Round the Red Lamp by Arthur Conan Doyle (1894)

Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes in The Adventure of the Final Problem (December 1893). He continued knocking out short stories at a rate of about one a month until he had enough to collect in Round the Red Lamp, Being Facts and Fancies of Medical Life. The idea of writing a set of stories based on his medical training and experiences as a doctor had been suggested by Jerome K. Jerome two years earlier when he was editor of The Idler but in fact the volume rather confusingly pads out the medical stories with a few fantasy yarns, namely the original Egyptian-mummy-comes-to-life story, Lot No.249.

The stories are anything but art. They are short and entertaining in themselves but also shed fascinating light on the mindset of the late Victorian era: on patriotism, marriage, the Woman Question – as well as on their ostensible subject, the life and practice of a late Victorian doctor.

(The title derives from the red lamp which was the usual sign of the general practitioner in England at the time.)

  • Behind the Times (October 1894) Comic, warm-hearted memoir of an old-fashioned doctor way behind modern scientific times, but with a magical healing touch and bedside manner.
  • His First Operation (October 1894) Comic, warm-hearted memoir of a young student attending his first operation and fainting.
  • A Straggler of ’15 (March 1891) A patriotic portrait of Corporal Gregory Brewster, last survivor of the battle of Waterloo.
  • The Third Generation (1894) Seasoned Dr Horace Selby is visited by Sir Francis Norton who, it quickly tanspires, is infected with syphilis. He explains the taint comes from his hard-living Regency grandfather. He is due to marry the following week. The doctor suggests creating a sudden reason to go abroad and cancel the nuptials. But next morning Dr Selby reads that the noble aristocrat has thrown himself under the wheels of a heavy dray and died, in order to spare the damsel and kill the hereditary taint. True Brit.
  • A False Start (December 1891) 3rd person. Comedy about young Dr Horace Wilkinson who has several false starts of first patients including the gas man and an impoverished gypsy before he called quite by mistake to the house of the local millionaire. Turns out to be a comedy case of mistaken identity in which Wilkinson shines nobly.
  • The Curse of Eve (October 1894) The nondescript life of Robert Johnson, gentleman’s outfitter, is turned upside down when his wife begins her labour. He chase all over town for one doctor, and then again for a second opinion. After an all-night vigil, his son is delivered. ‘Lives had come and lives had gone, but the great machine was still working out its dim and tragic destiny.’
  • Sweethearts (October 1894) The doctor in a seaside town meets an old man on a bench who wastes and declines over three consecutive days. Finally he reveals it is because he is waiting for his wife, his childhood sweetheart, to return. I wonder whether Conan Doyle’s readers found this sickly sweet, or lapped it up.
  • A Physiologist’s Wife (September 1890) 3rd person. Social comedy/satire in which cold-hearted rationalist and scientist Professor Ainslie Grey marries one Mrs. O’James. A younger colleague is due to marry his daughter, until he meets the new Mrs Grey and is stunned to realise she is his first wife from Australia who ran off and left him and was drowned in a shipwreck. In fact she didn’t take the boat but came to England to start a new life. Cold rationalist Professor tells them to go be happy and reunited. He dies of a broken heart.
  • The Case of Lady Sannox (November 1893) A dashing surgeon is having an affair with a high society lady, is called late at night to operate on the wife of a Turkish merchant; he horribly disfigures the woman, then it is revealed it is his high-born lover and the merchant her husband who has taken a horrific revenge.
  • A Question of Diplomacy (summer 1892) Comedy. The Foreign Secretary, laid up with gout, is outwitted by his wife who arranges for his daughter’s fiance to get a position in Tangiers and for the daughter to accompany him and for them to get married asap, all against the FS’s wishes.
  • A Medical Document (October 1894) Three old doctors – a GP, a surgeon and an alienist – sit around discussing eerie cases. There’s passing reference to the way popular fiction uses very rare or vague conditions (‘brain fever’) but rarely actually common diseases (typhoid). And how fiction rarely uses those outbreaks of vice which are so common. I think he’s talking about sex.
  • Lot No.249 (September 1892) Horror. At an old Oxford college a fat evil undergraduate has been conducting experiments, bringing a 4,000 year old mummy back to life, and increasingly using it to terrorise his enemies – before a steady young sporting chap steps in and stops it.
  • The Los Amigos Fiasco (December 1892) A short light-hearted comic-horror piece about a town which tries to execute a man with electricity by increasing the voltage, but only succeed in giving him superhuman life.
  • The Doctors of Hoyland (1894) Dr James Ripley of Hoyland in Hampshire is astonished when a lady doctor moves to the town. Quickly she establishes herself a practice and ends up treating Ripley himself after he fractures his leg falling from a carriage. His initial sexist resistance to a female doctor is completely overcome by close experience of her ability and he inevitably falls in love with her. Thankfully, Conan Doyle foresees the utter hopelessness of such a resolution and has her remaining devoted to Science, departing for further education in Paris, leaving the country doctor sadder and wiser.
  • The Surgeon Talks (October 1894) Like A Medical Document this consists of paragraph-long anecdotes: how they removed the ear from the wrong patient; how most people receive the diagnosis of impending death nobly etc. The woman who hides her cancer form her husband. ‘…Besides, [a doctor] is forced to be a good man. It is impossible for him to be anything else. How can a man spend his whole life in seeing suffering bravely borne and yet remain a hard or a vicious man? It is a noble, generous, kindly profession, and you youngsters have got to see that it remains so.”‘
The Doctor by Luke Fildes (1891)

The Doctor by Luke Fildes (1891)

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2 Comments

  1. Brigadier Gerard by Arthur Conan Doyle | Books & Boots
  2. The short stories of Arthur Conan Doyle | Books & Boots

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