William Robert Trotter (1911-1998) was a Major in the Royal Army Medical Corps duirng World War II, a consultant physician at University College Hospital, London, and a senior lecturer in the University of London. He wrote widely on medical matters. After retiring to Haslemere in Surrey in 1973, he branched out into several other areas, including literature and local history, writing the book from which this excerpt is taken: The Hilltop Writers: A Victorian Colony among the Surrey Hills. The picture of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Surrey home of Undershaw, designed for him by his friend Joseph Henry Ball, and the excerpt itself, both appear here by kind permission of the publisher, John Owen Smith (for full bibliographical details, so below), and have been arranged for the Victorian Web by Jacqueline Banerjee. Omissions and a minor change are indicated by square brackets.
[...] By the time Doyle came to Hindhead in 1897, Sherlock Holmes had, so he thought, been finally dispatched. Holmes and Moriarty had disappeared into the Reichenbach Falls locked in a death-grapple, and Doyle hoped to devote his future energies to the historical romances such as The White Company (1891) and Sir Nigel (1906) which, he thought, represented his "high-water mark in literature." He turned his attention first to the "Brigadier Gerard" series of stories, most of which were written at Undershaw, as were Rodney Stone (1896), Sir Nigel and the "Round the Fire" series of short stories, published in the Strand Magazine between June 1898 and May 1899. The historical novels were carefully researched, but they lack the subtlety of the Holmes stories, and reflect Doyle's zest for adventure and bloodshed. But his devoted public insisted on the resurrection of their favourite detective, and he was obliged to comply. So the new series of stories about Sherlock Holmes — including The Hound of the Baskervilles — came to be written at Hindhead.
Sir Nigel is of interest to local readers, in that much of the action takes place in the hills round Hindhead, in the countryside as Doyle imagined it to have been in the fourteenth century. The preface shows that he had been at great pains to get the historical details right. The novel opens at Waverley Abbey, where Nigel, the young heir to Tilford Manor, leaps bareback on a great yellow horse which had proved too wild for the monks to master. The horse careers uncontrollably across country, with Nigel still precariously in place on its back, over Hankley Down, Hindhead, Shottermill, Linchmere and does not come to a halt till it reaches Henley Hill. When Nigel finally masters it, the great yellow beast becomes his faithful war-horse, and accompanies him on a series of blood-thirsty adventures in France. Although Doyle considered this novel to be "my absolute top!", it is in fact little more than a fast-moving adventure story.
The strange dichotomy between the rumbustious physical adventures of the historical novels and the rigorous intellectual climate of the detective stories seems to reflect a genuine split in Doyle’s own personality, which he himself was aware of. Writing in his autobiography about the character of Sherlock Holmes, he says: "I am often asked whether I had myself the qualities which I depicted, or whether I was merely the Watson that I looked ... I find that in real life in order to find [Holmes] I have to inhibit all the other, and get into a mood when there is no one in the room but me. Then I get results, and have several times solved problems by Holmes' methods after the police have been baffled. Yet I must admit that in ordinary life I am by no means observant, and that I have to throw myself into an artificial frame of mind before I can weigh evidence, and anticipate the sequence of events."
The contrast between the subtle creator of the world's [most famous] fictional detective, and the writer of conventional adventure stories, is nowhere more evident than in the first of his Holmes stories, The Study in Scarlet. Having created Sherlock Holmes — and his counterpart, Dr Watson — with a few deft strokes, Doyle evidently feared that his readers would be too easily bored by Holmes's intellectual exercises. So he wove into the detective story a crude tale of adventure, involving a desperate attempt to escape from the clutches of the Mormons, evidently hoping that this would hold the attention of readers bored by Holmes's efforts at detection. Yet he recognised that his hero might not have approved of what he would regard as an irrelevant intrusion. As Holmes put it, it was like "working a love-story or an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid."
[...] The air of Hindhead did not, as Doyle had hoped, cure his wife's tuberculosis, and she died in 1906. In the following year he married Miss Jean Leckie, and left Hindhead to spend the rest of his life in Crowborough, in East Sussex. (108-11)
- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. A Biographical Introduction
- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Literary Career
- A Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Chronology
Trotter, W. R. The Hilltop Writers: A Victorian Colony among the Surrey Hills. Illustrated ed. Headley Down, Hampshire: John Owen Smith, 2003.
Last modified 21 November 2013