11th October 2021

Book in Focus

Re-examining Arthur Conan Doyle

Edited by Nils Clausson

When I first contemplated proposing the idea of a collection of essays on Arthur Conan Doyle to Cambridge Scholars Publishing, I was partly motivated by a question that had perplexed me for several years: Why has the second Holmes story, The Sign of Four, received scores of articles and discussions in monographs, whereas such stories as “The Golden Pince-Nez” and “The Copper Beeches” have received virtually none? The answer, I eventually realized, was no real mystery: The Sign of Four lends itself to an analysis from a postcolonial perspective, whereas the others cannot be so easily accommodated to readings from any of the currently dominant paradigms in English studies. Within any critical paradigm, the works that get the most attention tend to be those that most readily confirm the validity of the paradigm within which the critic is working. As I remarked in my book Arthur Conan Doyle’s Art of Fiction: A Revaluation, the current orthodoxy in Conan Doyle criticism is to tie him to a chair, shine a Foucauldian light on him, and beat a confession out of him, and then, like Jack Horner, exclaim, “What a good little critic am I!” In the essays in this collection, you will find no references to Foucault or to the colonized Other, or any demonstrations of how the Holmes stories reassured the predominantly middle-class readers of the Strand Magazine that, with Sherlock Holmes on the case, they had nothing to worry about.

One of the things that readers of the collection will notice is that there is no single methodology or approach used by the diverse contributors. What does unite them is their commitment to looking at Conan Doyle in new ways and in paying attention to those aspects of his works that have been neglected or overlooked in recent criticism.

Re-examining Arthur Conan Doyle, as its title indicates, attempts to offer new directions in Conan Doyle criticism and scholarship. It is thus a reaction to the criticism that has dominated Conan Doyle studies over the last few decades. A survey of that criticism reveals that it has been focused to a large extent on the Holmes stories, and that it has been defined by a critical methodology that has come to be known as ‘symptomatic reading’. His works are given a ‘symptomatic’ reading in order to reveal what they symptomatically tell us about colonialism, history, class, gender, and attitudes to crime and criminals.

It is perhaps not surprising that the Holmes stories should have proved to be especially fertile ground for critics who employ this approach. These stories are preeminent examples of the detective story, a genre that has been, and continues to be, enormously popular, and its popularity arises in no small measure from the fact that it portrays crime. Crime is always in the news, and, therefore, how to respond to it is a politically charged issue across the spectrum. Given these facts, detective stories, one might reasonably suppose, should tell us a good deal about a society’s largely unconscious attitudes to crime, criminals, and justice, as well as class and gender, especially if one’s critical method has been influenced by Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious (1981). Of course, symptomatic readings of detective fiction and the Holmes stories did not begin with The Political Unconscious. Before symptomatic critics peered below the surface of detective stories, Marxists had detected the suppression of class in them and Freudians had peeped through the keyhole to witness the primal scene. The turn to symptomatic readings of the Holmes stories by cultural critics, postcolonialists, and new historicists likely received a strong impetus from Catherine Belsey’s Critical Practice (1980), which appeared the year before Jameson’s The Political Unconscious and argued that “the project of the Holmes stories is to dispel magic and mystery, to make everything explicit, accountable, subject to scientific analysis. . . . The stories are a plea for science not only in the spheres conventionally associated with detection . . . but in all areas. They reflect the widespread optimism of the period concerning the comprehensive power of positivist science.” Belsey’s polemical call for a politically inflected nouvelle critique appeared in Methuen’s New Accents series, edited by Terence Hawkes, who in the General Preface to the series wrote:

It is easy to see that we are living in a time of rapid and radical social change. It is much less easy to grasp the fact that such change will inevitably affect the nature of those disciplines that both reflect our society and help to shape it.

Yet this is nowhere more apparent than in the central field of what may, in general terms, be called literary studies. Here, among the large numbers of students at all levels of education, the erosion of the assumptions and presuppositions that support the literary disciplines in their conventional form has proved fundamental. Modes and categories inherited from the past no longer seem to fit the reality experienced by a new generation.

With the exception of his remarks (back in those halcyon days!) about “the large number of students” and literary studies as “the central field,” Hawkes’ characterization of the time as one of “rapid and radical social change” could apply to any of the subsequent decades, as literary studies (along with other disciplines) belatedly began (not without justification) to pay more and more attention to race, gender and sexuality, ethnicity, history, and class. Concurrently, non-canonical texts, in the form of popular genres, most notably detective stories, began to appear on syllabuses, in part because they conveniently lend themselves to ‘symptomatic’ readings.

