Saturday, November 16, 2019

Conan Doyle and London

Yesterday, I attended Conan Doyle and London, a one-day symposium organised by the Institute of English Studies and linked to the forthcoming deluxe reissue of Conan Doyle's books by Edinburgh University Press. It was a fascinating, scholarly day - but perfectly pitched to both academics and Sherlockians, as well as the itinerant hack (that was me).

We began with Douglas Kerr's "Man of Letters, Man About Town", which explored Doyle's life in London - the places he lived, the clubs he attended, the male-dominated culture of dinners and connections he was part of.
"Few men are ever absolutely natural when there are women in the room." Conan Doyle, Memories and Adventures: An Autobiography, p. 265.
That clubbable culture was essential to his career: on 30 August 1889, at a dinner at the Langham Hotel, Doyle was commissioned by editor Joseph M Stoddart to write the second Sherlock Holmes adventure, The Sign of Four, to be published in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine. Oscar Wilde was at the same dinner, and soon afterward wrote The Picture of Dorian Gray for the same editor and publication (the implication being, I think, that he was commissioned at the same dinner).

Douglas' first slide was of the blue plaque on the wall of 12 Tennison Road, South Norwood - not far from where I live - and I didn't know that almost as soon as he moved there, Doyle wrote Beyond the City (1891) all about suburban life. As Douglas said, Doyle was writing about experience he'd not quite yet had himself.

I should also add that before we started, Douglas made a point of introducing himself to everyone as we arrived, making us all personally welcome. As neither an academic or a Sherlockian, I was feeling a bit of a fraud, a bit daunted by the knowledgeable company I had snuck myself among, so really appreciated that.

Next was Jonathan Cranfield's "Of Time and the City: Conan Doyle and London Print Culture." As a jobbing writer, this was right up my street. How fascinating to understand the kind of literary culture Doyle had grown up in - as a child he sat on Thackeray's knee, as Thackeray was a friend of Doyle's grandfather John. Jonathan also listed Doyle's early publications - one-off commissions in very different styles, each for very different publications. It really hit home: that's how writers begin, trying anything and anyone, slowly developing voice and the all-important relationships with editors and readers. I could well understand Doyle's description of Cornhill editor James Payn, who he met at yet another dinner (this time at the Ship in Greenwich) as a "warden at the gate."

Andrew Lang, editor of Longman's, had dealt with this early, green Doyle and remained a little dismissive of him even after Doyle hit it big.
"Now the native pewter of Sherlock Holmes is a sixpenny magazine with plenty of clever illustrations." Andrew Lang, "The Novels of Conan Doyle", Quarterly Review (July 1904), p. 160.
But Jonathan seemed to argue that Lang had a point. The Strand was the first magazine to have an art editor (WHJ Boot), with a picture on every "opening" - I think that means spread. That wasn't just Sidney Paget's extraordinary, vivid illustrations: the Holmes stories include maps, ciphers and fragments of documents. (In The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Agatha Christie mentions Holmes just a paragraph before the first mention of her own detective, Hercule Poirot, indicating the legacy of Doyle; her book also has maps and fragments.)

I was also fascinated by the letters Doyle sent to the press about other writers, muttering at ungentlemanly behaviour of publicising their stories or making too much of the process. He refers in the two letters Jonathan showed us to "wire-pulling," and it only occurred to me afterwards that this might link to Doyle's interest in spiritualism - his strong belief in the truth of it in principle, and his horror at those who faked or exploited it. Was writing just as much of a mystical process to him?

Next came Andrew Glazzard's "'A great traffic was going on, as usual, in Whitehall': Public Places and Private Spaces in Sherlock Holmes' London". This was great, using maps to explore the settings of three spy stories: "The Naval Treaty", "The Second Stain" (a case which Watson tells us in "The Naval Treaty" that he cannot share) and "The Bruce Partingdon Plans". Each one is about the loss of compromising documents, and although foreign agents are keen to buy the missing papers, the fault often lies with incompetent civil servants. Andrew argued that this romanticisation of bureaucracy on which the fate of the nation then hangs would appeal to white-collar commuters reading the Strand.

He also linked the bureacractic incompetence of well-connected duffers (something that would never happen in government now, of course) to the "Hotel Cecil" cabinet, stuffed full of relatives of Prime Minister Lord Salisbury, the man from whom we have the phrase "Bob's your uncle."  He also linked the stories to other real events in the time they were written or published: the first Official Secrets Act (1889), which was a response to internal carelessness not external threat; the signing of the Entente Cordial in 1904; the coming together of train companies in 1907 which resulted in the first consolidated map of the London Underground network in 1908. Matching story to map shows the all-important journey is from one triangle of lines on the left to a triangle of lines on the right. In these stories, he suggested, we could see a changing relationship to Europe - particularly Germany - in the years preceding the war.

