50. The Surgeon of Gaster Fell (1890)

Charles Altamont Doyle self portrait while in Montrose Lunatic Asylum (Sunnyside) in 1889. From Michael Baker, The Doyle Diary: The Last Great Conan Doyle Mystery (1978).

This month, we look at a deeply personal work that Conan Doyle suppressed for almost thirty years before reissuing in heavily redacted form, ‘The Surgeon of Gaster Fell’ from 1890.

You can the original 1890 version here: https://www.arthur-conan-doyle.com/index.php/The_Surgeon_of_Gaster_Fell

Or listen to a Librivox recording of the 1918 version here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6PouWLBMO0E (starts at 3:27:50).

And listen to the episode below:

The episode will be uploaded to our YouTube channel soon, where you can listen with closed captions. In the meantime, subscribe to our YouTube channel for updates here: https://www.youtube.com/@doingsofdoyle


Following a life of adventure, James Upperton, whilst still only in his late thirties, has decided to retire to a quiet and secluded corner of North West Yorkshire where he intends to pursue a course of abstruse philosophical studies. His plans and his peace are however disarranged by the arrival of a mysterious young woman and the disturbing presence near his woodland retreat of a disparate and strange male duo, the younger of whom introduces himself as the Surgeon of Gaster Fell…

Writing and publication history

The story was first published in 1890 but written in May 1886, immediately after Conan Doyle completed A Study in Scarlet and around the time that his father, Charles Altamont Doyle, suffered a severe epileptic fit in Montrose Lunatic Asylum.

After years suffering from alcohol addiction, Charles Altamont Doyle lost his job at the Edinburgh Works in 1876. Five years later, in 1881, he was admitted to Blairerno, a home for ‘dipsomaniacs.’ He was subsequently moved to the Montrose Lunatic Asylum in 1885, Morningside in 1891, and finally the Crichton Royal in Dumfries in 1892. He died in October 1893.

While Charles Altamont Doyle was unable to support his family, financial aid came from Conan Doyle, his older sister Annette, and Bryan Charles Waller, the Doyle family lodger, who contributed to their rent from 1877. In 1883, while Charles was in Blairerno, Mary Doyle and her two youngest children moved to Masongill, Waller’s North Yorkshire family estate, where she resided until 1917. Conan Doyle married his first wife in nearby Thornton in Lonsdale in 1885, with Waller his best man.

‘Gaster Fell’ was written in May 1886 but was not immediately picked up by publishers. It was eventually published by Chambers’s Journal in four parts in December 1890. The story then passed into obscurity for almost thirty years until, in 1918, Conan Doyle included it in his anthology Danger! and Other Stories. But the version that appeared was significantly curtailed. It is the shorter version of the story that is commonly found in modern anthologies, e.g., Darryl Jones (ed) Gothic Tales.

Textual variations

Sir Joseph Noel Paton's
The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania (1849)
Conan Doyle made many changes to tighten up the story, but the resulting version is radically different. The major changes include removing details of the narrator’s background, detail of Upperton’s theosophical studies, information about the setting, and the final exposition.

Upperton’s theosophical interests owe much to Conan Doyle’s own. He was introduced to theosophy by fellow Southsea resident, Maj Alfred Wilks Drayson, formerly of the Indian Army, probably in 1884.

Upperton’s elaborately decorated room contains numerous gothic and faerie works, including by Noel Paton. These are very much in the taste of Charles Altamont Doyle and may well have been in the Doyle family house. The room also appears in another form in Conan Doyle’s early novel The Narrative of John Smith (2011) and is repurposed for Thaddeus Sholto in The Sign of the Four (1888).

Col Sir Percy Wyndham
Upperton has an interesting military background, which saw him serve among foreign troops for the Confederates during the American Civil War and the French Foreign Legion during the Franco-Prussian War. In the USA, he might have served alongside the magnificently moustachioed Sir Percy Wyndham. Upperton may also be the first literary depiction of a Britisher in the Foreign Legion, predating Beau Geste by thirty-four years. This aspect of Upperton’s background may owe something to Ouida’s Under Two Flags (1867), to which there is a sly nod in the text.

