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Conan DoyleWriting, Profession, and Practice$

Douglas Kerr

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780199674947

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2013

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199674947.001.0001

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(p.1) 1 Introduction
Conan Doyle

Douglas Kerr

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter introduces the notion of “practice”. The young Conan Doyle was a medical doctor in general practice – his practice was a place of activity, a repertoire of knowledge and skills, a set of social relations, a professional reputation, and a body of work. His second career, as a writer, can be analysed in similar terms as a “practice”. The second part of this chapter surveys the profession of authorship around the year 1890 when Conan Doyle gave up medicine for writing – its practitioners and debates, book and magazine and journalistic publications, the expanding reading public, critical and popular tastes, and changing ideas about the role of an author or man of letters in society.

Keywords:   Medical practice, literary profession, 1890s, serialization, magazines, popular literature, modernism, authorship


Arthur Conan Doyle was, arguably, Britain's last national writer. Though he might speak of himself as English, he was a Scotsman of Irish ancestry: his idea of the nation, which I will consider in the following chapter, was an inclusive one. He embodied, in his work and life and person, qualities and values which the British reading public felt to be peculiarly their own. It was a role that Dickens had played before him, and that in retrospect had been conferred on Shakespeare, but I cannot think of any significant author who has taken it up since Conan Doyle's death.1 Indeed in modern cultural circumstances the role itself is probably defunct. I believe Conan Doyle came to think of himself in these terms too, at least until the last decade of his life when his idea of his role changed radically (madly, some said). It was not just that he had a gift for producing stories that excited, intrigued, and beguiled large numbers of people, in a society more literate than ever before, or since. Nor was it simply because in Sherlock Holmes he had created one of the best-known invented literary characters ever, whose almost mythic function was to guarantee the safety of the national city and its people. Conan Doyle's privileged place in the culture was the result of his whole practice as man of letters, his cultivation of what nowadays we would call his image, his interventions in national affairs and issues, and his espousal of causes, in particular cases of injustice as he saw it, his journalism and history-writing as well as his fiction. He (p.2) was a public figure, a member not just of the profession of letters, but of the establishment. He was trusted; people felt they knew him: he was one of them. And in the end, all this was jeopardized, as he well understood, by his stubborn and tireless advocacy of Spiritualist beliefs and practices most people thought of as sinister or ludicrous.

This is a critical book about Conan Doyle's writings and also an attempt at a cultural biography of the writer. There are plenty of narrative biographies of Conan Doyle: indeed most book-length studies have been in this genre. Some of them are very good, I have drawn on them for this study, and of course I do not exclude narrative from this work. But my focus is elsewhere, not so much on the author's life but on his writing and on his practice as man of letters. Narrative biographies tell the author's story, but a cultural biography is about the life and times of his work. What I want to do is to portray Conan Doyle as a product, historian, and creator of culture. Instead of the usual divisions of chronological biography—student days, medical practice, the move to London, and so on—the story is organized here in terms of a number of domains of the culture of his times. Each domain is an activity, like medicine, or sport, with their associated institutions, ideas, special language, and values—what might be called a discourse. In each chapter, Conan Doyle's own writing provides the most important evidence of how he absorbed, reflected, and generated knowledge about these things. This book is about what Conan Doyle knew about his world. But it was not just a matter of the acquisition of knowledge, like stamp-collecting. Writers are also creators of knowledge, and in his writing Conan Doyle brought a world into being and made it knowable to his readers.

My method has been to place this writing in the context of cultural activity, the cultural element in which he and his readers led their lives, but then also to show how the writing never simply offers a picture of his times, but works on its material to produce a cultural knowledge which may disclose contradictions, fears, hopes, and desires that might not be expressible in other ways. This is the kind of claim usually made for serious literature, and arguably it is yet more likely to be relevant to popular writing, like Conan Doyle's, in which there is a large element of fantasy. (His Spiritualist writing, for example, comes to imagine a community with features that compensate for what was lacking or wrong, in his view, in modern England.) He was not much of an original thinker, but he was an unrivalled (p.3) inventor of tales, characters, and situations in which the ideas of his time were given striking, memorable, and simple human form. One example would be the stories about Professor Challenger, the egomaniacal scientist of The Lost World. These stories heroize the modern scientific investigator in the form of the familiar genre of an adventure for boys, satirize the institutions and procedures of the scientific profession, and carry intuitions that the relentless march of scientific modernity may be bearing on to a future more tragic and grotesque than that envisaged in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein a century before. They do all these things at the same time. Conan Doyle's own experience of scientists (he was one himself ), and scientific ideas and institutions, is adduced to help make sense of this important ambivalence about science, which can certainly be generalized as an ambivalence about modernity itself, and which Conan Doyle shared with and articulated for his readers. For readers and for the writer, a new century was providing reasons to marvel at what scientists could do, and to worry about what they might do. For Conan Doyle, this was an ambivalence with its roots in his own student days in Edinburgh in the late 1870s. He returns it, as it were, to the culture in the somewhat lurid form of the popular genre of the scientific romance of The Lost World, and the science fiction of “When the World Screamed”—and, of course, in the tales about a great detective and his science of deduction. And it was to emerge as one of the capital themes of the history of the twentieth century.

