Wednesday, October 24, 2012

22. Colonialism

It's every man's business to see justice done.
"The Adventure of the Crooked Man"

As earlier posts (on multiculturalism, racism, and anti-Semitism) have shown, Conan Doyle was unafraid to explicitly address the very social forces that were transforming Europe, the Americas, and Great Britain during the waning days of the Victorian era. These elements do much to ground his prose historically, but also provide an opportunity to plumb that very same rich textual firmament that subtly (or not-so-subtly) challenged the status quo in ways that ranged from playful mocking to outright critique. The most interesting way in which this manifests is through a seemingly contradictory representation. For example, “The Adventure of the Crooked Man” exemplifies this by exploring a trend which runs through the Holmes canon in which characters wrestle with the idea of English colonialism. Demonstrating this, Yumna Siddiqi, writing in the journal Victorian Literature and Culture, notes how “Doyle’s unusually consistent way of representing the returned colonial reveals certain recurrent anxieties about imperialism.” 

Conan Doyle frequently (and publicly) declared his patriotism, and does not shy away from imbuing both Holmes and Watson with the same fervency. Moreover, though Conan Doyle, unlike characters like Watson or “Crooked Man’s” Colonel Barclay, did not ever see combat, his early travels certainly brought him in close contact with the vagaries of the British Empire during a crucial historical period. Later on, Conan Doyle would serve as a volunteer field medic during the Boer War. As Siddiqi remarks:

[Conan Doyle] viewed Empire as a vast, heterogeneous, global unity that inspired broad loyalties, and that could have a salutary effect on British manhood, countering the perceived degeneracy of turn-of-the-century English culture. Doyle was able to propound these views from the position of public visibility that his literary fame had given him. His friendships with Rudyard Kipling, Rider Haggard, Andrew Lang, and Robert Baden Powell also reveal something of his commitment to Empire, as does his membership in imperial societies such as the Legion of Frontiersmen.

 “The Adventure of the Crooked Man,” true to its title, is a tale of corruption, and Conan Doyle did not flinch from it. Though largely a product of a time when many believed it was the “burden” of the English to control as much of the peoples and territories of the world as possible. It is perhaps by virtue of his lack of colonial experience that Conan Doyle was able to interrogate its broader impacts (i.e., exploring the horrors of war, rampant profiteering, race- and class-based hatred and domineering violence) in a way that may well have been absent were Doyle too motivated by political or imperial fervor to see the negative aspects of colonial rule. As Siddiqi notes: “in these stories, Conan Doyle depicts the return of colonials in an ambivalent way, portraying some colonials as marginal, physically ravaged characters who threaten the peace” rather than conquering heroes, allowing the reader a unique glimpse into a changing world.

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