It was the Sherlock Holmes detective stories that made Sir Arthur Conan Doyle world famous and it is these stories that have assured his lasting fame. This would have surprised and vexed him since he himself believed that his greatest literary achievements lay in the field of historical fiction. In fact Conan Doyle’s belief was not unreasonable. His mastery of the historical fiction genre may well have exceeded his mastery of the detective story. The first of his historical romances, Micah Clarke, was published in 1889.
Micah Clarke is set against the backdrop of the ill-fated rebellion of the Duke of Monmouth in 1685. The accession to the English throne of the Catholic James II earlier that year had sparked fears that the new monarch intended to impose the Catholic faith upon the country. The rebellion went badly from the start and ended in abject failure.
The story is narrated by its eponymous hero to his grandchildren many years later. Micah Clarke is a brawny but intelligent and devout young man of twenty-one, the son of a junior officer in Cromwell’s famous cavalry in the Civil War. Micah’s own family is not immune from the religious divisions - his mother adheres to the Church of England while his father is a Dissenter. A chance encounter with a roguish soldier of fortune named Decimus Saxon leads Micah Clarke to set off to join Monmouth’s rebel army. The rebels being desperately short of competent officers Micah is soon appointed captain in a regiment of foot, although initially the regiment is little more than a ragtag band of enthusiastic rustics. The regiment is commanded by Decimus Saxon, now holding the rank of colonel.
The regiment is on its way to join Monmouth’s main army. Most of the action of the novel is concerned with the various adventures that befall Micah along the way, and those adventures include being kidnapped by smugglers, cast into a dungeon, pursued by the King’s dragoons, pursued by a pack of savage hounds and assorted other scrapes from which Micah barely escapes with his life. The culmination of the story is the bloody and disastrous (from the rebels’ point of view) Battle of Sedgemoor. Although the battle is not quite the end of Micah’s story - he has still to survive, if he can, the ferocious vengeance wreaked by James II on the rebels.
Micah is a devout Protestant but he is increasingly disturbed by the ferocity of the religious divisions among Monmouth’s supporters. Micah becomes more and more convinced that these quarrels are futile and destructive and that tolerance would be more Christian. He is also made somewhat uneasy by the fiery preaching of the more extreme Dissenters. Decimus Saxon on the other hand believes that this is a good thing - he believes that fanatics make the best soldiers.
Monmouth, as seen through Micah’s eyes, is equally complex. He is feckless, indecisive, unstable and cowardly but also well-meaning and generous. He is basically a reasonably decent man who happens to be hopelessly unsuited for the role he tries to play and catastrophically out of his depth.
Micah himself has a certain complexity. He is brave and keen to do what he conceives to be his duty but he has much to learn about life and about human nature, and about himself.
Like most historical novelists of his day Conan Doyle has his characters speak in a slightly archaic manner. If taken to excess this can be tiresome but Conan Doyle exercises a welcome restraint in this respect. The archaisms are just enough to give the flavour of bygone days without being distracting. They might not be terribly authentic but I personally feel that they are necessary, in moderation. It’s important in historical novels to make some attempt to convey the idea to the reader that these are not people of our own time. Their values and beliefs are not quite the same as ours. Their values and beliefs are not necessarily superior or inferior to ours but they are different. Conan Doyle was always able to capture this essential quality of historical fiction, of making us aware that we are dealing with a world just a little different from our own, and he was always able to do it subtly and unobtrusively.
On the whole his prose is lucid and lively with a good deal of wit. All of his historical novels contain a good deal of humour, and Micah Clarke is no exception. Conan Doyle took his historical fiction very seriously but he also intended it to be entertaining, and he succeeded admirably in that endeavour.
Don’t be put off reading this book if you know nothing about Monmouth’s rebellion. The author gives you all the historical background you need.
The White Company remains Conan Doyle’s greatest historical novel but Micah Clarke is an impressive example of the genre. It’s intelligent, complex and hugely enjoyable. Highly recommended.