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Pax Britannica: A Note on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

They said that it had feet of clay, That its fall was sure and quick. In the flames of yesterday, All the clay was burned to brick. When they carved our epitaph And marked us doomed beyond recall,
"We are," we answered, with a laugh, "The Empire that declines to fall."

Songs of the Road: Songs of the Road is a volume collecting 33 poems written by Arthur Conan Doyle first published by Smith, Elder & Co. on 16 March 1911.

Arthur Conan Doyle is frequently seen as the archetypal Englishman, patriotically committed to the Crown and defender and apologist for the empire. However, this relegation is both restrictive and simplistic. Doyle's ancestors are complicated. He was born in Scotland to Irish Catholic parents. As a result, in his works, British imperialism and Catholic allegiance coexist uncomfortably. While Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is best known as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Doyle considered that his historical romances were his most significant work. He felt that detective stories were part of "a lower stratum of literary achievement", and he aspired to be a "serious" writer; in writing historical romances, he believed he was following in the footsteps of Sir Walter Scott. He regarded detective stories as belonging to a "lower stratum of literary success," and sought to be a "serious" writer; he believed that by writing historical romances, he was following in the footsteps of Sir Walter Scott. Doyle's historical romances, as well as his other work outside the detective genre, have received relatively little attention from academic critics, but they are worth studying because, like Kipling's fiction and poetry, Doyle's historical romances, adventure stories, and science fiction novels contributed to "the energising myth of English imperialism", even though they are set in locations far removed from Kipling's overtly imperial land. Doyle wrote most of his prolific and successful creative output between 1883 and 1914, during what historian Eric Hobsbawm refers to as "the epoch of a new form of an empire, the colonial". Hobsbawm writes that during this period, capitalist countries' economic and military superiority resulted in formal conquest;

"and the majority of the world outside Europe and the Americas was formally partitioned into territories under the formal rule or informal political domination of one or more of a handful of states".

This was a novel phenomenon — even the term used to describe; "Imperialism... first entered the political and journalistic lexicon during the 189Os, amid the debates over colonial invasion" noted Hobsbawm 60. Along with the expansion of colonial empires emerged an imperial ideology, or what has been dubbed "popular imperialism." In Great Britain, which established the largest of these new colonial empires, this ideology incorporated a variety of themes: race and Social Darwinism, history and England's position in it, manliness and character, as well as war and adventure. Imperialism's philosophy "created a new kind of patriotism", and it pervaded British popular culture during the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. Imperialism elicited strong emotional responses from a sizable — even dominant — segment of British society, an attraction that was largely generated by its diverse cultural manifestations. Despite this widespread popularity, there was some political and intellectual opposition to imperialism. While the time produced a large number of Tory imperialists, it also produced Liberal critics of imperialism such as C.F.G. Masterman and J.A. Hobson, who in their book Imperialism: A Study (1902) described imperialism as a "regressive movement laden with severe perils to the cause of civilization". The intellectual discussion over imperialism occurred against the backdrop of late-Victorian fears about society's degeneration. This fear of the future appears to have served as the organising principle for the imperialist argument. Reversing England's moral and physical decline required reasserting the values inherent in proper character: "when challenged, intrinsic late Victorian social values summed up in ‘sound character’ were linked to 'right lines of action.' The right line of action that trumped all others was a commitment to empire" said John Field. This meaning of "sound character" is intricately related to late Victorian male ideals. The values that shaped excellent character were, for the most part, identical to those that defined a true man. Manliness encompassed the virtues of "physical strength, chivalric aspirations, and virtuous fortitude, as well as implications of military and patriotic virtue". When popular imperialism accepted this code of virtue, it emphasised the military and patriotic components; manliness then included "neo-Spartan virility as expressed by stoicism, hardiness, and endurance".

