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74 • and splendour of those great days, and I have brought back to you some shadow of those men whose tread shook the earth. Treasure it in your minds and pass it on to your children, for the memory of a great age is the most precious treasure that a nation can possess.” Vive l’Empereur! “Steel True, Blade Straight” • From his earliest schooldays Arthur Conan Doyle possessed an almost preternatural gift for storytelling. He once recalled his talent as a youthful talespinner in his essay, “Juvenilia.” On a “wet half-holiday,” he would stand on a desk, with classmates squatting on the floor all around him, and talk himself “husky over the misfortunes of my heroes,” sometimes pausing at the very height of the action until he was bribed to continue with pastries or apples: When I had got as far as “With his left hand in her glossy locks, he was waving the bloodstained knife above her head, when—” or “Slowly, slowly, the door turned upon its hinges, and with eyes which were dilated with “Steel True, Blade Straight” • 75 horror, the wicked Marquis saw—” I knew that I had my audience in my power. Perhaps because thrilling narrative came easily to him, Conan Doyle never quite valued the Sherlock Holmes and Gerard stories, let alone his ghostly tales, as they deserve. Instead he himself was convinced that his best books were (1) his medieval historical novel The White Company and its prequel Sir Nigel; (2) his multivolume history of World War I; and (3) his writings about Spiritualism. What do these disparate works have in common , other than being generally ignored by most modern readers? All of them are, more or less, tendentious; in other words, they were written with an instructive purpose. When speaking of the merits of The White Company, Conan Doyle didn’t point to its humor, battles, and wordpainting , but instead stressed that it would “illuminate our national traditions.” To this child of the Victorian era and product of a stern Jesuit education, the supreme function of literature was to inspire men—he was less concerned about women—and to inspire them to become paragons of chivalric virtue: brave, cour- 76 • teous, heroic, trustworthy, stoic, self-controlled, sportsmanlike. Given the run of a large library, Conan Doyle confesses (in Through the Magic Door), he almost always picks out “a book of soldier memoirs. Man is never so interesting as when he is thoroughly in earnest, and no one is so earnest as he whose life is at stake upon the event.” Throughout his own packed life the most popular writer since Dickens repeatedly sought out occasions to test his mettle, often while decked out in some kind of homemade uniform. He once joined reporters covering an insurrection of dervishes in Egypt (which ultimately led to the novel The Tragedy of the “Korosko”). He put everything aside to serve for several months as a doctor during the Boer Wars, much of it in a field hospital rife with enteric fever. He traveled to the front to research his history of World War I. During all these campaigns, many of which are briefly recounted in the autobiographical Memories and Adventures, Conan Doyle speaks with unreserved admiration for the common English soldier and sailor and, in his view, their nearly always wise and valiant commanders. He never seems to have imagined that the British Empire could be seriously wrong, that the English presence in Egypt might be colonialist and “Steel True, Blade Straight” • 77 oppressive to the indigenous people, that the Boers had a case, that the so-called Great War might be an unmitigated disaster and horror. Even in his later life, he continued to view himself as a selfless, knightly crusader—by then in the noble cause of Spiritualism. Today, we tend to be leery of these oldfashioned ideals. Ardent patriotism can readily sink into unthinking jingoism. As it happens, glorification of the military occasionally leads even Conan Doyle to utter, approvingly, such barbaric statements as “Wonderful is the atmosphere of war. When the millennium comes the world will gain much, but it will lose its greatest thrill.” (That sounds like Lord John Roxton, of The Lost World, at his most bloodthirsty.) He argues, too, that English boxing promoted a “combative spirit and aggressive quickness,” which during the Great War “helped especially in bayonet work.” Yet as a medical man, Conan Doyle must have known what bayonet work did to a human body. At...


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