Frances Wilson writes in Guilty Thing that Thomas De Quincey “was the only Romantic to have had his photograph taken.” The daguerreotype was done by James Howie in Edinburgh in 1850. De Quincey was around sixty-five years old at the time. An engraving was subsequently made from it by Frank Croll.
In a letter to the Editor of The Instructor dated September 21, 1850, De Quincey gives his amusing opinion on the likeness:
My Dear Sir,—I am much obliged to you for communicating to us (that is, to my daughters and myself) the engraved portrait, enlarged from the daguerreotype original. The engraver, at least, seems to have done his part ably. As to one of the earlier artists concerned, viz. the sun of July, I suppose it is not allowable to complain of him, else my daughters are inclined to upbraid him with having made the mouth too long.
Penzler has been collecting first edition detective fiction for more than fifty years. In the early days, he says, “It was easy to find a half dozen first editions in collectable condition within my five-dollar-a-week budget. My primary drive was buying a book in the mystery world that I could afford. It was the pure joy of collecting.” In 1979 he opened The Mysterious Bookshop.
Fine Books magazine visited Penzler’s home library last year. Nicholas A. Basbanes writes:
One of the very first things bibliophile-for-all-seasons Otto Penzler wants you to know about the 58,000 books he keeps in a Tudor-style chateau in the Connecticut countryside is that it was not something put together willy-nilly by someone with a fortune to throw around on first editions.
“I am not a rich guy,” he insisted, even though the trappings of this graceful manor eighty miles north of Manhattan in bucolic Litchfield County—especially the triple-level library that at times suggests the soaring interior of a ducal chapel—would suggest otherwise. “This took an entire railroad car of mahogany wood to make,” he said of the exquisite shelves, fittings, and hand-hewn storage areas he was about to show me, all built to his design and specifications over a two-and-a-half-year period more than a decade ago.
I am sorry to see a collection like this broken up, but many collectors will undoubtedly walk away happy.
The sale is being conducted by Heritage Galleries. Part One will be held at their Rare Books Auction on March 6 in New York. This lot emphasizes American authors and hardboiled literature. Online bidding has already begun. Part Two will be held on September 5 in New York, with an emphasis on British authors.
Last year I wrote a long post about the influence of Thomas De Quincey on the mystery genre, broadly, and Sherlock Holmes, specifically. Thus I was pleased to catch a reference to De Quincey in the 1945 film The House of Fear starring Basil Rathbone. This was the tenth film in the long-running series with Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson.
The screenplay is an original story very loosely based on Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Five Orange Pips.” In the film, Holmes and Watson are summoned to a remote castle in Scotland where seven men live together under a strange agreement by which they benefit from each other’s life insurance policies. Someone is murdering them one by one.
While searching for clues Holmes inspects the volumes on a bookshelf, selecting one titled Murder As a Fine Art. This is obviously De Quincey’s 1827 classic, “On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts.”
I had the opportunity to write about two of my favorite literary subjects—Sherlock Holmes and Arthur Machen—for The Baker Street Journal. Founded in 1946 by Edgar W. Smith, the BSJ is the preeminent journal of Sherlockian scholarship.
My essay, “A Crime Scene in ‘The Resident Patient’ and The Three Imposters” looks at the influence of Conan Doyle on Machen. It appears in the Autumn 2018 issue on newsstands now.
The author of Sherlock Holmes and the author of Dracula knew each other very well. Bram Stoker was the business manager of the Lyceum Theatre in London and assistant to the great actor-manager Sir Henry Irving. It was in this capacity that Stoker made the acquaintance of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Stoker was involved in the 1894 production of Conan Doyle’s play Waterloo, based on the short story, “A Straggler of ’15,” which starred Irving in the lead. They corresponded on theatrical business throughout the 1890s and became friends.
Upon the publication of Dracula in 1897, Conan Doyle wrote to Stoker: “I am sure that you will not think it an impertinence if I write to tell you how very much I have enjoyed reading Dracula. I think it is the very best story of diablerie which I have read for many years. It is really wonderful how with so much exciting interest over so long a book there is never an anticlimax. It holds you from the very start and grows more and more engrossing until it is quite painfully vivid. The old Professor is most excellent and so are the two girls. I congratulate you with all my heart for having written so fine a book.”
In 1907 Stoker interviewed Conan Doyle as part of a series of profiles that he wrote for syndication that year. The conversion, which took place at Conan Doyle’s home in Surrey, contains many interesting details. Not least of which is the revelation that Sherlock Holmes was almost named “Sherringford Holmes” or “Sherrington Hope.”
The interview was first published in the United States as “Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Tells of His Career and Work, His Sentiments Towards America, and His Approaching Marriage” in the July 28, 1907 issue of The New York World. A longer version was published in London as “Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Tells of His Work & Career” in the February 14, 1908 issue of The Daily Chronicle. I offer the entire article below.
“My first book! That was written when I was six years of age! But if I am to tell you about myself, I suppose I had better begin at the beginning.”
The speaker was lying on a chintz covered sofa in the pretty drawing-room of his house at Hindhead, down in Surrey. The forenoon sun was streaming in through one of the mullioned windows, of which the bars were softened by the delicate fringe of green of the creepers which spread all along them. The whole room was full of soft light, which showed the fine old furniture and the multitude of dainty knick-knacks to perfection. Even the many quaint and pretty pictures seemed to stand out from the walls.
From where I sat the whole of the lovely valley, at the very head of which the house stands, lay before me. Due south it falls away, spreading wider as it goes, till its lines are lost in distance, an endless sea of greenery. Far away there are ranges of hills piling up, one behind the other, in undulations of varying blue. Even the whole sweep of the horizon visible from our altitude is like a wavy sea. Nearer at hand the wonderful green of the valley is articulated by the minor curves and slopes, the trend of surrounding hills. The mighty carpet of green is of the fresh young bracken, whose shoots seem close and are like little croziers wrought in emerald. Against this the rising pine trees seem like dark masses. Close to us, beyond the vivid patch of tennis lawn, are some masses of color which are simply gorgeous amid the expanse of green. Great shrubs of yellow bloom, clumps of purple rhododendron, luxuriant alder, with masses of snowy flowers starred in their own peculiar green. An expanse which, whether seen from near or far, in unity or detail, simply ravishes the eye with its myriad beauties.
