In the Bookcase


Arthur Conan Doyle vs. George Bernard Shaw

Does the name Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ring a bell with you? And what associates him with the Titanic? Ah! When I discovered this hidden piece of history, I couldn't imagine the wonderfulness I had stumbled upon!

At the time of the Titanic's wreck, Doyle was 52 years old. He was already well into his writing career (Sherlock Holmes) at the time and quite popular in the United Kingdom through his success. No, Doyle was not on the Titanic---thankfully he didn't have to live through that experience, but he was well-read on the subject through the newspapers. So, when one of his own fellow friends (also an author) wrote an argumentive letter to the editor of a popular newspaper, Doyle responded.

George Bernard Shaw was the friend spoken of, who started this debate in the newspaper exactly 1 month after the Titanic's sinking, in May 1912. His piece began by stating:

"Why is it that the effect of a sensational catastrophe on a modern nation is to cast it into transports, not of weeping, not of prayer, not of sympathy with the bereaved nor congratulation of the rescued, not of poetic expression of the soul purified by pity and terror, but of a wild defiance of inexorable Fate and undeniable Fact by an explosion of outrageous romantic lying?"

He believed that frivolous, poetic-sounding lying had been used, and true British morals hadn't been observed, by illustrating how in one of the lifeboats in particular, there was "One woman for every five men", which contradicted the "women and children first" rule. George Bernard Shaw went into how Captain Smith "paid the penalty" for steaming through the icefields at high speeds, with his life. He had other thoughts on certain other people who were aboard the Titanic, and dealt with them roughly. He ended this letter by saying:

"I ask, what is the use of all this ghastly, blasphemous, inhuman, braggartly lying?"

Here is where our favored Arthur Conan Doyle enters the scene! It was 4 days later, when he published a reply in the newspaper to Shaw's arguement.

"How a man could write with such looseness and levity of such an event at such a time passes all comprehension."

From the start, Doyle knows what he is writing about. He points out that although Shaw mentioned a lifeboat which contained 2 women and 10 men, the very next lifeboat contained 65 women out of 70 occupants. Doyle then counters Shaw's belittling talk of Captain Smith. He builds up the officers and the men of the orchestra which George Bernard Shaw had attacked. Arthur Conan Doyle's ended his letter by writing:

"But surely it is a pitiful sight to see a man of undoubted genius using his gifts in order to misrepresent and decry his own people, regardless of the fact that his words must add to the grief of those who have already had more than enough to bear."

The letters went on for anothor round, each man penning another reply and publishing it publicly in the newspaper. Reading the entire set of letters is quite fulfilling. You can read the complete letters online.

I don't know about you, but after finding these letters, and seeing where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stood on such a subject, I am very much more enthralled with his valor and opinions than before.

What do you think about this particular episode that is tucked away in history?

{Note: My last 2 posts on the Titanic are coming on Monday & Tuesday. Check back on each of those days!}

1 comment:

  1. Outside of the fact that Mr. Doyle was already my hero for Sherlock Holmes, I am now looking up to him so much more. The fact that George Bernard Shaw was his friend makes it even more uplifting. It's pretty easy, and human nature, to not correct our friends when they are wrong or ding something bad. Bravo Mr. Doyle!