Saturday, 17 December 2011

The Narrative of John Smith, by Arthur Conan Doyle

I remember once reading a review of a release of studio outtakes by Jimi Hendrix, and the reviewer dismissing it by saying that there would be a market for recordings of Jimi “whistling in the bog”. The sceptic might argue something similar about this juvenilia, that it is unlikely that it would have seen the light of day had it not been for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s reputation. That is probably true, yet while The Narrative of John Smith is never going to be as popular as Sherlock Holmes, it is still worth reading as an insight into the development of a major writer.

The first version was begun in 1883 when Conan Doyle was 23 but lost (“what, no copy, Mr Doyle?”) in the post. He said that he had reconstructed it from memory but there is no guarantee that the reconstruction matches the original particularly closely. The first attempt predates the appearance of Sherlock Holmes by four years, and features an entirely different character – the young Conan Doyle in fact, masquerading as a fifty-year old man, a “grizzly-haired old fellow”, laid up for a week in his boarding-house with a bad attack of gout, and a touch of rheumatism thrown in. Having the hero literally put his feet up allows the tyro novelist to muse on a wide range of scientific, philosophical, theological, political, literary, social, and military issues of the day.

So how, you may be wondering, does the author move the narrative along in this single setting? Is it structured like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, where the philosophising gives way at regular intervals to some action, for a bit of light relief? Well no, there’s nothing that exciting. The only ‘action’ occurs when the narrator’s internal monologue is broken by the occasional visitor and the monologue becomes a dialogue, that is about as much as you get. There is a strand in which Mr Smith watches a young woman in the house opposite as she paints, but it’s hardly Rear Window. Given Conan Doyle’s facility with action in his later novels, the whole affair is astonishingly static.

Yet, once the sluggish pace is accepted Arthur, sorry John, becomes an amiable companion with whom one would be happy to spend a companionable evening enjoying a pipe and a peg or two of whisky. He is certainly not short of opinions, but manages to convey them without becoming a bore or merely a platform to show off Conan Doyle’s erudition, even though there is plenty on display. The name suggests an everyman, but this John Smith is a singular creation, given his range of views and enquiring mind.

It is tempting to look for evidence of the older Conan Doyle in all this, and there are glimpses of a continuity of interest. There are discussions of reincarnation, telepathy, Theosophy and mesmerism which prefigure his concern with psychical research and Spiritualism. His interest in these subjects is linked to the book’s optimistic and life-affirming tone, and in general he finds goodness and upward progress in existence (while inveighing against the dogmatism to be found in the scientific establishment). He gets quite utopian at times, predicting a universal religion and the abolition of war.

There is a fair bit of futurology, and Conan Doyle was perceptive in forecasting the rise of China, which he assessed likely to be the dominant power of the 24th century, with the US second, the British Empire third and Russia fourth. Yet looking further, to the year 7000, he visualises Antipodean or African archaeologists digging in the mounds which mark all that remains of London. As he wryly notes, the trick is to predict so far ahead that there is no fear of being exposed in error, but even if wrong in particulars, he thought that in the long run all our works, however mighty they once were, will come to seem insignificant. This may not quite square with the general sense of ineluctable progress, but nobody expects a 20-something to be entirely consistent.

Naturally, bearing in mind his professional background, medical matters loom large. At one point Smith assesses the number patient sessions a doctor might have in a lifetime, coming to the astonishing figure of over half a million. This, he thinks, is a huge force for good in the world, more perhaps than the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Pope can claim. One wonders if the elderly Conan Doyle, looking back over his life, attempted to calculate the relative contributions to the greater good of the medico compared to the literary man. Doubtless he would have concluded that crusading for Spiritualism trumped the lot, given the magnitude of the issues with which it dealt.

The manuscript has been ably edited by Jon Lellenberg, Daniel Stashower (co-editors with Charles Foley of Arthur Conan Doyle; A Life in Letters) and Rachel Foss, Lead Curator of Modern Literary Manuscripts at the British Library. In addition to an informative introduction and note on the structure of the MS, they have supplied copious endnotes which elucidate references that have become obscure with the passage of time. The puzzle that remains is why Conan Doyle spent so much time on the project. By this stage he had writing experience, with articles and short stories under his belt, so he must have realised, even as he put the first manuscript into the post, that it was unpublishable as it stood. In an extract from an April 1884 letter to his mother included in the introduction he wonders if he can extend a plot from the sorts of stories he had been writing without weakening it, but there is no plot to extend, as the editors themselves note. Still, waste not, want not: even though the manuscript would not have found a publisher as it stood, the editors show that Conan Doyle recycled much of this material in later works.

