"Cultural biography” is not the sort of classification that usually inspires much confidence. It’s generally a sure sign that the reader will be spending most of his time with everyone in contemporary society but the subject: more pages on loom weavers than on Elizabeth Gaskell, more on the Irish Famine than on Emily Brontë. In the case of Conan Doyle, that description is for once welcome, indicative of a thematic approach to Doyle’s life that takes as its ordering frame several domains of contemporary culture: sport, medicine, science, law and order, army and empire, and spirit, a system of taxonomy not only unusually interesting but also uniquely suited to the examination of a body of work like Doyle’s.
Hugh Kenner, writing in elaboration of a passage from A Study in Scarlet, noted the sheer informativeness of Doyle’s prose as a primer for urban life in the London of 1887, containing not only “all the practical guidance you would need for taking a horse-drawn cab” but also, should curiosity move to the question of driving a cab, “how you might go about that, [i.e.] how would you be paid, what might be the singular difficulties of the calling?” Kenner continues, “Fiction taught many provincials how to cope with the city.”
The salience of institutional knowledge for an author of considerable skill but little interest in Jamesian depths of consciousness—and whose work (as Douglas Kerr puts it) is “marked above all by strong narrative, punctuated by striking incident”—is considerable.
This book is about what Conan Doyle knew about his world. But it was not just a matter of the acquisition of knowledge, like stamp-collecting. Writers are also creators of knowledge, and in his writing Conan Doyle brought a world into being and made it knowable to his readers.
Doyle’s fine-grained detail is familiar to any reader; the larger institutional backdrop of his work is not. Here, Kerr is of considerable help in delineating the ways in which institutional thought aligned and diverged in Doyle’s creations.
Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) struggled for much of his life to get out from under the shadow of Sherlock Holmes, an initiative that no reader has ever remotely supported, partially due to the tendency of readers to discover Holmes at an age when anything—especially something deerstalker-clad—casts a very large shadow. The most curious thing that any dedicated reader will discover about Holmes is not that this urban aesthete differs radically from his outdoor-loving, sportsman-patriot author (authors make characters up!) but how, repeatedly, Doyle’s work aligns intriguingly askew of the stock image of a blustery pamphleteer, reflecting disputes and distinctions in a number of fields and modes of knowledge only gradually emerging into their current form.
In some modes, Doyle’s work was quite straightforward. His English historical novels, such as The White Company (1891), are rigorously researched and lively adventures, displaying a fervent patriotism not surprising in an author whose sense of duty extended beyond the page to volunteering at a field hospital in the Boer War. Doyle displayed a similar historical verve, in more comic spirit, with his Napoleonic roustabout Brigadier Gerard, a proto-Flashman/Hornblower with a drinking problem. Sport is also rendered as a manly source of national strength, never more so than in his hearty boxing novel, Rodney Stone (1896).
The matrix of domains becomes more interesting, and particularly informative, when it comes to Doyle’s occupation by training: medicine. Holmes, the “only unofficial consulting detective,” enjoyed a prestige conceptually borrowed from the world of medicine and the Medical Act of 1858, which established a distinction between the general practitioner and the consultant. The general practitioner handled the humdrum affairs of medicine, while “the consultant, like the vampire, could do nothing unless invited across the threshold of someone’s affairs.”
Kerr’s mordant metaphor is not accidental. The cultural imaging of the consultant was bloodless and alienated, more interested in intellectual challenges than in human happiness. Kerr notes that “ ‘The Crooked Man’ is one of the most heartbreaking of the Sherlock Holmes stories,” but that pursuing the case kindles in the consulting detective “a state of suppressed excitement” and a “half-sporting, half-intellectual pleasure which communicates itself to Doctor Watson, though they are on their way to interrogate a sick and friendless cripple who has been destitute for 30 years.”