The cultural domains I have selected are far from exhaustive, it hardly needs saying. The chapters that follow are essays, and do not pretend to add up to a complete cultural portrait, which would be massive indeed in the case of any subject. But I have chosen those domains that seem to me capable of shedding light on the distinctiveness of Conan Doyle as a maker of culture. Nor are they self-contained. It would have been worrying if they were. Moreover, as these domains, science and the rest, make up the horizontal plane of this study, they are each intersected vertically by another set of recurrent preoccupations: modernity, art, nation, gender, profession. Conan Doyle's lifetime was one in which changes in the culture were pressing on each of these terms, and his writing, which is always curious if not deep, registers and responds to these changes.

In thinking about Conan Doyle's work in and about these matters, as a writer and man of letters, I have found a useful metaphor (p.4) from his work in another of his professions. The figure is that of practice, which finds its way into the title of this book, and this introduction.

When Dr Arthur Conan Doyle arrived in the Portsmouth suburb of Southsea, on 24 June 1882, it was with the intention of establishing a medical practice of his own. He was 23 years old and had a bachelor's degree in medicine from Edinburgh University. He had held various temporary medical positions, both on land and as a ship's doctor, most recently an informal junior partnership in the Plymouth practice of his Edinburgh fellow student, the alarming George Turnavine Budd, which had not turned out well. Now the young Conan Doyle was impatient to launch an independent career as a general practitioner (GP). He was to work as a physician in Southsea for seven years.

A practice is a place, and a body of work. Conan Doyle's new practice was based at No. 1 Bush Villas, the house he rented in Elm Grove in Southsea, where he set up his surgery—a consulting room and a waiting room—on the ground floor. Bush Villas was the centre of the practice, and, like most GPs, Conan Doyle did most of his work in the neighbourhood. The practice had no fixed boundaries, for it was defined simply by the places where the young doctor could find patients who wanted his services, on whom he could exercise his skills. He had chosen his location very carefully: after all, the practice was also a business. He needed to find a place where there was a realistic chance of attracting enough paying patients to enable him to make a living. At the local post office he had bought a large shilling map of Southsea, and he spent several days tramping the streets, scouting the location, map in hand, marking the empty houses, and the surgeries of other doctors with whom he would be competing for patients. In the end, Bush Villas was well chosen, as Andrew Lycett says, at a point “where the comfortable residences of the local bourgeoisie met the brash shopping streets where they made their money”.2 Portsmouth was a seafaring town with a big naval base and (p.5) dockyards, but Southsea was more genteel. Elm Grove was a main thoroughfare, constantly busy with pedestrians and vehicles, and the house itself stood between a Pentecostal church and a pub, the Bush Hotel. Unlike some specialists, the general practitioner's patients might be drawn from all classes, occupations, and stations in life within travelling distance of the surgery. Conan Doyle's list came to include plenty of well-heeled Southsea bourgeois and retired professionals, but his work also, and especially in the early days, brought him often into contact with the neighbourhood's poor, malnourished, and deprived.

Once established, Dr Conan Doyle's practice would never be marked on a map. It had no defined space, like a parish or municipality or a police district. It overlapped with the practices of other doctors (in fact there was another Edinburgh graduate, William Pike, in practice in Elm Grove). It expanded and contracted continuously, with new patients coming onto Conan Doyle's list and others transferring their loyalty to another man, drifting away, or dying off. Some were regular, serial visitors to the surgery, others might appear once and never be seen again. So to call the practice a place is not quite accurate. The practice was the practitioner's knowledge of a place, a location brought into being in his mind, and maintained through his attention. The people and institutions, the families and the streets that made up his work, in those seven years, were a cross-section of late-Victorian provincial England, but not an entirely random one. Representative or not, and regardless of how aware they were of each other, they had this in common: they were known to the practitioner. They were his practice.

