Authors: Arthur Conan Doyle
Tags: #General Fiction
The text of this volume has been established as follows. ‘A Foreign Office Romance’ after US syndication and London publication in
Young Man and Young Woman
(Christmas number 1894), was published in
(1900) whose text is used here. All other stories appeared in the
whose text is in the main that used here, since Conan Doyle made some cuts for the book texts of two stories to ensure a chronological sequence for the
were vaguely but not accurately chronological). Original publication in the
was: ‘Medal’, December 1804, ‘Brigadier−King’, April 1895, ‘King−Brigadier’, May 1895, ‘Ajaccio’, June 1895, ‘Gloom’, July 1895, ‘Millefleurs’, August 1895, ‘Devil’, September 1895, ‘Kingdom’, December 1895, ‘Crime’, January 1900, ‘Ear’, August 1902, ‘Army’, November 1902, ‘Minsk’, December 1902, ‘Forest’, January 1903, ‘Horsemen’, February 1903, ‘England’, March 1903, ‘Hussars’, April 1903, ‘Good-Bye’, May 1903, ‘Marriage ’, September 1910.
The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard
was first published by George Newnes, publisher of the
, on 15 February 1896, and
Adventures of Gerard
of Etienne Gerard
) September 1903: the word ‘Brigadier’ was dropped as it meant a member, not the leader, of a brigade in France. ‘Crime’, while included in
, first appeared in
The Green Flag
. ‘Marriage’ first appeared in
The Last Galley
(1911). Several titles were altered in later publication, sometimes over-revelatorily.
I have added head-notes to each of the stories to supply the chronology of the stories and add an additional whiff of historical context. (In ‘Minsk’, a misprint, ‘between Wilna and Smolensk’ for ‘between Wyasma and Smolensk’, present in all previous printings, has been corrected here.)
appeared in Canongate Classics 38 in 1991, with a different introduction. Gerard evidently narrates ‘Medal’ during Napoleon’s lifetime, probably before Waterloo or even before Elba. The rest of the
are supposedly told at a much later date, probably in the 1840s and before 1848 (see conclusion of ‘Devil’). The events of
are recounted in Paris after Napoleon III has returned to power. ‘Minsk’ was inspired by a review in the Crimean War (1854) in which Gerard indicates some degree of official recognition, but since Napoleon III means so little to him in comparison to his uncle, we know no more than this. ‘Marriage’ seems to be narrated after Gerard has returned to his native Gascony. ‘Crime’ is the only story with a detailed third-person introduction (‘Ear’ getting a mere line), and it records his death of old age. Gerard’s biography has slightly conflicting elements in it, but he seems to have been born in the early 1780s, which suggests death at some point in the 1860s. The marriage to the daughter of Uncle Bernac recorded at the close of Conan Doyle’s novel
is inconsistent with everything in the Gerard stories, but so is the Boulogne court life the novel assigns to Gerard. Our hero is not to be conflated with the real-life Maurice-Etienne de Gerard (1773–1852) who died a Marshal of France, and who is mentioned in ‘Devil’. Conan Doyle may initially have unconsciously registered the name (de Gerard was not a Marshal of Napoleon’s and receives relatively little mention in Napoleonic literature), and then, some time after the
publication of ‘Medal’, he rediscovered the historical Gerard and extricated himself by the assertion of kinship.
Owen Dudley Edwards
Historical fiction is far older than Homer, and the bardic and folk traditions of Scotland (where Arthur Conan Doyle was born) and of Ireland (whence his mother and paternal grandparents came) still bring us a version of that oldest of forms. The force of historical fictions in the building of national myth and the provision of political parables is abundantly clear in Virgil’s
, in the
, and in the varieties of Arthurian legend (Welsh, Breton, Norman, English, American), just as it is in the English (and Scots) historical plays of Shakespeare. In its primary evolution there was probably no clear distinction between history and fiction, and even today the two are much closer than historians like to admit.
But the writing of historical prose fiction is comparatively recent, and it’s appropriate in introducing a book of Napoleonic stories to recall the opening of the seminal modern study,
The Historical Novel
(1937) by György Lukacz:
The historical novel arose at the beginning of the nineteenth century at about the time of Napoleon’s collapse … It was the French Revolution, the revolutionary wars and the rise and fall of Napoleon which for the first time made history a
and moreover on a European scale.
It seems logical then, that the prime candidates for the titles of greatest historical novel (
War and Peace
by Count Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy), and greatest historical short story series (the Brigadier Gerard stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), should in each case be dominated by Napoleon− about whom Tolstoy asserted that all writers were wrong, and Conan Doyle said he did not know who was right.
