Our book today is Arthur Conan Doyle’s lovely little 1907 ditty Through the Magic Door, which is organized along the conceit of Doyle taking readers on a tour of his book-lined study – pointing out first this title, then that one, and letting the reminiscences and digressions bubble forth just as they would in a face-to-face encounter. The whole thing is artifice of the archest sort, of course, but Doyle owed a great deal of his success to his ability to make the arch seem impromptu, and the illusion cast here of sitting in the great man’s library while talking books is very pleasantly convincing. Even when Doyle later attached a preening and self-conscious preface to a reprint of the volume, the spell still isn’t broken: we’re still transported into the company of a busy man who counted reading as his life’s greatest pleasure and support and liked nothing more than talking about books. Through the Magic Door amounts to one thumping long monologue. I’d pay good money to watch Robert Hardy perform it, as I once paid good money to see Eileen Atkins perform its close cousin of a book, A Room of One’s Own. What Doyle lacks in Woolf’s shimmering brilliance he makes up in the friendliness she so conspicuously lacks.
This is such a friendly book! Doyle isn’t talking here about any of the new stuff that came to him in the mail every day, the unknown authors, the experiments, the writers hoping for a favorable nod from one of the best-selling authors of his day. No, he’s talking about the books that shaped him, the books he turns to when he needs things consoled, or reaffirmed, or simply stated better than he could state them himself. This is necessarily a melancholy framework, and Through the Magic Door is an intensely melancholy book in its way – it’s clear that no Doyle won’t allow any books he might read in the future to equal these that fill his past, books written by his heroes (his heroes by virtue of the fact that they wrote these books), by mighty idols like Oliver Wendell Holmes, whom he almost met: “It was one of the ambitions of my lifetime to look upon his face, but by the irony of Fate I arrived in his native city just in time to lay a wreath upon his newly-turned grave.”
Macaulay is here (Doyle wishes he’d written historical novels!), and Boswell (Doyle wonders if we’d remember Johnson at all if it weren’t for his biographer’s “Scotch persistence”), and Pepys – George Borrow is here, author of the now-forgotten Wild Wales, a strange man full of miscellaneous hatreds who excites a strange sympathy from our gregarious author. Hazlitt is here, and Richardson, and Fielding. Of course there’s Walter Scott, whose Ivanhoe is rated the second-best historical novel ever written (#1 isn’t explicitly named, but knowing Doyle it’s not hard to guess). Edward Gibbon is praised to the rafters – or rather, the work is. The man himself is sacrificed on the altar of his enormous book:
Some men are greater than their work. Their work only represents one facet of their character, and there may be a dozen others, all remarkable, and uniting to make one complex and unique creature. It was not so with Gibbon. He was a cold-blooded man, with a brain which seemed to have grown at the expense of his heart. I cannot recall in his life one generous impulse, one ardent enthusiasm, save for the Classics.
As might be expected in a recollection of lifetime’s reading, Doyle’s opinions are blasted all over the book, delightfully, on every page. Some of them are eerie (in that later Preface, penned at the end of the First World War, he calmly mentions “the certainty that the old cycle will come round once more”), but the vast majority of them are pugilistically hopeful:
I confess to having a a strong belief in the critical discernment of the public. I do not think good work is often overlooked. Literature, like water, finds its true level. Opinion is slow to form, but it sets true at last. I am sure that if the critics were to unite to praise a bad book or to damn a good one they could (and continually do) have a five-year influence, but it would in no wise affect the final result. Sheridan said that if all the fleas in his bed had been unanimous, they could have pushed him out of it. I do not think that any unanimity of critics has ever pushed a good book out of literature.
Doyle must certainly have believed all that, especially when thinking about his own writing. He disliked those amorphous critics (those fleas!) in part because he had a life-long animation against the variety of snob he was convinced they were, but those critics were by-and-large very happy with The White Company and Sir Nigel (and so would Scott have been, and so would you be), which have all but vanished from literature, while Sherlock Holmes sails along, stronger (albeit less recognizable) than ever. That kind of unpredictability is sternly banished from Through the Magic Door; here, the reading mind is urged only back, into reflection, into appreciation, into savoring. Doyle’s contention – one of them, anyway, was that every reader has a core-group personal library filled with just such past glories, the books we already know can never disappoint us. And he was right about that.