Arthur Conan Doyle, Complete
A critic’s childhood love of Sherlock Holmes has been re-stoked this week by the arrival of The Complete Works of Arthur Conan Doyle from Cambridge Scholars Publishing. Running to 56 volumes, the set includes not only Conan Doyle’s most celebrated characters but Professor Challenger and Brigadier Gerard too—as well as those stolid historical novels which the author considered to be his truly greatest achievements. Jonathan Barnes looks again at the The White Company, published in 1891, which Conan Doyle too boldly claimed “would illuminate our national traditions” and a feast of other rarities, forgotten tales, and neglected oddities. In the libretto that he wrote with J. M. Barrie for the comic opera Jane Annie he finds the gloriously forgettable lyric—“Last night when we were forced to part / I heard a pit-a-pat / Upon the window of my heart”—which played at the Savoy Theatre in 1893. Here, too, is his six-volume history of the First World War (“he fails in literary skill” was the TLS verdict in 1920) as well as a plump collection of poems, filled with martial verse (“The huntsman’s name is Death, / His horse’s name is Time; / He is coming, he is coming / As I sit and write this rhyme”). There are panegyrics about golf (“Come youth and come age, from the study or stage, / From Bar or from Bench – high and low! / A green you must use as a cure for the blues – / You drive them away as you go”). Pheneas Speaks is an anthology of his second wife’s automatic writing, instructed by a spirit guide who “died thousands of years ago in the East, near Arabia”: she exhorts Arthur to “look after your health,” warns that the skeptical magician Harry Houdini is “doomed, doomed, doomed,” and remarks that “some dogs are more mediumistic than others.”
The Poetics of Friendship
Great poets, like great detectives, often become famous in pairs. Their friendships seem to matter more than the friendships of other writers, writes Benjamin Markovits, reviewing Christopher Ricks’ new book True Friendship. This, he thinks, may have something to do with the pressure on poets to re-invent their tradition. It is easier to make up a game if you have someone else to play it with. Ricks looks at the different sorts of friendships poets engage in, taking three from the second half of the 20th century, Geoffrey Hill, Anthony Hecht, and Robert Lowell, and considering them “under the sign” of two of the giants of the first half, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.
Among the varieties of friendship under discussion, here is the friendship between poet and critic. The simple version of Ricks' argument is this: that poets, when they write, rummage through their stock of feelings and phrases, some of which have been supplied by the poets they have read. These borrowings are sometimes conscious, sometimes unconscious. When they are conscious, we can ask what is intended by them. But the unconscious borrowings are often more interesting, suggesting as they do the way a poet engages with other poets on a level deeper than his or her critical opinions. Many of the connections Ricks makes are brilliant, most of them are plausible, Markovits concludes, but the real test of this kind of enriched reading is the light it sheds on the poems themselves.
Protest Novelist Extraordinaire
When Phyllis Bottome died in 1963, the BBC, announcing her death over the radio, described her as “the champion of the underprivileged and the misunderstood.” Bottome had published her first novel at the age of 20. In between, Caroline Moorehead writes, she had written 32 other novels, many of them bestsellers, 12 collections of short stories, several biographies and many essays and articles. Four of the novels had been turned into Hollywood movies, starring such actors as James Stewart and Claudette Colbert. But then Bottome disappeared; modern readers have rediscovered her name only thanks to Pam Hirsch, a lecturer in English literature at Cambridge, who chanced on Bottome’s books in the shelves of her parents’ house after their death, and remembered how for them she had stood as a liberal beacon in the early 1950s. She discovered that Bottome’s papers had recently been acquired by the British Library—and the result is a welcome biography which stresses her social and political—as much as her literary—qualities.
Peter Stothard's latest book is On the Spartacus Road: A Spectacular Journey Through Ancient Italy. He is also the author of Thirty Days, a Downing Street diary of his time with British Prime Minister Tony Blair during the Iraq war.