Mike Ashley’s ‘Adventures in the Strand’

adventures strand

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.

6 Comments

  1. Roger
    Posted March 9, 2016 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    https://www.arthur-conan-doyle.com/index.php/The_Death_Voyage for The Death Voyage.

    • Posted March 9, 2016 at 11:03 am | Permalink

      Thanks, Roger. It’s a stirring story, and yet another reminder that the texts produced by the ‘war books boom’ of 1928-30 were by no means all disillusioned or anti-romantic.

      • Roger
        Posted March 10, 2016 at 12:28 am | Permalink

        It’s interesting that Doyle seems to have accepted – or made his Kaiser accept – the “stab in the back” by the civilians as one aspect of Germany’s defeat.

  2. Bradstreet
    Posted March 9, 2016 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    ‘STRAND too often means bland’. That’s a little bit unfair, I think. I have quite a number of the early editions, and even if you remonve Doyle there is some well-crafted stuff there. It’s true that they aimed at a middle-class family audience (in many ways they were the equivalent of pre-watershed TV), but within those bounds their content was not uninteresting. Something like Wells’ THE FIRST MEN IN THE MOON was first published there, as were a number of his short stories such as THE COUNTRY OF THE BLIND. I suspect that the editors didn’t mind you being critical of society’s norms as long as you weren’t too upfront about it. They were scared of going to extremes in any direction, but I think that ‘bland’ is too harsh.

    Mind you, some of the non-fiction articles are cherishably weird. I particularly loved the MODERN CELERBRITIES RANKED BY HEIGHT, with people like J M Barrie at one end of the scale and Doyle at the other

    • Posted March 9, 2016 at 11:09 am | Permalink

      Yes, Wells is good, and even better in my view are E. Nesbit and Wodehouse. The Strand certainly published much very good fiction – but the non-fiction is too often weedy, and there is an unwillingness to offend that means an avoidance of controversial issues of the day, such as suffragism.

      • Bradstreet
        Posted March 10, 2016 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

        Yes, I agree ( on the non-fiction and on your opinions of Nesbit and Wodehouse as well). There were some articles about London poverty early on, but that sort of thing was rapidly phased out, leading the factual stuff to become very anodyne. In 1901 Doyle began a series called STRANGE STUDIES FROM LIFE, which were basically True Crime stories dating from about 1860. It was supposed to be a full-length series, but the top brass at The Strand panicked and ended the series after only three articles.


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