In a sense it could be argued (tentatively) that he was ahead of his time in attempting to write a different kind of novel which privileges internal mental processes over external action, a precursor to Virginia Woolf, if you will. It would be an exaggeration to say that Conan Doyle had modernist tendencies as an author, but there are traces of self-reflexivity in the book. He contemplates the difficulty in beginning a literary career, as he begins his literary career. An amusing section contrasts the sort of smooth unnatural dialogue found in high-flown literary novels with how the same scene would play out in real life; yet The Narrative of John Smith itself is certainly more in line with the former than the latter, effectively providing a critique of itself. To claim that “It is as impertinent as it is inartistic of a novelist to wander away from his story in order to give us his own opinions on this or that subject”, in a book stuffed with opinions, is barefaced cheek as well as tongue-in-cheek criticism of more established novelists.

The British Library’s publication of the manuscript, which was among the collection purchased in 2004, is to be welcomed. It is sad that the auction was bound up with the untimely death of Richard Lancelyn Green, and this can be considered a memorial to him. Conan Doyle himself might have been embarrassed to see unfinished work between hard covers (and to learn that there is a 270-minute audio book adaptation read by Robert Lindsay), but for the rest of us it is good to see his early effort plucked from obscurity.

To add to Conan Doyle’s posthumous discomfort, the British Library have put on a small display in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery, Arthur Conan Doyle: The Unknown Novel, featuring one of the four notebooks making up the manuscript, plus a few other odds and ends relating to the great man’s activities, such as letters to his mother – including one about the novel being lost in the post (it’s actually rather a paltry exhibition given the volume of the BL’s Conan Doyle holdings). Never mind what he might have thought of it all, John Smith definitely won’t give an hour of joy to the boy who’s half a man, but it is well worth adding to your Conan Doyle shelf as an interesting sidelight on the evolution of an author with abundant talents who did not always use them wisely.

The British Library, 2011. ISBN-13: 978-0712358415

Saturday, 10 December 2011

The Judge’s Robe: A Victorian Ghost Story

It was a dark and stormy night, appropriate weather as we gathered in the cosy setting of the Cambridge and County Folk Museum to listen to ‘M. Le Frenu’ – French Curator of the Curious and collector of “tainted” objects – tell us his most curious, and spine tingling, tale. The season was appropriate as well, Christmas being the traditional time for such scares. This one wasn’t from the quill of Dickens, the author most associated with the season of good fear, even though his forthcoming bicentenary would have added topicality, but instead from J Sheridan Le Fanu, as the thinly-disguised name of the narrator indicated.

Michelle Golder’s play was adapted from his 1853 story An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street, though the original’s location has been switched from Dublin to Cambridge. The original’s protagonist Richard becomes Bertie (or Albert) and the hanging judge is transformed from Horrocks to Hobbes. Aungier Street is now, we discover, Castle Street. Rather than a straight retelling of Le Fanu’s rather dense text, the story has been opened up to range historically from the judge’s time, the French Revolution, to the present in 1884, with rather more plot than in Le Fanu’s narrative. There is a neat arc in adapting the story for the stage because Richard states at the beginning of Aungier Street that he has told the tale orally many times, and is only now committing it to paper. Michelle has reinstated it to its proper form, told to eager listeners, because as Le Fanu says in the story: “pen, ink, and paper are cold vehicles for the marvellous.”

This was (apart from one non-speaking but extremely effective role) a one-man show, with Robert Jezek, putting on a plausible accent, playing the part of the nervous narrator, back at the scene of a horrendous experience he had had as a Cambridge student. The conceit is that M. Le Frenu has called together investigators from the newly-formed Society for Psychical Research in order to recount that misadventure, hence the audience (not the first time that the SPR has featured in a Golder play; in 2009 it had a role in her Hayton on Homicide, which starred Jezek as George Hayton). It turns out that the haunted building of his story is – quelle horreur! – the one in which we are seated! And the echoes of the dark deeds of the past have not faded, by a long way. Cue creepy sound effects, which certainly made the less than intrepid SPR investigators present jump, as our host gradually unravelled before our eyes.

In style the performance was reminiscent of the similar treatment, in character, which Robert Lloyd Parry has given to M R James’s stories, and the upstairs room of the Folk Museum is reminiscent of the small Corpus Christi Playroom which has been used by Lloyd Parry (though the museum is rather cheerier). An intimate space, with the edgy Frenchman threatening to tread on the toes of the front row as he relived the trauma, is essential for this type of performance to work well. Last year’s one-man Tales of Terror, presented by The Happiness Patrol, tried something similar with authors roughly of Le Fanu’s vintage (notably James), but fell flat in the larger space of the ADC.