The practice of medicine was also a profession. Like those other respectable old vocations, the Church and the law, it was something men “went in for”, having acquired a body of professional knowledge, a place in the professional hierarchy, and a platform from which to exercise their skills. Conan Doyle had been trained in the medical faculty at Edinburgh University in the years 1876 to 1881, studying the natural sciences and the medical disciplines of anatomy, clinical medicine, pharmacy, surgery, medical jurisprudence, and so on. His professional consecration came with the award of his MB or Bachelor of Medicine in 1881. Without a degree, he would not have been allowed to practise. But he was to signal his medical ambition by going on to study for the higher degree of MD, awarded by Edinburgh in 1885 for (p.6) a research dissertation on tabes dorsalis, syphilis of the spinal cord.3 Later, very briefly, and half-heartedly, in 1891 he tried his hand at consultant medicine, setting up as an eye specialist in London.

Success in medical practice may have required certain temperamental qualities; it certainly depended on a body of knowledge acquired in the lecture room and laboratory, and then in the treatment of the sick. But doctors needed to know more than was contained in the textbooks and professional journals of an increasingly scientific medicine. A specialist might concentrate only on the narrow particularities of the case referred to him, but a doctor in general practice, besides his technical skills in diagnosis and treatment, needed a humanistic knowledge of the patients under his care—not just their ailments, but their history, family, work circumstances, and character.

Even then, a good clinical knowledge and an empathetic manner did not guarantee a good practice. Besides his knowledge of ailments and treatments, and his familiarity with his individual patients, a doctor had to foster good relations with his profession, and with the public. He needed a network of professional contacts, the consultants to whom he could refer difficult cases for a second opinion, the hospitals and nursing homes in his district, other institutions such as working men's associations or insurance companies or sports clubs that might be a useful source of work, the suppliers of drugs and equipment, neighbouring colleagues with whom he might find himself cooperating, or competing. And of course his work could not be done if he was not known. A doctor was not allowed to advertise, but Conan Doyle—a lifelong compulsive joiner of societies and clubs and teams and committees, in a compulsively associative age (especially for men)4 (p.7) put himself about Southsea and Portsmouth with great vigour, writing to the local papers and speaking at political meetings, participating in all sorts of sporting and cultural and scientific activities. The networking, the constant clubbability, the occasional controversy: these public performances were all part of the practice. The medical practice benefited from the name—the good name—of the doctor being widely recognized in the neighbourhood.

A writer is not a doctor. Conan Doyle, however, was both, and there are interesting and illuminating congruences between the practices of his two professions, in a professional age. The practice of a GP includes his knowledge of a human environment, with its streets and institutions and neighbourhoods and their inhabitants, and his knowledge of what doctors do, derived from study and experience; the application of one on the other was, as it were, the practice of his practice. Writers too deploy knowledge of the world they live in, both actual and imaginary. The “world” of Arthur Conan Doyle the writer, brought into being by the practice of his writing, was an extensive and colourful one, the world he knew and wrote about ranging from Baker Street to Bloemfontein, from a hospital ward in Berlin to the rookery of pterodactyls in the Lost World, and from the Hundred Years War to the end of the world. The professional knowledge the writer brought to bear on this world expressed itself in the work of storytelling, invention, research, polemic, and so on. The work brought the “world” into being, the “world” elicited the work. And from our reading of this work emerges an imaginary picture of the real culture Conan Doyle inhabited and, in his way, helped to shape and define: the late-Victorian years and the early decades of the twentieth century, as seen, imagined, and understood in the practice of an outstanding writer.

(p.8) Profession

When he decided, in August 1891, to give up medicine and make his living as a full-time writer, Conan Doyle was exchanging one professional practice for another. As he became quite rapidly a literary celebrity, his former career as a doctor seems to have been one of the things that most readers knew about him, a titbit of knowledge no doubt given extra relish because of Dr Watson, and one element in his reputation for unimpeachable probity, both within the literary world and with the public.5 Like more formal professions, the profession of letters in the late decades of the nineteenth century was a career and a business which also had some of the characteristics of a club. The gregarious Conan Doyle knew hundreds of writers, publishers and journalists, and formed most of his close friendships within the literary world. He developed an impressive network of connections in literature and journalism, and later in public life. There was no literary equivalent of the British Medical Association or the Law Society, but literature was a community developing its own quasi-professional institutions. In 1884, Walter Besant established the Society of Authors to promote copyright reform and protect writers’ interests.6 (Inexperienced authors were often in a weak position. In 1887 Ward, Lock & Co persuaded Conan Doyle to part with the copyright of the first Sherlock Holmes novel for £25.7) Besant later founded the Authors’ Club in 1891. Conan Doyle was to become its second president.