I was really taken by Andrew noting how much the role played in government by Mycroft Holmes changes between his first appearance in "The Greek Interpreter" and his return in "The Bruce Partingdon Plans". It struck me that Mycroft in the latter is an all-powerful special adviser of the sort we're more used to today, a kind of Dominic Cummings but competent. Surely, I thought, there's a story to be told in which Mycroft misses some small element in his great calculations to devastating effect, where things don't quite go as planned despite his reputation for cleverness...

We stopped for lunch, where I chatted to an American academic who specialises in the history of Spanish-speaking countries but is interested in Doyle the spiritualist. Then we were back for
"I have my eyes on a suite in Baker Street" by Catherine Cooke from Westminster Libraries (of which I'm devoted, card-carrying member). Catherine detailed the history of the real Baker Street and  the various efforts by Sherlockians to work out where 221B "really" must have been. That then expanded into exploring the bits of London Doyle knew himself, such as the Psychic Bookshop, Library and Museum he part-owned at 2 Victoria Street, telegram address "ECTOPLASM, SOWEST, LONDON". Catherine's paper was so packed with clever deductions and interesting titbits of history - the Marlyebone Road was the first ever bypass, designed to relieve pressure on Oxford Street - that I was too absorbed to scribble many notes.

Then it was "Conan Doyle and Medical London" by Roger Luckhurst - my friend, whose tweet had made my buy a ticket for the event in the first place. Roger's focus was the period 1890-91 when Doyle had consulting rooms on a site almost exactly where we were sitting in Senate House. Just as previous speakers used maps to elucidate Doyle's literary world, Roger used maps to show Doyle's universe as a doctor - where he was, where he aspired to be, what else was around him. The big money was just to the west in Harley Street, working as a specialist, but that was open only to the elite. Doyle, a relatively provincial general practitioner working in Southsea until 1890, then spent a train journey with Sir Malcolm Morris - a well-respected surgeon who'd also started as a lowly GP. As well as his practice, Morris was a writer, a member of the MCC and the Reform Club - and Roger showed the profound influence he had on Doyle's ambitions - the kind of man Doyle wanted to be. That train journey, too, was to see Robert Koch - yet another provincial doctor outside the establishment who'd made it big anyway (in Koch's case by his work on anthrax).

Roger's editing the Edinburgh edition of Doyle's Round the Red Lamp (1894), a collection of medical stories that sound gruesome and disturbing, and were not well-received at the time. Roger linked that response to the horror that met the trial of Oscar Wilde the following year. I dared to ask a question: a lot of the Sherlock Holmes stories are pretty dark and disturbing, and they're also relayed by a doctor - so what made these medical stories different? Roger suggested that Holmes solves or explains the events in his stories and Watson anyway won't share the worst or most disturbing cases. Both, then, frame the events in a reassuring way.

As the son of a consultant, I know doctors share horror stories with one another. There's a sense, I think, of Doyle sharing the kind of tales he swapped in the gentlemanly clubs he belonged to. At least, that's the sense I get without reading the stories - which I now very much mean to.

In the tea-break I spoke to a couple of young academics sat near me: both American, both here pursuing studies that overlapped with Doyle. One asked me how long I'd lived in London. When I said just over 20 years, he said that was how long he'd lived. Reader, I cried into my complimentary biscuit.

Finally, Christine Ferguson's "Cosmopolitan Spiritualism and Doyle's The Land of Mist" explored the 1926 novel seen as propaganda for Doyle's belief in the spirit world - in which even the great cynic Professor Challenger goes from calling it all "twaddle" to becoming a true believer. Christine described Challenger as a kind of blend of Brian Blessed and TH Huxley, with a quote from Huxley where he also described spiritualism as twaddle.

The general consensus in the room from those who've read and know the book is that The Land of Mist isn't very good. Christine thought Arnold Bennett's The Glimpse (1909) a better advertisement for the world of the spirits, one in vivid colour whereas Doyle's is all grey. That made me think of A Matter of Life and Death, where the after-life is in monochrome and to be appealed against. Christine also said she found Doyle's evidence, his arguments, unconvincing - and afterwards it struck me that if he'd really wanted to convince his readers of the truth of his beliefs, he'd have done better using another of his characters. Imagine Sherlock Holmes as a convert, the zeal with which he'd pronounce the evident, empirical truth...

To conclude, Douglas Kerr told us more about the forthcoming reissue of Doyle's books, beginning with the autobiography Memories and Adventures, which should be out sometime next year. There was natter and wine after, and then I reached St Pancras just as a fast, direct train back to Norwood Junction pulled in - Doyle's ghost evidently looking over me. Home in good time to say goodnight to the children, me and the Dr then caught up on the final episode of Dublin Murders, a properly disturbing case filled with the ghosts of the past.

Related wittering:

No comments: