Here’s the paradox. By any standards, Arthur Conan Doyle was an extraordinary man; a doctor, a politician, a keen sportsman (he once took the wicket of W.G. Grace and he was skiing almost before the word was invented), a social campaigner, a spiritualist and of course a very great writer, not just of detective stories but history, horror and even poetry. And yet the slate of his life was wiped almost entirely clean by his single, greatest creation, Sherlock Holmes. Doyle himself was aware of it. ‘I am in the middle of the last Holmes story,’ he wrote to his mother in 1892. ‘After which the gentleman vanishes, never, never to reappear. I am weary of his name.’
It didn’t work, of course. Even the Reichenbach Falls couldn’t quite finish him off and 120 years later Holmes is still bigger than the man who created him. Who now reads Professor Challenger or Brigadier Gerard? Who could even name one of the 30-odd works of fiction that Doyle published outside Sherlock Holmes? It is an interesting literary curse to disappear into the shadow of your own creation.
Jon Lellenberg and Daniel Stashower are determined to redress the balance. They have written thousands of words about Doyle and Holmes both separately and together. Only last year, they presented, with the British Library, The Narrative of John Smith, a piece of Doyle juvenilia written when he was just 23. Doyle himself had expressed horror at the thought of its ever appearing in print and it might have been better if they had respected his wishes. Rambling and incoherent, I thought it offered little insight into the genesis of a great literary mind.
And now they’re back, this time with a much more substantial volume, quite a slab of a book, beautifully produced — again by the British Library — and put together with obvious dedication and scholarship: Dangerous Work: Diary of an Arctic Adventure. Doyle wrote this one even before The Narrative of John Smith, when he was just 20 years old and found himself working for six months as the ship’s surgeon on an Arctic whaler.
The first 200 pages are a facsimile of Doyle’s personal diary, complete with rather crude drawings, doodles, smudges and lists of animals slaughtered during the expedition. One thing is immediately apparent. Doyle had very neat handwriting, particularly for a doctor. The facsimile is followed by an annotated transcript with a couple of essays and short stories (including ‘The Adventure of Black Peter’) to complete what is undoubtedly a handsome package.
But what’s the point? It’s painfully obvious that the diary was written for Doyle’s personal reference and because of this I’m afraid many of the entries are very dull indeed. Take Thursday, 4 March:
Gave out tobacco in the morning. Slept forenoon. Went ashore in the evening. Went with second mate and Stewart to the Queen’s and had something short as he calls it. Then went to Mrs Brown’s.
Lellenberg and Stashower append no fewer than four footnotes, about 300 words, to this entry — none of them uninteresting in themselves but still uncomfortably Pooterish.
Compare this with one of the letters Doyle wrote to his mother, also in the book:
We went to bed with a great stretch of water before us as far as the eye could reach, & when we got on deck in the morning there was the whole sea full of great flat lumps of ice, white above and bluish green below, all tossing and heaving on the waves.
This is still not great writing but at least it has a certain energy and excitement. Why? Because it’s actually written for an audience, albeit an audience of one. If Doyle had been thinking of his future readers on Wednesday, 28 July, he would have done better than ‘Another disagreeable day.’
I’m not sure that this entire interlude, the 19th-century equivalent of a gap year, really had any bearing on Doyle’s future writing. ‘Black Peter’ is the only story that references it, and even that does so rather lazily. Look at Holmes’s summing up:
The amazing strength, the skill in the use of the harpoon, the rum and water, the sealskin tobacco-pouch — all these pointed to a seaman, and one who had been a whaler.
Did Doyle need to travel to the Arctic to learn that?
All of which said, Dangerous Work will make an excellent gift for anyone who needs to know that Doyle kept a blabbernose seal’s bone in his consulting room or that plum duff is the last thing that
anyone with intussusception should eat. And I really don’t mean to sneer. The book is a labour of love and I feel quite sad. Perhaps if I loved Doyle just a bit more, I might have found it less of a labour.