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From Ship To Sherlock: Doyle's 'Arctic' Diary

Oct 25, 2012
Originally published on October 25, 2012 7:05 am

On June 15, 1880, Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a vivid sentence in his diary. It read, "The only difference in the weather is that the fog is thicker and the wind more utterly odious and depraved."

Knowing that he was the creator of Sherlock Holmes, you might think Doyle is referring to the thick London fog drifting outside the windows of 221B Baker Street. But this sentence was written years before the first Holmes novel and it describes a considerably harsher environment — the thick fog and depraved wind of the Arctic, where Doyle traveled when he was 20.

Doyle's journals from that voyage have now been published for the first time in a book called Dangerous Work: Diary of an Arctic Adventure. Jon Lellenberg, one of the editors of the book, joins NPR's Steve Inskeep to discuss Doyle's early influences and the story of how he ended up on an Arctic whaling ship.


Interview Highlights

On what got Doyle on the ship

"At the time, in 1880, he was a third-year medical student at Edinburgh University and one of his classmates came to him and said, 'I was supposed to go off for seven months as the ship's surgeon on an Arctic whaler, but I can't. Would you like to do it?' And being the kind of person he was, he did it."

On Doyle's diary-keeping

"I think there's 70 drawings in all — black and white, pen and ink sketches. In some cases he went back later with watercolors and went over them again. ... He clearly saw that this experience was going to be a remarkable and important one for him. And he wanted to make the most of it, and to have a permanent record in both words and art."

On the dangers of the voyage

"He fell in [the Arctic water] a number of times in his inexperience, enough that the captain nicknamed him the Great Northern Diver, actually a species of seabird. But it was very dangerous to do it, and the waters were freezing cold. If you didn't get hauled out immediately, you lasted about three minutes before hypothermia set in and killed you. And, in some cases, the pieces of ice, if they came together, could basically cut a man in half."

On how his Arctic experience influenced the concept of Sherlock Holmes

"I think one of the remarkable things about the diary is that, although he's only turning 21 in the course of this voyage, you can already see very powerful storytelling capabilities emerging in the way he describes things. One episode in particular that basically had me falling out of my chair — it's now August of 1880, they stop at Lerwick, the capital of the Shetland Islands, and he writes, 'Lighthouse keeper came off with last week's Weekly Scotsman,' which was the Edinburgh newspaper, 'by which we learned of the defeat, the almost catastrophic defeat, of a force of 3,000 British soldiers in Afghanistan at the battle of Maiwand.' And what struck me so hard about it is that, six years later, when Conan Doyle was writing the first Sherlock Holmes story — that opens with his narrator, Dr. John H. Watson, an army surgeon, being nearly killed at that battle of Maiwand. ... It's very much a physician who has had military experiences, and some very severe ones, as well."

On the Sherlock Holmes story Doyle wrote about whaling

"It was 'The Adventure of Black Peter,' and it's — the murder that's being investigated is a old whaling captain from Scotland who is found in his little cabin onshore with a harpoon through his chest pinning him to the wall, 'like a butterfly to a card,' Dr. Watson says."

On the humor in Doyle's diary

"I remember there's one entry where he says, 'We had nothing to do, and we did it.' And another entry, he talks about spending the night with the crew, which is basically an evening of music, song, drinking — he says, 'gin and tobacco in the crew's berths.' And the next entry starts, 'Suffered for the gin and tobacco.' ... He's a young man reporting what he's seeing and hearing and experiencing in quite a remarkable way."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

On June 15, 1880, Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a vivid sentence in his diary. He wrote: The only difference in the weather is that the fog is thicker and the wind more utterly odious and depraved.

Knowing as we do that he was the creator of Sherlock Holmes, we might imagine that Arthur Conan Doyle is referring there to the thick London fog drifting outside the windows on Baker Street. But this sentence was written years before the first Holmes novel. It describes a considerably harsher environment. The thick fog and depraved wind were in the Arctic, where he traveled as a 20-year-old.

Arthur Conan Doyle's journals have now been published for the first time in a book called "Dangerous Work." And one of the editors Jon Lellenberg. He's on the line. Welcome to the program.

JON LELLENBERG: Thank you very much for having me.

INSKEEP: What was Conan Doyle doing on the ship?

LELLENBERG: At the time, in 1880, he was a third-year medical student at Edinburgh University. And one of his classmates came to him and said, I was supposed to go off for seven months as the ship's surgeon on an Arctic whaler, but I can't. Would you like to do it? And being the kind of person he was, he did it.

INSKEEP: And he was keeping this diary, which you have reproduced in color in the pages of this book. And the diary includes a variety of drawings as well as passages of writing.

LELLENBERG: I think there's 70 drawings in all - black and white, pen and ink sketches. In some cases he went back later with watercolors and went over them again.

INSKEEP: And it's not like this brilliant art but it's very clear. It's very evocative art. You get a sense of being a ship or being on an ice flow with the ship in view, and you are really, really out in the Arctic, far, far from anywhere.