But when Besant reviewed the business in an essay on “Literature as a Career” in 1892, the prospect he sketched was not very encouraging. Unlike other professions, the profession of letters was open to anyone, but Besant complained that in Britain writers were unhonoured, if not treated with actual contempt, and most of them were at the mercy of publishers. “No worker in the world, not even the needlewoman, is more helpless, more ignorant, more cruelly sweated than the author.”8 (p.9) Besant estimated that there were some 15,000 people in London who followed a literary career. No more than fifty writers in Britain and the United States made £1,000 or more a year by writing novels. Another hundred novelists, a handful of dramatists, and a few writers of educational books were able to make a living by their pen. This excluded journalism, which indeed was a lifeline for some writers, but often at the expense of their literary ambitions. “There are but few who can afford to live by writing novels, plays, poems, essays, or the like.”9 These were the perilous waters into which Conan Doyle had set sail the previous year. As it happened, a revolutionary tide had already begun to transform the publishing world, for both writers and readers. Conan Doyle himself was part of that change, and benefited greatly from it: already in 1891 he was earning about £1,500 from his writing.10 Still, embarking on the profession of letters at the beginning of the 1890s was a risky business. There was a warning in the dreary fate of Edwin Reardon, the unsuccessful writer in George Gissing's novel New Grub Street (published in 1891 by Smith, Elder, who brought out Conan Doyle's The White Company in the same year).

The change that was overtaking the publishing business derived ultimately from large developments in the society, economy, and culture of the late-Victorian age. Liberal legislation—the Reform Act of 1867 and the Representation of the People Act of 1884—had increased the voting population to five and a half million men, and the political campaign was already afoot that would eventually see the enfranchisement of women (over 30, with property restrictions) in 1918, and finally equal political rights for all adult men and women in 1928. This revolution, which provided the political basis for a modern mass society, and was attended like all revolutions with profound misgivings and anxieties, was accomplished in Conan Doyle's lifetime (1859–1930). A vital part of the creation of this “new democracy” was an investment in public education. In a series of Education Acts between 1870 and 1891, provision was (p.10) made for board schools, run by municipalities, paid for by local taxation, and empowered to require attendance by pupils between the ages of 5 and 10, and up to 14 unless an exemption certificate was granted. By 1891, elementary education was compulsory and free. In 1918, the school leaving age was raised to 14. These changes brought a dramatic increase in literacy, in white-collar jobs, leisure time, and spending power, and now many more people than before wanted things to read.

With this new literacy came the “new journalism”—a phrase associated with the campaigning editor W. T. Stead, whom we will meet in a later chapter, commissioning Conan Doyle to go to Berlin on a reporting assignment in 1890—and a proliferation of periodicals and cheap newspapers in the 1880s and 1890s. The pattern was of a cheaper and more accessible product and a much expanded—indeed the beginnings of a mass—market. A similar change in the mode of literary production and consumption was beginning to happen in fiction. The standard vehicle for the first issue of novels had been the three-volume (three-decker) format, dictated by the demands of the commercial libraries, but relatively expensive for individual book-buyers. At the beginning of the 1890s this form of publishing was being challenged by the appearance of first editions in cheap single-volume format, destined for popular sales and public-library borrowing. It was a change that would usher in the age of bestsellers, but it did not happen overnight. Conan Doyle's historical novel Micah Clarke came out in one volume in 1889 but his The White Company, though a shorter book, was published in 1891 as a three-decker.11 Nonetheless, in the 1890s the doom of the three-decker was sealed. Between 1894 and 1897 the publication of three-volume novels fell from 184 to 4.12 The size of novels quite visibly shrank.13 But there was a constant demand by periodicals of every kind for serial novels and short fiction. Meanwhile the literature-reading public was bigger than ever, and growing.

It has been argued that these circumstances helped to produce a “great divide”, between elite or modernist literary writing on one (p.11) hand, and popular stuff on the other.14 There is evidence for this, for example, in the difficulties experienced through much of their careers by Henry James, by George Gissing, and by Joseph Conrad, in finding a public that would understand or buy their books. Nicholas Daly has shown, however, that the literary culture was still largely homogeneous, at least until the end of the nineteenth century.15 Serious and popular writers mingled, often belonged to the same clubs, wrote for the same magazines and publishers, and dealt in their books with similar subjects. The cult of aestheticism in the fin de siècle might be seen as the assertion of a specialized art domain, distant from people's everyday concerns, but after the downfall of Oscar Wilde in 1895 fewer writers were concerned to claim, out loud at least, a position aloof from the world their readers inhabited, or to talk about pursuing their art for its own sake. The decade of the 1890s, in the words of John Gross, was followed by “a period dominated by writers who were closer to the Early Victorians than to their immediate predecessors in their readiness to enter the public arena as preachers, debaters, entertainers”.16 Commercially successful writers saw themselves as part of the same profession as those who appealed only to a more educated readership soon to be christened “highbrow”, were equally ready to speak out on issues of the day with, perhaps, the extra warrant of their wide appeal, and took their work just as seriously. This was the profession, and the market, that Conan Doyle was already familiar with when he abandoned medicine for full-time writing. His professional responsibility was now focused not on a practice of patients, but on the reading public of the new democracy, with its appetite for literary enjoyment and for learning about the world by means of a good story.

