I was lucky enough to find a first edition (1896) for sale in a shop near here. In pretty good condition, other than a replaced spine. Lots of Sidney Paget illustrations, and a few advertisement pages remaining uncut.
I don’t buy first editions simply because they’re first editions, though – I read them. And so I sat down and read this one – it’s an easy read – and found myself amused in places and annoyed in others.
In many ways, it’s pretty typical Conan Doyle. There’s a rather convoluted plot (some of which I had guessed before the end), a healthy dose of jingoism centred around the Royal Navy (this is set in Nelson’s time, and Nelson himself makes an appearance), and a good deal of technical period slang connected with boxing and “the Fancy”.
The narrator describes himself as merely the “thin and colourless cord” on which his pearls of others’ adventures are strung. There is an undercurrent of homoeroticism in some of the descriptions of the bareknuckle boxers, but then “manly beauty” was very much a thing of Doyle’s age.
Here’s the part where he talks about his sources (love the typeface, by the way). He seems to have been quite a serious researcher when it comes to historical detail (note the Ashton in the sources – not, as far as I am aware, an ancestor).
However, Doyle had a sense of humour. It surfaces occasionally in the Sherlock Holmes adventures, and bubbles its way through the Brigadier Gerard adventures. Here, it comes to the fore in the person of the narrator’s uncle, Sir Charles Tregallis, the leader of London dandyism and foppery.
“You number yourself in an illustrious company by dipping your finger and thumb into it,”said he.
“Indeed, sir ! ” said my father, shortly.
“You are free of my box, as being a relative by marriage. You are free also, nephew, and I pray you to take a pinch. It is the most intimate sign of my good will. Outside ourselves there are four, I think, who have had access to it – the Prince, of course; Mr. Pitt; Monsieur Otto, the French Ambassador; and Lord Hawkesbury. I have sometimes thought that I was premature with Lord Hawkesbury.”
“I am vastly honoured, sir,” said my father, looking suspiciously at his guest from under his shaggy eyebrows, for with that grave face and those twinkling eyes it was hard to know how to take him.
“A woman, sir, has her love to bestow,” said my uncle. “A man has his snuff-box. Neither is to be lightly offered. It is a lapse of taste; nay, more, it is a breach of morals. Only the other day, as I was seated in Watier’s, my box of prime macouba open upon the table beside me, an Irish bishop thrust in his intrusive fingers. ‘Waiter,’ I cried, ‘my box has been soiled ! Remove it ! ‘The man meant no insult, you understand, but that class of people must be · kept in their proper sphere.“
“A bishop ! ” cried my father. “You draw your line very high, sir.”
“Yes, sir,” said my uncle ; ” I wish no better epitaph upon my tombstone.”
Doyle makes this uncle to be a figure of fun, but as a man who is aware of his own ridiculousness, and who is capable of laughing at himself at times, and showing a side of sentimentality, and even commonsense at times.
I won’t claim this is an unjustly neglected masterpiece, but it is definitely an enjoyable light read, and shines a little more light on Sir Arthur.