We had motored up the previous afternoon from Guildford, some twelve miles distant. The last seven miles of the journey up the steep, winding road shows one of the loveliest scenes in England—a scene that brings at every new phase fresh memories of Turner. Indeed, Turner himself loved this piece of the old Portsmouth road. Is not one of the weirdest pictures of the Liber Studiorum, “Gallows Hill,” taken from it? But here was the crown of it all—that wide expanse seen beyond this foreground of idyllic beauty.
UNDERSHAW HOME AT HINDHEAD.
Conan Doyle built his home Undershaw in the western angle at the joining of the road from Haslemere with the Portsmouth road, just below the very top of the hill. It stands on a little platform lying below the road. As north and east of it is a thick grove of trees and shrubs, it is completely sheltered from stranger eyes except from down the valley. It is so sheltered from cold winds that the architect felt justified in having lots of windows, so that the whole place is full of light. Nevertheless, it is cozy and snug to a remarkable degree, and has everywhere that sense of “home” which is so delightful to occupant and stranger alike. Throughout it is full of interesting things got together for their interesting association with the author’s life and adventures, for their prettiness, or as curios, or works of art.
The owner of this almost fairy pleasure house is a big man, massive and burly, and of great strength. His head and face are broad and strong. His eyes are blue with a peculiar effect in light, for they seem to have two shades of blue in the iris. His voice is strong and resonant—a very masculine voice.
The “interview” which followed was the result of many questions. The subject of it was most kind and amenable, thoroughly understanding everything and willing to enlighten me as I required. But he is not naturally a pushing man or an egotist, and it was necessary to keep him resolutely to the point of his own identity. I say this as his various statements were so lucid and illuminative that I think it better to give them in his own words in the sequence of a direct narrative. After all, there is nothing like a man’s ipsissima verba to show the reality of the individual through the mistiness of words. I omit questions except where necessary, and only venture to add comment or description where such may add to the reader’s enlightenment.
DOYLE’S IMAGINATIVE FORBEARS.
“My people on the father’s side,” said the creator of Sherlock Holmes, “we all artists of a peculiarly imaginative type. My father, Charles Doyle, was in truth a great unrecognised genius. He drifted to Edinburgh from London in his early youth, and so he lost the chance of living before the public eye. His wild and strange fancies alarmed, I think, rather than pleased the stolid Scotchmen of the 50’s and 60’s. His mind ran on strange moonlight effects, done with extraordinary skill in water colors; dancing witches, drowning seamen, death coaches on lonely moors at night and goblins chasing children across churchyards.”
All these pictures were in the room, or in some of those adjacent. With them were a host of others, delicate fancies and weird flights of imagination. There was one tiny picture of a little fairy carrying a branch and leading a beetle by a string, which was daintily sweet.
“I have myself no turn for this form of art at all beyond a very keen color sense which makes a discord of shades perfectly painful to my eye. I suppose, however, that there is a metabolism in these things, and that any sense I have for dramatic effect corresponds, or is an equivalent, in some degree, to the artistic nature of my father, whom, by the way, I in no degree resemble physically. But my real love for letters, my instinct for story-telling, springs, I believe, from my mother, who is on Anglo-Celtic stock, with the glamour and romance of the Celt very strongly marked. Her I do resemble physically, and also in character, so that I take my leanings towards romance rather from her side than my father’s. In my early childhood, as far back as I can remember anything at all, the vivid stories which she would tell me stand out so clearly that they obscure the real facts of my life. It is not only that she was—is still—a wonderful story-teller, but she had, I remember, an art of sinking her voice to a horror-stricken whisper when she came to a crisis in her narrative, which makes me goose-fleshy now when I think of it. I am sure, looking back, that it was in attempting to emulate these stories of my childhood that I first began weaving dreams myself.
A SIX-YEAR-OLD AUTHOR.
“When I was six I wrote a book of adventure—doubtless my mother has it still. I illustrated it myself. It must be an absurd production, but still it showed the set of my mind. When I went to school I carried the characteristic with me. There I was in some demand as a story-teller. I could start a hero off from home and carry him through an interminable succession of wayside happenings which would, if necessary, last through the spare hours of a whole term. This faculty remained with me all my school days, and the only scholastic success I can ever remember lay in the direction of English essays and poetry. I was no good at either classics or mathematics; even my English I wrote as pleasure, not as work.
AT SCHOOL IN GERMANY.
“After leaving Stonyhurst I was sent to a ‘finishing’ school in Germany, the Tyrol. There again my tendency to letters asserted itself. I started and edited a school magazine. Although the German acquired was indifferent, I think I had great benefit from the small but select English library. Macaulay and Scott, I remember, were my favourite authors. But I was and am still an omnivorous reader, with very catholic sympathies. There is hardly anything which does not interest me. I have sometimes tested myself by going into a large library and noting which of the books I am tempted to take down. I think that if let loose in such a place on a wet day my first choice would be military memoirs; but I am deeply interested also in criminology, in all sides of history, in science—so far as I can follow it—in comparative theology—if it is not ruined by the heavy touch of the writer—in travel—if the author has the skill to keep a glamour over his picture—in any form of fiction. Indeed, it would be difficult to name any form of true literature which does not give me intense pleasure.
STUDYING MEDICINE IN AULD EDINBORO.
