Echoes of Conan Doyle
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle started his writing career in the late Victorian era and carried on through the Edwardian years, so his expressions had something of the old-boy attitude typical of writing at the time.
One example is in his stories dealing with the detective Sherlock Holmes. In all the years that he and Dr. Watson teamed together, they never addressed each other by their first names. The first of those stories is said to be a reminiscence of “James H. Watson, M.D.” And that’s the last we see of the first name. It’s always “Holmes” and “Watson” or sometimes “my dear Watson,” but never “John,” much less “Jack” or “my dear Jack.”
The only person who refers to the detective by his first name is his brother Mycroft. At one point when the doctor’s life is threatened by a wrongdoer, the detective comes to his rescue and says threateningly: “If you had hurt Watson ....”
The custom of using last names in conversation is reflected to some extent in a historical novel Conan Doyle was much more fond of than his detective accounts. “The White Company” is laid in the middle years of the Hundred Years War between England and France. There are two squires to Sir Nigel Loring. One is named Alleyne Edricson, and the other is Walter Ford. And while Ford addresses his fellow squire as “Alleyne,” Edricson always replies to “Ford.” Never “Walter” or “Walt” or any other variation of the first name.
That particular novel went through 100 editions in Conan Doyle’s own lifetime, and the author got to be sensitive about being constantly identified with his detective rather than with his historical figures.
“The White Company” is not really historically accurate. The author relied on accounts written in the 1300s, and they portrayed a considerably more romantic view than was actually the case. The Black Prince is shown as a much more chivalric figure than he actually was.
But the story had meanings beyond those intended by the author. My first exposure to “the White Company” was when my father read it aloud to us. It was the summer of 1940. France had fallen to the German attack, and Britain under Churchill was standing alone against the Nazis. And this was how the novel concluded:
“The sky may darken and the clouds may gather, and again the day may come when Britain may have sore need of her children, on whatever shore of the sea they be found. Shall they not muster at her call?”
Those words had extra resonance amid the echoes of the Battle of Britain.
Kendall Wild is a retired editor of the Herald.