A Despised Classic


220px-Twisted_lip 220px-Holmes_reichenbach 220px-Strand_pagetIt is interesting that authors who produce a remarkable work can regard it as of no particular importance and value something else.

The classic case of this is, of course, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and his view that the Sherlock Holmes stories were work ‘of a low order’ which, not being morally improving, had none of the merit of his historical and other works.

After the sensational success of the Holmes stories, that author gave up his occulist’s room in Wimpole Street and ‘Settled down to do some literary work worthy of the name’. ‘It did not take me long to write ‘The Refugees’.

Yet, the author remarks rather sourly, ‘It was still the Sherlock Holmes stories for which the public clamoured, and these from time to time I endeavoured to supply. At last, after two series of them, I saw that I was in danger of having my hand forced and being identified with what I regarded as a lower stratum of literary achievement. Therefore, as a sign of my resolution, I decided to end the life of my hero…’

So, Conan Doyle created the Napolean of crime, Dr Moriarty, and had Sherlock Holmes plunge to his death with him over the Reichenbach Falls, locked in an unrelenting embrace.

‘I was amazed at the concern expressed by the public…I heard of many who wept. I fear I was utterly callous myself.’

Conan Doyle ignored the pleas of his reading public for twenty years, but in the end, brought Holmes back from the grave in ‘The Adventure of the Empty House’ which features as the first story in the collection, ‘The Return of Sherlock Holmes’.

I have to admit that when younger I never got round to doing more than glancing through the works that Conan Doyle considered of greater literary value than his Sherlock Holmes stories – I believe, ‘The White Company’ was one of these – and now they are hard to get hold of.

I did, however, read a book which was one of the many my mother got accidentally as job lots in auctions – ‘A Duet with Chorus’, which recounts the experiences of a newly married couple.

Needless to say, no Naughty Naughty Tut Tut stuff forms part of these experiences. It is all highly proper and suitably moralistic. Even the story featuring the wife going into labour and her trick to spare her husband’s feelings by sending him off on a jaunt for the day – so that he finds on his return a new-born baby and a newly installed nurse – is told very politely.

The same is true of a visit from a – horrors – resentful former mistress who plots to spoil the couple’s happiness. She is won over by the bride’s innocent sweetness, and leaves, without stating the purpose of her visit, but not before giving a speech on the miseries that follow on from the loss of a woman’s reputation, accompanied by some tears.

I don’t know what Conan Doyle thought of the literary merit of this collection of stories. I have glanced through a couple of biographies of the author and they never seem to bother mentioning this book. I found it of considerably less interest than the Holmes stories, and only intriguing form the point of view of casting yet another light on the difficult and frustrating roles that wives were expected to perform in the Victorian age as a ‘domestic angel’.

However, I enjoyed the Professor Challanger stories – I’m sure Conan Doyle regarded them as of the lowest order – especially ‘The Lost World’. Like countless other people, though, I’m a Sherlock Holmes addict. I’ve read the stories three times over, watched all the television series, visited the Sherlock Holmes museum in Baker Street, and never cease to revel in the atmosphere.

Conan Doyle had a genius, in the Sherlock Holmes tales especially, to tell a good yarn. He could draw you in and keep you engrossed. He could sum up atmosphere in a few terse words, for instance, this, from one of my favourites, ‘The Speckled Band’: –

‘How shall I ever forget that dreadful vigil?…The shutters cut offthe least ray of light, and we waited in absolute darkness. From outside came the occasional cry of a night-bird, and once at our very window, a long drawn, cat-like whine, which told us that the cheetah was indeed at liberty. Far away we could hear the deep tones of the parish clock, which boomed out every quarter of an hour…’

Conan Doyle would have been highly dismayed to discover that today his other works are largely unknown, while the despised Sherlock Holmes stories remain world-famous, with some people from abroad even believing that the great detective actually existed in Victorian London. He couldn’t accept that in writing of his despised Sherlock Holmes he had achieved the famous classic he always sought to create in those works he considered to be of so much more literary worth.

This makes me wonder how many other writers have created classics which they despised? I know that Enid Nesbit wrote stories for adults as well as for children, yet it is for her children’s magical stories – ‘Five Children and It’ and others, that she is famous.

Louisa M Allcott – an early feminist – created the somewhat morbid story of self-abnegation in ‘Little Women’ with its tomboy heroine Jo, and it’s sequels.

It is less well-known that she wrote lurid and melodramatic stories with almost gothic overtones. I read one, the name of which I have forgotten, but I do know that it was a wonderfully over-the-top read of purple prose.

The female protagonist is a femme fatale of mediocre physical attributes but great charm, who pretends to be ten years younger than her age. With the help of slot-in false teeth and a wig, she steals the fiance of the daughter of the house. Safely married to him, she stands at the end of the novel, daring the family to do their worst.

I found this a far more compelling read than the dismal taming of the fiery Jo that features in ‘Little Woman’ and rather regret that if this tale is typical, it isn’t these adult novels which became classics.

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6 thoughts on “A Despised Classic

  1. When I was about 12 years old, I got a thick book with the collected Sherlock Holmes in small type, and worked my way through – although I can’t remember now whether I read all of it, and I dare say there was much I didn’t understand, but I certainly enjoyed the detective stories. Watching House in recent years has been a joy for exactly the same reasons…

    1. I wonder if it was the collected stories, with original illustrations, in paperback? I got my mother that one. As a matter of fact, though Conan Doyle thought they served no purpose but entertainment, now they are a useful way of introducing youngsters to some aspects of Victorian life.

  2. Interesting post, Lucinda. I think a writer can never really tell which of his works, if any, will strike a note with the reading public. Like you, I’m a Sherlock Holmes addict and never tire of reading the stories; it’s a pity that Conan Doyle himself thought so little of them.

    This reminds me a little of when J.K. Rowling wrote “The Casual Vacancy”. Lots of people read it because it was by the author of the Harry Potter series – and then complained because it wasn’t at all like Harry Potter! I think Rowling herself could be forgiven for being a bit irked by this; whatever she writes, it seems that she’ll always be known primarily as the author of the Harry Potter books.

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