As Arnold White noted in Efficiency and Empire, it was important to experience "solitude, adversity, pain, and grief, communion with nature, self-sufficiency, and contact with the facts of life" to "become true men". Manliness entailed the forms of virtue required to re-establish sound character; not only would devotion to the empire restore manliness, but the values of manliness itself were required to passionately pursue the imperial goal. Within imperialism's ideology, the concepts of character, manliness, and empire were thus arranged around two equations: diminishing character = world run amok; character maintained or restored = world righted. Character and society will be restored by "commitment to empire"; imperialism was the panacea for deterioration. Arthur Conan Doyle was a fervent supporter of imperialism. He served as a senior physician in South Africa during the Boer War, where he published "patriotic descriptive literature".Doyle was a public figure, patriotic, and devoted to the Empire; it's probably unsurprising, then, that adventure novel and historical romances perpetuated the ideology of popular imperialism. This ideology presupposed a very particular view of history. H.F. Wyatt said in "The Ethics of Empire" that this single live generation of British men and women who today walk the world's stage does not represent the entire British people. The chain, of which we are but one link, extends far into the past and, presumably, far into the future. As inheritors of great trust, we are obligated by the entirety of our past to pass it on inviolately to those who will follow. Sustaining a load of empire in a dignified manner is the task assigned to Britain, and so fulfilling that responsibility is her obligation, as it should also be her delight. For Wyatt, history is the chronicle of the British empire's development: the empire was Britain's historical destiny. Additionally, this history includes the storey of heroic individuals. "For millennia," Wyatt adds, "our national character has been shaped by the impetus of some of the world's greatest spirits". This view of history echoes Carlyle's assertions in On Heroes and Hero Worship that "the history of what man has accomplished in this world is fundamentally the history of the Great Men who have worked here" and "the history of the world is merely the biographies of great men", but situates them within a specific imperial context in which heroism and manliness are inextricably linked. A hero is a man whose a strong character and manly attributes enable him to overcome barriers and defeat his adversaries. Imperial destiny and individual heroism were the two guiding ideas of popular imperialism's historical conception at the time. The imperial destiny of Britain plays a significant role in Doyle's historical romances.

Each new critical study must explicitly define the field in which it seeks to function in the increasingly varied and crowded field of post-colonial studies. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, the moor is described as 'a perilous site of instability that unleashed dark and degenerative forces,' eerily paralleling description of the Congo river as 'a black and incomprehensible frenzy', serving the imperial process while resisting total subjugation. This thesis successfully demonstrates the ephemeral nature of the landscape in most of Doyle's work. It seeks to draw clear and logical parallels to other late-nineteenth-century Irish Gothic writings. Doyle’s work possesses several characteristics of a competent post-colonial critique, from the minute deconstruction of narratives to a comprehensive analysis of imperialism's complicated and unique nature. Doyle emerges as a divisive political figure, one who is willing to acknowledge and legitimise a separate Irish identity under the paternalism of British colonialism. Both Sherlock Holmes' first and final cases, interestingly, feature the fish separatist cause in various guises, indicating Doyle's willingness to employ his famous fictional character in both the political and literary spheres. Wynne's exhaustive examination of the liminal regions between the literary and the historical is credible and well-written, and her research is faultless. In an enlightening note, she relates an odd occurrence in 1922, when Doyle convinced The American Club of Magicians in New York that a cartoon film he had commissioned depicting dinosaurs was footage taken for his novel The Lost World. Doyle certainly took pleasure in 'mystifying the mystifiers,' and it is precisely this scenario that discloses the true purpose of Doyle's literary creations. However, Doyle's depiction of individuals and happenings from the subcontinent in several of his classic Sherlock Holmes tales demonstrates the nature of his interest. India piqued Doyle's interest because he regarded it as "strange," an attitude that reveals his Orientalism. In his book, Teller of Tales: The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle, American historian Daniel Stashower, asserts, is "essentially free of the [racist] insults and prejudices that plague his contemporaries' work." However, Doyle's picture of India and Indians reflects the colonialists' sense of racial superiority toward their subjects. However, not all observers of the colonial scene wrote in this manner. Doyle's novels carry this weight. For example, in his second Sherlock Holmes adventure, The Sign of Four, Jonathan Small dehumanises his Andamanese partner Tonga; Small refers to Tonga as "hell-hound," "little devil," and "bloodthirsty imp," and parades him at freak exhibits as "the black cannibal." Both are second-class citizens, but the underlying message is that the white-skinned Small has the right to control dark-skinned Tonga. This is traditional nineteenth-century racial theory reimagined as fiction. Dr Watson, too, regarded Tonga as a black mass resembling a Newfoundland dog.

