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Thursday, December 15, 2016

Conan Doyle and the Hilltop Writers

Sherlock Holmes died, or so the world thought, at the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland. He was reborn in “England’s Switzerland.”

The latter was the nickname for the hamlet of Hindhead in Surrey. There in 1897 Arthur Conan Doyle built Undershaw, the home where he wrote The Hound of the Baskervilles and other post-Reichenbach Holmes tales. The story of Conan Doyle’s productive decade at Undershaw is masterfully told in Alistair Duncan’s An Entirely NewCountry. And efforts to save the house have attracted support of Holmes and Conan Doyle enthusiasts around the globe.

But thanks to a recommendation from my friend Roger Johnson, BSI, of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London, I recently read a book that tells the bigger story of Hindhead and surrounding communities around the time ACD lived there. The title tells it all – The Hilltop Writers: AVictorian Colony Among the Surrey Hills, by W.R. Trotter.

Hindhead is the highest point in that part of England, with an elevation of 800 feet. The air is famously pure, which is what attracted Conan Doyle and his tubercular first wife. And until a railway line opened at nearby Haslemere in 1859, putting the area just an hour and a half from London, the heather-covered hills were unspoiled by major developments.

Within a few decades of railroad arrival, however, a colony of writers and scientists briefly flourished on those Surrey hilltops. Trotter’s book sets the scene in the first two sections, giving an overview. In the final and biggest section, he profiles the dramatis personae of the colony in sketches of several pages each. It reads like a Who’s Who of late Victorian England, but much more interesting than that reference book.

Alfred Lord Tennyson, H.G. Wells, Bertrand Russell, George Bernard Shaw, Christina Rossetti, and George Eliot are some of the more famous. But some of the not-so-famous are equally interesting.  

Arthur Conan Doyle gets four solid pages of biography, as well other references sprinkled throughout. Notably included are photos of Undershaw and of the Beacon Hotel where ACD held a fancy dress Christmas Ball in 1898, at which he dressed as a Viking.

I bought the book to research a Sherlock Holmes novel that will be set in Surrey. But I read it with which much greater enjoyment than I expected.  

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