Rodney Stone, by Arthur Conan Doyle

Rodney Stone cvr

With certain exceptions, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s non-Sherlock Holmes stories have been overshadowed by his most famous creation, but while it has its weaknesses his 1896 novel Rodney Stone (first serialised in The Strand and illustrated by Sidney Paget) is an enjoyable tour through Conan Doyle’s beloved Napoleonic War period, here focusing on the culture of English bare-knuckle boxing, topped off with a murder mystery.

It is a Bildungsroman charting the coming-of-age of the titular Rodney Stone, told from Rodney’s vantage point in 1851 looking back to his youth as a 17-year old in 1803.  When the story opens young Rodney lives in the Sussex village of Friar’s Oak, near Brighton on the London Road.  His father is a first lieutenant in the Royal Navy who has been away fighting Napoleon, until the Treaty of Amiens finds him without a ship.  Rodney’s best friend is Boy Jim Harrison, nephew of a retired boxer, ‘Champion’ Harrison, who is now the village blacksmith.

Rodney’s maternal uncle is Sir Charles Tregellis, on the surface a dandy, his primary concern in life the cut of his coat and the style of his cravat, but whose apparent superficiality hides a strong if enigmatic character.  He enjoys an enviable social network so when Rodney’s mother appeals to him he takes Rodney under his wing.  While visiting Brighton Rodney meets the Prince of Wales, Beau Brummell and Richard Sheridan; later in London his father takes him to see Lord Nelson to discuss the renewal of hostilities with the French, the possibility of a ship for himself, and a place for Rodney in the service.  There we also meet Lady Hamilton, shown to be a shallow self-centred creature.

At the other end of the social spectrum, Sir Charles is involved in a heavy wager on a boxing match with Sir Lothian Hume, a man as caddish as his name suggests.  A lively supper organised by Sir Charles brings together a number of boxers with members of the quality, the Prince Regent in attendance, where the terms of the bout are finalised.  Conan Doyle describes the evening, culminating in an impromptu bout between Boy Jim and Berks, a reprobate bruiser, in loving detail.

Sir Charles and Sir Lothian have past history, as they were involved in a tragedy two decades before when playing cards with Sir Charles’ close friend Lord Avon and his younger brother at Lord Avon’s house, Cliffe Royal.  The brother, who had won heavily from all the others, was found mysteriously dead the following morning, upon which Avon, the chief suspect, promptly disappeared.  Naturally these threads come together at the conclusion, with the mystery solved and injustices righted.

Conan Doyle was an aficionado of the ring, and his admiration for pugilism, despite the corruption that often damaged the sport (not a problem confined to boxing of course), is evident.  In it he sees the development of character and strength that are essential for the maintenance of national vigour, rendering it a kind of continuation of the courtly art of jousting by other means.  The fighting scenes, as well as a chapter describing a carriage race involving Sir Charles and Rodney, are dramatic, and the pen-portraits of the various strata of Georgian society are vividly rendered.

Rodney Stone carriage racing

Unfortunately a melodramatic thread to the plot undermines its realism, and therefore its credibility.  There is a lack of depth to the characterisation, the ponderous final explanations tie the various threads up too neatly, and psychologically the actions of characters often lack plausibility.  It beggars belief that a peer, even one suspected of fratricide, would arrange for his son from a secret marriage to be brought up anonymously by a blacksmith, be able to live in secret in his own house which conveniently has secret chambers, then feel obliged to expose himself when said son decides to take up boxing; and for the boy’s mother to live close by but not reveal herself even when drunk.  There is also a strain of antisemitism that was a product of the times, but is uncomfortable to read now.

Conan Doyle made a good deal of money from the book, and while it proved popular there is some merit in Martin Booth’s verdict in The Doctor and the Detective when he concludes that, like other of his historical works (excluding the Brigadier Gerard stories), ‘the inclusion of real historical characters such as Horatio Nelson and the Prince Regent was little more than a contrivance to capture the feel of the period.  In actual fact, they either bogged the story down or gave it an unfortunate literary pretentiousness.’

Pretentiousness is too strong a charge here, but it is true that the scenes with the Prince Regent and Nelson, while giving the author the opportunity to muse on the era, its habits (particularly its foibles), and its major figures, do feel like separate vignettes that slow the story virtually to a halt.  There is also an element of sentimentality, not least Conan Doyle taking the opportunity to celebrate motherhood, and while he is ostensibly praising Rodney’s, it is likely that he has his own mother in mind.

But the saving grace is the warmth with which the novel is written.  Conan Doyle’s affection for the times he is writing about shines through, and it is easy to forgive the faults in characterisation and plot, and the stereotypes.  Above all, he manages to pull off the trick of making the brutal and damaging enterprise of prizefighting seem noble even while conceding it had an ugly side.   In describing Rodney’s adventures he creates a world which had many faults but which, in his estimation, had more than its share of virtues, and his sincerity and enthusiasm are such that the reader is sorry to part company with it upon closing the book.


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