George Newnes, the publisher, was both a beneficiary and an enabler of this new democracy of culture.17 He was 30 years old when he founded the penny weekly Tit-Bits in October 1881. Appealing to the mass readership created by educational reform, Tit-Bits was a miscellany (p.12) of jokes, short articles, snippets from elsewhere in the press, statistics, scandal, fiction, and answers to correspondents; it came with an insurance policy against railway accidents and included competitions offering prizes. It had a huge and sustained success—the first printing of 5,000 sold out in two hours and in 1897 the magazine was selling 671,000 copies a week. Newnes moved his offices to the Strand in 1886, and George Newnes Ltd was incorporated in 1891 (Conan Doyle became a shareholder in the company). By the mid-1890s it had a book list, including a Penny Library of Famous Books. In 1890, Newnes had formed a partnership with W. T. Stead, until recently editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, to launch the combative sixpenny monthly Review of Reviews. It was an uneasy alliance. After a few months Stead bought out his partner, and Newnes used his now surplus production facilities to found the Strand Magazine, a middle-class stable-mate for Tit-Bits, modelled on the American Harper's and Scribner's magazines.18 By 1896 the Strand was selling 392,000 copies a month, with 60,000 of them going to America. Its literary editor for forty years was Henry Greenhough Smith and his contributors included Rudyard Kipling, H. G. Wells, Edith Nesbit, Winston Churchill, W. W. Jacobs, P. G. Wodehouse, Sapper, W. Somerset Maugham, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Arnold Bennett (whose literary career had begun when he won a competition in Tit-Bits in 1890). But the Strand 's star contributor was Conan Doyle, whose first Sherlock Holmes short story, “A Scandal in Bohemia”, appeared in the magazine in July 1891. Holmes stories immediately became a part of what we would now call the magazine's brand, and remained the staple of the Strand until the final one, “The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place”, was published in 1927.

The partnership between the Strand and Sherlock Holmes was an extraordinary success, for Conan Doyle had assessed the market just as shrewdly as George Newnes. “Considering these various [monthly] journals with their disconnected stories it had struck me that a single character running through a series, if it only engaged the attention of the reader, would bind that reader to that particular magazine,” he was to remember, and he had gone on to reason that a serial could be off-putting to a reader who happened to miss an episode, but that (p.13) self-contained stories about a favourite recurring character would be a way of making sure the purchaser “could relish the whole contents of the magazine”.19 So the Holmes tales, on which Conan Doyle's fortune and reputation rested, evolved from a business plan that took into account publication outlets and the market they fostered and served. As in his earlier career as a doctor, practice for Conan Doyle the writer meant not only the exercise of a set of professional skills, but also a sympathetic knowledge of the people to whom those skills were offered.

Authors of fiction derived income from both magazine and book publication. Joseph Conrad, for example, got by through publishing novels in instalments in periodicals—Blackwood's Magazine being his most stalwart partner during a critical period of five years—before issuing them in book form, and an American edition (the American market had recently been regulated) would often yield a third stream of income. Conan Doyle calculated that with serialization he could earn four times as much as from a single-volume publication.20 Fiction writers also sold individual stories to magazines, and would aim to collect and republish them in book form. The Edinburgh-based Blackwood's seems to have been the first outlet to which Conan Doyle sent a story, in 1879, though the magazine did not accept any of his work for publication until 1890; when one of his stories was accepted by another old warhorse, the Cornhill Magazine, in 1884, publication in this prestigious outlet had been a significant breakthrough for the young writer.21 When Sherlock Holmes became famous, the early A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of the Four made the reverse journey, from book to periodical publication, and were re-serialized in Tit-Bits in 1893. But Holmes was best known through magazine publication, and although Conan Doyle was universally famous (to his chagrin) as the creator of the great detective, his Sherlock Holmes books were outsold by his historical novels, such as The White Company, which went through fifty editions before 1914.

