The manuscript of The Narrative of John Smith was lost in the post on the way to the publishers and then rewritten by Conan Doyle from memory. Although he continued to revise the text and drew on various passages from it in subsequent writings, Conan Doyle never re-submitted the novel for publication, later claiming in jest: "my shock at its disappearance would be as nothing to my horror if it were suddenly to appear again – in print." Therefore, the text has been known only to a handful of scholars up to this point, but will now be published for the first time and serve as a rare insight into the author’s creative development and apprenticeship as a writer.
By the time Conan Doyle came to write the novel, he had had some success with publishing short stories in literary magazines. Increasingly frustrated, however, by the practice of many nineteenth century journals of publishing contributions anonymously, he decided that the only way to establish a literary reputation was, as he wrote to his mother, “get your name on the back of a volume”. The Narrative of John Smith represents Conan Doyle's first attempt to make the transition from short story writer to novelist and, as such, bridges the gap between his earlier work and the first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, published just a few years later. Semi-autobiographical in nature, the story focuses on John Smith’s period of confinement in his room during an attack of gout, and the work is essentially a series of reflections and conversations with his doctor, friends and other visitors concerning a range of contemporary debates on literature, science, religion, war and politics, which occupies the young Conan Doyle. Several ideas and incidents in the novel anticipate the Sherlock Holmes stories; for example Smith’s garrulous landlady, Mrs Rundle, is a precursor of Martha Hudson, Sherlock Holmes’s housekeeper at Baker Street.
The display in the Treasures Gallery showcases one of the four notebooks that comprise the manuscript of The Narrative of John Smith. Other items on display include letters to his mother describing his financial struggles and losing the novel in the post, and his ‘scientific and monthly magazine’ created in his final year at school at the age of 16.
Rachel Foss, Lead Curator of Modern Literary Manuscripts and co-editor of The Narrative of John Smith, comments: “Even almost a hundred years after Conan Doyle's death and with all of the fascination that surrounds his life and work, this publication and exhibition show that there are still new things to discover about this iconic literary figure. It's a testament to the richness of the Conan Doyle’s life and the archive he left behind him, of which this manuscript is a part, that we can still unearth such little known gems. We are indebted to the generous support and enthusiasm of the Conan Doyle Estate and I'm delighted that, through the British Library's publication and exhibition, we have been able to make this intriguing early work available to a wider audience.”
Jon Lellenberg, representative of the Conan Doyle Estate Ltd and co-editor of The Narrative of John Smith, says: “Dr. Conan Doyle, the struggling physician and writer, was fortunate his first attempt at a novel was unpublished in the 1880s. 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 who in just another year or so would create literature's best known character, Sherlock Holmes.”
Stephen Fry comments: “The breadth, depth and scope of Conan Doyle's knowledge and curiosity is often overlooked. He was the first popular writer to tell the wider reading public about narcotics, the Ku Klux Klan, the mafia, the Mormons, American crime gangs, corrupt union bosses and much else besides. His boundless energy, enthusiasm and wide-ranging mind, not to mention the pitch-perfect, muscular and memorable prose is all on display here in a work whose publication is very, very welcome indeed.”
Items drawn from the British Library’s extensive Conan Doyle collection, acquired in 2004, are on display in the Library’s Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery from 9 September 2011 until 5 January 2012.
As part of the activities surrounding the publication of The Narrative of John Smith, the British Library will also present a public event with best selling author, Anthony Horowitz, who has been commissioned to write a new Sherlock Holmes novel by the Conan Doyle Estate Ltd. The House of Silk will be published in November. At this event Horowitz will talk about the book, the characters of Holmes and Watson, and Conan Doyle’s achievement, with Roger Johnson, editor of the Sherlock Holmes Journal. The event will take place Sunday 27 November, 14.30-16.00, in The British Library Conference Centre, £7.50 (£5 concessions).
Book £9.95 (ISBN 978-0-7123-5841-5) / CD £20 inc. VAT
Monday, Wednesday-Friday 10.00 – 18.00, Tuesday 10.00 – 20.00, Saturday 10.00 – 17.00, Sunday and Bank Holidays 11.00 – 17.00. For further information about the British Library and its exhibitions please see: www.bl.uk/whatson