Friday, 24 September 2004

Arthur Conan Doyle: The Firm of Girdlestone (1890)

Edition: John Murray, 1923
Review number: 1265

The most famous and lasting creations of Arthur Conan Doyle - Professor Challenger and, overwhelmingly, Sherlock Holmes - seem to place him firmly in the nineteenth century; these figures are an extremely important part of our iconography of Victorian England. And yet he wrote most of these stories decades after the times in which they were set, and the Sherlock Holmes stories go right up to the even of the First World War. Though these novels were among those which laid the foundations of modern popular fiction genres, they were firmly backward looking. This is also true of The Firm of Girdlestone, which reads like a product of the 1860s despite being written over twenty years later. It is traditional in themes and form, and could be seen as something of a pastiche of a writer like Anthony Trollope. Even though it looks back, though, The Firm of Girdlestone is not nostalgic. Instead, it takes the theme beloved of the writers who were Doyle's models, that of hypocrisy in outwardly pious pillars of Victorian society. It is not one of Doyle's most original or memorable creations, but it does still remain an enjoyable novel.

The central characters of this novel are not the hero and heroine, who are a rather colourless couple, notable only for their courage in adversity. The villains are far more interesting and dominate the novel: the proprietor of the firm of Girdlestone and his son. The firm itself drives the plot; run in an amoral (or as the Girdlestones would say, businesslike) way for years, the African traders are on the brink of collapse after some unwise speculation. The plot of the novel is basically a series of desperate ploys by the father and son to recoup their fortunes - over-insuring poorly maintained shipping; using rumours and false reports to try to manipulate the diamond market; and attempting to terrorise an heiress into marrying the son (the traditional method of raising money used by the nineteenth century villain). The pair represent the worst of unregulated Victorian business methods, and yet Doyle makes them exhibit different types of evil, which it would perhaps not be too fanciful to say are paradigms of the vices of their respective generations. For the father cloaks his deeds in a hypocritical veil of religious piety, while the son is brazen, vicious and brutal. The novel also charts the change from the father being the dominant partner to the son taking over this role. Though the father is the more intelligent (even if it is his speculation which has ruined the company), the important thing about Doyle's portrayal is that his hypocrisy is unconscious; he truly believes that he is a pillar of the church living a virtuous and respectable lifestyle. That is an idea which must have fascinated Doyle, and this ability to continually justify himself to himself makes him an unusual character.

The three novels that The Firm of Girdlestone is most clearly derived from are Our Mutual Friend, The Way We Live Now and Uncle Silas - all published about twenty years earlier. In particular, a lot of the plot is directly lifted from Uncle Silas. Perhaps the company of Dickens, Trollope and Le Fanu is flattering this novel somewhat, but it doesn't deserve to share the oblivion into which Doyle's minor novels seem to have fallen.

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