“In 1876 I drifted into the study of medicine. The reason largely was that my people lived in Edinburgh”—he pronounces the word in Scotch fashion, “Edinboro”—”and there is a famous medical school there. For four years I went through the curriculum. My people were not at that time wealthy, and it was a struggle to keep me at college. So I compressed my classes into the winter, and devoted each summer to serving as a medical assistant, and so earning a little money to help to pay the fees. I served in this way in Sheffield, in the country districts in Shropshire, and finally in Birmingham —a billet to which I returned three times. The practice lay mostly in the slums of that great city, and I certainly saw a large variety of character and of life, such as I could hardly have known so intimately in any other way.
“The one trouble to me in this arrangement of my life was that I had no means of gratifying the love of athletics which was very strong within me. I used to box a good deal, for that consumed little time; but my cricket and football were neglected. I can say, however, that I have played for my university in both cricket and Rugby football. I had then no time or chance of being a constant player; I feel justified, therefore, in taking it out at the other end. I played a heavy match at football when I was forty-two years of age, and I still, at the age of forty-eight, play cricket twice a week. So I claim now the debts which were not paid me in my youth.
SURGEON TO AN ARCTIC WHALER.
“When I was nearly twenty-one a friend of mine who had been surgeon to a whaler in the Arctic seas told me that he was unable to return that summer, and offered me the billet. I was away for seven months in the Greenland ocean. I came of age in 80 degrees north latitude.
“This was a delightful period of my life. There are eight boats to a whaler, and the eighth, which is kept as a sort of emergency boat, is manned by the so-called ‘idlers’ of the ship. These consisted, in this case, of myself, the steward, the second engineer and an old seaman. But it happened that, with the exception of the veteran, we were all young and keen; and I think our boat was as good as any.”
As he spoke he could not fail to remember the harpoons hanging on the staircase wall. They seemed to account for this enthusiasm. He went on:
“One of the truest compliments I ever had paid me in my life was when the captain offered to make me the harpooner as well as surgeon if I would come for another year. When you think that a whale was then worth some £2,000 and that hit or miss depends on the nerve of the harpooner, I am proud to think that the skipper, old John Grey, should have offered me such a post.
“On returning home from the Arctic I took my degree, having been thrown back one year by the fact of going North. I was twenty-two when I qualified, and, thanks to my numerous assistantships, had a very varied experience behind me.
DOWN THE WEST AFRICAN COAST.
“Almost immediately afterward I was offered the post of surgeon to a steamer going down the west coast of Africa. I was again most fortunate in my captain, and the voyage was a delightful one. We were away four months and the pleasure of my experience was only marred by my getting the rather virulent fever which prevails on that coast. Two of us got it, and the other man died, so that I suppose I may call myself lucky.
“On my return to England I settled in practice, first in Plymouth and then, after a few months, at Southsea, the fashionable suburb of Portsmouth. My adventures in that rather romantic period, and all my mental and spiritual aspirations, are written down in ‘The Stark Munro Letters’, a book which, with the exception of one chapter, is a very close autobiography.
“In this period my literary tendencies had slowly developed. During the years of my studentship my life was so full of work that, though I read a great deal, I had little time to cultivate writing. After starting in practice, however, I had much—too much—time on my hands; and then I began to write voluminously.
“Most of it was, I think, pretty poor stuff; but it was apprentice work, and I always hoped that with practice I might learn to use my tools.
“FINDING HIMSELF” IN LITERATURE.
“Every writer is imitative at first. I think that is an absolute rule; though sometimes he throws back on some model which is not easily traced. My early work, as I look back on it, was a sort of debased composite photograph in which five or six different styles were contending for the mastery. Stevenson was a strong influence; so was Bret Harte; so was Dickens; so were several others.
“Eventually, however, a man ‘finds himself,’ or rather perhaps it is that he grows more deft in concealing the influences which blend with one another until they form what means a new and constant style.
“I suppose that during those early years I wrote not less than fifty short stories. The first appeared in 1878 while I was still a student. It was in Chambers’s Journal and was called ‘The Mystery of the Sassassa Valley’. I had three guineas for it. After receiving that little check I was like a beast that has once tasted blood, for I knew that whatever rebuffs I might receive—and God knows I had plenty—I had once proved I could earn gold, and the spirit was in me to do it again. It was a delightful opportunity for carrying into actuality the dreams of my youth. I had to earn money by some form of work, and that was the sort of work I longed to do.
TEN YEARS OF ANONYMITY
“For ten years I wrote short stories; roughly, from 1877 to 1887. During that time I do not think I ever earned £50 in any year by my pen, though I worked incessantly. Nearly all the magazines published the stories anonymously—a most iniquitous fashion by which all chance of promotion is barred to young writers. The best of these stories have since been published in the volume called The Captain of the Pole Star! Sometimes I saw my stories praised by critics, but the criticism never came to my address. The Cornhill Magazine, Temple Bar and London Society were the chief magazines in which my stories appeared.
“Finally in 1887 I wrote ‘A Study in Scarlet,’ the first book which introduced Sherlock Holmes. I don’t know how I got that name. I was looking the other day at a bit of paper on which I had scribbled ‘Sherringford Holmes’ and ‘Sherrington Hope’ and all sorts of other combinations. Finally at the bottom of the paper I had written ‘Sherlock Holmes’. ‘A Study in Scarlet’ appeared in a Christmas number of Beeton’s Annual. The book had no particular success at the time, though many people have been good enough to read it since.
“MICAH CLARKE” AND “THE WHITE COMPANY”.
“My next book was ‘Micah Clarke,’ a historical novel. This met with a good reception from the critics and the public; and from that time onward I had no further difficulty in disposing of my manuscripts. When two years later I wrote ‘The White Company’ I felt that my position was strong enough to enable me to give up practice. I still clung to my profession, for I came to London and started as an oculist. After six months, however, this also seemed unnecessary, and I finally retired. I have not indulged in my profession since, except when I went campaigning.”
That he did good service in that noble profession in the South African war is attested not only by his book on the record of the Langman Hospital, but by a noble silver bowl which stands at a corner of his house in Hind-head, on which is inscribed:
“To Arthur Conan Doyle, who at a great crisis—in word and deed— served his country.”
