Diary of an Arctic Adventure
Arthur Conan Doyle
University of Chicago Press, 368pp, $35
Did you know that Arthur Conan Doyle, the famed and revered author of the Sherlock Holmes classic Victorian who-dun-it novels, took time off from medical school to ship aboard an arctic whaler? Surprise! For six months, he sailed on the Hope out of Edinburgh, north to the edge of the ice from near the North Pole and along the coast of Norway as the ship's doctor. Conan Doyle kept a meticulous daily record of activities aboard and in "the boats", both verbally and pictorially. The three notebooks in which Conan Doyle kept his record and comments were published last year, meticulously edited by Jon Lellenberg (the representative of the Doyle estate) and Daniel Stashower, who describes himself as an "author, scholar, 'gentleman'" (and occasional magician).
The book is lavish-ly produce in 368 12" x 12" pages. A preface summarizes the trip in current parlance and adds some background, followed by two hundred pages of facsimiles of the three notebooks which Holmes filled in long hand and frequently illustrated. The drawings are done in an unselfconscious and naïve style and, in spite of their often gruesome subject matter, are a very charming part of the book. (Conan Doyle missed only a single day's entry during the entire six months aboard.) Following the reproduction of the original diaries is 154 page annotated transcript, entry by entry, frequently accompanied by extensive footnotes. A four page index concludes the volume. This handsome volume is not designed for the weak of arm or lap. It weighs a little over three pounds (me on the household scale, with and without the book).
Conan Doyle provides endearing (and sometimes gristly) description of his shipmates' physical appearance, personalities, strengths and weaknesses, almost as if they were characters in fiction. Captain Gray is a man of great integrity, in contrast to the captains of competing ships of whom he has strong and critical opinions. Conan Doyle, as ship's doctor, deals with all the usual ship board injuries…falling down the open hatches, falling overboard, frostbite, removing various razor -sharp weapons from various parts of various bodies, fist-fights and over-indulgence in the usual spirits (from which he occasionally admits to suffering himself). There is only one fatality on board during the entire six months which speaks to the captain's decency and consideration of his crew who are made up of honest and upstanding men (as opposed to that of the vessel with which they compete, of course.)
They see (and kill) auks and other sea birds, narwhals, polar bears right whales, all manner of seals. Some of Conan Doyle's most charming drawings are of the arctic creatures. The book provides a terse but detailed window on a much maligned enterprise (in the modern view) and the reader can't help but mourn for the tragic loss of species but Conan Doyle's humane and circumspect witness helps the modern reader understand the times especially because he shipped with one of the most decent, cautious and moral man in the trade.