Apart from his beloved
The Cloister and the Hearth
(1861), the romance on the parents of Erasmus by Charles
War and Peace
‘impressed’ him more than any other novels:
They seem to me to stand at the very top of the century’s fiction. There is a certain resemblance in the two−the sense of space, the number of figures, the way in which characters drop in and drop out. The Englishman is the more romantic. The Russian is the more real and earnest. But they are both great. (
Through the Magic Door
Tolstoy may have been a daunting inspiration. Many of the memoirs of Napoleonic soldiers on whom our conscientious author drew for background and stimulus devoted their most memorable pages to Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812, and some of them wrote only on that. But Conan Doyle did not tackle it until his twelfth Gerard story, eight years after the Brigadier’s first appearance. Indeed in the early stories he specifically set the Russian campaign off-limits:
To this day, my friends, I do not care to see red and white together. Even my red cap thrown down on my white counterpane has given me dreams in which I have seen those monstrous plains, the reeling, tortured army, and the crimson smears which glared upon the snow behind them. You will coax no story out of me about that business, for the thought of it is enough to turn my wine to vinegar and my tobacco to straw. (‘How the Brigadier Played for a Kingdom.’)
But of course in that refusal,
had accepted the challenge. In so doing he used vibrations brought to perfect pitch within his creative orchestra, but not much used elsewhere in the Gerard stories−not simply horror or terror (several have those) but fear of future haunting. M.R. James (1862–1936) was to borrow this precise use of haunting by symbol for the closing lines of the masterpiece among his ghost stories ‘Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’, composed a few years later. As with Tolstoy, ‘1812’ awoke in
the sound of the supernatural. Nevertheless, even after he had crossed his Rubicon (or in context, his Niemen) in 1894, he was still
uneasy with his Russian story when he finally attempted it. ‘Yes, I’ll have a Brigadier ready this month’, he told the editor of the
‘though perhaps not up to the mark of the last two. You can’t always hit the bull.’ (
to Herbert Greenhough Smith, n.d. , Conan Doyle mss, University of Virginia.) But the
, of 28 November 1903, reviewing its appearance between book covers as part of
The Adventures of Gerard
, singled out ‘the ride to Minsk’ alongside ‘the rout at Waterloo’ as ‘among the most vivid of the most tragic scenes’.
may have feared that ‘How the Brigadier Rode to Minsk’ was too close in its early intrigue to ‘Kingdom’, but their resolutions are very different−the magnificent realisation of the poetic origins of German nationalism in ‘Kingdom’ as against the essentially Tolstoyan close (if by very un Tolstoyan means) in ‘Minsk’ when Gerard risks everything to save a woman whose hand he would not take and whose lips he would not kiss. ‘ … there is no greatness where simplicity, goodness, and truth are absent’, proclaims
War and Peace
, Book 14, chapter 18: there is greatness in Gerard when he rides
Indeed the entire story seems written within parameters already asserted by Tolstoy in a preceding passage:
The movements of the Russian and French armies during the campaign from Moscow back to the Niemen were like those in a game of Russian blindman’s buff, in which two players are blindfolded and one of them occasionally rings a little bell to inform the catcher of his whereabouts. First he rings his bell fearlessly, but when he gets into a tight place he runs away as quickly as he can, and often thinking to escape runs straight into his opponent’s arms.
At first while they were still moving along the Kaluga road, Napoleon’s armies made their presence known, but later when they reached the Smolensk road they ran holding the clapper of their bell tight−and often thinking they were escaping ran right into the Russians.
… If news was received one day that the enemy
had been in a certain position the day before, by the third day when something could have been done, that army was already two days’ march farther on and in quite another position. (Book 14, chapter 17.)
Conan Doyle, as ‘Minsk’ shows, intertextualised; or wrote his gloss in Tolstoy’s margin. It does contain−as so much of his work contains−covert as well as overt humour (where parallels in Tolstoy will not, perhaps, be easily found). Gerard is not only ludicrously gullible in riding to Minsk; he could never have made the journey in the time required. Similarly, it takes him only two days to return well over 200 miles from Minsk to Smolensk, via the Berezina whose crossing gave the French their worst moments in the entire retreat from Moscow. This is Tolstoy in miniature, and the ‘sense of space’ for which
so much admired Tolstoy, is miniaturised too.
‘Minsk’ is but one Tolstoyan moment. But the entire corpus of Gerard stories makes for nothing less than a Tolstoyan totality. What Lukacz called history ‘as a mass experience … on a European scale’ comes to life through these stories, particularly given that, as Lukacz continues, ‘The Napoleonic wars everywhere evoked a wave of national feeling, of national resistance to the Napoleonic conquests, an experience of enthusiasm for national independence’. We should qualify this, for in fact Poland (the martyred nation of nineteenth-century Europe) found its national self-realisation in
of Napoleon, as indeed Gerard conveys in the very first of his narratives, ‘The Medal of Brigadier Gerard’−reinforced again in ‘How the Brigadier came to the Castle of Gloom’. In fact one of the greatest strengths of the Gerard series is surely its insistence on the varieties of national response to the crises of the time−the last flickers of ancient institutions we behold in Venice; the embers of recent but stifled flame in Corsica; the rage against conquest in Zaragoza; the self-discovery of popular revolt in Spain or in Portugal; and the awakening of new national feeling in Germany and even in Russia. If we want to understand how the era brought nationalism into focus, we need go no farther than these stories.