(p.14) As he had done when a physician at Southsea, but now on a national rather than a local scale, Conan Doyle kept his name before the public by writing to newspapers, and he was now also the willing subject of new journalistic genres like the interview (pioneered by Stead), and the photographic portrait.22 For the struggling writer, publicity boosted sales. But for the celebrity author, fame could be a platform from which to speak out on all sorts of matters, and when he became a national figure Conan Doyle took his standing with the public seriously as an obligation, and an opportunity to make a difference, sometimes, to opinion and even policy.23 But it was also a living. Once a writer had become well established, income from periodical and book publication, on both sides of the Atlantic, could be usefully supplemented by translations, by Tauchnitz continental rights, by writing or having work adapted for the theatre and later the cinema, and by lecture tours, especially in America, a lucrative option for celebrity authors from Elinor Glyn to Winston Churchill.24 Publishers might deal directly with an author, like the American Joseph Marshall Stoddart of Lippincott's Magazine who commissioned the stories that became The Sign of the Four and The Picture of Dorian Gray over dinner with Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde at the Langham Hotel in 1889. But literature was becoming a complex business, and many writers turned to agents to help them market their work and protect their interests. In 1890, on the advice of the ubiquitous Walter Besant, Conan Doyle became a client of A. P. Watt, London's leading literary agent.

Conan Doyle was a writer of unique character, history, passions, and skills. But he was also, as a writer, formed by his practice—the profession of authorship, and the expanding, increasingly literate late-Victorian reading public, and later their twentieth-century children, for whom he wrote. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century there was lively debate in the profession as it adapted to changing circumstances and new readers. The prestige of the novel form had risen steadily, and (p.15) there was a recognition that fiction could perform an educative role: but should a novel be judged for its artistic worth, its moral lessons, or its entertainment value? How should it relate to its readers’ lives? Novelists canvassed different kinds of practice, with shifting terms: realism and idealism, realism and romance, the fiction of character, and the fiction of incident. (I will return to this in a later chapter.) Henry James felt it was the novelist's job to represent experience with an “air of reality”, so that the novel might compete with life.25 Robert Louis Stevenson, on the other hand, took issue with this aesthetic, and argued that the novel of domestic realism and psychological investigation, of the sort Henry James recommended, was likely to lack excitement and fail to nourish the imagination. “English people of the present day are apt, I know not why, to look somewhat down on incident, and reserve their admiration for the clink of teaspoons and the accents of the curate. It is thought clever to write a novel with no story at all, or at least with a very dull one.”26 Against this model, Stevenson was ready to recommend a different kind of fiction, a fiction of incident. Sometimes he called it romance and at other times, the novel of adventure. It was a formula well suited also to shorter novels and to the newly fashionable form of the “short story”—a term first coined in 1884.27

Conan Doyle's temperament and tastes, his own extraordinary gift for narrative, and his commercial instincts all inclined him to find a more inspiring model in Stevenson than in James. His mimetic style in all his work is straightforward and undecorated, and always delivers precise and vivid detail: to this extent he is a realist. But the tradition of domestic realism in the novel, with its emphasis on the manners of class and family, the slow changes of time, and the patient exposition of the psychology of characters and their intimate relationships, had little appeal for him.28 Whether it has a historical or a contemporary setting, his fiction is marked above all by strong narrative, punctuated (p.16) by striking incident. When the meticulously furnished scene of realism is to be found in a Conan Doyle story—like the drawing-room at Baker Street—it is an anteroom to the unexpected and unsettling. The prosaic everyday world does feature in his stories, but it is there to be interrupted and transfigured by the extraordinary, by mystery and crime and adventure, by the exotic, the eccentric, or the supernatural.

There is no doubt of the public appetite for this kind of genre fiction in its various forms. “In the late nineteenth century there were certain genres that the mass reading public favoured. Among them, adventure, romance, horror, crime, and sport clearly led.”29 The list pretty well covers Conan Doyle's fictional output, if we class his historical novels as an important subspecies of the adventure tale, and if we exclude “romance” in the sense of narratives about love, which is never the primary focus of his stories. “In British fiction”, he complained in Through the Magic Door, “nine books out of ten have held up love and marriage as the be-all and end-all of life. Yet we know, in actual practice, that this may not be so.”30 If we take the word in a less restrictive sense, it will be convenient, following Stevenson himself, to give the general name “romance” to this popular non-domestic fiction of incident, for which Nicholas Daly makes the claim that, towards the end of the nineteenth century, “this fiction in effect takes over from the domestic realist novel as the narrative flagship of middle-class Britain”.31 In the hands of Conan Doyle (and others like Rider Haggard and Stevenson), it is a manly, action-oriented kind of writing. Indeed there is a pervasive assumption in contemporary critical accounts that the late-Victorian romance was a more healthily masculine form than the realist novel, and an antidote to “the feminizing—and thus morbid—effects of the virus of French realism”.32 (It is notable that the cerebral Sherlock Holmes, who is subject to periods of lassitude and ennui and has a taste for the paradis artificiel of drugs, is always able to shake off these deplorable tendencies and emerge as a decisive and sporting hero when action is required.)

