Tuesday, 17 March 1998

Arthur Conan Doyle: Sir Nigel (1906)

Edition: John Murray
Review number: 12

Of all Arthur Conan Doyle's works, this one has perhaps aged least well. It's set in the Middle Ages, or, rather, it's set in a world imitating that of Scott's Ivanhoe. It seems today very in-authentic, particularly in the speech and descriptions.

Sir Nigel is the story of a young man, Nigel Loring, of noble birth but reduced circumstances, who sets out to win renown equal to his ancestors' and to do three deeds worthy of his lady love. He travels to France as squire to Sir John Chandos, and takes part in Edward III's French wars, where he wins renown and does brave deeds.

Nigel is a most annoying young man. He is not terribly intelligent; indeed, his choice of fiancée is probably the only remotely intelligent act he performs throughout the book. Even then, it is only by chance that this happens, for he prefers the sister, who is dishonoured through her own flirtatiousness at the crucial moment.

Nigel's big problem is his excessive devotion to the epics of chivalry. Even though the virtues of chivalry were still admired in principle by the fourteenth century, they were rarely used in practice in the warfare of the time, which was as savage as any before or since. Indeed, following medieval accounts of the battles of the French wars, which Doyle at least does, means that actions of extreme barbarism are excused by warping the chivalric ideals. In fact, there are occasions in this novel where a practice is condemned on one page when practiced by brigands, but this condemnation is ignored and the results of it praised when perpetrated by the English soldiers only a few pages later.

I remember quite enjoying this book when I first read it at the age of thirteen or so; now that I have read more widely (particularly Chaucer and Malory) and grown up a bit, I found it difficult to take to. My feeling now is that there are Conan Doyle novels better forgotten, and this is one of them. Stick to the Sherlock Holmes series, or Lost World, or the Firm of Girdlestone.

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