When he had come to the part in his history where he had started his bark on the sea of literature, I think he considered that his duty with regard to the interview. In obedience to my request, however, he went on. I wished that the American people might hear some special comment on their own affairs:
DOYLE’S AMERICAN TOUR
“In 1894 I went on a lecturing tour to America. I had no hopes of any success in the matter; my idea was simply to see a country in which I took a deep interest, and to pay my expenses while I was so doing. Major Pond, however, in his enthusiastic way fixed up a considerable programme for me, so that I was forced to do rather more than to pay my expenses and rather less in the way of seeing the country. I was there, all told, between four and five months, and the fact that I was lecturing had the one advantage that it took me into some of the byways and smaller towns that I should not have otherwise visited.
“I came away from America with a deep admiration for both the country and the people; and much touched by all the kindness and even affection which I had encountered. It has left a lasting impression on my mind which the lapse of thirteen years has in no way effaced. I want to go again without having any work to do, and I want to go out West and Southwest. One feels that society with its highly organised life is to some degree the same everywhere throughout the world, but that the real distinctive America is that portion which is still finding itself, as it were, and has not yet set into its final form.
“I read Wells’s book on the subject the other day; it seemed to me to be very deep and very suggestive. I should think that Americans need not mind frank criticism from such a man as he, for his own mind is essentially democratic and American.
“But the fact is that these various dangers and drawbacks which one sees—the dangers of the great trusts—the dangers of violent labor unions— the dangers of the multi-millionaire—the dangers of individual character and violence becoming too strong for the organised legal machinery of the community—all these things are probably prominent problems to be solved by the human race, and only showing up in America because things move faster there and are on a large scale. But always behind the turmoil are ranked the millions of steady, solid, law-supporting citizens; and one knows that in the end all will be well.
“As I am speaking of America I remember one incident that comes back vividly to my mind. When I was there a strong wave of anti-British feeling was passing over the country. It was not shown offensively to the stranger within their gates, but one could hardly pick up any sort of newspaper without reading what was painful and usually untrue about one’s country. On one occasion at Detroit this feeling showed on the surface. A small supper was given to me by some kind and hospitable friends at a club there. We looked upon the wine when it was red, and at a late stage of the evening, politics having come up, one of the company made a speech in which he made a severe attack upon Great Britain. I asked my friend Robert Barr, who was in the chair, to allow me to answer the attack. This I did, speaking my mind out of the fulness of my heart. I think no one who was present could fail to have been surprised at the way in which after events bore out my remarks. What I said practically was:
“‘You Americans have lived, up to now, within a ring fence of your own. Your country has become so vast, and you have so much to do in peopling it and opening it out, that you have never had to think seriously of outside international politics, and you have lived to some extent in a world of prejudice and of dreams. This period is now drawing swiftly to an end. Your country is filling up, and soon you will have surplus energies which will lead you on into world politics and bring you into closer actual relationships with the other powers. Then your friendships and your enmities will be guided, not by prejudice nor by hereditary dislikes, but by actual practical issues. When that days comes—and it is coming soon—you will find that the only people who will understand you—who will see what your aims are and who will heartily sympathise with you in them, are your own people, the men from whom you are sprung. In a great world-crisis you will find that you have no natural friend among the nations save your own kin; and to the last they will always be at your side!’
“Well, within three years came the Spanish war—the suggested European coalition against America—the strong attitude of Great Britain upon the subject. It was as good an illustration as one could desire of the prediction which I had made in my speech.
“We know very well on this side that if the case were reversed and we ourselves had to look for sympathy and understanding, all minor contentions would vanish in an instant and we should find a strong and true friend by our side.”
A HAPPY ANNOUNCEMENT
One little personal piece of information was given by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle which may make a fitting conclusion to this interview. It was the news of his approaching marriage. Sir Arthur is engaged to a young lady, Miss Jean Leckie of Crowborough, to whom he is to be married in September. His face lit up as he finished: “I am the most lucky of men. May I be worthy of my good fortune!”
On August 30, 1889, the American magazine editor Joseph M. Stoddart hosted a dinner at the Langham Hotel in London. His guests were Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde. Stoddart had arranged this meeting in the hope of commissioning stories from the two young writers for Lippincott’sMagazine. At the time Doyle had published his first Sherlock Holmes mystery, the novel A Study in Scarlet, and Wilde was attracting attention as a poet and literary critic associated with the Aesthetic Movement.
Doyle remembered the occasion as a “golden evening.” It was his entrée into literary society. He and Wilde got along splendidly. Wilde praised Doyle’s recent novel, Micah Clarke, and impressed him with “happy and curious” anecdotes. “He towered above us all,” Doyle wrote, “and yet had the art of seeming to be interested in all we had to say.” At the end of the evening Stoddart came away successful. Both of the writers accepted his offer to publish new works in Lippincott’s. Doyle wrote the second Sherlock Holmes novel, The Sign of Four, and Oscar Wilde wrote The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Wilde left an “indelible impression” upon Doyle and it has been argued that he left an impression upon Sherlock Holmes as well. The unorthodox Sherlockian scholar Samuel Rosenberg points out that the character of Thaddeus Sholto in The Sign of Four is,
a superaesthete who talks like Oscar Wilde and who even has several physical features which clearly identify him as the man whom Conan Doyle called “the champion of aestheticism.” The obviously effeminate and effete Sholto reveals himself as a caricature of Wilde with his opening remarks: “Pray step into my sanctum. A small place…but furnished to my liking, an oasis of art in the howling desert of London.
More recently, Gyles Brandreth has conjectured that Wilde was the inspiration for another character in the Sherlock Holmes canon. He asks,
Could Wilde (brilliant, overweight and indolent) really be the model for Mycroft Holmes (brilliant, overweight and indolent)? [John] Badley told me that he and Wilde had both been members of an occasional dining society, the Socrates Club. When Conan Doyle, four years after his first meeting with Wilde, introduced his readers to Holmes’s elder bother (in “The Greek Interpreter”), he set him in an armchair in a gentlemen’s club named after another Greek philosopher, Diogenes.
