Phil: Picking up a book of short stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, I’m struck by the contents, some of which make me feel uncomfortable.
Round The Fire Stories contains 17 tales from the master who created Sherlock Holmes. Many of them read and feel like something the great detective could have been involved with. Indeed, one of them includes a letter from someone who could very well be Holmes. If you like the style, then this is an interesting read.
But, and it’s a big but, some of the text has not aged well. Conan Doyle writes of an age of empire. Form the days when most of the map was pink and the sun never set on Her Britannic Majesties lands. We have plucky Brits out running the colonies or travelling to mysterious lands.
I quite like a bit of this. Part of me hankers for an era when travel was difficult and going abroad was an adventure, not somewhere you go for a stag/hen weekend and spend the time bladdered.
But with this comes some unfortunate racial issues. The Brown Hand revolves around a ghost of a beggar who comes to claim back his hand from the surgeon who severed it (saving the mans life) and keeps it in a jar. The hero of the story allows the spectre to find another hand made available after an accident and this seems to satisfy him enough to cease his haunting. The ghost can’t rest until he is “whole” and yet is happy with some else’s hand – because in the spirit world, all brown hands are apparently the same and he won’t know the difference.
It gets worse in The Fiend of the Cooperage, where the N-word is used repeatedly, not as an insult, just because that’s what people said in that era.
Is it fair to judge stories written around 1900, and republished in 1991, but today’s standards?
No, I don’t think it is. Any book is a historical document and to say you can’t read it leads quickly to book burning. These stories are of their time and my discomfort is a good thing. Most people (loons excepted) wouldn’t write something like this today. To be honest, things like Cooperage wouldn’t get published because it’s rubbish anyway. You could update it, but I’m not sure it’s worth the effort. Spoiler: A giant snake did it – see what I mean?
Conan Doyle was very keen on mystic and occult stuff and it shows here. Many of these tales intended to be told around the fire involve ghosts, the existence of which is never questioned. Holmes would have not been impressed.