Friday, 7 December 2007

Conan Doyle And The Bohemian Element

In Conan Doyle’s novel The Lost World, the young reporter Malone is told by his beloved Gladys she could never marry a man without the fame and sense of adventure of the sort demonstrated by explorers like Stanley and Burton. So to prove himself, he signs on to accompany the expedition to the ‘lost world’ jungle plateau with its living dinosaurs. After many adventures, he returns successful, to find Gladys has married a solicitor’s clerk.
Whether Conan Doyle was out to prove anything, to himself or the women in his life, is a moot point. He never quite became an explorer, though he had both the physique and the temperament to test himself against challenge and material privation, in what today we would call adventure travel. As he told his mother early on, "I've got a strong Bohemian element in me," he wrote her on one of his early voyages, "and the life seems to suit me."
His wanderlust would have qualified him for membership in the prestigious Travellers Club (where you had to have travelled at least 500 miles in a straight line from London to join) even before he turned 21 and completed his degree.
For while still a medical student, he had travelled to Austria to study, as he would later in life. In his final year of study he signed on as a ship’s surgeon on a whaler bound for Greenland waters. Harpooning sperm whales in boats launched from a sailing ship was a dangerous business (Moby Dick was inspired by a real incident). Doyle also spent days leaping between ice floes, falling in several times while trying to kill seals. He signed on for another voyage, this time to the “White Man’s Graveyard” of the West African coast. While swimming around the ship, he was ‘nearly eaten by a shark’ and the ship caught fire on its return voyage.
In 1892, now a fulltime author, he went on a horseback trip in Norway, visiting a leper colony, and trying to speak Norwegian – something that cost him his horse, which he accidentally gave away.
He was a lifelong sports enthusiast, and it was an 1893 trip to the Swiss Alps to take his consumptive first wife Louisa to a sanatorium that led to his popularising skiing – then not a recognised sport. (A trip to a dramatic local waterfall on this same visit also gave him the idea how, at last, he could kill off Holmes.)
In 1896 he sailed 800 miles up the Nile on a tour boat which was fired upon by disaffected locals, risking capture by hostile Dervishes. He also crossed overland by carriage to visit a remote Coptic monastery on the edge of the Nile Delta.
In 1898, when Kitchener’s army began to advance up the Nile to take Khartoum, he signed up as a war correspondent and travelled south by camel into the Sudan to a desert fort, returning frustrated at the lack of immediate action.
In the Boer War, he tried to sign up as a private, but (being 40) was rejected and so (like Watson) became an Army doctor, saving lives in a typhoid epidemic.
On the voyage home from Africa, he met Bertram Fletcher, who gave him the idea for his 1902 Holmes comeback novel The Hound Of The Baskervilles, with its bleak Dartmoor setting, which he enjoyed exploring on foot, looking for sites which would figure in the story.
In 1902 he also took up ballooning, then flew in a biplane in the hope of making the first parachute jump.
He was also a keen early adopter of the new automobiles and motorbikes, despite a serious crash in 1904 where only his physique saved him from being crushed by his overturned Wolseley tourer. (As well as boxing, cricket, skiing and snowshoeing, he also practiced hill walking and rock climbing.) In 1911, he joined the Royal Automobile Club's racing team in a rally called the Prince Henry Tour, where some forty British drivers raced from Cologne to Southampton to Edinburgh to London against fifty Germans, a contest that nearly ended in a mass brawl when the British team won.
His 1912 The Lost World was partly inspired by his sighting, on his honeymoon cruise in 1907 with his 2nd wife Jean, a sea monster he identified as an ichthyosaurus.
In 1914, he visited the Canadian Rockies, riding, fishing, walking – though now travelling in more comfortable style, for he was now 55.
After the war, he kept travelling, mainly to promote his pet cause of Spiritualism. In 1928 he spent five months travelling around southern Africa, hunting and sightseeing. His final trip was a tour around ‘Protestant’ Europe, which he had to cut short due to chest pains. As a doctor, he knew what that meant, and he confined himself thereafter to his Surrey home ground. Then he went on what as a Spiritualist he regarded as the greatest adventure of all, dying peacefully in his garden in 1930, aged 71.
Today people travel from all over the world to Minstead in the New Forest to visit his gravesite. In 1925, he built a final home near here, where the postman would not deliver letters due to the rumours of strange goings-on - seances and suchlike. But for a fire in 1929, he would’ve died here. His family duly had his coffin and his wife Jean’s relocated here, in the heart of the New Forest, setting of his own favourite among his novels, the mediaeval romance The White Company. His tombstone bears the knightly epitaph “Steel true, blade straight.” This was from a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson, a tribute to his own spouse. Another RLS poem, ‘Requiem,’ might have been equally apt for Conan Doyle: ‘Home is the sailor, home from the sea, And the hunter home from the hill.’
Conan Doyle's gravesite at Minstead in the New Forest


Dr Phil said...
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Dr Phil said...

Conan Doyle was so contrary to the prevailing customs of the day that when he died he was buried in the bottom of his garden at Crowhurst together with his wife. And in order to take up less space they were buried upright.

However time came when the Conan Doyle family could no longer maintain the house and it was sold. The remains of the famous author were then relocated with his wife to Minstead church yard. Because of his associations with spiritualism he was buried on the far side of the churchyard away from good Christian folk. And feeling that the old boy could probably do with a rest, laid him horizontally against his original wishes. I hope he is not revolving in his grave.
Dr. Phil