Death of Democracy and Rebirth of Aristocracy in Doyle’s The Poison Belt (1913)

by Mark Wallace

In my last post on The Poison Belt (1913), I wrote as follows:

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.

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Reading Belt, it seems that there 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.

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That point has since recurred to me in connection with another passage from the book, a particularly revealing one, I think, and one that has stayed with me more than any other from The Poison Belt. In this passage, Challenger, his wife, Roxton, Malone, and Summerisle are sealed into the former’s house, awaiting the death of everyone outside. Most of the people who are to die are at a great distance, but one is close by and in plain sight: Challenger’s chauffeur, Austin. Austin has already appeared in the book; he has been depicted as loyal and wholly devoted to Challenger. The discussion about him that I wish to discuss is as follows:

“By George, that poor devil of a chauffeur of yours down in the yard has made his last journey. No use makin’ a sally and bringin’ him in?”

“It would be absolute madness,” cried Summerlee.

“Well, I suppose it would,” said Lord John. “It couldn’t help him and would scatter our gas all over the house, even if we ever got back alive. My word, look at the little birds under the trees!” (Arthur Conan Doyle, The Poison Belt, Hesperus, 2008, 46)

And that’s that. They don’t bring him in, and he soon dies – or seems to at least. Why, then, has Challenger made no effort to save the life of his loyal servant of ten years’ standing? It’s not that he is wholly indifferent to the death of humanity. He has tried to warn them in a letter to the Times which was, of course, ignored. If he cannot perform the heroic duty of saving the whole world, then can he not at least fulfil the Carlylean dictum: “Do the duty which lies nearest thee.” The duty that lies nearest is saving the life of Austin, and Challenger has made no effort to do this. It seems not to have even occurred to him until now, when Roxton mentions in somewhat dismissive terms, inviting the rejection of the idea that arrives. Why?

It is obvious from reading the discussion of Austin, and from reading between the lines of the situation, that for Doyle’s characters there are two grades of human, and their lives are of different values. The classifying principle is, well, class. The working class and the gentleman’s class: Challenger, Roxton and Summerisle are all titled persons. Malone is not, but is a writer, and, as such, Doyle attributes him a dignity equating to that of Professors and Lords. We must recall Carlyle, a particular favourite of the young Doyle, here. Of the Man of Letters, Carlyle had written: “he is the light of the world; the world’s Priest;—guiding it, like a sacred Pillar of Fire, in its dark pilgrimage through the waste of Time.” So Doyle’s protagonists – Professors, Lords and Men of Letters – are the true elite, the aristocracy of talent as well as, for the most part, of title, the men worthy of inaugurating that new world that Doyle longs for.

Austin, representative of the untalented herd, must die. Doyle’s apocalypse is thus revealed as a class purge, leaving behind 20th-century democracy for a return to a primitive patriarchy under Challenger. His dominance is emphasized by the fact that only he is allowed a female companion. It is like the Primal Horde of Freud’s Totem and Taboo. It is a rejection of democratic tendencies for a return to history as the vehicle of Great Men.

And to complete our analysis here, we must again remember that the book was a straw in the wind, that it anticipated the slaughter of the WWI trenches, and that Doyle himself was to welcome that conflict, enlisting Sherlock Holmes, no less, as a vehicle for propaganda. In the famous closing lines of the Holmes story “His Last Bow”, the Great Detective, having just captured a German spy, proclaims:

There’s an east wind coming […], such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it’s God’s own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared

Even before the Great War began, I maintain, Doyle was in The Poison Belt considering with a sort of joy the regeneration of the world, the sacrifice of the herd, and the birth of a new aristocracy from the ashes of democracy. This was the cleaner, better, stronger land into which Challenger and his companions were almost born.

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