It is a startling reminder of how objective a sturdy British patriot like Conan Doyle could be when we realise that the sole country with no national self-regeneration from encounter with Napoleon, is England. (Significantly he does suggest a popular self-discovery in the struggle against Napoleon in his pre-Gerard short novel
The Great Shadow
, 1892, but this is in his native Scotland, not in England.) We have charming, tender, amusing, heroic, and at times almost unbearably funny visions of the English, but there is not the slightest indication of a national struggle. The focus is entirely on the upper classes and their servants or subalterns, and the only idea in their heads aside from war seems to be sport. Gerard adds to the fun by often getting the meaning of the sport wrong, but we are to infer that he is still quite right about its pre-eminence. The closest we get to national hatred is in the person of Lord Dacre, probably as a compensation for spending the war years in quarrelling at home with his wife and his neighbours. The one Englishman with an ideological response to the wars is a deserter who assembles a gang to prey on all sides, Captain Alexis Morgan aka the Marshal Millefleurs. He converses ‘in an excellent sardonic fashion’, and is thoroughly deserving of a place alongside fascinating reprobates such as Long John Silver and Professor Moriarty.
The curious intellectual isolation of the English during the European cataclysm brings
remarkably close to his admirer, critic, emulator and adversary G.K. Chesterton as he expressed himself in his poem ‘The Secret People’ (1907):
In foam and flame at Trafalgar, on Albuera plains, We did and died like lions, to keep ourselves in chains
We lay in living ruins; firing and fearing not The strange fierce face of the Frenchmen who knew for what they fought,
And the man who seemed to be more than man we strained against and broke;
And we broke our own rights with him. And still we never spoke.
is as influential here on
as Sherlock Holmes was to prove on Father Brown, their vantage-points were still different. Chesterton’s is a very Left-wing perspective in this poem (it was published for
, a new journal edited by the Fabian Socialist E. Nesbit), and he had been as hostile to the British cause in the Boer War as
was embattled on its behalf; Chesterton was Anglo-Catholic and would become a Roman Catholic, whereas the Jesuit-educated
had abandoned his ancestral faith as a schoolboy; Chesterton writes as an Englishman by birth whereas Conan Doyle was at most a convert to Englishness; and Chesterton was often pro-French, while Conan Doyle was not, even though he sees things through French eyes more easily than Chesterton.
Because Conan Doyle stressed his Englishness in works such as
The White Company
(1906) celebrating fourteenth-century English knight-errantry and patriotism, and because his most famous creation Sherlock Holmes is vulgarly equated with quintessential Englishness, we tend to undervalue his debt to his Scottish origins and his Irish antecedents. But it is these which supplied such bite and wit, such clarity and profundity, in his revelation of the English as they might appear in foreign eyes. He could do it because his own eyes were foreign enough to observe.
’s eyes showed itself as a series of laws of awesome significance to their upholders, but wholly vulnerable to a different logic.
’s Irish friend Oscar Wilde had shown something of the same dual perception in Lord Illingworth’s line ‘The English country gentleman galloping after a fox−the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable’ (
A Woman of No Importance
, 1893, Act One). In fact the opening paragraph of ‘How the Brigadier Saved the Army’ is as close to a salute to the inspiration from Wilde as it was possible to get in 1902.
’s skill in inverting Englishness only begins here: ‘The Brigadier in England’ turns the trick again and again, with hilarious effects each time. A great deal of the joke arose from its effects on the English themselves, for English reviewers roared with laughter at the silly Frenchman’s inability to understand England, with very little awareness that the
author was mocking all fox-hunters. Conan Doyle was a sportsman himself but his definition of that term demanded self-mockery: hence the lampooning of the cricket and pugilism he practised and loved. And then, at the close of ‘England’, the satire suddenly hisses hard and keen, its impact evident in the near-lethal shot which symbolises as well as summarises it. Nor is the target here mere Englishness: it is an entire Western cult. Conan Doyle detested the duel, ruthlessly demolishing its pretentions and barbarities in his ‘The Duello in France’ (
, vol. xv, 1890, new ser., pp. 618–26). It is the high-priest of this cult, Colonel Berkeley, who so justly receives the humiliation which he has encouraged all other parties to mete out to one another.
This ability to play with satire, altering its intent from gentle amusement to searing anger, is part of the Irish literary engagement with England, from Jonathan Swift and George Farquhar through Richard Brinsley Sheridan to Wilde, George Bernard Shaw and beyond. In Conan Doyle’s case it was complicated by his anxiety to assimilate to Englishness, stronger than in many Irish literary cases of celebrity and all the more so because his origin was British: but by the same token his lash could be keener against those aspects of Englishness to which he had no intention of assimilating. In
Through the Magic Door
he writes bitterly of British army discipline in the Napoleonic era, the ‘floggings which broke a man’s spirit and self-respect’, and he condemns his admired Wellington for defending them. Hence we need to read Gerard with the recognition that, as with Swift, the satire may now be at the expense of his protagonist, now of his hosts or adversaries, now of his reader. Up to recently Conan Doyle’s infectious charm condemned him in the eyes of academic critics, and there still remains the danger it may blunt his impact: in essence he requires to be read with the same detached alertness with which he wrote.