Mike Ashley knows his fiction magazines; he is, after all, the author of The Age of the Storytellers, that invaluable resource for anyone interested in popular fiction between 1890 and 1940.
Adventures in the Strand is his new book; it examines the long (1891-1930) relationship between the Strand Magazine and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, its most celebrated contributor.
Now I have to say that anyone who has previously read a life of Conan Doyle, or who has dipped into Reginald Pound’s history of the Strand, will not find anything startlingly new here. It is a trip through familiar territory, but it is an enjoyable trip. It suited me very well on a couple of train journeys, to Sheffield and back yesterday.
Mike Ashley goes through the story of the creation and development of Sherlock Holmes, and Doyle’s ambivalent relation with his greatest creation. What I found most interesting, to be honest, was the financial side of the matter. For The Hound of the Baskervilles, Doyle received £4,795 – or almost £465,000 in today’s terms. For the stories in The Return of Sherlock Holmes series, Doyle was offered even more. And Sir Nigel (a historical romance hardly read at all today, though Ashley thinks it’s Doyle’s masterpiece) earned him £10,000 from British and American serial rights, and then another £1,900 from book sales. But then, Doyle’s name on the front cover of an issue of the Strand made the circulation leap by about 30,000. He was a superstar.
Ashley’s book is sometimes rather a dogged trek through plot summaries, but it’s good to be reminded of Professor Challenger in his different manifestations. (I’ve always had a very soft spot for The Land of Mist.) And I’ve learnt new things . I didn’t know anything about The Tragedy of the Korosko, but having read Ashley’s account I’ve now downloaded it for my Kindle.
And there’s a story I really like the sound of, but didn’t previously know – the last to appear in the Strand during Doyle’s lifetime. It’s called ‘The Death Voyage’, and is a piece of alternative history. It imagines Kaiser Wilhelm in 1918, facing defeat. Instead of fleeing to exile, he refuses to resign. Instead he takes command of his fleet, leads it into battle with the Royal Navy, and goes down valiantly with his ship. The Kaiser was still alive at the time of publication; I wonder if he ever saw the story. He might have taken the Strand, since he was a fan of P.G. Wodehouse.
There is a chapter I’d have liked longer, about Doyle’s writing during the great war, and his struggles with the censorship when he was writing his history of the War. His account was relentlessly positive and patriotic, but he did not avoid the horrors, as in this extract from his account of Mons:
The injuries were not yet numerous but they were inexpressibly ghastly. Men who had hardly seen worse than a cut finger in their lives gazed with horror at the gross mutilations around them.
Ashley’s book is full of interest, but it could have been better. Doyle was a more complicated character, I think, than the bluff sportsman presented here. What impelled those stories of torture? Why did he get so very silly over mediums and fairies?
Ashley’s a bit too worshipful of the Strand, too. Strand too often means bland. It was the magazine that bowdlerised Lawrence’s Tickets Please, emasculating John Thomas into John Joseph. I’ve just reviewed elsewhere Arnold Bennett’s The Lion’s Share, which the Strand refused to serialise because of its suffragette theme. They didn’t like anything too controversial or divisive.
Doyle was their ideal author – a brilliant storyteller, a thorough craftsman, and a man whose curiosity took him into strange places, but very conventional in his attitudes. Middle-class Britain read the Strand, and he was one of them, voicing their aspirations and dreams and nightmares. The Sherlock Holmes stories are better than the historical romances of the science fiction because they invited the middle classes to look at themselves, to see the potential for evil lurking within suburban normality, but in the figure of Sherlock Holmes offering a hero who was in crucial ways an outsider (artist, scientist, drug addict) but whose final loyalty was to the moral order that the middle classes, and their favourite magazine, upheld and depended on.