- Conan Doyle & Cultural Shifts: New Biography
IN HIS INTRODUCTION to Conan Doyle: Writing, Profession, and Practice, Douglas Kerr establishes the parameters of his study: “What I want to do is to portray Conan Doyle as a product, historian, and creator of his culture.” To achieve this, he rejects the more common path of narrative biography with “the usual divisions of [chronology]—student days, medical practice, the move to London, and so on.” Instead, he opts for a “cultural biography,” organizing his study around a series of “domains” or “activities” that provide insight into how Conan Doyle “brought a world into being and made it knowable to his readers.” The domains total six—sport, medicine, science, law and order, army and empire, and spirit—and Kerr is careful to show how Conan Doyle is always doing more than simply affirming conventional thinking on these subjects. Although Kerr believes that Conan Doyle “embodied, in his work and life and person, qualities and values which the British reading public felt to be peculiarly their own,” Conan Doyle’s writings often push against those values, “disclos[ing] contradictions, fears, hopes, and desires that might not be expressible in other ways.” The result is a finely nuanced study of how Conan Doyle’s work registers, in ways both subtle and explicit, the deep cultural shifts of late-Victorian and early-modernist England.
The opening chapters on sport and medicine show us a Conan Doyle both thoroughly at home in his culture and cautiously wary of it. According to Kerr, “Sport was an important part of what [Conan Doyle] did and who he was, and what he knew about sport was one of the ways he knew about the world.” His love of sport was one of those personal qualities “that seemed to coincide with the nation’s image of itself,” and his writings on the subject manifest the larger goals of his writing in general. Conan Doyle “saw it as his function as a writer not just to interpret his nation but also to change it, or rather give it a clearer sense of itself, both its history and potentiality.” In this chapter, Conan Doyle’s writings on boxing serve “as a startling insight into [the] ambitions and problems” associated with this kind of didacticism. For Kerr, the most revealing text is Rodney Stone, with the boxing match between Jim Harrison and Crab Wilson in front of 30,000 fans serving as a “narrative climax” that at once offers “a paradisal vision of essential Englishness” that embraces masculine values across class lines and a villainous portrait of corruption marked by “match-fixing” and [End Page 262] “rampant materialism.” “If sport tells the truth about England,” Kerr concludes, “then a spoilsport greed, cheating, and thuggery are part of that truth.”
The next chapter on medicine follows a similar trajectory. Writing at a time when the profession was undergoing massive change—in particular, Kerr notes how the Medical Act of 1858 created clear lines of demarcations between “consultants” and “general practitioners”—Conan Doyle produced a series of works that were “everywhere inscribed with both excitement and misgiving about the management of knowledge, a structure of feeling which amounts to nothing less than excitement and misgivings about the direction of modernity itself.” Not surprisingly, in a chapter on consultants and general practitioners the Sherlock Holmes stories play a prominent role, and Kerr creatively illuminates how these tales negotiate emerging concepts of expertise and practice, suggesting that the different depictions we get of Holmes in A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of the Four can be read as Conan Doyle’s critique of expertise as inherently “rational, impersonal, alienated, and cold.”
Kerr’s fourth chapter is his most ambitious. He begins with a detailed discussion of Conan Doyle’s spur-of-the-moment decision in 1890 to travel to Berlin to attend Robert Koch’s lectures on tuberculosis. According to Kerr, this “Berlin adventure” was “in many ways a critical point in Conan Doyle’s evolution as a man of letters, and it merits a thick description...