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Published: 20 October 2012

Dangerous Work: Diary Of An Arctic Adventure
by Arthur Conan Doyle
British Library, 368pp, £25

THERE is no shortage of written accounts of the Arctic whaling industry, which flourished in the 19th century, enriching port towns and cities on both sides of the Atlantic. In the whaling museum in New Bedford, Massachusetts alone there are over 2,500 handwritten logbooks. However, according to the museum’s senior curator, Stuart Frank, only two truly great writers have ever described 19th century whaling from first-hand experience. One of these is Herman Melville, whose time aboard the Massachusetts whaler Acushnet from 1841-2 informed his novel Moby-Dick; the other is Arthur Conan Doyle, who, from February to August 1880, served as a surgeon on board the Peterhead-based boat, the Hope.

Conan Doyle was still a third-year medical student at Edinburgh University at the time – just 20 years old – and he only got the job by pure dumb luck. While studying for an exam, a fellow student called Claude Currie interrupted him with the words: “Would you care to start next week for a whaling cruise?”. Currie had been all set to act as surgeon on board the Hope, but found at the last minute he couldn’t go. He didn’t just offer Conan Doyle the job – worth a not-inconsiderable two pounds ten a month plus three shillings a ton oil money – but also all the Arctic gear he had bought for the journey. “In an instant the thing was settled,” Conan Doyle wrote in his autobiography, Memories and Adventures, “and within a few minutes the current of my life had been deflected into a new channel.”

On the face of it, the largely urban adventures of Sherlock Holmes don’t appear to have much to do with chasing whales around the Arctic Circle (although the stories are punctuated with numerous references to ships and sailors of various kinds, and there is one Arctic-set Holmes short story, “The Adventure of the Black Peter”, reproduced here). Nevertheless, it isn’t too much of a stretch to say that, were it not for Conan Doyle’s time aboard the Hope, the great detective might never have made it onto the page and into the popular imagination. For Conan Doyle’s Arctic Adventure wasn’t simply an excuse for him to shoot a few seals and sea birds (although he did for plenty of both). It also gave him the opportunity to leave the stifling rote-learning of his medical studies behind for six months and indulge his passion for literature.

Before leaving Peterhead on board the Hope, Conan Doyle bought himself several books of poetry, philosophy and literature, and his journals contain various references to these, including glowing praise for one particularly evocative passage of Goethe’s Faust. Conan Doyle also struck up a strong friendship with the 50-year-old Captain of the Hope, John Gray, and it seems the two men had numerous lively discussions about literature during the course of the voyage. On 19 March, Conan Doyle records, “Talk on literature with the Captain, he thinks Dickens very small beer beside Thackeray”; and on 23 May he notes, “The captain and I have been making most villainous parodies of Jean Ingelow’s [poem] Sparrows Build.” Conan Doyle may have received his scientific education at Edinburgh, but he received his liberal arts education at sea.

Starting at Peterhead on 28 February 1880, the Hope stopped off at Lerwick to pick up extra crew before sailing north on 11 March. On 17 March, the 56-strong crew encountered their first sea ice and on 3 April the sealing season officially began. Conan Doyle was keen to pull his weight in the sealing stakes and he took to the work with enthusiasm. Evidently he had much success as a marksman out on the ice, recording his innumerable kills with relish, although he was considerably less adept at keeping himself out of the frigid Arctic water, falling in on an unnervingly regular basis and gaining the nickname “the Great Northern Diver”.

On 22 May, the Hope reached 80 degrees north, and turned south, looking for whales. It would be a whole month, however, before it made its first kill, and although there were further successes, overall the season was deemed a failure. Conan Doyle itemises the boat’s “scanty cargo” when they eventually give up and head for home on 6 August as “2 Greenland whales, 2,400 young seals, 1,200 old seals, 5 polar bears, 2 Narwhals, 12 Bladdernoses [hooded seals].”

As ship’s surgeon, Conan Doyle didn’t have much doctoring to do on the voyage. One sailor, Andrew Milne, died of what contemporary doctors believe was probably an infarction of part of the intestine – not something a 19th-century medical student could have done much about on dry land, let alone in the middle of the ocean – and another sailor cut his head badly when it was hit by the wheel. A surgeon was expected to perform certain clerical duties in addition to medical work, but even so, it’s clear Conan Doyle had plenty of free time in which to develop his literary talents.

In addition to his skills as a writer, Conan Doyle was also a decent draughtsman, and in this beautiful edition of his Arctic diaries, edited by John Lellenberg and Daniel Stashower, we get a complete facsimile of the original logbooks, written in neat copperplate with numerous illustrations, as well as an annotated transcript of the text. Some of the illustrations are little more than doodles, but others, such as “Whale dragging 2 fast boats through water, July 8th 1880,” show a good eye for light and perspective.

The quality of Conan Doyle’s diary entries is similarly variable. Some days are dealt with almost in bullet-point form, and some, particularly when the weather is bad, are dismissed in a couple of lines. Occasionally, however, it is possible to catch glimpses of the writer he was destined to become. His entry for the 8 July whale hunt, described above, has the same irresistible narrative momentum that later would make his Sherlock Holmes stories so readable, while in his summing up of the voyage on 31 July he strikes a self-consciously literary tone: “No ice in sight. I shall never again see the great Greenland floes, never again see the land where I have smoked so many pensive pipes, where I have pursued the wily cetacean, and shot the malignant bladdernose. Who says thou art cold and inhospitable, my poor icefields? I have known you in calm and in storm and I say you are genial and kindly.”

Captain Gray was so impressed by Conan Doyle that on their return to port he offered him the chance to return for the following season’s voyage, to work as a harpooner as well as a surgeon, but the younger man turned him down. “It is well I refused,” he later said, “for the life is dangerously fascinating.”

Adventure writing’s loss turned out to be detective fiction’s gain.

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