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Dangerous Work: Diary of an Arctic Adventure

Dangerous Work: Diary of an Arctic Adventure

4.5 2
by Arthur Conan Doyle, Jon Lellenberg (Editor), Daniel Stashower (Editor)

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In 1880 a young medical student named Arthur Conan Doyle embarked upon the “first real outstanding adventure” of his life, taking a berth as ship’s surgeon on an Arctic whaler, the Hope. The voyage took him to unknown regions, showered him with dramatic and unexpected experiences, and plunged him into dangerous work on the ice floes of the


In 1880 a young medical student named Arthur Conan Doyle embarked upon the “first real outstanding adventure” of his life, taking a berth as ship’s surgeon on an Arctic whaler, the Hope. The voyage took him to unknown regions, showered him with dramatic and unexpected experiences, and plunged him into dangerous work on the ice floes of the Arctic seas. He tested himself, overcame the hardships, and, as he wrote later, “came of age at 80 degrees north latitude.”

Conan Doyle’s time in the Arctic provided powerful fuel for his growing ambitions as a writer. With a ghost story set in the Arctic wastes that he wrote shortly after his return, he established himself as a promising young writer. A subsequent magazine article laying out possible routes to the North Pole won him the respect of Arctic explorers. And he would call upon his shipboard experiences many times in the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, who was introduced in 1887’s A Study in Scarlet.
Out of sight for more than a century was a diary that Conan Doyle kept while aboard the whaler. Dangerous Work: Diary of an Arctic Adventure makes this account available for the first time in a beautiful facsimile edition that reproduces Conan Doyle’s notebook pages in his own elegant hand, accompanied by his copious illustrations. With humor and grace, Conan Doyle provides a vivid account of a long-vanished way of life at sea. His careful detailing of the experience of arctic whaling is equal parts fascinating and alarming, revealing the dark workings of the later days of the British whaling industry. In addition to the facsimile and annotated transcript of the diary, the volume contains photographs of the Hope, its captain, and a young Conan Doyle on deck with its officers; two nonfiction pieces by Doyle about his experiences; and two of his tales inspired by the journey.
To the end of his life, Conan Doyle would look back on this experience with awe: “You stand on the very brink of the unknown,” he declared, “and every duck that you shoot bears pebbles in its gizzard which come from a land which the maps know not. It was a strange and fascinating chapter of my life.” Only now can the legion of Conan Doyle fans read and enjoy that chapter.

