22 May 2007
A few weeks back, I posted to commemorate T.H. Huxley's birthday. This week, I want to acknowledge the birthday of another great Victorian, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Besides Charles Dickens, no author has ever been so adept at conjuring up images of Industrial Era Britain, from the foggy streets of London in its glory days, to the eerie tors of Dartmoor, to the fading elegance of a ducal mansion. Conan Doyle's gift for evocative description was most frequently put to use to enliven the adventures of his most famous creations, Dr. John H. Watson and Sherlock Holmes (The Sign of Four and The Hound of the Baskervilles, for example, each have settings that are every bit as compelling as the characters themselves). Conan Doyle was also a well-educated man with a keen understanding of science (though he lapsed into mysticism and quackery towards the end of his life - the Sherlock Holmes story The Creeping Man is a particularly embarrassing product of this stage). He wrote The Lost World, the first and still the best dinosaur novel out there; it's significantly more exciting, engaging, and creepy than any of Michael Crichton's efforts. Its plot is simple: a group of explorers find an isolated plateau in South America that preserves a primeval world of dinosaurs and ape-men. Tenuous as this segue may seem, Conan Doyle's writing has always appealed to me because it itself paints a picture of the lost world: the Victorian Era, a world which was unexplored enough and still rife enough with possibility to engender The Lost World but which was also coming to terms with its increasingly prevalent dark side so familiar to the world's greatest detective. I may never really understand why I have such a fascination with Industrial Britain, but I know that Conan Doyle's vivid depiction of it is largely responsible. And for that, I am eternally grateful.