The Stark Munro Letters (1895)

by Mark Wallace

This book, now available free on the kindle, is one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s lesser-known works – a large category including all of Doyle’s considerable output bar the Sherlock Holmes stories and dino-adventure story The Lost World. This particular one is from 1895, a time when Conan Doyle had just killed off Holmes (only to bring him back a few years later) and was consciously trying to do more “serious” work – like many very popular writers he became obsessed with being “serious”. In line with this ambition, The Stark Munro Letters is a bildungsroman, or coming of age story, which is as focused on articulation of the intellectual development of the title character as on his actions. Stark Munro is an obviously autobiographical character – he is a newly qualified small-town doctor struggling to make ends meet, just as Doyle was in the early 1880s (the time in which the book is set).

There’s a degree of plot external to Munro’s musings, mostly concerned with a fellow doctor James Cullingworth, based on Conan Doyle’s onetime friend George Budd. Cullingworth is a man of great charisma and energy, but also selfish, unreliable, and even somewhat vindictive. He does seem to be another rumination by Conan Doyle on the Carlylean Hero doctrine, though a more ambivalent one than Holmes, because though Cullingworth is a Hero in the sense of being a man of many and great talents, he turns out not to have the moral fibre integral to the Hero. Cullingworth himself expounds a theory of the “properly balanced man” that is reminiscent of Carlyle:

A properly balanced man can do anything he sets his hand to. He’s got every possible quality inside him, and all he wants is the will to develop it. (loc 1144)

Cullingworth considers himself, as well as a doctor, a novelist and an inventor, and is convinced of his own mastery of all these fields. Recall Carlyle:

The grand fundamental character is that of Great Man; that the man be great. Napoleon has words in him which are like Austerlitz Battles […]. burns, a gifted song-writer, might have made a still better Mirabeau. (On Heroes, loc 1113)

Doyle subverts this theory by putting it in the mouth of the unreliable Cullingworth, and by Munro’s judgement that Cullingworth’s novel is actually of inferior quality, and his inventions lacking in practical utility. Elsewhere in the novel, Munro reflects on Genius, and considers Carlyle’s line that genius is “transcendent capacity of taking trouble, first of all” (Frederick the Great, Kindle: Library of Alexandria, loc 4882):

Carlyle’s definition always seemed to me to be a very crisp and clear statement of what it is NOT. Far from its being an infinite capacity for taking pains, its leading characteristic, as far as I have ever been able to observe it, has been that it allows the possessor of it to attain results by a sort of instinct which other men could only reach by hard work. (loc 48)

The reader may recall that Holmes also deals with this definition, but without referencing Carlyle explicitly: “They say that genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains […]. It’s a very bad definition, but it does apply to detective work.” (A Study in Scarlet, Chapter 3) Holmes is evidently acting as a mouthpiece for Conan Doyle here, as is Munro later. Conan Doyle is evidently interested in greatness as an intrinsic trait, as, in truth, was Carlyle, notwithstanding his emphasis in the quote from Frederick on “taking trouble”. Considering both Holmes and some Carlylean Heroes, it appears that intrinsic talent and work tend to go together, anyway: the Hero unites natural talent with moral fibre; the said moral fibre will compel him to work at his talent, and so achieve greatness. Holmes is both gifted and industrious: he finds his gift for “observation and inference” (“The Gloria Scott”) early in life, and hones it assiduously thereafter.

There’s another passage of reflection from Stark Munro closely recalling the great detective:

Most things on this earth, from a woman’s beauty to the taste of a nectarine, seem to be the various baits with which Nature lures her silly gudgeons. They shall eat, they shall propagate, and for the sake of pleasing themselves they shall hurry down the road which has been laid out for them. But there lurks no bribe in the smell and beauty of the flower. Its charm has no ulterior motive. (loc 1667)

Holmes makes similar remarks in “The Novel Treaty”, but goes so far as to conclude that “[o]ur highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers.” This has always struck me as an odd comment for the character to make, though it’s interesting that he makes it before several other characters involved in the case; it’s definitely unusual for Holmes to become distracted before clients/suspects in this way and start musing on irrelevancies – several scholars have written about this passage, and been puzzled by it, but none that I’ve read have haven’t mentioned the speaking-before-clients/suspects aspect. I’ll have to return to the story to see if something else is going on with Holmes here, beyond a genuine expression of his worldview. As I wrote earlier, Holmes’ advocacy for Winwood Reade in The Sign of Four indicates a sceptical viewpoint.

