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December 18, 2007

The Impossibility of Being Mediaeval: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sir Nigel

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Sir Nigel
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
first published 1906 by Smith, Elder & Co
Pp. 371. John Murray, 1965

Available as a paperback, Sir Nigel, (Alan Rodgers, 2006), 9.25

Glancing at Rossiyskaya Gazeta while I was reading Sir Nigel I remarked a full page feature on the continuing popularity of the Sherlock Holmes stories in Russia. On most counts he is the most successful serial central character of them all, well ahead of James Bond and with Harry Potter thus far confined to junior or fledgling status.

Yet there is no question that his creator thought Holmes was a trivial creation and could not wait to be rid of him. What he really wanted to write was epic historical novels like this one, a prequel to his earlier story The White Company. At least, that is what he wanted to write until he became preoccupied with spiritualism in the later years of his life.

Sir Nigel takes place immediately after the Black Death arrived in England in 1348. Squire Nigel Loring, the last of his line, lives in a dilapidated Surrey manner house with his grandmother and a few old retainers for company. Their household is in constant conflict with the rapacious and bullying local monastery. Matters are about to come to a fairly disastrous head when no less a figure than Edward III conveniently arrives. Nigel is able to set off with the King on the sort of quest for action, glory, honour etc which he has always dreamed of, having been storied in the tales of his late father's heroics by his grandmother.

In his travels he struggles with English bandits, French armies, a Spanish fleet, Channel Island pirates, a seriously wicked independent local tyrant and then more French armies. By this time he has reached Gascony.

His original companions are his horse, Pommers, a ferocious stallion that only he can ride, and a Saxon bowman called Samkin Aylward from his own locality. Pommers stays with him throughout, but Aylward disappears, presumed dead, only to reappear for the final battle.

This alliance of Norman and Saxon is overtly portrayed in terms of a developing Englishness. In capturing the French king, Nigel is able to complete his self-assessed aims and objectives (three great deeds) and return home to marry the woman to whom he has plighted his troth, having been knighted for his third great deed which is to capture the King of France.

This is the kind of ripping yarn which my generation and two or three predecessors used to enjoy. In my case it was not usually in the original form, but in a ripped-off form such as a 64-page "Classic" comic or serialised in one of the D. C. Thomson weeklies such as Rover or Hotspur; it would have been particularly suited to the latter use because of its Odyssean, episodic structure. The Thomson output of my day was still in columned prose with a single black and white picture for each story by way of illustration.

But this is not meant for such juvenile consumption - or certainly not only for such a market. It is intended to be a serious adult novel, but it does pose insuperable difficulties for the serious adult reader. The most striking of these is language. As the author points out in his Introduction the real languages of the context he is describing were Norman French and Middle English. The former would be roughly comprehensible to a speaker of modern French, but the latter would be understood only by a handful of scholars. Conan Doyle's solution (p. 5):

. . is to catch the cadence and style of their talk, and to infuse here and there such a dash of the archaic as may indicate their fashion of speech.
But I don't think it works; the end product is rather risible. One aspect is that there are dozens of words which the reader of 1906 would not have understood, let alone his successor a century later. We see people reding and soothing and scathing and they do it with gorgets and ballingers and gerfalcons.

However, it is also true that reading Shakespeare presents us with words which are no longer in current use or have changed their meaning, but that is part of his charm. The real problem is that catching Mediaeval cadence comes across as Quaintish. Try this passage from the happy-ever-after ending (p. 370):

At Twynham Castle they dwelled for many years, beloved and honoured by all. Then in the fullness of time they came back to the Tilford Manor-house and spent their happy, healthy age amid those heather downs where Nigel had passed his first lusty youth, ere ever he turned his face to the wars. There also came Aylward when he had left the Pied Merlin where for many a year he sold ale to the men of the forest.
I don't think there is a solution to this problem. It is better to go down Sir Arthur's route rather than down that of the TV scriptwriter who has characters in Robin Hood and Oliver Twist saying, "We 'ave to talk" and "You're 'aht of order, mate". Not much point in journeying to the "foreign country" of the past only to find that it's full of Eastenders when we get there. The foreignness of the people there means that they shape the world into different concepts and must talk in different ways.

As a problem I think this is the tip of a philosophic iceberg. Sir Herbert Butterfield, perhaps the most philosophically aware of English historians, talked of the "impossibility of history". The basic unit of human understanding - Max Weber's Verstehen - is found in our capacity to put ourselves in someone else's shoes, assume their assumptions, use their concepts, value what they value. To understand 1349 we have to simulate a mediaeval mentality.

Yet - to say the least - this is extremely difficult. For example, Nigel and most people around him are perpetually spoiling for a fight. They cannot wait to get themselves in the sort of circumstance where they are likely to get an arrow through the eye or an axe in the neck. There is nothing they seem to want more than to charge on horseback across rough ground towards a murderous enemy armed with pikes and crossbows.

I may not be alone in finding all this rather counter-intuitive. When they arrive in Brittany to support the pro-English claimant to the title of Duc of the province it is only to find that a truce has been declared (p. 303):

"A Truce". Here was an end to all their fine dreams. They looked blankly at each other all round the table, while Croquart brought his great fist down upon the board until the glasses rattled again. Knolles sat with clinched hands as if he were a figure of stone, while Nigel's heart turned cold within him. A truce!
I just don't know whether I believe in this. Part of my effort at understanding tells me that some (most?) of those present would be relieved not to have to fight and that all this yearning for honour above all things is something of an hypocritical front - like "caring" nowadays.

If I try to summon up the nearest I have ever been to Nigel's snobbery-with-violence mentality the best I can do is to think of certain minor public school and Sandhurst chaps of my generation who were the spiritual descendants of Nigel.

But their desire for action would have been much more muted and cautious than his: it is worth pointing out that Sir Nigel was written before the First World War and that, in Europe at least, enthusiasm for the code of the warrior took a terrible blow in that time. In any case, Conan Doyle does allow for a difference between the Quixotic knight-errant figures like Nigel and the more hardened and experienced professional soldiers.

But on the other hand I do note the absolute similarity between the frustrated warriors in a Breton dining hall and a cricket team on the first day of tour on being told that the pitch is considered by the groundsman to be unplayable.

Which raises the spectre of Norbert Elias "figurational" sociology. Elias argued that modern sport is the "civilising" of older codes of action by greater rationality and respect for human life.

In my youth I had a sort of quest for deeds as a consequence of which I played Rugby Union, joined the Territorial Army and hitch-hiked as far as I could get. These didn't seem particularly dangerous things to do and, in any event, I rather assumed that such risks as they did involve didn't really apply to me. Perhaps I will appear to some - further down the line of the "civilising process" - as oddly counter-intuitive as Nigel seems to me.

The impossibility of history is not the impossibility of forensic history which says "this document suggests . . . on the other hand . . . but the archaeological evidence points to . . . " and suchlike. It is the impossibility of narrative history which tells a unique story of human dynamics. It extends to the impossibility of a proper historical novel with fictional characters in a "true" context. I, we, would love to know what it was really like to be a particular person fighting at Agincourt, but we never will. Even a diary brings us only a little closer.

Sir Nigel was hardly a failure: this 1965 edition is the 26th printing in 50 years. But it has been a relative failure compared with the Holmesian monkey on Conan Doyle's back. Sir Arthur was a genius of popular writing, yet here he sometimes seems to be rather a bad writer. That, I submit, is because of the ultimate impossibility of the historical novel rather than because of any inadequacy on the part of the author.

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career in 2004 to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton. His previous Retrospective Reviews can be read here.

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