While symptomatic readings have undoubtedly illuminated aspects of Conan Doyle’s works that previous criticism either overlooked or willfully ignored, these methodologies, as informative as they have proved to be, have necessarily limited what scholars have paid attention to and the kinds of questions they have chosen to ask. For the past several decades, we have heard from new historicists, cultural materialists, postcolonialists, and practitioners of cultural studies about Conan Doyle and British colonialism and imperialism, his racist (or at least xenophobic) portrayal of criminals as foreigners, and the ways in which the Holmes stories reflect the rise of the new ‘science’ of criminology, and perhaps even contributed to it. These studies have certainly opened up Conan Doyle’s fiction to the ways in which it can be related to race, gender, history, ethnicity, imperialism, and theories of crime and the criminal. The essays in this collection, in contrast, were chosen because all of them shift the focus of attention to those aspects of Conan Doyle’s works and life that recent scholarship, notwithstanding its achievements, has ignored, overlooked, or simply not been interested in.

Take, for example, Conan Doyle’s science fiction. Why, one wonders, has his science fiction been virtually ignored, even by specialists in the field? There is no reason to believe that his science fiction is artistically inferior to the Holmes stories. The likely explanation is that the science fiction does not as readily raise questions about race, colonialism, class, or late-Victorian theories of crime and criminals as the Holmes stories do.

An instructive example of how this collection focuses attention on the fiction that previous criticism has ignored is Nicholas Ruddick’s reassessment of Conan Doyle’s science fiction. In his illuminating essay, Ruddick, writing as both a literary historian and a literary critic, places Conan Doyle’s science fiction within the history of the genre, and convincingly shows how Conan Doyle fits into that history. As such, the reader will come away with an understanding not only of Conan Doyle’s relation to both earlier writers and his contemporaries, but also his influence on later writers in the genre’s tradition. Ruddick’s chapter, “‘How Narrow Is the Path of Our Material Existence’: Arthur Conan Doyle’s Major Contribution to Science Fiction,” offers a fresh perspective on Conan Doyle’s undeservedly neglected science fiction. “Doyle’s towering contribution to detective fiction,” Ruddick observes, “overshadows his work in other popular genres.” As a result, there is comparatively little criticism of his science fiction, which anthologies often lump together indiscriminately with his Gothic tales. Professor Ruddick’s chapter is the first significant attempt to survey Conan Doyle’s science fiction and to place it within the history of the genre. Ruddick conveniently divides Conan Doyle’s sf into three periods: the first from 1885 to 1894, the second from 1895 to 1914, and the third encompassing the late stories of the 1920s.

Ruddick also illuminates the stories thematically by classifying them according to the sf tropes that govern them: the Identify Exchange trope, the Transmutation of Elements Trope, the Futuristic Technology trope, the Speculative Powers of Electricity trope, the Psi-Powers trope, the Prehistoric Survivals or Lost World trope, the Futuristic Weapon trope, the End of the World/Last Man trope, the Future War trope, the Living World trope, and the Alternate World trope. This classification scheme enables Ruddick to place all the stories in a literary-historical context that reveals the extraordinary range of Conan Doyle’s sf. One of the strengths of Ruddick’s chapter is the broad and deep knowledge of the history of science fiction that he brings to Conan Doyle’s sf stories, enabling him to demonstrate both how a particular story is indebted to a prior example of the type and how it has influenced later sf writers. For example, he points out that The Doings of Raffles Haw (1891) likely influenced H. G. Wells’ story “The Diamond Maker” (1894) and Frank Lilly Pollock’s novella The World-Wreckers (1908). Ruddick is certainly justified in his revisionist conclusion that “Doyle’s legacy, though not always sufficiently acknowledged, is everywhere in contemporary sf.” All specialists in science fiction will find Ruddick’s chapter a valuable guide to an underappreciated sf writer. The chapter is certain to stimulate further research into Conan Doyle’s science fiction.

How good is Conan Doyle’s fiction, and specifically the Holmes stories? Not surprisingly, this is a question his critics have rarely asked. It is the question I ask in one of my two essays in the collection, “Can a Sherlock Holmes Story Be Read as ‘High Art’?: The Instructive Case of ‘The Golden Pince-Nez.’” Conan Doyle is regularly classified as a popular writer, most of whose tales and stories fall into the category of genre fiction. I question the validity of the distinction between popular (genre) fiction and literary fiction by showing how the methods that we have learned in the academy to read ‘literary’ fiction can be applied to the Sherlock Holmes story “The Golden Pince-Nez.” My revisionist reading of the story is intended to illustrate how the problematical distinction between literary and popular fiction has had the unfortunate consequence of determining both the interpretation and the evaluation of the Holmes stories.

The nine essays collected here will, I hope, stimulate further ‘re-examinations’ of Conan Doyle. There are certainly opportunities for scholars and critics to continue the project of this collection. His historical novels have virtually been ignored, as has his verse. He was a prolific journalist, and yet this aspect of his writing career has also been ignored.

Nils Clausson is Professor Emeritus at the University of Regina, Canada. He has published widely on Victorian and Modern English literature, including articles on Disraeli, Arnold, Dickens, Gaskell, Wilde, Conrad, and Lawrence. He is the author of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Art of Fiction: A Revaluation (2018).

Re-examining Arthur Conan Doyle is available now in Hardback at a 25% discount. Enter the code PROMO25 to redeem.

Read Extract