CONAN DOYLE'S FIRST NOVEL
Sir Arthur CONAN DOYLE. THE AUTOGRAPH MANUSCRIPT OF AN UNTITLED AND UNPUBLISHED NOVEL, written in ink in four volumes, with three pages of volume 1 detached but present and five pages with cancelled passages cut away [mid 1880s], 155 pages, folio plus blanks, written on rectos of leaves only, a few corrections in pencil, uniform black cloth, spines of volumes 1 and 4 damaged; also, autograph notes for the novel, 4 pages, 8vo and autograph list of characters (8) on a fragment of paper embossed 'Bush Villa/Southsea'.
This previously unpublished novel dates from the mid 1880s. One of the cancelled passages (fifteen lines from page 22) including the name 'Mrs Rundle', the lodging housekeeper in the novel, survives in a private collection in the United States, but its provenance was unknown.
The narrative describes six days in the life of Smith who was suffering from a severe attack of rheumatic gout ('the hybrid form of torture ... which unites the disadvantages of both diseases to a dash of malignancy of its own'). He consults his doctor (Julep, altered to Turner) whose philosophy he admires: ('I feel as though he had brought a whiff of bracing air into the room with him. The inane doctrine of fearing the source of all good, and of loving what we cannot comprehend is a great stifling nightmare which has weighed us all down too long', p. 102).
But the doctor orders him to rest and he is confined to his room in a lodging house owned by Mrs Rundle, a widow with three young children. Smith's fellow lodgers include Herr Johann Lehmann, a professor of music, and a retired major awaiting in vain a recall to the Colours. From his window Smith is able to gaze upon the youthful figure of Miss Oliver in her room across the street as she paints at her easel. He is visited by the curate of the local Anglican church who departs in anger and distress.
The narrator ranges widely over the fields of history, religion, philosophy, medicine, science, music and prophecy; he advances views on domestic interiors, art, the future of China, the United States and Great Britain and he draws on his experiences from sealing in the Arctic, to ballooning and to travel in South Africa. He also refers to literature citing the stories of Bret Harte and Turgenev's Fathers and Sons.
It is evident that Conan Doyle began to revise the text of the first volume (changing the name of the doctor from Julep to Turner, for instance, and making other alterations). Mrs Rundle was a precursor of Sherlock Holmes's housekeeper Martha Hudson.
The notes for the novel consist of ideas for the novel principally for the first and second days of confinement.
It is likely that this manuscript is the one described by Hesketh Pearson as 'The Narrative of John Smith'; THE UNPUBLISHED FIRST NOVEL that Conan Doyle wrote in Southsea. Pearson states that it was lost in the post. Conan Doyle was to confess in later years that 'my shock at its disappearance would be as nothing to my horror if it were suddenly to appear again -- in print'. The title alone assures us of its autobiographical nature; the author himself said that it was 'of a personal -- social -- political complexion' and that it steered 'perilously close to the libellous'. (4)