Conan Doyle and George Eliot

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Monday 27th March 1984

Last night I read an article on Conan Doyle which set me thinking about caricature and characterisation. Sherlock Holmes is of course a caricature in every respect: his famous ‘character’ is made up of a number of extremely exaggerated and improbable traits which we believe in not because we think we ought to but because we genuinely want to: the very unlikelihood of all these multifarious character traits being present in one person fires our imagination and turns a comic-strip figure into a hologram, not actually three-dimensional but in fact far more real and rounded-out the most of the characters we encounter in fiction.  We believe that Holmes decorates his wall with a patriotic ‘V’ made up of bullet-holes because we want to: it is pleasing to imagine that so great and intelligent man could be so whimsical – and so great in his whimsy.


Portrait of Arthur Conan Doyle by George Wylie Hutchinson, 1894.


Let us now think of a book with real characters – that is to say, real characterisation: Middlemarch. I know of no book with more patient, expansive and generous characterisation than Middlemarch; I can think of no other novel in which the narrator’s attention is so evenly and intelligently distributed. All the characters seem absolutely true to life; their predicaments seem equally true, and one follows their course with a fascination which – owing to the skill of the author – never degenerates into impatience. But, fascinating as the story is, both in its details and in its overall scheme, it is hard to get as excited about Dorothea or Bulstrode as one does about Holmes. The complete Dorothea is there: either we are being told about her, we have been told about her, or we know that we will be told about her: the omniscient narrator will in time of a loss of all his knowledge, which is of course the sum total of all knowledge on the subject. Ironically enough this makes Dorothea fade rather than glow: a short while after one has put down the book, she retreats into the weave of its fabric, becoming not a highly individuated fictional heroine (although she most certainly is this) but instead an example of the style, technique, a view of life and fiction which is the true subject of the novel. The real hero of Middlemarch is the narrator; and it is a particular irony that this most unegotistical novel leaves us with a burning desire to know who this person ‘George Eliot’ really was – what is this thing, ‘George Eliot’, that we have just experienced, really is.


Portrait of George Eliot by Samuel Laurence, c. 1860.


Whereas Holmes lives on quite independently of his creator. He is both within the pages of Conan Doyle’s books and outside them: you can be irritated, parodied and completely misunderstood without any of his essential life being touched or diminished. Conan Doyle gave us Holmes incomplete – no past, no inner life except that stimulated by his investigations; he made Holmes, whose many whims and personal accoutrements are so well loved, and entirely functional creation, something designed to fit within the narrow limits of detective fiction yet at the same time expand limitlessly inside the minds of the people reading the stories. Conan Doyle gave us Holmes, a hero of the imagination; Mary Ann Evans gave us George Eliot, a process of the imagination.


Sherlock Holmes as depicted by Sidney Paget, 1904.

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