The Narrative of John Smith – Arthur Conan Doyle


I stumbled across this book when I was on a book pilgrimage in Hay-on-Wye. I genuinely couldn’t believe my eyes. An unpublished Conan Doyle book that I knew nothing about? I fell in love with Doyle’s writing after reading/sleeping/dreaming the Sherlock Holmes novels at university. I (potentially rather stupidly) expected my same passionate reaction for Holmes to seep through into this book, making it impossible for me to put down. Rather high expectations I must admit! So I had to buy it.

What is rather beautiful albeit slightly sad about this book is the story behind the manuscript. In brief, the original manuscript was written and sent for publishing by Doyle in 1883 but sadly got lost in the mail. Doyle agonised over this lost script and tried to piece it together again but he gave up and never completed it. Fast forward to 2004 and The British Library bought the unnamed, unfinished manuscript at an auction. 7 years later they published it under the title of The Narrative of John Smith.

This work is rather short, spanning over 6 chapters, with each chapter representing a day. It begins with the protagonist, John Smith, being confined to bed for a week with rheumatic gout. After trying to get out of it, the doctor persuades him to use this time to write a book. Various topics are discussed such as: what may drive talent out of a man, what service a doctor brings, as well as other thoughts that don’t seem to link to each other. The image that stays in my mind as well as JS is Mrs Rundle’s three children arguing over a penny.

Chapter two begins with the doctor visiting and a discussion regarding medicine. He meets his neighbours, admits his love of art and then decides to debate ideal conditions for life and more importantly how to achieve eternal life. Another key aspect to the short novel is war and political standings for men and women.

The final chapter opens with the doctor discussing disease as a battle, claiming that JS has won. Then the manuscript ends. It left me thinking what would come next? What train of thought would Doyle have his protagonist have next? It appears to be random so predicting would be futile. To be honest, it left me with more questions than answers! I love the little snippets and the snapshot of different thoughts when one is almost a recluse at home, but I felt a sense of loss. Loss of this story meant that some of the young Doyle genius was lost, and sadly never replaced.

A mixed reaction from me for this book really. It wasn’t as compelling as the Holmes series (I genuinely don’t know if I will find anything to compete with it!) it was much more personal showing snippets of how Doyle really thought as a young twenty something year old man. One little touch which is quite special is the original lines crossed out and reworking of sections. It’s always a treat to see how a novel is developed. I would recommend this book, but it didn’t blow my socks off.

BL x


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Filed under Book review, Victorian Lit

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