Book Review

The title of this book, Arthur, Louise and the True Hound of the Baskervilles (by Margaret Newman Turner), promises rather a lot and consequently demands a comprehensive critique.

Turner appears to have two principal aims. The first is to tell us about a legend which she believes to be the basis of The Hound of the Baskervilles. The second is to raise the profile of Conan Doyle's first wife Louise and show her in a more positive light than has been customary in the past - an aim I totally support.

We shall now turn our attention to the first of these aims. The legend in question, which is referred to as "The Hound of the Vaughans", does share many similarities to the legend mentioned in The Hound of the Baskervilles and Turner gives us its details and background very well. As a history lesson it is undeniably good. Turner also points out that it is a legend that has its roots in the area that Louise's family originated from. The problem is that she uses this to assert that Louise must have mentioned this legend to Conan Doyle at some point and it therefore must be from this that Conan Doyle got the idea for his most famous story.

Although her assertion is perfectly possible it is very unstable ground upon which to build what is, at the end of the day, no more than a theory. There are numerous legends of spectral hounds in Britain and they all share some common ground. This suggests that they may have sprung from the same source but not that said source was "The Hound of the Vaughans". The established record (and Conan Doyle himself) makes it clear that the basic idea for the Baskerville story came from the legends told to Conan Doyle by the journalist Bertram Fletcher Robinson and that these legends were East Anglian and Devon legends. No mention is made of the Vaughans or their hound. It is true that Conan Doyle's editor Herbert Greenhough Smith believed The Hound of the Baskervilles to have been based on a Welsh legend (which would boost the Louise link) but that was just his belief and there is nothing from Conan Doyle, that we know of, to give that belief any weight.

Bertram Fletcher Robinson is rather ill-used by Turner. She presents him as opportunistic and as forming a friendship with Conan Doyle more or less solely to benefit from the association. This is demonstrably false as Robinson clearly gained little if any benefit and Conan Doyle had known the family from before their first meeting.

She then suggests that Conan Doyle and Robinson slowly fell out over the famous story and that this was demonstrated by how Conan Doyle downgraded Robinson's contribution to the story with each published edition. In fact Robinson was always conscious of what he personally saw as his limited contribution (he often referred to himself as the 'assistant plot producer') and it clearly didn't concern him as he and Conan Doyle remained good friends until he (Robinson) died.

After telling us her theory, Turner then undermines it by reproducing a letter from Conan Doyle in which he states that the entire idea for the story came from Robinson. In the face of this evidence she resorts to suggesting that Conan Doyle was being misleading (intentionally or otherwise). This comes across as a King Canute-style attempt to deny the tide of known facts and make the events fit her theory.

Thus the first aim of her book has to be marked down as a failure. The theory, although interesting, currently lacks any substantial evidence to back it up.

Now we turn to the second and nobler aim. Louise Conan Doyle has been ill-used in most biographical works concerning Conan Doyle. This was because of the influence of the children of his second wife Jean. Mrs Georgina Doyle has already fought Louise's corner in the excellent book Out of the Shadows. Turner would have done well to have read Mrs Doyle's book (and others) thoroughly before commencing her own as it would have saved her from a list of mistakes and factual errors.

Firstly she makes the mistake of relying too much on The Stark Munro Letters as a source of autobiographical fact. The Stark Munro Letters is a book that certainly mirrors Conan Doyle's early life as a doctor in Portsmouth but it is only a semi-autobiographical work and cannot be taken as true from end-to-end. Turner unfortunately adopts this position and makes assertions that simply have nothing apart from the book to support them.

She repeatedly refers to the Portsmouth Literary and Scientific Society as the Portsmouth Library and Scientific Society and then goes on to get much of Conan Doyle's life in the wrong order. It is fact that Conan Doyle left Portsmouth to learn about eye medicine in Europe. When he returned to England he secured lodgings at Montague Place (near the British Museum) and opened an eye practice at 2 Upper Wimpole Street. It was at the latter location that the early Holmes short stories were written and when he abandoned medicine he left both these properties to live in South Norwood.

Turner asserts that Conan Doyle moved to South Norwood almost immediately upon his return from Europe and opened his eye practice at Montague Place. A simple review of current books such as A Study in Southsea or Conan Doyle: The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes (which the author claims to have consulted) would have demonstrated that this was not the case. There are other inaccuracies (and theories presented as more or less fact) but we don't need to explore them all.

The bottom line is that the research into the legend of the "Hound of the Vaughans" is clearly well done but its relevance to the creation of The Hound of the Baskervilles is not demonstrated convincingly. The sections on Conan Doyle's life, his marriage to Louise, his life in Portsmouth and, later, Norwood demonstrate a clear lack of research. I cannot but feel that the author's noble desire to present Louise in a (deservedly) positive light has led to her (consciously or otherwise) bending the known facts to suit theories - a position that Sherlock Holmes would never have endorsed.

No comments:

Post a Comment