An Entirely New Country
By Alistair Duncan
Reviewed by Maria Fleischhack
The Baker Street Babes
Being familiar with Alistair Duncan through the Save Undershaw campaign, I was very interested in reading An Entirely New Country, which is set against the backdrop of the ten years Arthur Conan Doyle spent at Undershaw, the house he designed and had built for his family in the 1890s. I had also read Andrew Lycett’s biography of Doyle and was curious to see how Duncan would write about those significant years in Doyle’s life.
An Entirely New Country is a detailed account of ten of the most important and productive years in the life of Arthur Conan Doyle. This window into the life of the author, sportsman, politician, husband, father and friend is framed by Doyle’s life in Undershaw, Hindhead; the home which he designed and had built for himself and his family and where he moved in 1897. The ulterior motif for the move to Surrey was the health of Doyle’s wife Louise, who suffered from tuberculosis. The healthy environment of Hindhead did indeed help her to live much longer than any physician had dared to hope. However, it is also known that Doyle fell in love with a much younger woman, who would eventually become his wife after Louise’s death. The difficult situation Doyle found himself in and the rather insensitive way in which he dealt with it is only one of the focal points of An Entirely New Country. Duncan manages to depict Doyle as the private man; the man who always consulted his mother before making any major and even minor decisions; the man who dined with royalty and who moved in the highest political and social circles; the man who stood up for a completely unknown man named George Edalji, because he believed he had been erroneously convicted of a crime he had never committed.
Duncan makes extensive use of contemporary newspaper articles, letters and diary entries to paint a very vivid and round picture of the beloved author. As pointed out by Mark Gatiss in the introduction to the book, Conan Doyle’s many roles in life are brought into focus and insights into his private life shed new light on Arthur Conan Doyle - the man. The book is a pot of gold where it comes to details and unknown facts about Doyle’s life, which add up to a much larger and more concise picture of a man who has done and achieved more than seems humanly possibly in one lifetime
An Entirely New Country is a biography, but Duncan’s subtle humour makes it much more than just a collection of facts and dates. The commentary on the different aspects of Conan Doyle’s life and interactions with his friends and acquaintances helps to see a much more private person; a person who failed his loved ones; who, despite his best efforts, did not always succeed; and a man, who did not particularly like his most famous and beloved character: Sherlock Holmes. Many things have been written about Arthur Conan Doyle, both good and bad; but Duncan’s book manages to offer a deeper understanding of the intentions and motivations of the polymath, who helped shape his times and who is still a well beloved and widely read author.
The book is a brilliant read, never boring and it leaves one with a very vivid image of Doyle at the turn of the century. Alistair Duncan added profoundly to the already extensive source material we have on Doyle, and I highly and whole-heartedly recommend the book to anyone who is interested in Doyle and his contemporaries.
You can buy this book in the Baker Street Babes Bookshop!