Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Arctic Sea adventure

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, famous around the world for his fictional creation Sherlock Holmes, died 90 years ago today. As a young man, still studying medicine, he sailed for six months in the Arctic seas on a whaling ship - and kept a detailed dairy. The experience would later enrich several of his stories, not least The Adventure of Black Peter in which Holmes solves a murder committed by harpoon. A full facsimile copy of the diary, complete with illustrations, has been published by The British Library.

Doyle was born in 1859 in Edinburgh into a prosperous Irish family. His father was an artist and a chronic alcoholic, while his mother had a passion for books and storytelling. Aged nine, he was sent to a Catholic boarding school at Stonyhurst, Lancashire, where he remained for seven years. Later he would write about the place as being run on medieval principles, favouring the threat of corporal punishment and ritual humiliation over providing compassion and warmth. On leaving school, it seems, he added one of his given names - Conan - to his surname Doyle. 

In 1875, Conan Doyle was sent for a year to a Jesuit school in Austria partly to improve his German. From 1876, he studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh but also botany at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh. He started writing short stories during this period, his first  - The Mystery of Sasassa Valley - being published in 1879. The same year he also published a first academic article, Gelsemium as a Poison, in the British Medical Journal. In 1880, Conan Doyle sailed with the whaler SS Hope in the Arctic seas for six months, acting as ship’s surgeon. And, after graduating, he sailed to the West African coast with the SS Mayumba.

In the early 1880s, Conan Doyle tried to set up a medical practice with a colleague in Plymouth, but it failed, and then he launched another in Southsea on his own but this no more successful. He completed his Doctor of Medicine in 1885, and subsequently took up studying and practising ophthalmology - but again failed to attract clients. By then, though, he had published his first story feating Sherlock Holmes - A Study in Scarlet - and its success encouraged him to write further stories. In 1893, tired of his hero, Conan Doyle killed off Holmes, hoping to concentrate on more serious writing, but a public outcry led to Holmes’ resurrection. Conan Doyle wrote various other books: fiction such as The Lost World, and non-fiction such as The Great Boer War (justifying British involvement). He was a keen sportsmen taking part, at various times, in amateur football, cricket, boxing, golf and billiards. In 1885, he married Louisa Hawkins, and they had two children. She died young, and Holmes then married Jean Elizabeth Leckie with whom he had three further children.

Conan Doyle ran twice unsuccessfully for parliament. In-between attempts, he was knighted by King Edward VII in the 1902 Coronation Honours. He was a fervent advocate of justice, and personally investigated two cases which led to convicted men being released. It was partially as a result of one of these cases that the Court of Criminal Appeal was established in 1907. He was also involved in the campaign to reform the Congo Free State, and, unsuccessfully, tried to save Roger Casement from the death penalty (see Casement’s black reputation). In later life, after the death of his beloved mother, he became very interested in spiritualism, and was friends with the US magician Harry Houdini, believing he had supernatural powers. Conan Doyle died on 7 July 1930. Further information is available from the official Arthur Conan Doyle website, Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica, or the Baker Street fanzine.

For half a year or so, while on his voyage through the Arctic seas, Conan Doyle kept a daily diary. He retained it throughout his life, and it was eventually passed down through his heirs until, in 2004, it came up for sale (with sundry other items) at Christie’s in London. The journal, with neat handwriting and many illustrations, was described as consisting of more than 150 pages in two notebooks bound in marbled boards. Although the diary was not sold at the time, the Conan Doyle Estate has, since, allowed it to be published. In 2012, both the British Library in the UK and University of Chicago Press in the US brought out a full colour facsimile of the contents: Dangerous Work: Diary of an Arctic Adventure, as edited by Jon Lellenberg and Daniel Stashower. The book also includes a complete and annotated transcript of the diary and several non-fiction and fiction pieces based on Conan Doyle’s experiences during the voyage (including a Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of Black Peter; and a ghost story set in the Arctic, The Captain of the Polestar).

The publisher says: ‘With humour and grace, Conan Doyle provides a vivid account of a long-vanished way of life at sea. His careful detailing of the ‘murderous harvest’ in the Arctic seas affords a rare and unflinching account of the latter days of the British whaling industry.’ And Lellenberg adds: ‘In this diary’s entries, we see the young medical student step outside the classroom into settings of high adventure and great peril, finding his way among hard men whose skill and daring he came to respect greatly, and at the end of the voyage encountering a direct link to the first tale about Sherlock Holmes that he would write six years later.’ Reviews with extracts can be found at NPR and The Best of Sherlock Holmes. Here are several of those extracts.

4 April 1880
‘I fell into the Arctic Ocean three times today, but luckily someone was always near to pull me out. The danger in falling in is that with a heavy swell on as there is now, you may be cut in two pretty well by two pieces of ice coming together and ripping you. I got several drags but was laid up in the evening as all my clothes were in the engine room drying. By the way as an instance of abstraction of mind after skinning a seal today I walked away with the two hind flippers in my hand, leaving my mittens on the ice. Some of our hands work very well, while others, mostly Shetlanders with many honourable exceptions, shirk their work detestably. It shows what a man is made of, this work, as we are often far from the ship away from the Captain’s eye with a couple of miles drag, and a man can skulk if he will. Colin the mate is a great power in the land, energetic & hard working. I heard him tell a man today he would club him if he didn’t work harder. I saw the beggars often walk pat a fine fat seal to kill a poor little “Toby” or newly pupped one in order to have less weight to drag. The Captain sits at the masthead all day, looking out with his glass, for where they lie thickest.’