Perhaps he is right, although it may require a stretch of the imagination. At the very least Wilde seems to have made an appearance in the world of Sherlock Holmes disguised as Thaddeus Sholto.
Beckson, Karl E. (1998) The Oscar Wilde Encyclopedia. New York: AMS Press.
Doyle, Arthur Conan. (1924) Memories and Adventures. London: Hodder & Stoughton Ltd.
Brandreth, Gyles. (May 6, 2007) “Gyles Brandreth on the mystery of Oscar Wilde and Sherlock Holmes,” The Telegraph. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/?xml=/arts/2007/05/06/svinsider106.xml
Pogrebin, Robin. (December 3, 1996) “When Sherlock Got His Quirks,” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/1996/12/03/books/when-sherlock-got-his-quirks.html
Rosenberg, Samuel. (1974) Naked is the Best Disguise: The Death and Resurrection of Sherlock Holmes. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.
In 1924 the Milton scholar and weird fiction writer E.H. Visiak asked a number of authors to select their own best works for an article in John o’London’sWeekly, entitled“My Best Book: Famous Authors Name Their Favourites for John o’London.” Some of the replies have been collected at Wormwoodiana. Here are Algernon Blackwood, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (being contrarian), Arthur Machen, and Rafael Sabatini:
Mr. Algernon Blackwood selects the Centaur, as having expressed most of himself.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
“I think Sir Nigel my best novel, and The White Company second.”
“I should think that on the whole The Hill of Dreams is my most successful experiment in literature… [sic]
“Whatever merit the book may have is perhaps due to the fact that it is a reflection of the impressions of my native county, Gwent, or Monmouthshire, which I gathered when I was a boy.
“I am a great believer in the doctrine that a man of letters knows everything vital that he is to know by the time he is 18.
“When I read that Mr. Thingumbob has gone to Penzance or Pernambuco ‘to get local colour for his new novel’ I know that Mr. Thingumbob, is, roughly speaking, a rotter.”
“In my own opinion Scaramouche is the best novel I have written. At least, in Scaramouche I was less conscious than usual when the work was done of a gap between the aim and the achievement.”
I am a passionate reader of mystery stories, particularly from that long golden age of English mysteries that ran from the nineteenth century until the mid-twentieth, when the genre was characterized by gentlemen detectives, period atmosphere, eccentricity, and strangeness, before the advent of American police procedurals and hardboiled prose. The literary “mystery” as we know it today began with the work of three writers in the early and middle decades of the nineteenth century. A line can be drawn from Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859) to Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) to Wilkie Collins (1824-1889), from them to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), and from Doyle to all of the major mystery writers that came after.
De Quincy was born into a prosperous Manchester mercantile family in 1785. Upon the death of his father, control of his education and inheritance was entrusted to several guardians, who saw that he was furnished with a classical education. By the age of fifteen he had distinguished himself as a student at King Edward’s School in Bath. “That boy,” said one of the dons, “could harangue an Athenian mob better than you or I could address an English one.” De Quincey was ready for higher education and hoped to go on to Oxford. In this ambition his guardians prevaricated, postponed, and generally stymied him. They sent him to continue his preparatory education at Manchester Grammar School where he was miserable. By nature he was a sensitive and depressed young man. De Quincey resolved to run away from school and his guardians, which he did, just before his seventeenth birthday, relying on what little money he had in his possession, or could borrow, to make his way across the country. When this money ran out he took odd jobs to survive and could often afford only one small meal per day.
Eventually, De Quincey made his way to London. He was homeless at first, sleeping in the rough, unable to appeal to family acquaintances, for fear that his guardians would find him. He was given occasional crusts of bread by a man who took pity on him. With the onset of winter, the same man allowed him to stay in an unused house on Greek Street near Soho Square. This house was large, empty of furniture, and infested with rats. A neglected young girl also lived in the house, and she and De Quincey huddled together for warmth during the cold nights. De Quincey’s benefactor was a lawyer of dubious character and practices: he moved around frequently and, when present, regarded anyone who appeared at the door with suspicion.
During the day, De Quincey sat in parks or on doorsteps, slowly wasting away from hunger and malnutrition. He got along amiably with the prostitutes in the area, which was, at the time, London’s red light district. They protected him from the watchmen. One of these prostitutes, a fifteen year old girl named Ann, became his close friend and probably the love of his life. They spent as much time as they could walking the streets or sitting in places of shelter together. Ann was kind to De Quincey and tried to care for him. On one occasion, when he came near fainting from hunger, Ann spent her own meager resources to buy a cup of spiced wine to revive him. She told De Quincey about her past. She had been treated unjustly and he suggested that she might find restitution if she presented her case to a magistrate. He offered to help “avenge her on the brutal ruffian who had plundered her little property,” but she was hesitant.
De Quincey was in desperate need of money, for himself, and now for Ann. He appealed to a Jewish moneylender who agreed to advance him a large sum on the condition that De Quincey’s school friend, a young earl, stand as guarantor for the loan. De Quincey needed to travel to Eton to enlist the help of his friend. He had fortunately just received ten pounds from a family acquaintance. He gave a significant amount of this money to Ann, and used the rest to further his borrowing scheme.
Ann walked with De Quincey to Piccadilly, where he would catch the mail coach to Eton. As they sat together in a nearby square, De Quincey felt hopeful about his prospects and assured her of his intention to share whatever funds he was able to acquire with her. He told her he “would never forsake her as soon as [he] had power to protect her.” Ann was nevertheless miserable. She hugged him and cried as they said goodbye. De Quincey expected his trip to take around a week, and so he made plans to meet Ann again when he returned. She agreed to wait for him at the bottom of Great Titchfield Street, which was their “customary haven,” every night at six o’clock in the evening, beginning five days after his departure. Confident in this plan—after all, they had found each other every day for weeks without any more elaborate arrangements—De Quincey did not think to ask Ann her family name or address.
