the events of Waterloo, in much the same way as Jock Calder opens The Great Shadow.

We didn’t have time for…

Walter Scott makes a brief cameo at the beginning of the book. Scott was on the verge of mainstream success when the book is set. He was the first poet to visit the site of the Battle of Waterloo. While Scott is famous for romanticising war as tales of bravery and glory, Conan Doyle can be seen to be undoing this in his own depiction of the battle.

Next time on Doings of Doyle…

We talk to Glen and Cathy Miranker about their forthcoming facsimile edition of Conan Doyle’s notes for his 1910 speech ‘The Romance of Medicine.’ 


Thanks to our sponsor, Belanger Books (www.belangerbooks.com), and our supporters on Patreon and Paypal.

Image credits: Thanks to Alexis Barquin at The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopaedia for permission to reproduce these images. Please support the encyclopaedia at www.arthur-conan-doyle.com.

Music credit: Sneaky Snitch Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com). Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/