The Speaker, November 10, 1900
The Great Boer War. By A. Conan Doyle. London: Smith and Elder
This occasionally mistaken, but always moderate and dignified work can only be properly appreciated if we consider who and what Mr. Conan Doyle is. He is something more than the only author since Dickens who has created a character of whom every one has heard. He is one of the embodiments of that tendency, sound and useful originally, towards the poetry of the Savage, otherwise called the Bachelor; the poetry of masculine sport and independence which was the really healthful and necessary work of the late Mr. Rudyard Kipling.
Mr. Conan Doyle's defence of prize-fighting and Mr. Kipling's defence of the war were, of course, only wild allegoric paradoxes, intended to emphasise by their very oddity a genuine tendency in the cultured as well as the uncultured, towards the masculine standpoint of the ethics of war and hunting, the idea that we, in praising the poetry of womanhood and the romantic relations, have, perhaps, neglected the dumb primeval poetry of our own friendships and feuds. Even Stevenson, in so long keeping the feminine excitement out of his stories, belongs to this movement; and "Sherlock Holmes" is, in lighter matters, the best type we have of cunning and self-reliance in civilization, of the romance of savagery in a city. No one expects that a writer like Mr. Doyle can have a hyper-ideal view of life, and it is not surprising if both he and Mr. Kipling tend in politics in a somewhat tribal and militant direction. But the difference in their two fates is quite startling. At a certain point of this river of average manhood it is crossed by the shallow and frothy stream of a temporary Jingoism. Mr. Kipling has been completely whirled away on the smaller stream, and is now somewhere making observations, dangerously fresh and brilliant, about the Boers reading the Bible and only shooting from behind rocks. Mr. Conan Doyle goes on down the main stream of his philosophy, such as it is, of an admiration for manliness, and therefore an admiration for the Boers. Mr. Kipling is an Imperialist, and he calls the last slaughter of Cronje's forces at Paardeberg "a satisfactory big killing." Mr. Doyle is also an Imperialist and he says of those forces, "Thus they passed out of their ten days of glorious history."
Mr. Conan Doyle is a supporter of the war, and consequently on a large number of points his conclusions are not ours. But in the presence of the general ferocious triviality which confuses this question, we are far more inclined to congratulate Mr. Doyle upon the honourable reverence that he again and again expresses for the conquered than to argue with him about threadbare diplomatic points. It is curious, perhaps, to hear any man apply the adjectives "grave and measured" to Sir Alfred Milner's remarks about the Outlanders being helots, a remark the only excuse for which is that Sir Alfred Milner is old enough to have forgotten what helots were. But we almost invariably find (what is not too common) that Mr. Doyle's Imperialism is a matter of opinion, not a matter of moral colour-blindness. For example, he considers the Majuba Settlement unwise and expresses that view firmly, but he indulges in no childish goriness about "avenging Majuba." Whether or no he is a Christian, he is at any rate a sportsman. He knows that the coarsest prize-fighter that came of our blood was expected to bear no malice for a fair beating.
In his description of the war itself Mr. Conan Doyle shows, as a pure artist, the same virile simplicity. He does not indulge in that extraordinary art of "wordpainting" which has poisoned the work of so many war-correspondents, the literary lunacy which hunts the wrong word as simple people hunt the right, and avoids the vulgarity of speaking of crafty generals and bursting shells by the simple expedient of speaking of crafty shells and bursting generals. Mr. Conan Doyle tells the tale of war simply and he has the reward of success for a very obvious reason. The essence of warlike poetry is rapidity. This dainty and elaborate movement of the diction is open to objection, even when the writer is engaged on the higher work of describing the profligacies of some neurotic of Upper Tooting; but when the whole force of the situation is in its instantaneousness and dazzling decision, a clever adjective is like a calthrop to a charge of cavalry. It interrupts and even unseats the warrior. Mr. Conan Doyle's descriptions have the true military rush and simplicity like the line of an old war-ballad:-
"And dark with winter was the flow-The "descriptive" correspondent would have written it:—
Of Iser rolling rapidly."
"And fat with frost-mud was the flowIf guns "sneeze" at a man no doubt he is struck by the artistic comparison. If they shoot at him, they hit him.
Of Iser tottering huskily."
We value profoundly, as we have said, the chivalrous tone of Mr. Doyle's book, because he represents, since Mr. Kipling's mysterious collapse, that muscular school which should take the Boers under its particular protection. A man like Cronje should have been and would have been, in Mr. Kipling's best days, a delight to that author. He has all Mr. Kipling's favourite virtues and, by a supreme touch of fascination, he has committed all Mr. Kipling's favourite crimes. Mr. Doyle, however, stands forth to-day as the champion of the secrets of a strong race. The question is far deeper than mere negative morality. Cronje is not filled with moral delicacies, and he is by no means a favourable specimen of the Boer. But comparing, in the broadest human and anthropological spirit, the hero of the tremendous Thermopylae of Paarderberg with Mr. Beit or the late Mr. Barnato, what can any thinking person say of the transfer of influence in that country except the two lines of Goldsmith?-
"Ill fares the land to hastening woes a preyHave we realised that these ragged folk are the real riches of the Transvaal? Can we work the mines of the human gold?
Where wealth accumulates and men decay."