Arthur Conan Doyle Looks on His Creation
Sir Arthur   
Conan Doyle

Shoulders brushed against shoulders,
elbows jostled one another,
bodies and voices compacted.

An enormous crowd clogged the entrance ways of George Newnes' publishing office, forcing the presses to leap into hyper-drive and churn out some 30,000 more copies than the previous release. That late-summer morning, the Strand magazine went into an unprecedented (and unsurpassed) seventh printing.

After an eight-year hiatus that the author intended to be far more permanent, Sherlock Holmes returned to bookshelves and coffee house debates. The Hound of the Baskervilles grasped popular imagination by the throat and refused to let go. Surprisingly, the greatest attraction of this new novel was not in its characters or plot, but in the foreboding atmosphere sustained through its serialization. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle owes that element of his gothic thriller to the unforgiving hills and bogs of Dartmoor National Park.

Dartmoor comprises a hefty chunk (368 square miles) of the South Devon countryside, characterized by high rolling hills and intermittent granite rock formations, known generally as tors, which were spared by the last glacial movement (18,000 years ago). Deforestation by Bronze Age settlers and intense south-westerly breezes make the terrain inhospitable to most tree species, except for meager clusters here and there about the lower lands. Rushes and bracken fill in the gaps. Sheep and cattle graze in solitude.

That utter isolation one feels hiking on the moor blended with the area's rich folklore of pixies, witches, and hell hounds fuelled Doyle's imagination. He sent his most famous creations—Holmes and Dr. Watson—headfirst into an unknown countryside, brimming with supernatural terrors. Doyle’s relationship with the moor makes this literary journey a particularly interesting one. Whereas other writers have dealt with the Dartmoor topography and populace from an insider’s perspective, Doyle approached the moor as an explorer, a curious outsider. Not only did his upbringing in Edinburgh offer nearly as much geographical displacement as a single island can afford, but his studies and adventures often lead him abroad to places as far removed as Vienna and the West African Coast. The Hound of the Baskervilles?

For more information on Doyle's life and works, check out the official website of his literary estate.

The provincial ways and superstitions of Dartmoor held a great curiosity for him though he barely scratched their surface in this novel. Hound draws its punch mostly from a fantasized version of the region's rugged landscape and overlooks its people almost entirely. None of the characters mentioned in this novel actually comes from the class of peasant farmers that then comprised Dartmoor's population. Instead the cast list include doctors, scholars, nobles and their servants.

Doyle's dislocation of the working class differs markedly from the works of Dartmoor's other chroniclers, namely Sabine Baring-Gould and Eden Phillpotts, who focused with painstaking detail on the people and customs. Doyle instead used an outsider's detachment to reinforce the fine mesh of suspicion and uncertainty fundamental to a rollicking mystery story. Thus dramatic effect, not realism, ensures that The Hound of the Baskervilles will remain for many the adventurer the ultimate representation in prose of the craggy wasteland, Dartmoor.

For a further discussion of how Doyle incorporates the perspective of the outsider into this text, continue with Approaching the Moor. If you are unfamiliar with the book or in need of a quick refresher, fear not! The full text of Hound including Sidney Paget's illustrations may be found here.

Copyright 2008 James M. Miller, Kenyon College.
All rights reserved.