Monday, November 5, 2012

Dangerous Work: Diary of an Arctic Adventure

Dangerous Work: Diary of an Arctic Adventure

by Arthur Conan Doyle; Edited by Jon Lellenberg and Daniel Stashower

University of Chicago Press, $35

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter

That Sir Arthur Conan Doyle "came of age in the Arctic," celebrating his 21st birthday at nearly 80 degrees north, is one of those little diamonds of fact in whose facets all kinds of unexpected light is prismed. For, although the editors don't mention it, Doyle was born in May of 1859, the very month that Sir Leopold McClintock came upon the last note left by Sir John Franklin's men on King William Island, and although Doyle describes his shipboard service as a bit of a "lark," the future creator of Sherlock Holmes was surely drawn to the Arctic partly for its air of unsolved mysteries,  implacable ice, and uncharted hazards. It featured in two of his stories -- "The Captain of the Pole Star" (based on the same experiences this diary recounts) and, somewhat less directly, in "Black Peter," from the Holmes canon, both included in the present volume.

Lellenberg and Stashower have done an admirable job in presenting this material, and the volume encompasses both a complete facsimile of the actual diary -- filled with Doyle's illustrations, some of them full-page or folding -- and a transcription of the same with copious notes.  These, however, are directed mostly at readers who will know Doyle from his Holmes stories, and don't -- alas -- provide much in the way of Arctic context.  For instance, although Doyle's ship, the "Hope," sails in the company of the Peterhead whalers "Erik" and "Windward," one will not learn from these notes that both vessels later played key roles in the relief of the Peary Arctic Expedition in 1899-1900 (though  the Windward's bringing home of Nansen is mentioned). In fact, there's not much about any earlier Arctic expeditions, with the exception of the fictionalized one of Mary Shelley's "Captain Walton" in Frankenstein.

Doyle's journal, like that of Walton, is framed at first with a series of letters home, then quickly moves on to the daily business of the ship. Comic relief is offered with a boxing match between Doyle and the ship's steward, which -- since the seaman was short and unacquainted with sparring -- ended with Doyle landing most of the blows, and later overhearing the steward's admiration: "He's the best surrr-geon we've had! He's blackened my e'e!"

Doyle seems to have made a similarly favorable impression on the rest of the crew, finding the Captain, John Gray, an especially congenial comrade.  The ship's first stop was at the edge of the pack ice, where there were baby seals to be clubbed, an activity in which Doyle endeavored to do his best, though remarking "it is bloody work dashing out the poor little beggars brains while they look up with their big dark eyes into your face." He fell into the water several times, once -- not being noticed -- nearly fatally, but was no worse the wear for it, enduring the well-meant gibes of crew and Captain, who dubbed him "the great northern diver."

The journal itself, aside from a few amusing anecdotes such as these, continues on a fairly pedestrian manner; there are accounts of various hunts, of the chasing and securing of two (disappointingly small) whales, and a fair number of days with "nothing to do but grouse, and so we did." Doyle's handwriting is fairly readable once one gets used to it, and his drawings -- as good of ships and animals as any nautical amateur, though dismal at people -- provide numerous delightful illustrations of the account. The tale of one "John Thomas"-- a pet sea-snail Doyle kept in a jar -- is told with high drollery, concluding with an obituary in which the dear departed is praised for "never looking down upon his smaller associates because they were protozoa while he could fairly lay claim to the high family of Echinodermata." It is charming, but were it not the work of Doyle, it would scarcely be distinguished among ship-board narratives.

But of course, it was written by Doyle. And it offers many enticing details to the very early part of his career: that while on ship he devoured Carlyle's On Heroes and Hero-Worship; that in his first medical practice, his consulting room was adorned with Esquimaux sealskin pants, along with the bones of a bladdernose seal he shot himself; that he launched his public speaking career with a lecture on the Arctic in December of 1883, mentioning Davis, Baffin, Hudson, and Parry; and that two early publications on the Frozen Regions -- "The Captain of the Pole Star" as well as an essay, "Glamor in the Arctic," which ran in the Idler -- were among his very first published works. Reading the essay and the fictional tales, one can't help but see in Doyle a wily brain at work, a brain more clever by far than the somewhat conventional skull in which it found itself encased. Such a mind could spin the merest straws of an uneventful polar voyage into gripping tale of dark moods leading to Arctic madness amidst the frosty Sirens of snow and ice.

This visually very pleasing volume is sturdily bound, beautifully printed, and very reasonably priced. And although, in terms of life on the Arctic seas, its contribution is quite modest, it gives us a truly singular and delightful insight into the mind and habits of a man who would, not long after, bring to life two of the most enduring characters in the history of literature.