An Entirely New Country
Type of material: Trade Paperback
Publisher: MX Publishing, London
Author: Alistair Duncan
This book covers the 10 years (1897-1907) that Arthur Conan Doyle lived at Undershaw, the stately home he built at Hindhead in Surrey, and where he lived with his first wife Louis "Touie" Hawkins Doyle and their two children, Mary and Kingsley. This is Duncan's sequel to The Norwood Author, a 2011 Howlett Literary Award winning book that covers Doyle's life from 1891-94.
The important years covered by this book include the launching of actor William Gillette as the world's embodiment of Holmes due to his smash hit play "Sherlock Holmes." The play was written by Gillette, but began as a play written by Doyle himself.
These years also saw the writing of arguably the greatest Gothic mystery of all time - The Hound of the Baskervilles - and ultimately the resurrection of The Great Detective himself with the publishing of what would eventually become the collection of short stories known as "The Return of Sherlock Holmes." One gathers that, despite Doyle's proclaimed dislike of his famous hero, even he was not content to let sleeping detectives lie.
These pivotal subjects are handled fairly well, as is Doyle's extensive involvement in the Boer War. Other important topics, however, I felt were rather glossed over. For example, it was during this time Doyle campaigned to clear parcee solicitor George Edalji of a charge of maliciously wounding a pony; but the broader issues of racism that surrounded this volatile subject were rather downplayed, leaving Doyle's zeal somewhat without a platform.
We learn that during this period Doyle's wife Louise finally succumbs to her longstanding fight with tuberculosis, but apart from that, we learn very little about their home life together or about her as a person. And, other than learning that Doyle carried on a not-very-private courtship of his second wife Jean Leckie, all the while Louise was still alive, we learn few details about her, either. I was quite interested to learn that during this time Doyle toured the scene of the Jack the Ripper crimes yet, apart from one sentence mentioning that, I learn nothing more about it here.
Each chapter of this book represents one of the 10 years covered and events are recorded chronologically. Duncan makes meticulous use of newspaper clippings, Doyle's diary entries and personal memorabilia provided by the family and there is an ample supply of photographs. Occasionally the author indulges in speculation if the information available to him is ambiguous or if there is an obvious gap in the record; otherwise, the author's journalistic, "just-the-facts" approach to his subject is somewhat dry. I suppose Sherlock Holmes would applaud Duncan's not putting too much color and life into his narrative but I think I should have preferred a more Watsonian approach!
To his credit, his footnotes and bibliography are both excellent, so if one wanted to learn more about Doyle's life with his first family than is provided here, one could perhaps pick up a copy of Out of the Shadows by Georgina Doyle, widow of John Doyle, the son of Arthur's brother Innes. Or, if one wished to learn more about the Edalji case, one could pick up a copy of Julian Barnes's 2005 novel Arthur & George, Gordon Weaver's Conan Doyle and the Parson's Son: The George Edalji Case or Outrage: The Edalji Five and the Shadow of Sherlock Holmes by Roger Oldfield.
For these reasons, I would categorize this more as a useful reference book, although rather limited as an actual biography. Its chronological layout makes it perfectly useful in that respect. It is worth noting that Duncan is a fervent supporter of the Undershaw Preservation Trust, an organization that is in the process of restoring Doyle's home Undershaw to serve as a museum dedicated to Doyle and to Sherlock Holmes. It is a monumental undertaking, and Duncan has pledged a percentage of the royalties from this book to the project.
Mark Gatiss - actor, screenwriter, novelist, co-producer with Steven Moffat of the smash hit BBC series "Sherlock" and Patron of Undershaw since December 2010 provides a worthy foreward to this book.
Reviewed by: By Margaret Whitmer, February, 2013