The Folk Museum was perfect, and it would be nice to think that they might put on further productions of this nature in future, a live version of the old BBC Christmas ghost stories. The interval mince pie and punch didn’t hurt either. What my fellow 'SPR investigators' listening to Richard Le Frenu’s story made of his doleful account it was hard to say, but I’m sure we stepped round the shadows lurking in the wind-swept streets of Cambridge with more care than usual as we made our way home.

The Judge’s Robe: A Victorian Ghost Story, 7-9 December, 2011.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

A Hankering after Ghosts: Dickens and the Supernatural

It feels somehow appropriate that A Hankering after Ghosts has taken over from the Mervyn Peake exhibition in the Folio Society space at the British Library. Given that people will possibly be sick to the back teeth with Dickens by the end of his bicentenary year in 2012, curator Andrea Lloyd has wisely got in early with this small but fascinating look at the ways in which Dickens was influenced – and influenced in turn – perceptions of the supernatural in the Victorian period. It is also a rather appropriate display for the Christmas period, given the influence of A Christmas Carol’s spectres, while demonstrating that Dickens’s fascination went far further than the spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future.

As that book’s fame suggests, this could easily have been merely a look at the ways in which Dickens utilised supernatural themes, illustrated by his own stories. The exhibition, however, sets the author’s output in the context of contemporary debates about the relationship between the paranormal and scientific advances. Dickens was clearly torn between scepticism on the one hand and his fascination with the supernatural, not to mention its commercial potential, on the other. The resulting tension makes his forays into it all the richer.

The exhibition is divided into four sections. The first briefly examines his childhood influences, such as the horrible stories his nurse told him, and displays a copy of the fabulously-named penny dreadful The Terrific Register: or, Records of Crimes, Judgements, Providences and Calamities, which he devoured as a teenager, along with classics like The Arabian Nights. Dickens’s A Child’s Dream of a Star is shown, his tale inspired by wanderings he undertook as a child in a churchyard with his sister, who died two years before he wrote it and who reappears in the story as an angel, welcomed into Heaven.

The second section deals with mesmerism. Dickens was passionate about it, having witnessed John Elliotson’s demonstrations at University College Hospital, London, in 1838. On display are copies of Ebenezer Sibley’s A Key to the Occult; Gustavus George Zerffi’s Spiritualism and Animal Magnetism; Catherine Crowe’s classic but uncritical The Night Side of Nature (echoed in Harry Stone’s study The Night Side of Dickens), which was reviewed unfavourably by Dickens in The Examiner; and Dickens’s reading copy of ‘Sikes and Nancy’ (labelled by the curator “A contagion of hysteria”).

The influence of mesmerism can be seen in David Copperfield, where Uriah Heep has mesmeric powers. Oliver Twist has a dream in which he clairvoyantly sees Monks and Fagin plotting, one of the ‘higher phenomena’ of mesmerism in action. Unlike ghosts, Dickens saw mesmerism as having a rational basis which was amenable to scientific enquiry. He was open to debates about the power of the human mind and the ability of the will to impose itself on others, not surprising given that audiences commented on Dickens’s own mesmeric force when giving readings. This undoubted charismatic power, plus trials with his wife Catherine, sister-in-law Georgina, and selected friends, gave him the confidence to believe that he too could put subjects into a mesmeric trance.

As an indication of his abilities, Dickens claimed to have assisted A Christmas Carol illustrator John Leech recover after he suffered a head injury. A less happy outcome to another effort is indicated by a letter in the exhibition, sent by Dickens to Catherine in 1853, in which he is still trying to justify himself over his mesmeric treatment of Augusta de la Rue in Italy in 1845 (general tone: “I’m Dickens, it’s what I do”). He had treated Mrs de la Rue’s severe anxiety, which manifested in a variety of distressing physical symptoms, with good results, but with the side-effect, he said, that there developed an intense magnetism between them which allowed him to experience her emotions from afar. The time-consuming and labour-intensive nature, not to mention the intimacy, of the business naturally left Catherine jealous and cannot have helped the parlous state of the marriage.

The third section is called Supernatural Manifestations and displays a rather miscellaneous selection of publications: a a dated history of the Fox Sisters, The Unwilling Martyrs; Table Moving: its Causes and Phenomena; The Fashionable Science of Parlour Magic; and a copy of Dickens’s Household Words, open at ‘Well Authenticated Rappings’. Dickens saw belief in the supernatural having psychological or physiological causes, "an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese". He was interested in allegedly true ghost stories as they offered the opportunity of providing a rational explanation for the phenomena. In ‘Well Authenticated Rappings’, published ten years after the Fox sisters made rapping popular, the phenomena turn out to be a thumping hangover rather than a thumping spirit.