A special limited, numbered edition of the clothbound book is also available. In addition, a text-only e-book edition is published as Dangerous Work: Diary of an Arctic Adventure, Text-only Edition.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review
…for most readers Arthur Conan Doyle's time at sea is either entirely unknown or, at best, something of a mystery. But now that mystery is unveiled, and like the mysteries unraveled by Holmes himself, it is unveiled with elegance and style…What does Dangerous Work have in common with Moby-Dick? A few of a hundred possible answers: Both books disguise great depth beneath the cloak of an adventure story. Both offer accounts of what was once a major industry, comparable in relative terms to today's oil industry. Both should be read from cover to cover, shared with friends and revisited in front of a warm fire. And both, for different reasons, are books to treasure, the kind that kindle and rekindle a love of words and a feeling of irredeemable debt to the men behind them.
—Bill Streever
Publishers Weekly
Even if this diary of the 19th-century whaling ship Hope's Arctic exploits didn't come from Sherlock Holmes' creator, it would still make fascinating reading, especially for Patrick O'Brian fans. The editors provide a lucid introduction to a facsimile of the diary itself and Lellenberg's transcript of the text. Though Doyle, a medical student serving aboard as ship's doctor, was just 20 at the time, his gifts for writing and observation are already much in evidence, as when he observes "hillocks" of ice "rising and falling with the waves, pure white above and of a wonderful green below." Also included is Doyle's two-page listing of all the animals—from protozoa to right whales—he saw during the journey, which lasted from February through August 1880. Similar to Christopher Tolkien's work on his father's unpublished writings, this diary's publication adds both to the still-growing body of Doyle's early work and to our understanding of what made him tick. A Holmes story clearly influenced by the experience, "The Adventure of Black Peter," featuring a murder-by-harpoon, makes a nice extra. (Oct.)
New York Times Book Review - Bill Streever
 “What does Dangerous Work have in common with Moby-Dick? A few of a hundred possible answers: Both books disguise great depth beneath the cloak of an adventure story. Both offer accounts of what was once a major industry, comparable in relative terms to today’s oil industry. Both should be read from cover to cover, shared with friends and revisited in front of a warm fire. And both, for different reasons, are books to treasure, the kind that kindle and rekindle a love of words and a feeling of irredeemable debt to the men behind them.”
Daily Mail - Philip Hoare
“For 130 years, this amazing diary, written by the creator of Sherlock Holmes, has lain hidden. Only now have Sir Arthur’s descendants consented to its publication. It is probably one of the most exciting literary finds of recent years, for it sheds an entirely new light on a writer we thought we knew so well.”
New Republic - Laura Marsch
“[W]orthwhile not least for Conan Doyle’s whimsical illustrations. . . . In books by and about Arthur Conan Doyle, all roads lead to Holmes, and this book is, not at all regrettably, no exception. . . . Dangerous Work is the richer for showing not just Conan Doyle’s proto-Holmesian work, but also his tendencies to romanticize his experience and to enliven it with a well-chosen white lie. One of the most amusing things that emerges when all of his Arctic writings are brought together is just how often he revisited and revised his memories of the expedition.”
Boston Globe - Jan Gardner
“[T]here is something thrilling about reading Doyle’s observations almost straight from his own pen.”
Arctic Book Review
“This visually very pleasing volume is sturdily bound, beautifully printed, and very reasonably priced. . . . [I]t gives us a truly singular and delightful insight into the mind and habits of a man who would, not long after, bring to life two of the most enduring characters in the history of literature.”
Canadian Holmes
“[T]his is the perfect armchair volume for that looming Canadian winter—when thoughts of freezing gales and ice-strewn waters come naturally.”
Sherlock Holmes Journal
Dangerous Work is not just an exciting new insight into the life of Arthur Conan Doyle: it is itself a thing of beauty. . . . [It] is an essential volume for any Doylean’s collection, but it will also excite anyone with a taste for Victorian adventure and provide an inspiring source for scholars working on the life and times of Sherlock Holmes and his creator.”
Michael Dirda
“We revere Arthur Conan Doyle as the creator of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, but he was far more than just the great storyteller of his age: There was a streak of the adventurer in Conan Doyle’s make-up, reflected in his passion for boxing matches, outdoor sports, and war zones. While still a medical student, a very young Arthur shipped out for six months on an Arctic whaler, turning twenty-one just 600 miles from the North Pole. His diary of this ‘dangerous work’ makes irresistible reading, especially when annotated by two of the most knowledgeable Conan Doyle scholars alive. As a supplement, Jon Lellenberg and Daniel Stashower include four magnificent pieces of writing inspired by this youthful adventure: Conan Doyle’s reflections on ‘The Glamour of the Arctic’ and ‘Life on a Greenland Whaler,’ his most haunting ghost story, ‘The Captain of the Polestar,’ and one of the most dramatic of all Sherlock Holmes mysteries, ‘The Adventure of Black Peter.’ This is, in short, an important book for scholars, but also a tremendously exciting one for readers.”
Bookslut - Colleen Mondor
“This reissue of Conan Doyle’s original diary from his 1880 voyage on the whaling vessel Hope is fascinating both as a historical document and for its insight into the mind of a literary giant. . . . [Y]ou don't need to be a Conan Doyle scholar to enjoy the hell out of Dangerous Work. This is a title to read as literary and whaling history and, at its most basic, one young man's journey into a dangerous place and having his adventure. The University of Chicago Press rolls out the royal treatment for Conan Doyle with their design, providing an entire facsimile of the diary in the first half of the volume. The pages are sepia, Conan Doyle’s drawings are crisp, his maps are clear, his renderings of the Hope, the animals they encountered and his crewmates are all gorgeously reproduced (this is the kind of diary we all dream of keeping), and he tells his story in perfect script, on straight lines, in a manner that begs to be read.”
New York Reivew of Books
“[A]uthoritatively edited and annotated. . . . [A] lavish production, almost a coffee-table volume.”
“[A] rip-roaring account of [Conan Doyle’s] adventures as ship’s doctor on the Arctic whaler Hope.”

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University of Chicago Press
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8.80(w) x 9.90(h) x 1.50(d)

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Diary of an Arctic Adventure

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2012 Jon Lellenberg and Daniel Stashower
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-00905-6


"I came of age at 80 degrees north latitude"

On a march afternoon in 1880, a young medical student named Arthur Conan Doyle decided on a sudden impulse to suspend his studies and take a berth as ship's surgeon on an arctic whaler. The six-month voyage took him into unknown regions, gave him unimagined sights and experiences, and plunged him into dangerous and bloody work on the ice floes of the arctic seas. He worked harder under more difficult circumstances than he ever had before, he argued philosophy and religion with his shipmates, and he dodged death on more than one occasion. It proved to be, he said, "the first real outstanding adventure of my life."