LELLENBERG: He clearly saw that this experience was going to be a remarkable and important one for him. And he wanted to make the most of it, and to have a permanent record in both words and art.

INSKEEP: So they were hunting seals and also whaling, is that right?

LELLENBERG: That's correct.

INSKEEP: Why don't we listen to some of Arthur Conan Doyle's diary. We have asked the Scottish mystery writer Alexander McCall Smith to read some passages from this diary. And here's one from April 3rd of 1880. We have a description of getting off of the boat to hunt seals by stepping from one chunk of ice to another.

ALEXANDER MCCALL SMITH: We picked the boats(ph) up soon and started packing, that's to say all hands getting over the ship's side and jumping along from floating piece to piece, killing all they can see, while the ship steams after and picks up the skins. It takes a lot of knack to know what ice will bear you, and what not. I was ambitious to start, but in getting over the ship's side I fell in between two pieces of ice and was hauled out by a boathook.

INSKEEP: Straightforward reporting there, but pretty vivid.

LELLENBERG: He fell in a number of times in his inexperience, enough that the captain nicknamed him the Great Northern Diver.

(LAUGHTER)

LELLENBERG: Actually a species of seabird. But it was very dangerous to do it and the waters were freezing cold. If you didn't get hauled out immediately, you lasted about three minutes before hypothermia set in and killed you. And in some cases the pieces of ice, if they came together, could basically cut a man in half.

INSKEEP: Let's listen to another diary entry from Arthur Conan Doyle. This is from July 29, 1880, so considerably farther north than the last entry. And he writes the following...

SMITH: Came across a most extraordinary natural snow house, about 12 feet high, shaped like a beehive with a door and a fine room inside in which I sat. Traveled a considerable distance and would have gone to the Pole, but my matches ran short and I couldn't get a smoke.

(LAUGHTER)

LELLENBERG: We have a great deal of humor in these diary entries. And in the case of this snow house, it was just one of many things that he would never have expected or been able to predict

INSKEEP: Are you a fan of the Sherlock Holmes novels?

LELLENBERG: Immensely.

INSKEEP: Well, when you start reading this diary all the way through, do you find passages, habits of writing, word choices, even characters that seem to carry over into Sherlock Holmes from this earlier time of his life?

LELLENBERG: I think one of the remarkable things about the diary is that, although he's only turning 21 in the course of this voyage, you can already see very powerful storytelling capabilities emerging in the way he describes things. One episode in particular that basically had me falling out of my chair - it's now August of 1880, they stop at Lerwick, the capital of the Shetland Islands, and he writes: Lighthouse keeper came off with last week's Weekly Scotsman - which was the Edinburgh newspaper - by which we learned of the defeat, the almost catastrophic defeat, of a force of 3,000 British soldiers in Afghanistan at the Battle of Maiwand.

And what struck me so hard about it is that six years later, when Conan Doyle was writing the first Sherlock Holmes story, that opens with his narrator, Dr. John H. Watson, an army surgeon, being nearly killed at that Battle of Maiwand.

INSKEEP: And Dr. Watson's little memories of Afghanistan are sort of peppered through other novels as he goes on. It's part of his character.

LELLENBERG: It is, and it's very much a physician who has had military experiences and some very severe ones as well.

INSKEEP: There was a Sherlock Holmes story that was explicitly about being on ship, shipboard.

LELLENBERG: Indeed. "The Adventure of Black Peter," and it's - the murder that's being investigated is an old whaling captain who is found with a harpoon through his chest, pinning him to the wall, like a butterfly to a card, Dr. Watson says.

INSKEEP: Yeah, I've been flipping through this diary here that you have published in book form. And I hope this isn't a spoiler. But I'm looking at the very last entry from Wednesday, August 11, 1880, and I just love the first sentence here: Dead calm and the sun awfully awful. A sense of humor about this guy.

(LAUGHTER)

LELLENBERG: Very much so. I remember there's one entry where he says: We had nothing to do and we did it.

(LAUGHTER)

LELLENBERG: And another entry, he talks about spending the night with the crew, basically an evening of music, song, drinking. He says: Gin and tobacco was in the crew's berths. And the next entry starts: Suffered for the gin and tobacco.

INSKEEP: Alright, he's reporting the facts.

LELLENBERG: He's a young man reporting what he's seeing and hearing and experiencing in quite a remarkable way.

INSKEEP: Jon Lellenberg is one of the editors of "Dangerous Work: Diary of an Arctic Adventure," which is a publication of a diary of Arthur Conan Doyle.

Thanks very much.

LELLENBERG: Thank you very much.

INSKEEP: And we also heard the voice of author Alexander McCall Smith, who read passages from Conan Doyle's diary. You can read for yourself. See reproductions of that diary and read descriptions of Conan Doyle's Arctic adventures at NPR.org.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.