While this was a popular kind of writing with a broad appeal, it also performed a social function, in the dissemination of knowledge to the (p.17) expanded reading public of the new democracy. Conan Doyle's books were rarely didactic, but they were educative. Tellingly, when he first settled down to write a full-length novel, he neglected to provide it with a story, but he relished the opportunity to parade, by means of his narrator, a large catalogue of his views.33 He would not make the same mistake again in fiction. The knowledge his work transmitted came not in the form of data or dogma, but in stories. By telling adventurous stories about the past, the historical novelist—and the historian—educated his readers about the traditions and values of the nation, and encouraged that spirit of valour and service that was needed, he believed, to preserve both nation and empire. In narratives with more contemporary settings, a popular writer could provide characters and stories that could help readers imaginatively understand the modern world, in which the pace of change accelerated throughout the decades of Conan Doyle's writing life. The opening pages of a Sherlock Holmes tale, for example, might encode in the form of narrative a wealth of knowledge about professionalism, masculinity, friendship, class, domesticity, the geography of London, the family, leisure, duty—all ideas whose meaning was not static, but evolving with the evolutions of modernity, as well as being subject to the particular circumstances in the story, and the beliefs and practice of Conan Doyle and of his characters.

Writing is produced out of knowledge, but is not a mere reflection of society's knowledge of itself; writers create and disseminate knowledge in their turn. Knowledge of what? The titles of the following chapters give an answer—hardly an exhaustive one—to this question in the case of Arthur Conan Doyle: sport, medicine, empire, and the rest. A different kind of organization might have produced a different set of categories—gender, profession, race, and Church, for example. A writer's interpretation of the world gives a shape to cultural knowledge; when that knowledge is shared, it becomes a part of the culture, to be interpreted and reshaped in its turn by others.


(8) Walter Besant, “Literature as a Career”, Forum, 13 (March–August 1892), 693–708; at 696.

(1) J. B. Priestley in the 1930s and 1940s made some claim to the title of national writer, but it was not a lasting one. George Orwell has proved a stronger candidate, though only posthumously.

(2) Andrew Lycett, Arthur Conan Doyle: The Man who Created Sherlock Holmes (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2007), 86. See also Martin Booth, The Doctor, the Detective and Arthur Conan Doyle (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1997), 87–9, and Geoffrey Stavert, A Study in Southsea: The Unrevealed Life of Doctor Arthur Conan Doyle (Portsmouth: Milestone, 1987), 9–29. There is a lightly fictionalized account of the setting up of the practice in ACD, The Stark Munro Letters (London: Longmans, Green, 1895), 220–43. Hereafter SM.

(3) ACD, “An essay upon the vasomotor changes in tabes dorsalis and on the influence which is exerted by the sympathetic nervous system in that disease”, Edinburgh University MD thesis, 1885 (Edinburgh Research Archive, 〈http://hdl.handle.net/1842/418〉). For a discussion of Conan Doyle's MD thesis, see Medical Casebook of Doctor Arthur Conan Doyle, ed. Alvin E. Rodin and Jack D. Key (Malabar, Fla.: Robert E. Krieger, 1984), 87–98.

(4) A trawl through one of the biographies reveals the following associations of which Conan Doyle was a member—and often an office-holder—though not all at once: the Allah-Akbarries (cricket team); the Amateur Field Sports Association; the Athenaeum; the Authors’ Club; the Beckenham Golf Club; the Boys’ Empire League; the British College of Psychic Science; the British Medical Association; the Congo Reform Association; the Conservative and Unionist party; the Crowborough Beacon Golf Club; the Divorce Law Reform Association; the Freemasons; the General Jewish Colonizing Organization (London Committee); the Idlers Club; the Incogniti (cricket club); the International Spiritualist Congress; the Liberal Unionist party; the London Spiritualist Alliance; the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC); the Marylebone Spiritualist Association; the Middlesex Yeomanry (reserve list); the National Sporting Club; the New Vagabonds Club; Our Society (the Crimes Club or Murders Club); the Portsmouth Football Association Club; the Portsmouth Literary and Scientific Society; the Reform Club; the Royal Automobile Club; the Sixth Royal Sussex Volunteer Regiment; the Society of Authors; the Society for Psychical Research; the Society for the Study of Supernormal Pictures; the Undershaw Rifle Club; the Union Jack Club; the Upper Norwood Literary and Scientific Society. As a distinguished man of letters he had countless invitations to chair or speak at meetings of clubs, associations, social gatherings, and pressure groups.

(5) See Philip Waller, Writers, Readers and Reputations: Literary Life in Britain 1870–1918 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 131.

