Sunday, December 19, 2010

Did Arthur Conan Doyle Write a Classic, or Simply Live It?

There are some childhood pleasures that turn out to embarrass one as an adult.  21 Jump Street comes to mind.  (Yeah, I watched it. I don't think anyone else has ever admitted to it, though.)  It made Johnny Depp famous, I guess, but it also paired him with . . . Peter DeLuise?!

Turning to books, I recall the Hardy Boys mysteries I read, wondering if I can get the moments of my life back.  They were poorly written (or at least written in poverty, as The Washington Post's Gene Weingarten discovered in this long but fascinating article).

Not so with the Sherlock Holmes stories.  They were great when I was a kid, and great (maybe better) as an adult.  Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) was an excellent writer.

He damn well should have been.  He'd been practicing all of his life!

I discovered that a few months ago when I got a book called Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters (edited by Jon Lellenberg, Daniel Stashower, and Charles Foley).  It is a collection of Doyle's letters from the age of eight in 1867 until 10 years before his death.  It was published in 2007.  I got a marked-down hardcover on one of my remainder bin searches at a chain store.

And I'm glad I did.  I believe these collected letters may represent the best work Conan Doyle ever did.  He aspired to great literature.  I think the letters attain it.  They:

  • Allow the reader to time travel back to a different world.  If you want to know what the mind of a famous Victorian was like, you'll never get closer than this.
  • Give a sense of the fragility of life.  We witness in "real time," the forming of a man's values and the changing of his personality over the course of a long lifetime.
His writing skill from an early age was admirable.  There is a multi-flavored pleasure that comes from reading something that shows: skill in and of itself; the attitudes of the time period; and the concerns that a person has in different stages of life.  Consider these excerpts:

  • In 1869, at age 10, to his mother from boarding school:  "I have bad news to tell you two poor boys have died at Stonyhurst within the last 3 weeks from getting croup. to my great delight 50 new books have been bought for the library." (All punctuation as in original letter.)
  • In 1882, at age 22, to his mother, on his work as a cruise ship's surgeon: "Just a line to say that I have turned up all safe, after having had the African fever, been nearly eaten by a shark, and as a finale the [cruise ship] Mayumba going on fire between Madeira and England, so that at one time it looked like taking to our [life] boats and making for Lisbon.  However we got it out, and here we are safe and sound."  No doubt that set his mother's mind at ease!  It shows that the stiff-upper-lipped Victorian was not a stereotyped notion, but a way people really lived and acted.
  • In 1885, at age 26, in describing one of his novels to his sister Lottie, and his hopes for it: "The book abounds in exciting scenes, murder and sudden death--in fact, I would need a private graveyard to plant all my characters in.  If I can make any sort of success with it it would give me fresh heart--though in any case we shall not be cast down."  (Gotta love the desire for commercial success, along with the self-pep-talk that ends with invoking the royal we!  To top it all off, the novel is The Firm of Girdlestone, which he later acknowledged to be a poor first effort.)

As edited and presented, there are faults: 
  • Confusion in when Conan Doyle's voice ends and the editorial voice begins.  There are (very useful) editorial transitions between letters, in which the editors set up the scene for the next letter, but they are in the same typeface as the letters themselves, with only a bit of blank space to mark the transition.  This would have been easy to fix.
  • There are a few baffling references that go unexplained, the most prosaic of which deals with money.  In some letters, Conan Doyle talks about his money with notation such as "(pound sign)2/5/0."  As an American, I'm lost.  I figure the leftmost stuff is the largest amount, but beyond that?  Maybe a little glossary, guys?

However, on the whole, the three editors did an admirable job. 
  • In several cases, they find passages from his fiction (including the Sherlock Holmes stories) which appear to have been directly taken from episodes in his life.  (These are set off in gray shading.  So they do know how to do transitions when they want to!)
  • They juxtapose Conan Doyle's accounts of certain events from his own memoir Memories and Adventures, against those which appear in the raw letters themselves, sometimes finding contradictions.  Heh, heh.

It must be said that the letters benefit from Conan Doyle's extremely eventful outward life, not just his writing skill.  Whereas many famous writers' personal lives were distinguished only by their sad personal slides into depravity or the gutter (Edgar Allan Poe marrying his 13-year-old cousin, Samuel Taylor Coleridge becoming a drug addict, etcetera), Conan Doyle traveled the world, volunteered as a physician in the Boer War (after he was already famous), and ran for political office twice.

The juiciest bit about his personal life is the long-known fact of his "platonic friendship" with the woman who became his second wife, during the years that his first wife was an invalid due to the tuberculosis which finally killed her.

But the slack in the narrative as we reach the end, paradoxically, is one of the things that makes it literature, perhaps great literature.

Conan Doyle's accumulating eccentricities and diminishing powers of judgment show the arc of life, from youthful learning, to mature accomplishment to . . . sadly . . . unwise, gullible senescence.

He brings us (the readers) along with him for so long.  But when he turns obscure and weird, as in his embrace of Spiritualism, we find ourselves observing him rather than identifying with him.  (At least I did.)

If great literature makes us appreciate life, then I think this might be Conan Doyle's best book.  As we trace a man's (real) life from early youth to adolescence, marriage, fatherhood, widowhood, death of child, and diminishment into old age, we get a sobering, but worthwhile, take on the brevity of life.

It actually made a difference in my life.  Because after seeing his mental breakdown after the deaths of his younger brother and his son, and how he poured his energies into silly, forgotten projects (did you know he wrote a novel in which Professor Edward Challenger, the character from The Lost World, embraces Spiritualism?  Ugh!) I made a vow.

It may not come to anything.  But I have decided I am going to steel myself to the challenges of age.  I promised myself that I will hew to the best part of Conan Doyle's example (his hard work, his discipline, his goals, his love of his family) and learn an object lesson from the worst choices he made.

So yes, I will call Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters, a classic.  It really has changed the way I think about life.

(If you have evidence of any factual inaccuracies in this article, please post that information in the comments section.  I will be happy to make any needed corrections.)

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