12 April 1880
‘Buried poor old Andrew this morning. Union Jack was hoisted half mast high. He was tied up in canvas sack with a bag of old iron tied to his feet, and the Church of England burial service was read over him. Then the stretcher on which he was lying was tilted over and the old man went down feet foremost with hardly a splash. There was a bubble or two and a gurgle and that was the end of old Andrew. He knows the great secret now. I should think he would be flattened out of all semblance to humanity before he reached the bottom, or rather he would never reach the bottom but hang suspended half way down like Mahomet’s coffin, when the weight of the iron was neutralized. The Captain & I agree that on these occasions three cheers should be given as the coffin disappears, not in levity, but as a genial hearty fare-thee-well wherever you are.’

26 June 1880
‘Nothing had been seen all day and I had gone down to the cabin about 10 o’clock when I heard a sort of bustle on deck. Then I heard the Captain’s voice from the masthead “Lower away the two waist boats!” I rushed into the mates’ berth and gave the alarm, Colin was dressed but the second mate rushed on deck in his shirt with his trousers in his hand. When I got my head above the hatchway the very first thing I saw was the whale shooting its head out of the water and gamboling about at the other side of a large ‘sconce’piece of ice. It was a beautiful night, with hardly a ripple on the deep green water. In jumped the crews into their boats, and the officers of the watch looked that their guns were primed and ready, then they pushed off and the two long whale boats went crawling away on their wooden legs one to one side of the bit of ice, the other to the other. Carner had hardly got up to the ice when the whale came up again about forty yards in front of the boat, throwing almost its whole body out of the water, and making the foam fly. There was a chorus of “Now, Adam - Now’s your chance!” from the line of eager watchers on the vessel‘s side. But Adam Carner, a grizzled and weatherbeaten harpooner knows better. The whale’s small eye is turned towards him and the boat lies as motionless as the ice behind it. But now it has shifted, its tail is towards them - Pull, boys, pull! Out shoots the boat from the ice - will the fish dive before he can get up to it? That is the question in every mind. He is nearing it, and it still lies motionless - nearer yet and nearer. Now he is standing up to his gun and has dropped his oar - “Three strokes, boys”! he says as he turns his quid in his cheek, and then there is a bang and a foaming of waters and a shouting, and then up goes the little red flag in Carner’s boat and the whale line runs out merrily.’

4 August 1880
‘Was called up about 11 PM by the Captain to see a marvellous sight. Never hope to see anything like it again. The sea was simply alive with great hunchback whales, rather a rare variety, you could have thrown a biscuit onto 200 of them, and as far as you could see there was nothing but spoutings and great tails in the air. Some were blowing under the bowsprit, sending the water on to the forecastle, and exciting our newfoundland tremendously. They are 60-80 feet long, and have extraordinary heads with a hanging pouch like a toad’s from sheer underjaw. They yield about 3 tons of very inferior oil, and are hard to capture so that they are not worth pursuing. We lowered away a boat and fired an old loose harpoon into one which went away with a great splash. They differ from finner whales in having white underfins and tail. Some of them gave a peculiar whistle when they blew, which you could hear a couple of miles off.’

10 August 1880
‘Up at 8 AM to see the land bearing WSW on the Starboard bow. Half a gale blowing and the old Hope steaming away into a head sea like Billy. The green grass on shore looks very cool and refreshing to me after nearly 6 months never seeing it, but the houses look revolting. I hate the vulgar hum of men and would like to be back at the floes again.

Passed the skerry light, and came down to Lerwick but did not get into the harbour as we are in a hurry to catch the tide at Peterhead, so there goes all my letters, papers and everything else. A girl was seen at the lighthouse waving a handkerchief and all hands were called to look at her. The first woman we have seen for half a year.’

Postscript. In 2014, Christie’s did sell a manuscript journal kept by Conan Doyle. It was listed as ’Baby’s Book - 1909–1916’ with 48 pages, 32 of them blank, and sold for $7,500. Here is how Christie’s described its content: A loving journal of the birth and early growth of three of Conan Doyle’s five children, Denis Percy Stewart (17 March 1909 – 9 March 1955), Adrian Malcolm (19 November 1910 – 3 June 1970). And Jean Lena Annette (1912-1997). We see not just the doting parent, but the novelist's eye for the telling hints of character and the story-teller's pleasure in amusing anecdotes. Most of the journal is devoted to Denis: “Baby was born March 17th about 6 p.m.,” it begins. “St. Patrick’s Day 1909. He was christened Denis Stewart Percy Conan Doyle. April 17th... Began to crow a little – googa noises – when about one month old.... Aug. 3. In splendid form. Developed a very rouguish laugh. More alert.” Two years later Doyle notes that baby Denis “showed some curious characteristics.” When he’s “had enough of anyone or anything he always said Ta Ta. ‘Ta Ta, man!’ To the doctor…and so on.... He is a remarkable mimic, taking off the exact note & tone. He should have a very clear ear for music.” Another child now makes an appearance in the journal: “Little Adrian (3 months old) weighs 10 lbs 6 ounces which is just the same as Denis at the same age.” The interaction between Denis, Adrian and Doyle’s youngest, Jean Lena Annette (referred to only as Baby in the journal) make for some amusing entries: “His mother having reproached Denis by saying that Adrian & Baby took their medicine well, he said ‘Brave souls!’” Denis’s wit comes through in this “Story of Dennis [ca. 1916]. He pretended all day to be the German Emperor. On being told that I would be angry he said, ‘Who is he? A common Doyle!’” 

In an entry form about 1916, Doyle records that “Adrian asked if God was listening to his conversation. On being told that he was he said, ‘Well, it’s very rude of him.’ Baby who had quarreled with Adrian but who had to include him in [her] prayers said, ‘God bless horrid Adrian.’” Another theological query (from which child is unclear) closes the journal: “‘Would Christ play cricket.’ ‘Yes, if it would give pleasure.’ ‘I wonder if he could bowl Googlies.’”

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