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Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Dangerous Work, Diary of an Arctic Adventure by Arthur Conan Doyle

Dangerous Work, Diary of an Arctic Adventure by Arthur Conan Doyle is the memoir of a twenty-year-old Doyle. Doyle, a third year medical student at Edinburgh University, is offered the position of a surgeon on a British whaler, Hope, from a fellow medical student who has the position but can’t go.  Doyle goes on what will be a most crucial adventure that will inform him about his famous characters Watson and Holmes.
Doyle has many of the characteristics of his two fictional characters. Doyle was a boxer and used it to clear his mind and stay in shape, much as Holmes is distracted by physical exercise. Doyle is also a good surgeon especially in the throes of chaos and adverse conditions like Watson’s war experiences as a surgeon.
The first part of the voyage involves seal hunting after the breeding season. Ghastly business this, though Doyle partakes in the ritual of clubbing seals to death. He also gains the nickname of “Northern Diver” because he falls into the icy water so many times and nearly dies a couple of times. They only got two whales so the trip wasn’t the best for the captain and others; it was a life changing adventure for Doyle. He declined an invitation to return the next season as the surgeon and a harpooner.
The book is comprised of three parts, the first two being the same text. The first part is Doyle’s facsimile of his diary in his hand. The second part is a typed transcript of the facsimile for easier reading. The third part consists of four writings of Doyle’s using this arctic trip as inspiration: The Glamour of the Arctic; Life on a Greenland Whaler; The Captain of the “Pole Star”; The Adventure of Black Peter the closest Holmes story to use the knowledge learned on the Hope.
The hand penned diary is fun to read. His hand is good, legible, tight, and even. It is slow reading. Reminds me of how I read student handwritten papers as compared to the digital work I received for CyberEnglish. It’s quaint, it’s reminiscent, it’s nostalgic, it’s not easy or fun to read. I referred to it while reading the easier transcript reading that follows the hand written diary.
The diary is entertaining as Doyle is having fun with the language. As the ship is navigating around the ice fields, he navigates around the details with which he makes accounts of evenings ashore, “Then went down to Mrs Brown’s and lost sight of them (his companions). Had a very hospitable reception there. Told me to make their home my home.” and then mentioning one evening he would stay aboard and start Boswell’s life of Johnson. Just as I did lots of reading I Vietnam, Doyle will do lots of reading on the Hope. The tools of communication thrill me, the mail and the quill pens. The mail arrives on a packet ship that traverses the coasts delivering and picking up mail from sailors on ships in the harbors the packets service. He is writing this diary with a quill pen and I can see it and read it, “Nothing like a quill pen for writing a journal with, but this is such a confounded bad one.” A unique feature of the transcribed part is the immersion of letters written by Doyle on the days they were written. Another layer. The letter is so very proper in providing good gossip and the odd inclusion of high brow literary allusions. He is frank and candid when he wants to be, “Lerwick is a town of crooked streets and ugly maidens & fish. A most dismal hole, with 2 hotels & I billiard table. Country road is barren & ugly.” He explains “There is an act of Parliament forbidding us to kill a seal before April 2nd, that is why we are kicking about here.”
The transcript portion of the diary has great footnotes. Quotes Boswell often and mentions Macauley’s Essays. Early in trip they are a hundred miles north of Iceland. Drawings, too, in the diary. Amongst the large ice fields bobbing around the boat portend seals. They start seeing them. At dinner there is “Talk on literature with the Captain, he thinks Dickens very small beer beside Thackery.” Okay, get this. While waiting in one of the largest collections of mammals ever, the seals before the April 2nd killing spree begins, Doyle “Saw a clever couplet today: Till Silence, like a poultice comes, To heal the blows of Sound. Holmes I think.” I used Google to confirm his attribution. The weather of course is a major concern as is a keen eye to the glass (the barometer). We are reminded that Frankenstein takes place on an arctic whaler because Mary Shelley was familiar with the industry and whaling. After first day of killing seals, “We got 760 seals today. Poor work.” The next day, he then fell into the water three times and they only got 460 seals. Next day, “Took 270 young & 58 old.” The next day was more poor work of only 133. The next only 30. Eight drawings sequencing the death of the seal appear on the page in the diary as if they are eight separate drawings overlapping each other on a table. Meanwhile a sailor, Andrew Milne is dying on board Hope. Carlyle’s Hero Worship. Andrew is buried at sea and the seal hunt continues.
I will continue this in a couple of days.

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