- The A. J. Raffles Stories Reconsidered: Fall of the Gentleman Ideal
WHEN A CHARACTER from popular fiction becomes so associated with his own archetype that his very name becomes a suitable entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, one may safely assume that the character has, quite literally, played a notable role in how English culture views and defines itself. And while E. W. Hornung’s infamous antihero lacks the present-day familiarity of a philandering Don Juan or an overly romantic Romeo, there was a time when allusions made to A. J. Raffles—first-class amateur cricketer by day, first-class professional burglar by night—were as identifiable as any other fictional character of his day. From 1898 to 1909, few works of English fiction could claim to be as popular, nor could many other characters claim to have had as much of an impact on the nation’s reassessment of the English masculine ideal, particularly the once seemingly infallible gentleman model.1 Relying heavily on allusions and references to cricket, Hornung spoke to late-Victorians in a language they could understand and appreciate, making Raffles one the era’s most prominent icons of male decadency.
The stories featuring A. J. Raffles deserve to be a part of any attempt to fully understand the fall of the gentleman ideal in English literature. Part Oscar Wilde, part W. G. Grace, Raffles became one of the fin-de-siècle’s most improbable models of English masculinity. By essentially turning a self-professed antihero into one of the nation’s most fashionable archetypes of the English gentleman, Hornung played a significant role in shifting the literary standards of what it truly meant to be “cricket” and—even more importantly—what rightfully ought to be categorized as “not cricket,” the more commonly used construction of the “cricket/not cricket” idiom. While Raffles was certainly not the first fictional gentleman in English literature to fall short of his expected social role, he was by far the most popular gentleman-rogue of the era, [End Page 99] an accomplishment made all the more remarkable given the fact that Raffles was quite possibly the most ungentlemanly gentleman of early-twentieth-century popular fiction.
Conan Doyle & Hornung
Throughout the first decade of the twentieth century, as the public demand for Raffles stories increased, readers were faced with an intriguing dilemma: how could one earnestly root for a protagonist who so clearly did not follow the “rules” of the English state, English society, or the culture of English cricket? At a time when the amateur cricketer was believed to embody the nation’s most fundamentally tested cultural understanding of what it meant to be a gentleman, the popularity of the Raffles stories threatened to disrupt that supposedly infallible English notion of “fair play” through the endorsement of an admitted criminal as the epitome of that ideal. There was a time, after all, when the popularity of Raffles nearly rivaled the nation’s devotion to Sherlock Holmes, who, as it turns out, was something of a literary relative. For good reasons there are rather conspicuous similarities between the infamous duo of A. J. Raffles and Harry “Bunny” Manders and Doyle’s more famous pairing of Sherlock Holmes and John H. Watson since in both instances the latter of the two plays the role of the narrator and the accomplice. But there is more. Conan Doyle was Hornung’s brother-in-law. He dedicated his first collection of Raffles stories, Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman (1899), “To A.C.D. / This Form of Flattery,” a polite nod to Conan Doyle’s encouragement and an already proven formula. It should be noted that Doyle not only tolerated Hornung’s open “flattery”; he actively encouraged it, going as far as to serve as Hornung’s unofficial editor throughout much of his career. Interestingly enough, however, Hornung ignored Conan Doyle’s advice when preparing what would eventually become the six original Raffles stories printed in Cas-sell’s Magazine in 1898. Although fascinated by the idea of a public-school thief, Conan Doyle publicly stated that he was more than a little apprehensive about the moral and social ramifications of his brother...