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Friday, December 9, 2011

ACD and the Irish Writers

Today is my day to talk about "Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes: Irish Connections." Among those connections was ACD's encounters with a couple of famous Irish writers.

You may recall that A Study in Scarlet landed with little splash in the 1887 edition of Beeton’s Christmas Annual but was a bit of a hit in the United States. Certainly it attracted the attention of Joseph Marshall Stoddart, publisher of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in Philadelphia.

When Stoddart came to London in 1889 to start a British edition of his magazine, he invited two potential contributors to dinner at the elegant Langham Hotel on August 30. They were Dublin-born Oscar Wilde, already well known, and young Arthur Conan Doyle.

“It was indeed a golden evening for me,” Conan Doyle wrote later in his autobiography. He got along well with Wilde – and with Stoddart, who commissioned him to write a novel for Lippincott’s. That novel was The Sign of Four, the second Holmes adventure. Wilde also wrote a novel for the magazine – The Picture of Dorian Grey.

What a dinner! It started with two authors and ended with two classics.

The Sign of Four features a character named Thaddeus Sholto, who many critics have seen as a caricature of Wilde. Nevertheless, Conan Doyle liked Wilde the first time he met him. The recent mystery novels The Sherlockian and Oscar Wilde and A Death of No Importance portray the two as friends, but in fact they only met one other time after that dinner. Conan wrote that Wilde seemed very different that second time years later – a madman, in fact.

Another Dublin-born writer to come into Conan Doyle’s orbit was George Bernard Shaw, with whom he had a very public debate about the actions of the crew of the Titanic.

Writing in the Daily News and Leader, Shaw questioned whether the accounts of the 1912 tragic were over-dramatized and whether the band playing on gave the passengers a false sense of security and delayed their departure to the lifeboats. He questioned Captain Smith’s reputation as a hero.

Conan Doyle, furious, rebutted Shaw in printed, adding “ . . . it is a pitiful sight to see a man of undoubted genius using his gifts in order to misrepresent and decry his own people.”

Shaw countered and Conan Doyle counter-countered briefly, ending with this gentlemanly this summation: “The worst I think or say of Mr. Shaw is that his many brilliant gifts do not include the power of weighing evidence; nor has the that quality – call it good taste, humanity, or what you will – which prevents a man from needlessly hurting the feelings of others.”

That seems to me very chivalrous thing to say. And indeed by this time Conan Doyle was Sir Arthur. The British imperialist born in Scotland of Irish descent had been knighted in 1902.

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