Book review

Twentieth-century Victorian: Arthur Conan Doyle and the "Strand Magazine," 1891–1930, by Jonathan Cranfield

Anne-Charlotte Mecklenburg

University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, United States

[0.1] Keywords—English literature; Modernism; Periodical studies

Mecklenburg, Anne-Charlotte. 2017. Twentieth-century Victorian: Arthur Conan Doyle and the "Strand Magazine," 1891–1930, by Jonathan Cranfield [book review]. In "Sherlock Holmes Fandom, Sherlockiana, and the Great Game," edited by Betsy Rosenblatt and Roberta Pearson, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 23.

Jonathan Cranfield, Twentieth-Century Victorian: Arthur Conan Doyle and the "Strand Magazine," 1891–1930. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016, hardcover, £75 (272p) ISBN 978-1474406758; e-book, £75, ISBN 978-1474406772.

[1] Jonathan Cranfield's Twentieth-Century Victorian: Arthur Conan Doyle and the "Strand Magazine," 1891–1930 joins a growing body of academic work on middlebrow literature at the beginning of the 20th century. As the title may suggest, this book tracks the intertwined histories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the Strand Magazine, the publisher of much of his literary work. In particular, Twentieth-Century Victorian aims to shift both the Strand and Conan Doyle out from under the shadow of Sherlock Holmes and, by extension, from the late Victorian moment in which the Holmes stories are set. It primarily focuses on the paired questions of first, how the Strand and Conan Doyle both became characterized as Victorian, and second, how to make sense of Conan Doyle's and the Strand's later literary output in the context of the 19th century without framing them as inextricably bound to that moment. While the book engages with the Holmes stories, its focus is on placing them within the larger context of the Strand as a whole and on reading them as moments in a longer history. For example, Conan Doyle's later writing on spiritualism is often seen, at worst, as an absurd departure from the worldview articulated in the Holmes stories or, at best, as the slightly embarrassing output of a man unable to translate 19th-century values into the 20th. Cranfield, in contrast, takes this turn toward spiritualism seriously and argues that both Conan Doyle and the Strand were offering their readers a type of radicalism, albeit of the "creeping, cumulative kind" that emerges from popular fiction (12).

[2] Twentieth-Century Victorian is organized chronologically, spanning the years 1891 to 1930. This period encompasses both the Strand's rise and decline in popularity and the majority of Conan Doyle's literary career. This chronological structure allows Cranfield to establish a set of key concerns at the beginning of the book that he traces through the subsequent chapters. Specifically, he focuses on the increasingly disparate ways in which the Strand and Conan Doyle registered the shifting role of institutions in public life. Cranfield pays particular attention to the interrelationships between a burgeoning consumer culture, technological developments and the professionalization of science, the British military, and institutionalized religion. One added benefit to pairing a discussion of the Strand with Conan Doyle's literary career is that it allows Cranfield to view these larger institutional structures through gradually expanding circles of analysis. For example, we can see in Conan Doyle's own fraught relationship with the Strand a negotiation between a particular author and the institution of the periodical press, even as both he and the Strand also attempted to map the shifting network of social structures in which they found themselves participating.

[3] The book's five chapters and conclusion track the relationship between Conan Doyle and the Strand, starting from a position of ideological compatibility (chapters 1 and 2), through a transitional period of ambivalence (chapter 3), to fundamentally differing world views (chapters 4, 5, and conclusion). Chapter 1 focuses primarily on the Strand's founding in 1891 and the beginning of its longstanding relationship with Conan Doyle. This chapter works to define the Strand's ideal middle-class reader; to position both the Strand and Conan Doyle in the context of the literary marketplace; and to discuss the Strand's founding political stance, a liberal optimism in social institutions. Chapter 2 covers the four years bridging the 19th and 20th centuries, focusing primarily on the Strand's response to the Second Boer War (1899–1902) and the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900. It specifically details the magazine's breakdown of faith in an institutionalized military during the Second Boer War and, given its anxieties surrounding national and imperial degeneration, its transference of that faith to the scientific establishment.