(6) Professional association was very much in the air. The London Booksellers’ Society was formed in 1890 and the Publishers’ Association in 1896.

(7) This was £5 more than Joseph Conrad was to be offered by T. Fisher Unwin in 1894 for the copyright of his first novel, Almayer's Folly. He accepted.

(9) Besant, “Literature as a Career”, 706.

(10) This was already five times more than he had earned as a doctor in Southsea in 1890. See ACD, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892), ed. Richard Lancelyn Green (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), xiii–xiv. Hereafter Adventures. It was ten times more than his income for the first year of medical practice—£156 2s. 4d.—which included £30 from his mother and £42 from his writing. See ACD to Mary Doyle, n.d., in Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters, ed. Jon Lellenberg, Daniel Stashower, and Charles Foley (London: Harper, 2007), 204.

(11) See Richard Lancelyn Green and John Michael Gibson (eds.), A Bibliography of A. Conan Doyle (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), 15–16, 42–3. Gissing's New Grub Street, with its portraits of commercial success and failure in the literary profession, also came out in 1891 as a three-decker.

(12) Waller, Writers, Readers and Reputations, 668.

(13) Peter Keating, The Haunted Study: A Social History of the English Novel 1875–1914 (Athens, Oh.: Ohio University Press, 1986), 342.

(14) See Andreas Huyssen, After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1986).

(15) Nicholas Daly, Modernism, Romance and the Fin de Siè cle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 4.

(16) John Gross, The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1969), 210.

(17) See Jonathan Rose and Patricia J. Anderson (eds.), British Literary Publishing Houses 1881–1965 (Detroit: Gale Research, 1991), 266–71.

(18) Stead, whose path crossed Conan Doyle's in a number of ways, continued to edit the Review of Reviews and in 1893 launched Borderland, a quarterly review of psychic phenomena. The two were to quarrel over the Boer War, a conflict Stead vehemently opposed. Stead went down with the Titanic in 1912.

(19) ACD, Memories and Adventures (1924, repr. with additions and deletions 1930) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 95–6. Hereafter M&A. See also Peter D. McDonald, “The Adventures of the Literary Agent: Conan Doyle, A. P. Watt, Holmes and The Strand in 1891”, ACD: Journal of the Arthur Conan Doyle Society, 8 (1998), 17–27.

(20) Booth, The Doctor, the Detective and Arthur Conan Doyle, 255. From the mid-1890s onwards, The Strand never paid Conan Doyle less than £100 per thousand words. See Christopher Roden, “Conan Doyle and The Strand Magazine”, ACD: Journal of the Arthur Conan Doyle Society, 2/2 (1991), 135–40.

(21) Lycett, Conan Doyle, 100–1, 61–2.

(22) See Waller, Writers, Readers and Reputations, 409–17 (for interviews) and 357–63 (portraits).

(23) His hard work for divorce law reform is a good example. In lending his name to this cause, which had nothing directly to do with the literary profession, he was doing what he could “to rescue thousands and tens of thousands from hopeless lifelong misery, from the embraces of drunkards, from the bondage to cruel men, from the iron which fetterlocks them to the felon or the hopeless maniac”. ACD, “Preface” to Christina Sinclair Bremner, Divorce and Morality (London: Frank Palmer, 1912), 7–15; at 7.

(24) See Waller, Writers, Readers and Reputations, 575–614. Conan Doyle lectured on four continents.

(25) Henry James, “The Art of Fiction”, in Partial Portraits (London: Macmillan, 1884), 375–408; at 390.

(26) Robert Louis Stevenson, “A Gossip on Romance” (1882), in R. L. Stevenson on Fiction, ed. Glenda Norquay (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999), 51–64; at 57.

(27) Keating, The Haunted Study, 39.

(28) He did sometimes write domestic fiction, for example in Beyond the City: The Idyll of a Suburb (1892) and A Duet with an Occasional Chorus (1899). The latter, the story of a young married couple, was withheld from serial publication because its author thought it “a work depending …for its effect upon feeling and atmosphere rather than on incident”. See Green and Gibson (eds.), A Bibliography of A. Conan Doyle, 113.

(29) Waller, Writers, Readers, and Reputations, 635.

(30) ACD, Through the Magic Door (London: Smith, Elder, 1907), 264.

(31) Daly, Modernism, Romance and the Fin de Siècle, 4.

(32) Daly, Modernism, Romance and the Fin de Siècle, 18.

(33) ACD, The Narrative of John Smith, ed. John Lellenberg, Daniel Stashower, and Rachel Foss (London: The British Library, 2011). In this book, unfinished and unpublished in Conan Doyle's lifetime, the narrator is immobilized by gout and never leaves the house.