Elementary: Arthur Conan Doyle's first novel published by the British Library

By Nick Owen | 26 September 2011
Arthur Conan Doyle
© Arthur Conan Doyle Estate Ltd
Arthur Conan Doyle’s first and until now unpublished first novel is to be released by the British Library today (September 26).

Lost in the post on the way to the publishers, The Narrative of John Smith provides a fascinating insight into Conan Doyle’s early creative process.

Conan Doyle enthusiasts have expressed their excitement, with Stephen Fry commenting that the publication is “very, very welcome indeed”.

“His boundless energy, enthusiasm and wide-ranging mind, not to mention the pitch-perfect, muscular and memorable prose is all on display here”, added the writer and broadcaster. 

Eventually rewritten from memory, the creator of literature’s greatest detective would not be best pleased to hear of the novel's publication.

The author once claimed: “My shock at its disappearance would be as nothing to my horror if it were suddenly to appear again – in print.”

Conan Doyle never resubmitted the novel for publication and until now only a handful of scholars have read the text.

Semi-autobiographical in nature, the novel is essentially a series of reflections and conversations while the protagonist is confined to his room due to an attack of gout.

The Narrative of John Smith represents the author’s first attempt to make the transition from short story writer to novelist.

“Dr. Conan Doyle was fortunate his first attempt at a novel was unpublished in the 1880s”, said Jon Lellenberg, representative of the Conan Doyle Estate Ltd and the novel’s co-editor.

“Today's readers are fortunate that he kept the manuscript and provided us with a unique window into the mind, thinking and often emphatic opinions of a young man”.

A page of The Narrative of John Smith manuscript
Arthur Conan Doyle's handwritten manuscript displayed in one of four notebooks.© Arthur Conan Doyle Estate Ltd
Through the author’s letters it was revealed that Conan Doyle had become increasingly frustrated by the practices of many of the contemporary journals for publishing contributions anonymously.

For Conan Doyle, the only way to establish a literary reputation was, as he wrote to his mother, “to get your name on the back of a volume”.

With the first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, published only a few years later, some incidents in the novel anticipate Detective Holmes's arrival.

For example, Smith’s garrulous landlady, Mrs Rundle, is a clear precursor of Martha Hudson, Holmes’s Baker Street housekeeper.

To tie in with the novel’s publication, the British Library is displaying one of the notebooks that comprise the manuscript in the John Ritblad Treasures Gallery.

The gallery will also showcase letters written by Conan Doyle to his mother and his "scientific and monthly" magazine created in his final year at school, at the age of 16.

Bestselling childrens' author Anthony Horowitz, who has been commissioned to write a new Sherlock Holmes novel, The House of Silk, will also give a talk at the Library on Sunday November 27.

  • To buy the book visit the Library's online bookshop at www.bl.uk/shop. Items from the author's collection are on display in the Library's John Ritblad Treasures Gallery until January 5 2012. Anthony Horowitz will be talking from 2.30pm in The British Library Conference Centre, tickets £7.50/£5.
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