Heroism, Conventionality and Living with Death: Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt (1913)
by Mark Wallace
My last post was on John Buchan’s gripping WWI propaganda thriller, Greenmantle (1916), and this review deals with that book’s near contemporary The Poison Belt (1913) by Arthur Conan Doyle. Another thing that Belt and Greenmantle have in common is the status of sequel – sequel, in both cases, to a much better known novel. While Greenmantle had The 39 Steps for a precursor, Belt, a slim novella in form, follows on from The Lost World (1912), Doyle’s famous tale of explorations in the South American jungle leading to the discovery of a dinosaur-inhabited plateau. It is a sequel in the sense of characterological continuity: Professor Challenger, Lord John Roxton, Edward Malone (the narrator) and Professor Summerlee are once again the protagonists, together again for the first time since their jungle adventures.
I placed the four protagonists in that particular order because there is an implicit hierarchy in Doyle’s character dynamics. Challenger is obviously the leader of the group, a domineering, blustering man whose intuitions and theories always turn out to be right. It is he who sets the plot in motion by calling his erstwhile companions to his dwelling with variations on the following telegraph:
Malone, 17 Hill Street, Streatham. – Bring oxygen. – Challenger. (Arthur Conan Doyle, The Poison Belt, Hesperus, 2008, 9)
The peremptory and terse nature of Challenger’s communication recalls Holmes’ famous telegraph to Watson in “The Adventure of the Crooked Man” (1923):
Come at once if convenient – if inconvenient come all the same. – S.H.
Watson does come, of course, and so does Malone (with a canister of oxygen). So the Challenger-Malone dynamic echoes the Holmes-Watson dynamic, involving boundless admiration and unquestioning obedience on one side, an unreflective assumption of superiority on the other. On their first meeting in Belt, Malone writes:
He gave me the amused handshake and encouraging smile which the headmaster bestows upon the small boy. (17)
In our unheroic days, an adult putting himself in the position of a small boy with regard to another man is odd, but one can’t have a Hero without followers who follow unquestioningly.
Challenger isn’t exactly Holmes, though. He’s much more obnoxious. He’s overbearing and pigheaded, as well as pompous and conceited. But, on the other hand, he’s always right, so he gets away with his bad behaviour. Challenger is a much later creation than Holmes (first appearance 1912 as opposed to 1887), and the change in Doyle’s conception of heroism probably relates to his own personal progression from a young single man, struggling to make ends meet on the margins of two professions (doctor and writer) to wealthy, highly respected country squire and paterfamilias. Where once heroism came couched in the fin-de-siecle bohemianism of the detective, now it is a characteristic of the blustering and autocratic country gentleman. Holmes’ indifference to his relationships with others is replaced by Challenger’s demands for obedience. Unlike Holmes, Challenger is married, and he treats his wife like a child (into which role she slips with great enthusiasm in Doyle’s characterization). There is a certain conventionality about Challenger’s situation (also as a Professor, he’s an establishment figure, which Holmes isn’t) that makes him less attractive and less worthy, one might feel, of Hero-worship.
Once the Professor has all his friends together, he informs them that the earth has entered the eponymous poison belt, which explains the odd behaviour that everybody has been exhibiting. In fact, the “ether” has been poisoned and everybody’s going to die. That’s what’s the oxygen’s for, so Challenger, Roxton, Malone and Summerbee can counteract the effects of the poison, for a while, at least. The plan is to watch everybody else die from Challenger’s hilltop residence and then prepare themselves for a dignified exit.
Insofar as Belt is a novel of ideas, the main idea is that of the beauty of death. Death, as Challenger expostulates, and the others come to agree, is not the end:
“The physical body has rather been a source of pain and fatigue to us. It is the constant index of our limitations. Why then should we worry about its detachment from our psychical selves?” (53)
That all death including mass death should be looked on with equanimity is the thrust of the book. Indeed, had it been published a year or two later I would be sorely tempted to see it as a propaganda exercise justifying and glorifying WWI. Each time Doyle writes of the beauty of his armageddon it seems as if he is talking about the near future, about the wholesale slaughter of the trenches that was just around the corner, as if he is trying to convince the reader and himself that it is all for the best. Towards the end, he writes:
Surely we are agreed that the more sober and restrained pleasures of the present are deeper as well as wiser than the noisy, foolish hustle which passed for enjoyment in the days of old. (88)
Doyle was, it seems, more influenced by his own notoriously credulous spiritualist beliefs than anything else. With the advent of war, however, Belt became timely in a way that its author apparently did not predict. Here was the armageddon Doyle’s characters had longed for. Reading Belt, it seems that their was already something in the air, that Europe could see it coming, and was bracing itself for death on a wider scale than had ever been seen. Think of this novel as a straw in the wind, a demonstration of Raymond Williams’ concept of the structure of feeling, which is given expression in literature before becoming an acknowledged part of the general experience.