[4] The remaining three chapters and the conclusion track the increasing disparity between Conan Doyle's and the Strand's ideological projects. In the face of the upheaval of early 20th-century social movements and World War I, the Strand pursued a tone of light-hearted relief, exemplified by P. G. Wodehouse and influenced by early film comedies. Conan Doyle, in contrast, sought a way to reenchant a world that he saw as held hostage by institutionalized religion, scientific materialism, and increasingly globalized capitalism. Chapter 3 discusses the first decade of the 20th century, centered primarily around Conan Doyle's hesitation to resurrect Sherlock Holmes in 1903. Cranfield argues that in addition to the common explanations for his reluctance to return to Holmes—such as the tension between the commercial potential of Holmes and his own artistic aspirations—we can also understand Conan Doyle's ambivalence as a product of his politics. As he became increasingly politically radical during this period, Conan Doyle fell out of step ideologically with the middlebrow Strand. Even the Holmes stories that Conan Doyle did eventually produce, argues Cranfield, departed from his earlier work through formal and thematic experimentation, as well as more pointed critiques of traditional Victorian values.

[5] This separation between Conan Doyle and the Strand only intensified during the war and its aftermath, the period of time that occupies chapters 4 and 5. In several ways, this section can be read as the companion to chapter 2, in that it discusses the Strand's reevaluation of the values of chivalry and scientific advancement that had preoccupied the magazine during the turn of the century. For Conan Doyle, in contrast, science became both the cause of, and the possible cure for, the disenchantments of modernity. His novels The Lost World (1912) and The Land of Mist (1925) search for spaces that might allow for a reconciliation of faith, literary romance, and new technologies. The Strand similarly attempted to integrate older values of valor and national identity with new scientific models. The conclusion, which covers 1925 to 1930, the year of editor Herbert Greenhough Smith's retirement from the magazine and Conan Doyle's death, traces the Strand's shift in focus from technologies of war to those of entertainment.

[6] The book's underlying structure—of pairing discussions of the Strand's history with Conan Doyle's often independent literary trajectory—does an interesting job of formally mirroring Cranfield's own theoretical interest in the interplay between individuals and larger institutional systems. At times, however, these conceptual links between the Strand and Conan Doyle seem underexplored, as though the book were pursuing two independent subjects simultaneously. In part because placing these two histories in conversation with each other is such a productive avenue, it would have been helpful to bring the connections between them closer to the surface of the text and to knit the Conan Doyle sections and the Strand sections of each chapter together more explicitly.

[7] Another avenue for future work concerns the readers of Conan Doyle and the Strand. Cranfield spends some time referencing circulation data to provide an indication of readers' interest in the Strand, and he discusses reviews in other periodicals that engage with both the Strand and Conan Doyle's work. With these exceptions, however, Cranfield primarily refers to readers in the context of imaginary addressees of the texts under discussion. Given the book's investment in the interplay between the actual contents of the Strand and its imagined position in a wider cultural landscape, the magazine's real readers seem like a key piece that is missing from Cranfield's account.

[8] Because of the book's focus on the Strand and Conan Doyle from a primarily textual and historical perspective, scholars of Sherlock Holmes fandom may find that it provides a valuable context for the types of texts that readers and fans would have seen in conversation with the Sherlock Holmes stories. For example, Cranfield shifts our understanding of the Holmes stories themselves by reading them as firmly established within the system of domestic institutions discussed above. Scholars have often framed Sherlock Holmes as both policing and exemplifying a Victorian English ideal that was imagined to be under constant threat from imperial subjects, criminological types, emasculating forces, and other such elements. Holmes is seen as a limit case: a figure who is both unattainably more than ordinary citizens and dangerously intertwined with the forces that threaten them. Cranfield instead concludes that "Holmes's vaunted 'method,' then, was not necessarily something esoteric and unachievable for Strand readers, but rather a heuristic and ideological model that could be at least partially applicable to the moral practices of everyday life" (73). The book therefore offers a helpful lens on the Holmes stories by discussing them not only in the context of detective literature or criminology but also as unified pieces of the larger, multigenre bodies of work of both Conan Doyle and the Strand.

[9] The general reader of Twentieth-Century Victorian is left with a detailed understanding of the ways in which gradual changes in an organization's assumptions, interests, and constraints can manifest. The investments of the Strand of the 1890s become recycled and reinflected throughout the first three decades of the 20th century, as it attempted the simultaneous processes of both fitting new realities to old frameworks and evaluating old frameworks in the face of new realities. This book therefore may be valuable to readers interested in histories of the early 20th century that focus on industrial shifts, especially within the periodical press.

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