Authors are bad judges of their work. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes is an immortal creation. But Doyle thought his greatest book was The White Company — a medieval adventure into which he had poured a cornucopia of research.
The line, however, from research-effort to literary-reward is rarely true, straight or constant, and in this case Doyle, to be frank, strayed very far into the province of the duds. To be sure, one can, if one has the stamina and the imagination, lift from the pages of The White Company insights into peasant politics, how common soldiers jostled along the emergence of democracy and whatnot. But more interesting, perhaps, is the light it casts on the attitudes of Doyle himself.
Doyle was a fallen away Catholic — fallen away, allegedly, because he could not accept the Church's claim of Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus (no salvation outside the Church) as taught by a zealous Jesuit. Nevertheless, Doyle fully embraced the late 19th-century English gentleman's religion of chivalry, and in The White Company one sees plenty of heartiness, comradeship, and eagerness to fight, along with pooh-poohing Church teaching that runs against "nature" (celibacy), joshing the supposed pedantry of scholasticism and so on.
In one early passage in the book, the monastery-raised Alleyne Edricson threatens violence against his villainous brother for harassing a maid. "For a moment the blood of the long line of hot-headed thanes was too strong for the soft whisperings of meekness and mercy. He was conscious of a fierce wild thrill through his nerves and a throb of mad gladness at his heart, as his real human self burst for an instant the bonds of custom and of teaching which had held it so long."
The key phrase here is "his real human self." Alleyne's monastic schooling is seen as having suppressed what is authentically human and real beneath inhibiting, inherited folderol. In his autobiographical novel The Stark Munro Letters, Doyle's title character disparages the Bible as a fairy tale, and a somewhat nasty one. Stark Munro also says this: "Catholicism is the more thorough. Protestantism is the more reasonable. Protestantism adapts itself to modern civilization. Catholicism expects civilization to adapt itself to it."
So far so interesting. Then he adds that "the main trunk is rotten beneath them, and both must in their present forms be involved sooner or later in a common ruin. The movement of human thought, though slow, is still in the direction of truth, and the various religions which man sheds as he advances (each admirable in its day) will serve, like buoys dropped down from a sailing vessel, to give the rate and direction of his progress."
In this, Stark Munro would appear to speak for Doyle. Munro is a deist, and in a way Doyle was, too. But deism is an easy way out. It is a belief, after all, that exists only in one's mind, having no form in much-disparaged "organized religion." As such, a deist is responsible for nothing in his religion, because it, in fact, doesn't exist. There are no scandals to disturb him, no human reality to intrude, no grappling in detail with morals and philosophy such as makes Catholicism "thorough." There is simply a smug confidence in oneself and one's self-designed God who is a chap remarkably like oneself.
Doyle's sense of his own sophistication in matters religious — the same sort of pseudo-sophistication adopted by many people today — is really the most childish make-believe. And this became apparent later in his life.
Doyle became the perfect case study of G.K. Chesterton's much-quoted dictum that "when men cease to believe in God they don't believe in nothing, they believe in anything." Doyle became a "spiritualist" and was fully convinced in his later years — as a man of science, a qualified medical doctor — that fairies really existed, and he stood foursquare behind crank photographs that claimed to illustrate the fact.
The man who supposedly stood on the side of reason — as modern, secularist man supposedly stands on the side of reason — had actually taken leave of reason (as has modern man). Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger can tell us why: "Meaning that is self-made is in the last analysis no meaning. Meaning, that is, the ground on which our existence as a totality can stand and live, cannot be made but only received." That is one of the great Catholic insights into the nature of truth.
And when it comes to writing an historical novel, all the research in the world cannot make up for that lack of understanding.
One can't help but sense in reading The White Company that something is missing from the tale. Chivalry lacks purpose and meaning and ultimately cannot survive without the religion that created and shaped it. Though the novel opens in a monastery and treats of the Church, it does not have the faith, and it tells.
So when it comes to historical novels, here's a dictum to read by: Dumas on the 17th century (The Three Musketeers) is better than Doyle on the 14th century (The White Company). And when it comes to Doyle, stick to the character that Doyle yearned to abandon as he abandoned his faith, stick to the Thomistic Sherlock Holmes.
January 10, 2003