He created controversy with spiritualists by questioning the validity of their beliefs, which he satirised, but his scepticism was hedged about by ambiguity. A volume of The Spiritual Magazine from 1860 on display illustrates the problem contemporaries had pigeonholing Dickens (“We can hardly believe that Mr Dickens does really disbelieve in haunted houses, nor in other phases of spiritual phenomena and operation”), his projection of scepticism undermined by common suspicions that his fascination with the subject entailed sympathy towards it, including a prediction that he would eventually embrace its creed. There is some irony to Dickens’s appearances at séances after his death, often with the purpose of explaining the rest of his unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood (he also assisted Thomas Power James of Vermont complete the novel through automatic writing in 1873). His ghost is supposed to haunt both Rochester and 48 Doughty Street, now home to a Dickens museum and recently seen in Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter (where a supposed Dickens expert refers to Edward Drood). Included for some reason in this section is a 1930 recording of Conan Doyle discussing Spiritualism.

Part of a serialisation of The Cock-Lane Ghost is shown as Dickens referred to it several times, for example at the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities (along with prophetess Joanna Southcott). Dickens was said to have been a member of an early incarnation of the Ghost Club but there are no records from that period so a minute book from the successor organisation started in 1882 is included. Rather curiously there is no mention in the exhibition of Dickens’s illustrator George Cruikshank’s A Discovery Concerning Ghosts: With a Rap at the ‘Spirit-Rappers’, which was actually dedicated to the Ghost Club, though Cruikshank’ name does appear on the label for Sketches by “Boz”, included in the exhibition to indicate the influence of London on Dickens’s development as a writer. Even more tenuous are a couple of examples of spirit photography from Fred Barlow’s collection, with no connection to Dickens; the label merely states “A collection of psychic photographs’, though it is nice to see The Society for Psychical Research (founded in 1882) name-checked.

A book with a beautiful cover, A Wonderful Ghost Story, is labelled “Intuitive precognition” and tells the story of painter Thomas Heaphy’s odd link with Dickens. Dickens had published a story in All the Year Round which corresponded in detail to an experience that Heaphy claimed to have had and had submitted for publication. Understandably he was unhappy at seeing a similar story pre-empting his. Heaphy published his own version, subtitled Being Mr H's Own Narrative: A Recital of Facts, and including correspondence he had had with Dickens, in 1882. (The exhibition label suggests that the offending story was written by Dickens, but a letter from Dickens to Heaphy included in A Wonderful Ghost Story makes it clear that the story was from the pen of a “young writer” and sent to Dickens by “a gentleman of a distinguished position on his behalf”.)

The final section covers Dickens’s own ghostly fiction, both completely spooky tales, and such episodes in longer fictions. On display are A Christmas Carol of course, plus The Lazy Tour of Two idle Apprentices; The Chimes; The Haunted Man; The Signalman; The Ghost in Master B’s Room, in the All the Year Round Christmas number The Haunted House (inspired by a visit to a haunted house; Dickens’s aim was to show that the house was haunted certainly, but by the occupants’ imaginations, not ghosts); The Trial for Murder/To be Taken With a Grain of Salt; Pickwick Papers; To be Read at Dusk; The Lawyer and the Ghost (which asks the very good question why a ghost would choose to revisit places where they had been unhappy during life when the world was, so to speak, their oyster); the Baron of Grogzwig in Nicholas Nickleby, and the spontaneous human combustion of Krook in Bleak House.

Dickens’s talent was to draw on the Gothic for atmosphere and meld it with psychological insight, making him an heir to Ann Radcliffe, who always found a rational explanation for apparently supernatural events. He did though make the genre cosy, transferring the chills of the old ruined castle and abbey to the middle-class setting of the fireside hearth, with the notable exception of the railway tunnel, which unnerves as much as the Castle of Otranto ever did. As with Gothic literature, Dickens showed that if anything, horror generated by the living is worse than anything we might expect from the Beyond. Dickens exemplifies Terry Castle’s somewhat too general notion in The Female Thermometer that ghosts became internalised at the end of the eighteenth century, and his stories can be seen as a foundation for the ambiguity seen most dramatically in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw.

A Hankering after Ghosts is a small exhibition, but a tasty plum pudding worth a visit if in the neighbourhood. It is usefully supplemented by Louise Henson’s articles, ‘Investigations and Fictions: Charles Darwin and Ghosts’, and ‘”In the Natural Course of Physical Things”: Ghosts and Science in Charles Dickens’s All the Year Round’, the latter of which puts his interest in ghosts second only to that of public health reform, which is as it should be.

A Hankering after Ghosts: Charles Dickens and the Supernatural is on at the British Library 29 November 2011 - 4 March 2012. Entrance is free.