Far from being a popular fiction icon, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is a literary figure that belongs on every syllabus for reasons that go beyond Sherlock Holmes. Holmes may be the direct inspiration behind figures such as Lord Peter Wimsey, Albert Campion, and the latent inspiration for James Bond and Jack Reacher, but far too often, Sir Arthur is bound by his own literary creation.
We have forgotten or ignored the other contributions to our world Sir Arthur made during his lifetime. Contributions which still have relevance no less. For instance, we have all but relegated his historical fiction, born out of a love for Sir Walter Scott to the rubbish bin. We also don’t even discuss his non-fiction works.
And it’s these that make him a more important figure than the vast majority of writers on a modern reading list.
Knightly virtue in a modern age begins with people like Sir Arthur.
How did Sir Arthur come to be knighted? Well, it wasn’t for Sherlock Holmes. I think this is one case in the modern age when a man’s character and honor truly were the things that earned him his knighthood. Because make no mistake, Sir Arthur was a man who greatly revered knightly virtue. And no were is that more evident than in his non-fiction works.
Yes, non-fiction. In particular, he wrote books about the Congo, South Africa, and scathing criticisms of police methods. His efforts actually got one man’s death sentence commuted to life imprisonment.
Sir Arthur saw the wrongs of the world in his own day and time and he tried, however feebly, to actually do something about them. He didn’t stir up massive protests or use slippery rhetoric to force people to agree with him. He used the two gifts he had to give: his medical knowledge, and his writing skill.
He used the latter with such effect that it changed public opinion about the Boer War.
During the Boer War, the British were accused of setting up concentration camps and committing other war crimes. Unfortunately for those making the accusations, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was actually in South Africa during the Boer War, serving as a doctor and treating soldiers coming in from the front.
When he returned, he wrote two “pamphlets” The Great Boer War and The War in South Africa: Its Causes and Conduct. Well, he called them pamphlets but there were easily 60,000 words a piece. The second defended Britain against the charges laid at its door, and using his own observations of the diseases and ailments he treated on a daily basis.
He nearly refused the knighthood too because he thought that defending his country, and, by extension, his countrymen, was nothing more or less than his duty.
When was the last time you saw any activist refuse an award because they felt they were only doing their duty? Or because the cause mattered more than their personal achievements?
Sir Arthur called out Leopold II’s atrocities in the Congo.
If you really want to ugly cry, go read The Crime of the Congo. It’s a scathing exposition, written in 1909 just after the Belgian Government took control of the Congo away from King Leopold II. It’s gritty, graphic, and filled with all the horrors you can possibly imagine. Some of the reviews on Amazon for this even mentioned that it made Hitler seem tame in comparison. Yes, it’s that sad.
What’s even more sad is that many of the crimes Sir Arthur describes are still going on in the Congo, according to Amnesty International.
Granted, the state of natural rights of free speech, freedom of assembly, and education are not in very good shape on a global scale just at the moment. No thanks to the governments who are supposed to protect those rights in the first place.
But unlike modern activists who ruin great works of art and burn city blocks to the ground, Sir Arthur actually did something. He wrote The Crime of the Congo in just nine days. He then petitioned not only Kaiser Wilhelm II, but President Roosevelt, and anyone else that would listen to him.
Most of his cries fell on deaf ears. Belgium became a victim rather than a perpetrator after WWI, and its victimhood continued well into the 20th century. Notice most of the activists around post-colonial issues don’t utter a peep against Belgium. If they do, it goes largely unnoticed.
But, at least one man had the courage to stand up and speak out about it. And I love the way he does it. He places what happened under the Belgian government in a broader historical context. He actually compared it to other atrocities, such as Edward the Conquer’s Harrying of the North, where Anglo-Saxons were slaughtered for being Saxon. Yes, he goes back that far.
Sir Arthur places the atrocities of the Congo on the same level as any horror from Europe. This is HUGE. We all hear about how African history is ignored or misrepresented in Western society, and here is a Scotsman at the height of the British Empire doing exactly the opposite. Or at least attempting to do the opposite.
Sir Arthur’s forgotten writings you need to read.
I’ve already mentioned some of these in this post, but there are a few more you should know about. The links below are affiliates, which means if you follow them and make a purchase, I will receive a small commission. Keep in mind that there are free Kindle editions for some of these works, and you can also find others on Project Gutenberg.
If you really want to read the works of a man of true greatness, worthy of his knighthood, read no further. This is a writer to whom we can all aspire.
The Great Boer War: A complete history of the Boer War.
The War in South Africa, It’s Cause and Conflict: Written in just a few days after he returned from the wars, this is the work which earned Sir Arthur his knighthood. He makes some very salient points about the charges laid at Britain’s door. While you can make an argument about biases in effect, this is an excellent example of Sir Arthur’s writing style and his thought process. Let us also not forget he was actually there.
The Crime of the Congo: This is impassioned writing at its finest. This link will not only take you to the free Kindle edition, but to the hardcover and paperback versions. This is a work everyone should have on their shelves, if only as a reminder of the knightliness has existed in every age of the world.
The Lost World: Think of this as the prelude to Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. This has Sir Arthur’s other famous literary creation: Professor Challenger. The edition I’ve linked has illustrations from the original publication in The Strand magazine. This is science-fiction and adventure at some of its best!
The White Company: Out of everything he wrote, this was Sir Arthur’s favorite. He had to actually put it aside to write The Sign of Four. Like Ivanhoe before it, this is a tale from the medieval era but takes place during gate Hundred Years’ War. The edition I’ve linked has illustrations from N. C. Wyeth, who is famed for his illustrations.
If you have any further questions about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s place in the canon of great literature, look no further. He’s more than worthy.
2 thoughts on “Beyond Sherlock: The Injustice Done to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle”
Wow, I’d heard that he wrote things besides Sherlock Holmes and that he was upset that people paid way more attention to Sherlock Holmes than to his other books, but I’ll confess that I had no idea what his other books were. Now it does seem sad that these have been basically forgotten about
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I didn’t know about them either until I did some rooting around for blog ideas. I knew about “The Lost World” in passing, but only because of the movie and it’s not something I’ve read yet. His non-fiction was a jaw-dropper. Absolutely no idea any of it existed or that it was that important. Thanks for reading!
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