He set off on the journey to Eton, nearly falling from his place on top of the mail carriage due to weakness and exhaustion. Arriving at last, he succeeded in finding his friend the Earl. Though he sat down with his friend to a lavish breakfast, better than any meal he had eaten for months, De Quincey found that he was hardly able to keep food down after so long without. His friend agreed to partially guarantee the loan, a compromise that the moneylender later rejected, and De Quincey returned to London earlier than expected, after only three days. He waited for Ann at their rendezvous point on Great Titchfield Street. When she did not appear after several days, he made inquiries about her and tried to trace her based on the vague information he had, such as the street (but not the house) where she lived. He could find no trace of her. It was as though she had disappeared.
De Quincey left London soon after, the loan having fallen through. Before departing, he gave his forwarding address to an acquaintance who had also known Ann. For a long time, he still hoped he might hear from her and find her again. He never did.
After attending Worcester College, Oxford, De Quincey moved to Grasmere in the Lake District, where he sought out the Lake Poets, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth. He had read their Lyrical Ballads while still a student at King Edward’s School and the poems had made a deep impression upon him. De Quincey quickly became a member of their circle; they mentored him, and he later contributed greatly to their reputations with a series of essays on their work. He married during this period, eventually fathering eight children, and lived for ten years at Dove Cottage, where Wordsworth had written his most famous poems.
By the late 1810s De Quincey had become a professional essayist and journalist in his own right. He was hired in 1818 as editor of The Westmorland Gazette, a Tory journal published in the Lake District. Like Coleridge, Wordsworth, the poet laureate Robert Southey, and other members of his circle, De Quincey was an avowed conservative. In The Guardian, James Purdon writes that De Quincey held, “reactionary views on the Peterloo massacre and the Sepoy rebellion;” he was against “Catholic emancipation and the enfranchisement of the common people.” In personal correspondence, De Quincey “reserved ‘Jacobin’ as his highest term of opprobrium.” Purdon calls him, “a fascist avant la letter.” Hardly. He was, like Coleridge, a sensible Protestant Tory. Purdon quips, “Champagne socialists are so common as to be unremarkable; De Quincey was a laudanum Tory.” Laudanum is a solution of opium dissolved in alcohol. This is an allusion to the circumstance with which De Quincey is most commonly associated: his lifelong dependence on the drug.
Although he lived to the age of seventy-four, De Quincey never physically recovered from the period of sustained, border-line starvation that he had suffered in London during his teenage years. His stomach had atrophied to the extent that he could hardly eat without being sick and recurring pain in his abdomen made it difficult to lie down. These problems were obviously exacerbated by the laudanum he began taking to treat them when he was nineteen years old.
In 1820 De Quincey published Confessions of an English Opium Eater which made him instantly famous—or infamous. The book detailed his ongoing and increasingly debilitating use of opium, being in part autobiography, in part a dispassionate record of self-medication and addiction, and in part a feat of remarkable self-analysis (De Quincey coined the term “subconscious” mind).
The Confessions called attention to the worrisome side effects of a drug that was sold over the counter by druggists and grocers at the time. It also made opium use into a romantic literary trope, popular with the Sensation and Decadent writers of the later nineteenth century. De Quincey’s descriptions of the effect of opium on his dreams suggested recreational uses for the drug. He had been susceptible to unusually vivid dreams and nightmares even before he began taking it. Under the influence of laudanum his dreams became even more vivid and intense. Time seemed to warp. He had visions of a universe of beauty and horror. He suffered nightmares that felt as though they lasted for years. He described one unsettling dream in which, “upon the rocking waters of the ocean [a] human face began to appear; the sea appeared paved with innumerable faces upturned to the heavens—faces imploring, wrathful, despairing, surged upwards by thousands, by myriads, by generations, by centuries: my agitation was infinite; my mind tossed and surged with the ocean.” His dreams began to reflect the Oriental aesthetic associated with the drug. He wrote, in language redolent of Coleridge’s Kubla Khan,
I ran into pagodas, and was fixed for centuries at the summit or in secret rooms: I was the idol; I was the priest; I was worshipped; I was sacrificed. I fled from the wrath of Brama through all the forests of Asia: Vishnu hated me: Seeva laid wait for me. I came suddenly upon Isis and Osiris: I had done a deed, they said, which the ibis and the crocodile trembled at. I was buried for a thousand years in stone coffins, with mummies and sphinxes, in narrow chambers at the heart of eternal pyramids. I was kissed, with cancerous kisses, by crocodiles; and laid, confounded with all unutterable slimy things, amongst reeds and Nilotic mud.
Mystical and outré passages like these have always been the most popular part of the Confessions, which is otherwise a restrained and profoundly humane book. De Quincey emerged from the minor scandal that it provoked with a reputation as a writer of dark sensibilities. This was confirmed in 1827 when he published a piece of ink-black satire entitled, “On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts,” in Blackwood’s Magazine. It was this essay probably more than any other that inspired later writers of mystery fiction.
“On Murder” purports to be a lecture given to a gentleman’s club whose members are connoisseurs of death. They appreciate killings that conform to Aristotle’s theory of catharsis in drama. “The final purpose of murder,” the lecturer says, “is precisely the same as that of tragedy in Aristotle’s account of it; viz. ‘to cleanse the heart by means of pity and terror.'” De Quincey wrote at length about the Ratcliffe Highway murders which occurred in Wapping, East London, in December of 1811. A sailor named John Williams slaughtered Timothy Marr, a shopkeeper, Marr’s wife, infant son, apprentice, and servant girl in their home at night. A week later he did the same to John Williamson, proprietor of the King’s Arms tavern, Williamson’s wife, and servant. Williams was arrested for the crimes and hanged himself while in police custody.