Doyle also has certain flaws. He lacked first-hand knowledge of India. He travelled to different countries of the British Empire, including West Africa, Egypt, South Africa, and Canada, but did not make it to South Asia. His prejudice against people of colour is evident in On the Slave Coast, an article he wrote after a visit to West Africa. "Much has been said about the regeneration of our black brothers and the latent virtues of the swarthy races," Doyle wrote. My personal experience is that you despise them upon first meeting them and progressively develop strong hate for them as you grow acquainted with them." Doyle's attitude infuriated many progressives in the United Kingdom. In 1904, Andrew Lang, a British polymath journalist, chastised Doyle for his article's depiction of Tonga. "The Andamanese are unjustly vilified, as they lack malignant characteristics and heads resembling mops or weapons," he stated. And Andaman's inhabitants are not all under four feet tall; they do not wield poison or blow-pipes as Doyle informs his readers. Interestingly, several of his most infamous crimes had ties to India. Jonathan Small (The Sign of Four) lost a limb to a crocodile while swimming the Ganga; on an indigo plantation, he was liberal with the whip and insults. Dr Grimesby Roylott (The Adventure of the Speckled Band), who smoked Indian cigars and socialised with gipsies, was a doctor with a huge practice in Calcutta; he murdered his stepdaughter with an adder, which the tale implies he was able to do due to his access to "strange creatures." Sebastian Moran (The Adventure of the Empty House), whom Holmes referred to as the second most dangerous man in London,' was a large game hunter who fought in the Second Anglo-Afghan war.

Professor Catherine Spooner delves deeper into Doyle's discovery of India in her essay Crime and the Gothic. About The Adventure of the Speckled Band, she states, "Dr Roylott aims to murder Helen by unleashing a lethal toxic swamp adder (the snake looks to be an Indian Cobra, but Doyle changed the name) into her bed." As a result of Holmes' intervention, the snake returns to Roylott's room and strikes him… The snake becomes a tool of colonial retribution, revisiting not just the violence directed at its master's family, but also that directed at the colonial subject, both real (Roylott beat his native butler to death in Calcutta but evaded punishment) and metaphorical (colonialism itself)." That is, colonialism exacts its toll in some form or another. However, Doyle's allegiance remains a mystery. Doyle's message remains ambiguous in The Adventure of Three Students, in which a young Indian student, Daulat Ras, becomes a suspect solely due to his racial characteristics. Was Doyle's emphasis on this point a critique or was he being racist? The misunderstanding stems from the fact that it was usual for wealthy Indians to study medicine or law in England during Doyle's period, and hardly any crime involving them was reported. And yet, the young Daulat is the target of suspicion in this scenario. Following 1857, the British conducted a race census on the subcontinent, categorising Indians as 'good' or 'bad' depending on whether they were rebels or British loyalists. Doyle was, without a doubt, aware of the profiling. "My name is Sherlock Holmes," Doyle's most renowned creation ever stated. It is my responsibility to learn what others do not." Doyle undoubtedly did, but it must be admitted that he sought information on the subcontinent in the wrong areas. In summary, Doyle, like many of his Victorian contemporaries, appeared to feel that Englishmen who spent time in the Orient had adopted the region's barbaric habits and returned to civilised England as hardened criminals.

Conan Doyle passed away peacefully on July 8, 1930. He was laid to rest in his yard in Windlesham. Conan Doyle's final words are inscribed on his oaken headstone; they are four simple, declarative worlds that summarise an immensely complicated life lived through extremely complex times: "Steel True, Blade Straight." How are we to interpret the man's final statement? Conan Doyle had abandoned the martial arts and the love of muscular chivalry approximately fifteen years before his death in favour of the spiritual joys of the psychical realm. "Steel True, Blade Straight" may be a last-ditch appeal to Conan Doyle's earlier ideals, when Britons could still take pleasure in the waging of war—may believe in its naturalness and even purity. However, this epitaph may serve as a metaphor for Conan Doyle's never-ending endeavour to reduce the complicated and conflicting concerns surrounding imperialism to a single ethos. Conan Doyle lived, in effect, at the apexes of the two movements that dominated his life. Following World War I, the British Empire was contracting. The British government or people could never again claim to hold the vast economic, human, and material resources that their imperial possessions provided in 1914. However, the ideologies that dominated the late Victorian and Edwardian periods met their demise on the European battlefields of World War I. Both British imperialism and Liberalism would suffer humiliating declines; the former primarily as a result of the War's atrocities, the latter as a result of its incapacity to maintain a national following in the face of a consolidated Conservative Party and an ascending Labour Liberalism, particularly in the aftermath of organised labour’s unification behind the Labour Party, could no longer claim to speak for working-class concerns or to be the exclusive voice of reform for lower-class problems. The Russian Revolution ushered in a new era for socialism and effectively ended any prospect for a laissez-faire European policy. Conan Doyle attempted, in essence, to reconcile two Nineteenth-Century British ideals that were becoming increasingly irreconcilable.

Let me end by pointing towards an excellent source: Discovering Sherlock Holmes Bibliography


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