Bryan Charles Waller (1853-1932) and Masongill

Masongill House in 2024
Poet, medic and Doyle family lodger, Bryan Charles Waller is a fascinating figure, memorably described by Owen Dudley Edwards as “a little shadowy.” Born in 1853 (6 years Conan Doyle’s senior), he graduated from Edinburgh in 1876 and stayed on to pursue his doctorate, eventually becoming a member of faculty as Lecturer of Pathology in 1879. Waller pushed young Arthur towards a career in medicine.

Waller lodged with the Doyles in three houses in Edinburgh: 2 Argyle Park Terrace, 1875-77 (where the rent was paid jointly by Charles Doyle and Waller); the upmarket 23 George Square, 1877-81 (rent paid by Waller); and 15 Lonsdale Terrance, 1881-2 (rent paid by Waller). From 1882, he resided at his family estate, Masongill, in North West Yorkshire. Mary Doyle joined him there in 1883.

Conan Doyle initially sought (or at least received) input from Waller on his early fiction, and there are fleeting references to him in several stories including ‘Uncle Jeremy’s Household’ and ‘The Winning Shot.’  Conan Doyle however did not reference him in his autobiography, merely mentioning that his mother had taken in a lodger, which had disastrous consequences. In April 1882, Conan Doyle and Waller appear to have come to blows over an undisclosed matter.

The exact natures of Waller’s character and influence are hard to pinpoint, but there is a general sense that Waller was “a cuckoo in the nest.” He may have harboured unrequited feelings for Arthur’s older sister, Annette. Whatever the case, the description and brusqueness of the Surgeon of the title seems to match what we know of Waller’s personality.

Charles Altamont Doyle (1832-93)

Charles Doyle and Arthur
Dr Allan Beveridge, a Consultant Psychologist at Queen Margaret Hospital, Dumfries, shed light on the sad story of Charles Doyle’s illness in ‘What became of Arthur Conan Doyle’s father? The last years of Charles Altamont Doyle’ (Journal of the Royal College of Physicians Edinburgh, 2006).

Charles was not only severely addicted to alcohol, but also appears to have suffered from memory loss and potentially brain damage as a consequence. The family does not appear to have visited him much, if at all, while in the various institutions to which he was admitted.

One question that Beveridge resolves is who signed the medical certificates that saw Charles Doyle admitted to Montrose. It had been supposed that Waller and Conan Doyle, as practicing physicians, may have signed them, but the papers were made out by Dr James Ironside and Dr James Duffus.

Once admitted to Montrose, Charles Doyle started to suffer from severe epileptic fits. The first of these came in January 1886, the second in April 1886, just as Conan Doyle was concluding A Study in Scarlet and immediately before he put pen to paper to write ‘The Surgeon of Gaster Fell.’

Conan Doyle signed the admission papers that saw his father transfer to the Crichton Royal in Dumfries in 1892. Arthur paid the boarding fee of £40. He did not attend his father’s funeral.

Eva Cameron

As well as being a deeply personal work, ‘The Surgeon of Gaster Fell’ is an example of Conan Doyle’s emerging skill as a Gothic writer. The passage when Eva Cameron appears during a lightning storm is especially evocative, with a touch of Jane Eyre about it (although Conan Doyle was not a fan of the Brontes…)

One of the story’s weaknesses is the character of Eva, who appears to have been considered as a love interest for Upperton. Once the Surgeon appears, Eva disappears from the narrative, only to add a ‘P.S.’ to the final letter of explanation.

Nevertheless, Eva demonstrates behaviour that implies she has inherited her father’s condition. Atavism and hereditary illness are common themes in Conan Doyle’s work, most likely arising from his own fear of taking on his father’s madness.

Next time on Doings of Doyle

We jump forward to 1921 to enter ‘The Nightmare Room’…

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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/.