Book review by George Simmers: In 1891, at the same time that the first Sherlock Holmes short stories were appearing each month in the Strand Magazine, Doyle’s The White Company was being serialised in the Cornhill Magazine, a rather more staid and traditional publication.
Sherlock Holmes made Doyle famous and made him money, but The White Company was the sort of novel he had ambitions to be remembered by. It is a historical novel set during the Hundred Years War, and when it achieved book publication in 1892, it was in the traditional form of a three-volume novel – a format that was beginning to look old-fashioned.
The book starts with action, as the giant Hurdle John is expelled from a monastery for unruly behaviour . At the same time, young Alleyne Edricson is also leaving. Under the terms of his father’s will, he had been educated there, and is now leaving to get a year’s experience of the world. They join together with an archer called Aylward, who is setting off to join Sir Nigel Loring’s company, fighting for the Black Prince in France and Spain. The book tells the story of what happens to these three on the way to the war, and during the campaign.
I started reading this book when I was about ten years old. I was an avid fan of Sherlock Holmes at that age, and so I was eager to explore Conan Doyle’s other books. I got through a few chapters, I think, before returning it to the local library; it hadn’t grabbed me.
Conan Doyle had certainly done his homework. There are long descriptions of mediaeval costumes and armour, and he has clearly researched his military history and his social history. The book sets out to display the mediaeval age. It is packed full of larger-than-life characters, each of them showing off some aspect of medieval life. They are mostly rumbustious, and usually defined by one characteristic. Hurdle John is huge and can lift anything, Aylward is always chasing women; Sir Oliver is a great eater, and so on. The most striking encounter is when Alleyne finds two ‘masterless men’ viciously attacking an old woman. Later these are executed with summary justice by the Bailiff of Southampton and his men. The description of the execution of the miscreants suggests a darker and more complex novel that Doyle might have written:
Alleyne gazed upon the scene—the portly velvet-clad official, the knot of hard-faced archers with their hands to the bridles of their horses, the thief with his arms trussed back and his doublet turned down upon his shoulders…. Even as he looked one of the archers drew his sword with a sharp whirr of steel and stept up to the lost man. The clerk hurried away in horror; but, ere he had gone many paces, he heard a sudden, sullen thump, with a choking, whistling sound at the end of it. A minute later the bailiff and four of his men rode past him on their journey back to Southampton, the other two having been chosen as grave-diggers. As they passed Alleyne saw that one of the men was wiping his sword-blade upon the mane of his horse. A deadly sickness came over him at the sight, and sitting down by the wayside he burst out weeping, with his nerves all in a jangle. It was a terrible world thought he, and it was hard to know which were the most to be dreaded, the knaves or the men of the law.
Later, the book will become a straight conflict between goodies (English, mostly) and baddies (foreign, by and large) and the moral ambiguities of this incident will not be developed further.
Doyle knows his Chaucer, and there is a pardoner straight out of the Canterbury Tales. But there is no Wife of Bath. The women in this novel are mostly charming and passive, just waiting devotedly for their husbands to come back from the wars. The one exception is a strange lady given to visions and prophecy. She foretells the doom of the campaign, but also has a vision of the far distant future, and the glory of the British Empire.
There is plenty of action, in the book, because most of the characters enjoy nothing more than fighting, but the first half of the novel goes rather jerkily, from event to event; things happen to the characters, but do not change them. Doyle is brilliant at the kind of short story where characters need to be clearly drawn and memorable, but he does not seem able to deal with the long form of the novel, where characters need to develop in the face of the challenges they meet.
The book perks up considerably when Sir Nigel’s company takes ship for France, and there is a tremendous description of a sea-fight against pirates. The adventurers meet the Black Prince, who is as uncomplicatedly noble as you would expect a great English hero to be, and head south to join up with the White Company,with the intention of fighting in Spain.
There is another terrific set-piece when they stay as guests in a castle that is attacked and set fire to by a mob of angry peasants and ‘masterless men’. These are like the destructive mobs that are found in the historical novels of Scott and Dickens that Doyle was emulating. Sir Nigel and his men manage to defeat them, however.
Sir Nigel is a remarkable character. Once again he has one dominant characteristic, his devotion to chivalry. He is not physically impressive (‘Sir Nigel was a slight man of poor stature, with soft lisping voice and gentle ways.’) but his courage is astounding. When we first meet him, he faces a bear that has come unloose from its shackles. Everyone else panics but:
Sir Nigel alone, unconscious to all appearance of the universal panic, walked with unfaltering step up the centre of the road, a silken handkerchief in one hand and his gold comfit-box in the other. It sent the blood cold through Alleyne’s veins to see that as they came together—the man and the beast—the creature reared up, with eyes ablaze with fear and hate, and whirled its great paws above the knight to smite him to the earth. He, however, blinking with puckered eyes, reached up his kerchief, and flicked the beast twice across the snout with it. “Ah, saucy! saucy,” quoth he, with gentle chiding; on which the bear, uncertain and puzzled, dropped its four legs to earth again, and, waddling back, was soon swathed in ropes by the bear-ward and a crowd of peasants who had been in close pursuit.
On seeing this, the huge Hurdle John, who had been sceptical on first sight of the knight, says:
‘I was a fool not to know that a little rooster may be the gamest. I believe that this man is indeed a leader whom we may follow.’
Sir Nigel sees every event as an opportunity to gain honour and express his chivalric nature; he never turns away from a fight, and at the end leads his White Company into a battle which he might have avoided by retreating. I think that Doyle wants us to admire him for this.
The battles at the end of the book are, once again, compelling reading. There is a lot to enjoy in this book, but it does expose Doyle’s weaknesses. He creates memorable characters, and describes action thrillingly. But in this book at least, he lacks the most essential skill of the novelist – to show events that challenge and develop his characters. Everyone in The White Company is just the same at the end of the book as they were at the start, even young Alleyne, who has been through a lot and has seen much, never shows signs of having been fundamentally challenged or transformed by his experiences. The end of the book is perfunctory, with a convenient death ensuring Alleyne’s prospects, and a none-ttoo-credible miraculous return from presumed death to give afeelgood atmosphere to the conclusion.
I’m glad that I finally got round to finishing this book – but I do not think that it is one that I shall be returning to, as I do to the Sherlock Holmes stories, frequently, and with undiminished pleasure.
Interesting to read this post as I remember seeing it on the shelves at my Granny’s and I never opened it because I didn’t like the title! One knew where one was with The Upper Fourth at Malory Towers.
Conan Doyle clearly had ambitions to be more literary than “merely” a writer of detective fiction. As I recall he also wrote a novel about Sir Nigel, presumably the one in this book. How entertaining that he insisted on writing a three-volume novel! Rather as if a 20th century author refused to have their book published as one of those nasty paperbacks!
This is definitely one to look out for.