It’s in The Stark Munro Letters that Conan Doyle goes most substantially into religious questions. He has two basic convictions that he’s trying to work with and develop:

1 Religion in its then current state is inadequate and a tissue of half-truths and outmoded superstitions: “Is religion the only domain of thought which is non-progressive, and to be referred for ever to a standard set two thousand years ago?” (loc 206) “There was a time when it took a brave man to be a Christian. Now it takes a brave man not to be.” (loc 539)

2 Atheism is unthinkable: “The very existence of a world carries with it the proof of a world-maker, as the table guarantees the pre-existence of the carpenter. Granting this, one may form what conception one will of that Maker, but one cannot be an atheist.” (loc 414)

The second point is rather problematic, as Munro simply chooses an object for which we know there to be a creator (a table; creator: a carpenter), rather than one of the myriad objects which are not made by any identifiable entity (e.g. a rock) and gives this as proof that all things have a Maker. It doesn’t take a philosopher to identify this as very sloppy thinking; to which, in truth, Conan Doyle was quite prone. In any case, this is only the beginning for Munro. If Christianity is definitely misguided, but there definitely is a God, then how to comprehend and describe this deity? This is, undoubtedly, the difficult part. Where is the intellectual scheme that will make such a move possible? Here again we see the importance of Carlyle:

I had so identified religion with the Bible that I could not conceive them apart. When the foundation proved false, the whole structure came rattling about my ears. And then good old Carlyle came to the rescue; and partly from him, and partly from my own broodings, I made a little hut of my own, which has kept me snug ever since, and has even served to shelter a friend or two besides. (loc 402)

Munro’s religion is based on Nature: “Nature is the true revelation of the deity to man.” (loc 410) By attention to Nature, one can observe that “[w]isdom and power and means directed to an end” (loc 415) are everywhere apparent. One further  notes that “ALL is good, if understood” (loc 886). Munro reflects that “it is fine to think that sin may have an object and work towards good” (loc 923). Munro accepted that evolution explained development of biological organisms, but evolution was effect before it was cause (loc 421). There was something before and behind even this:

The survival of the truest is the constant law, I fancy, though it must be acknowledged that it is very slow in action. (loc 1515)

No; let me be frank, and say that I can’t make cruelty fit into my scheme. But when you find that other evils, which seem at first sight black enough, really tend in the long run to the good of mankind, it may be hoped that those which continue to puzzle us may at last be found to serve the same end in some fashion which is now inexplicable. (loc 857)

Munro’s philosophy is resolutely positive, it’s all about the “survival of the truest” and so forth. There’s no empirical evidence for this, though, as Munro implicitly admits when he notes that it’s “very slow in action”, and again in his discussion of cruelty. It’s very much a “leap of faith” doctrine, rather than one rooted in observation of the workings of the world and of Nature, as is claimed. The will to faith was strong in Conan Doyle, and the foreshadowing of his later spiritualist leanings are already very clear in Stark Munro, with its insistence on the divinity and moral purpose of all things, even where empirical evidence suggests quite otherwise.

In reviewing the book, I’ve written as if my experience of the book was very much abstracted from the reading of fiction as narrative, and focused on fiction as elucidation of ideas. But in fact, as a narrative I found this book very readable and interesting. I’m a sucker for late 19th-c., early 20th-c. bildungsromans: David Copperfield, Great Expectations, Jane Eyre, Portrait of the Artist, Of Human Bondage, This Side of Paradise, Tono-Bungay; more recently,  I discovered Paul Kelver by Jerome K. Jerome (definitely not a classic, but one I still found plenty of interest in). Given that predilection, I was always going to enjoy Stark Munro, especially given the vitality and simple elegance of Conan Doyle’s prose. For all his insight, however, the philosophy he tried to impose on life was, basically, bosh, and it was for this that he wanted the book to be judged. Some may find Holmes’ “true cold reason” a little arid, but Conan Doyle could with profit have applied a little of it to his own arguments in The Stark Munro Letters.

“The Religious Opinions of Sherlock Holmes”, A Case of Witchcraft