De Quincey examined the details of these murders, calling attention to crime scene investigation and the identification of clues, themes crucial to the later development of the detective genre.
The fictional Society of Connoisseurs in Murder represents a foreshadowing of the modern mystery and detective genre, but the creation of that genre was the work of another author: Edgar Allan Poe.
Poe’s character C. Auguste Dupin, a clear-thinking, puzzle-solving investigator even before the word “detective” came into common use, was the model for later characters in the genre. Dupin is the prototype of the gentleman detective: a scholar from a once wealthy family, now fallen on hard times, who conducts investigations, not as a professional, but with varied motives and in conjunction with the anonymous narrator of the tales in which he appears. Dupin is famous for his method, which Poe dubbed “ratiocination.” He is a close observer of details and makes inferences through extreme rational and logical thinking. Dupin uses these skills to put himself in the minds of criminals, solving crimes by thinking from the their point of view.
The first story in which Dupin appears, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” was published in 1841. Dupin and his friend the narrator live together in Paris, and they become interested in newspaper accounts of the mysterious and gruesome murder of two women. When a former acquaintance of Dupin is arrested for the crime on only circumstantial evidence, Dupin steps forward to help. The clues have the police baffled: one body in a chimney and one outside the house, a murder scene in a locked room, tufts of non-human hair, and witness reports of two voices—one speaking an unintelligible language. Dupin infers from the super-human agility and strength of the murderer, and the tufts of hair, that the culprit is an orangutan. He proves this by tracking down the sailor who controls the beast.
Poe followed “Rue Morgue” with a second Dupin story a year later, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt.” This complex tale was based on the real-life murder of Mary Cecilia Rogers in New York City in 1838 and represents an attempt by Poe to solve the case. The third and final story in which Dupin is featured, “The Purloined Letter,” was published in 1844. Here the police seek Dupin’s help on a case where a Minister “D–” is blackmailing a woman with a revealing letter that “D–” has stolen. The police assume that “D–” must have the letter readily accessible, and they have thoroughly searched every potential hiding place in the hotel rooms where he is staying without success. A month later, after a huge reward is offered for the letter, the police return to visit Dupin, who produces the letter. He explains to the narrator that the police underestimated their opponent, who knew their methods and instead left the letter disguised in plain sight. Dupin, recognizing the letter even with its external alterations, arranged a distraction, took it, and left a decoy in its place. Poe called the story, “perhaps the best of my tales of ratiocination.”
The Dupin stories were the direct model for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. Holmes and Dupin use the same method of deductive and inferential reasoning to connect clues. Holmes, like Dupin, is a gentleman amateur. Holmes, like Dupin, is assisted by a friend and fellow lodger, Doctor Watson, who narrates the stories. In the first novel in which Holmes appears, A Study inScarlet,Watson compares his method to that of Dupin. Holmes balks, “In my opinion, Dupin was a very inferior fellow…He had some analytical genius, no doubt; but he was by no means such a phenomenon as Poe appears to imagine.” But Sir Arthur himself was well aware of the debt that he owed to Poe. “Each is a root from which a whole literature has developed,” he said of the Dupin stories. “Where was the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it?”
There is no doubt that Poe was influenced by De Quincey in the broadest sense. He read the English magazines in which De Quincey was published and expressed admiration for the Confessions. In a piece of humor that Poe composed for the American Museum in December of 1838, entitled, “How to Write a Blackwood’s Article,” he noted, “Then we have the Confessions of an Opium Eater—fine, very fine!—glorious imagination—acute speculation—plenty of fire and fury, and a good spicing of the decidedly unintelligible.”
In at least one instance Poe was directly inspired by De Quincey. Poe’s short story “The Masque of the Red Death” is based on an episode from De Quincey’s novel Klosterheim, or the Masque. In her 1937 thesis, The Influence of Thomas De Quincey on Edgar Allan Poe, Ruth Kelly explains,
The situation from Klosterheim which Poe borrowed for “The Masque of the Red Death” is a masqued ball found in Chapters XIV, XV, and XVI. A mysterious masked marauder has been bringing destruction and death of a bloody nature throughout the country. It has been impossible to apprehend him, and the country is stricken with fear. The prince consequently barricades the castle during a great masqued ball to which he has issued twelve hundred invitations. A challenge of defiance has been hurled at the “Masque,” as the invader is called. Feeling runs high. Midnight approaches. A whisper begins to circulate that an alien presence is in the room. The whisper grows into a buzz. The music ceases abruptly. The order to seize him is given. The “Masque” discloses his identity to the prince who cries out and falls full length upon the ground bereft of consciousness. All rush toward the “Masque” in order to seize him, but in the confusion he disappears.
Poe built upon this premise, and transformed it, making the masked figure an allegory for plague in his own story. But it is clear that he read De Quincey closely and borrowed from him. In turn, Wilkie Collins read, and borrowed from, both of them. If Poe wrote the first detective stories, Wilkie Collins wrote the first modern mystery novels. T.S. Eliot famously praised The Moonstone as “the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels.” Collins drew on the earlier gothic tradition but also on the new literary strands being teased out of that tradition by De Quincey and Poe.
In Collins’s 1859 novel, The Woman inWhite,a young artist, Walter Hartright, takes a position as drawing master for two young ladies, half-sisters, who live with their uncle at a manor house in Cumberland. One night before he leaves London to begin his employment, he encounters a distressed woman dressed entirely in white and helps her; later he learns that she escaped from an insane asylum. In Cumberland, Walter and his student, Laura Fairlie, fall in love. She bears an uncanny resemblance to the woman in white, whose name is Anne Catherick. However, Laura is engaged to another man, Sir Percival Glyde, and marries him. When the couple returns from the honeymoon, Laura’s half-sister Marian discovers that Sir Percival is in financial trouble. Since Laura has refused to sign over her marriage settlement, Glyde and his friend, Count Fosco, are planning to take Laura’s money by other means.
