Monday, September 24, 2012

Arthur Conan Doyle in the Arctic... and Sherlock Holmes at the Beginning

An interesting literary artifact has come my way, a bit of text from Arthur Conan Doyle's Dangerous Work: Diary of an Arctic Adventure, during which adventure the "biographer of Sherlock Holmes" shipped out as doctor on a far-flung trip at sea.  Jon Lellenberg and Daniel Stashower have edited and provided notes.  Most intriguing is the diary's connection to "A Study in Scarlet," the classic short detective novel that introduced Holmes.

In the second to last entry of the Diary, dated August 10, 1880, Doyle notes that The Hope was returning home that day, when it stopped briefly at Lerwick in the Shetland Islands to let the third of the crew who are Shetland Islanders off.  The entry reads:
Passed the skerry light, and came down to Lerwick but did not get into the harbour as we are in a hurry to catch the tide at Peterhead, so there goes all my letters, papers and everything else. A girl was seen at the lighthouse waving a handkerchief, and all hands were called to look at her. The first woman we have seen for half a year. Our Shetland crew were landed in four of our boats and gave 3 cheers for the old ship as they pushed off, which were returned by the men left. Lighthouse keeper came off with last week’s weekly Scotsman by which we learn of the defeat in Afghanistan.  Terrible news."
The editors offer this context:
“A terrible and most unlooked-for disaster has befallen the British arms in Afghanistan,” began the Scotsman account of July 29, 1880, headed “Disaster in Afghanistan / Severe Defeat of Burrows’ Brigade / Retreat on Kandahar.” A British force of some three thousand had been close to annihilated at Maiwand by Pathan tribesmen. It made a lasting impression. Six years later Conan Doyle started writing a tale called "A Study in Scarlet," set in London in 1881, and made his narrator a former army surgeon, Dr. John H. Watson.
In that story Watson offers this biography for himself:
“I was duly attached to the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers as Assistant Surgeon. The regiment was stationed in India at the time, and before I could join it, the second Afghan war had broken out. On landing at Bombay, I learned that my corps had advanced through the passes, and was already deep in the enemy's country. I followed, however, with many other officers who were in the same situation as myself….  The campaign brought honours and promotion to many, but for me it had nothing but misfortune and disaster. I was removed from my brigade and attached to the Berkshires, with whom I served at the fatal battle of Maiwand. There I was struck on the shoulder by a Jezail bullet, which shattered the bone and grazed the subclavian artery. I should have fallen into the hands of the murderous Ghazis had it not been for the devotion and courage shown by Murray, my orderly, who threw me across a pack-horse, and succeeded in bringing me safely to the British lines." 

Now home, uncertain about his future, and looking to share the expense of lodgings, Watson is introduced to someone described as “a little queer in his ideas—an enthusiast in some branches of science.”

“How are you?” says the man he meets in the laboratory of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital: “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.”

It is Sherlock Holmes, beginning the partnership that would bring A. Conan Doyle literary fame and fortune.

The book is published in the US by Chicago, and in the UK by the British Library.

More information here.

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