Saturday, 25 June 2011

Taking Watson Seriously

In 1987 the Radio Times for December 5-11 printed a series of articles in honour of the first appearance a hundred years earlier of A Study Scarlet in Beeton's Christmas Annual. Tim Piggott-Smith, one of the few actors to have played both Holmes and Watson, had this to say about the latter: "You always have to take [him] seriously as a practising doctor, and some of the bits that work best are when Watson is examining a victim and naming the bones which have been damaged." While this is a moot point for some of us and may have been made in stage productions rather than stressed in the canon, the Doctor "represents the average reader". He is there "so that Holmes can think out loud." But for Piggott-Smith, the most important point about Watson is that he stands for decency and straightness -the perfect upright citizen. "It all serves to throw the character of Sherlock Holmes into even sharper relief." A strange man, with something chilling about him, a sense of cruelty beneath the surface. "If you had to choose between Holmes and Watson as holiday companions, you might find Watson a little dull, but a much easier person to be with [and] I think it's pretty terrific what Conan Doyle has achieved with him."    

Friday, 3 June 2011

Doyle on Doyle

    Given the continuing complusion to mine what by now can only be the minutiae of our hero's writing, perhaps it's time to consider what Conan Doyle himself said on the subject. In a letter to the Critic, New York, in 1893 objecting to the unauthorised publication of some of his early short stories, he said  they were meant to have the ephemeral life they deserved, and "it is slightly annoying to an author when work which he has deliberately suppressed is resuscitated against his wish."
    The main thrust of his letters to the press shows a robust common sense, curiosity and, on the whole, a fair amount of liberal-mindedness. How foolish to let loose a detachment of diseased prostitutes on soldiers returning to Portsmouth harbour after service in India because the suspension of the Contagious Diseases Act prevents doctors from affending the women's modesty by giving them medical examinations. How idiotic to give publicity to a woman  who objects to members of the Young Men's Christian Association (the Y.M.C.A.) singing 'worldly songs' in church. "What, because Mr Young is Vicar of St. John's, shall there be no more cakes and ale in the land?" What right had W. H. Smith to exclude George Moore's controversial novel Esther Waters from its railway station bookstalls? It was the duty of a distributor to distribute, not act as an unofficial censor.
    Nothing if not practical, Doyle wanted to see cavalry replaced by bicycles in the interests of speed and efficiency, as well as expense. But he would never believe the change had taken place "until I see100 lightly equipped men, with rifles slung on their backs, and bandoliers across their chests, riding behind the King's State Carriage, in place of the present picturesque but medieval guard."
     Many of his later letters to the newspapers deal with the more outre aspects of spiritualism, as well as his firm belief in the existence  of fairies. But it's pleasant to know that his very last letter, printed in the Daily Telegraph on the day he died,  is a perfectly lucid comment on the disastrous expedition to the Dardenelles during WW1.