At the same time, the terminally ill Anne promises to share a secret with Laura that could ruin Glyde. Before she can do so, Fosco and Glyde carry out their plan, switching the identities of Laura and Anne. Laura is drugged and sent to the asylum, and Anne dies and is buried as Laura—leaving Laura’s money to Glyde. Fortunately, Marian finds and rescues Laura. They live in poverty in London with Walter until, at last, they discover Glyde’s secret and find a way to re-establish Laura’s identity, restoring their fortunes.
Collins’s 1868 novel The Moonstone concerns the theft of a large diamond that a British officer has brought from India and bequeathed to his niece, Rachel. The diamond is taken from Rachel’s room on the evening of her birthday, after she wore it to a party. Suspects abound: three Indian jugglers are in the vicinity; a maid, Rosanna Spearman, acts suspiciously; Rachel refuses to let the police search her room and spurns the man with whom she was in love, Franklin Blake.
During the following year, Blake leaves England. Rachel accepts the proposal of another man who was at the party, the philanthropist Godfrey Ablewhite, but later breaks the engagement. When Blake returns, he discovers that Rosanna was in love with him. She found stains on his clothes from the wet paint on Rachel’s door and tried to cover for his assumed crime, eventually killing herself in despair. He then confronts Rachel, who tells him that she saw him take the stone. Blake is entirely confused, but with the help of a doctor’s assistant, and a probing, clever police detective, Sergeant Cuff, he pieces together that he had been drugged with opium on the night of the robbery. In a trance, Blake took the Moonstone from Rachel’s room to protect it, with no memory of the event, and no memory of where he put it.
Franklin and Rachel learn that the stone is in a bank, pledged to a moneylender. They watch the bank to see who will redeem the diamond, and follow this line of investigation to the discovery of Godfrey Ablewhite’s body. He has been murdered and the stone stolen again. They realize that Godfrey, on the brink of financial ruin, took the diamond from the drugged and sleepwalking Blake on the night it disappeared. Godfrey was murdered by the three Indians—in fact Brahmin priests in disguise—who return the stone to its rightful place on the statue of a moon god in India.
The influence of Poe on Collins is subtle but pervasive. In a review of Collins’s novel After Dark, George Eliot made a connection between the two authors, writing, “Edgar Poe’s tales were an effort of genius to reconcile the two tendencies—to appal the imagination yet satisfy the intellect, and Mr. Wilkie Collins in this respect often follows in Poe’s tracks.” A.B. Emrys identifies Collins as,
the bridging figure between Poe and Conan Doyle, but not because of Sergeant Cuff. Not only did Collins reprise plot from Poe multiple times but the influence of Poe’s prose monologues is a key factor in Collins’s successful development of the casebook form. The vivid voices of The Woman in White and The Moonstone are central to the continued popularity of these novels and their being ranked as Collins’s best works, and their dramatic monologues are built on those of Poe’s criminals.
The influence of De Quincey is more specific. The plot twist involving opium in The Moonstone hinges upon the Confessions. “There,” the doctor’s assistant tells Blake, handing him a book, “are the far-famed Confessions of an English Opium Eater! Take the book away with you and read it.” Episodes from De Quincey’s memoir, creatively interpreted by Collins, provide an explanation for the goings on in The Moonstone.
In 1887 Doyle published A Study in Scarlet. He would go on to write a total of four novels and fifty-six short stories featuring Sherlock Holmes over a period ending in 1927. Throughout this canon of works, references, not just to Poe, but to De Quincey and Collins, appear. Doyle seems to have been inspired by his reading of De Quincey to give Holmes a drug habit. In “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Watson notices that Holmes has “risen out of his drug-created dreams,” a concept taken straight from the Confessions, “and was hot upon the scent of some new problem.” Watson, as a disapproving physician, describes another character’s addiction to opium in “The Man With the Twisted Lip.” Here, the doctor observes, “The habit grew upon him, as I understand, from some foolish freak when he was at college; for having read De Quincey’s description of his dreams and sensations, he had drenched his tobacco with laudanum to produce the same results.”
Likewise, plot elements from the novels of Wilkie Collins echo through the Holmes canon. As Charles Rzepka notes, “The plundered Moonstone inspired Doyle’s choice of the Agra treasure as incentive to crime in the Holmes novella, The Sign of Four, where the three Brahmins that Collins set in pursuit of the gem reappear as three Muslim and Sikh conspirators who seize the treasure during the height of the Mutiny.” Doyle had already written an homage to The Moonstone: his early novel, The Mystery of Cloomber. In that book three vengeful Buddhist priests take the place of the three Brahmins.
The Sherlock Holmes series was the wellspring of the whole modern mystery genre. But it too had its source in earlier works. Without De Quincey, Poe, and Collins there might have been no Holmes. And no genre.
Collins, Wilkie. (1860) The Woman in White. London: Sampson Low, Son & Co.
Collins, Wilkie. (1868) The Moonstone. London: Tinsley Brothers.
De Quincey, Thomas. (1822) Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. London: Taylor and Hessey.
Emrys, A.B. (2011) Wilkie Collins, Vera Caspary and the Evolution of the Casebook Novel. Jefferson [NC]: McFarland & Company.
Kelly, Ruth. (1937) The Influence of Thomas De Quincey on Edgar Allan Poe (Unpublished master’s thesis). University of Southern California, Los Angeles, California. http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/ref/collection/p15799coll20/id/385613
Doyle, Arthur Conan; Klinger, Leslie (ed). (2005-2006) The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes. New York: W.W. Norton.
Rzepka, Charles. “‘A Deafining Menace in Tempestuous Uproars’: De Quincey’s 1856 Confessions, the Indian Mutiny, and the Response of Collins and Dickens,” in Morrison, Robert (ed); Roberts, Daniel Sanjiv (ed). (2008) Thomas De Quincey: New Theoretical and Critical Directions. New York: Routledge.