"It came about in this way," he explained years later in his autobiography, Memories and Adventures:

One raw afternoon in Edinburgh, whilst I was sitting reading hard for one of those examinations which blight the life of a medical student, there entered to me one Currie, a fellow-student with whom I had some slight acquaintance. The monstrous question which he asked drove all thought of my studies out of my head.

"Would you care," said he, "to start next week for a whaling cruise? You'll be surgeon, two pound ten a month and three shillings a ton oil money."

"How do you know I'll get the berth?" was my natural question.

"Because I have it myself. I find at this last moment that I can't go, and I want to get a man to take my place."

"How about an arctic kit?"

"you can have mine."

In an instant the thing was settled, and within a few minutes the current of my life had been deflected into a new channel.

Conan Doyle was only twenty at the time, and in his third year of medical studies at Edinburgh university. "Speaking generally of my university career," he would recall, "I was always one of the ruck, neither lingering nor gaining – a 60 percent man at examinations." His typically self-effacing comment made light of a good deal of effort and accomplishment in the face of difficult circumstances. In later years he would declare with characteristic cheer that he had been raised in "the hardy and bracing atmosphere of poverty," but the remark glossed over considerable domestic turmoil and hardship, with the Doyle family changing addresses at least five times before Arthur was ten. Though it was a genteel poverty, his father Charles Doyle suffered for years from illness and alcohol, until the income from his surveyor's post ceased when he was only forty-four.

Somehow money had been found to provide young Arthur with a first-class education at Stonyhurst, a distinguished Jesuit boarding school in England, and upon graduating he felt the need to assume some of his father's responsibilities and contribute to the welfare of the large family. "Perhaps it was good for me that the times were hard," he wrote, "for I was wild, full-blooded, and a trifle reckless, but the situation called for energy and application so that one was bound to try to meet it. My mother had been so splendid that we could not fail her. It had been determined that I should be a doctor, chiefly, I think, because Edinburgh was so famous a centre for medical learning."

By now the first seeds of the Sherlock Holmes stories were sown. As a boy Conan Doyle had discovered Edgar Allan Poe, "the supreme original short story writer of all time," and would occasionally "petrify our small family circle" by reading his tales aloud. At Edinburgh University he had the good fortune to serve as an assistant to Dr. Joseph Bell, a physician whose powers of observation and diagnosis were spellbinding. At a glance Bell could often discern not only the nature of a patient's ailment, but also numerous details of his background and occupation. "To an audience of Watsons," Conan Doyle joked in later years, "it all seemed very miraculous until it was explained, and then it became simple enough." The future creator of Sherlock Holmes had already published one mystery story by the age of twenty, thrilled to receive three guineas for it when often he went without lunch in order to spend two pence upon a used book.

Conan Doyle's decision to sign onto the arctic whaling expedition, spontaneous and reckless though it undoubtedly seemed to his industrious and thrifty mother, afforded him a rare set of opportunities. He would indulge his budding taste for adventure, and be paid for doing so. At the same time, his six months aboard ship would give him a chance to nurture his growing ambitions as a writer. Before departing for Peterhead, the Scottish port where he would join the whaler Hope, he augmented Claud Currie's seaman's kit with several books of poetry, philosophy, and literature, as well as blank journals in which to record his impressions of the voyage. They would become a deeply personal chronicle of a young man testing himself as never before.

It is regrettable that he did not begin recording his impressions until the very moment the Hope sailed from Peterhead, as one would like to know also about the first eventful days. It would likely be entertaining to have a record of how Conan Doyle's hard-working mother reacted to the idea of her twenty-year-old son suspending his medical studies to go off on a hazardous junket. "Few people have any idea of the dangers incurred by whalers in the arctic seas," wrote the naturalist Francis Buckland in 1876: "the work they have to do is very perilous." Their ships occasionally had even to act as battering rams, he went on, "crashing a passage" through the ice by sheer force, for otherwise the ice would "impound them in a fearful prison, and subject them to all the horrors of an arctic winter."

It would also be interesting to have Conan Doyle's first impressions of the Hope's captain and crew, and of the arctic whaler that would be his home for the next seven months. The Hope had been built by Alexander Hall & Co. of Aberdeen in 1873, 45 feet 5 inches in length, 28 feet 1 inch in breadth, and 17 feet in depth. In 1882 it was chosen for a dangerous arctic rescue mission as "in all respects suitable for the work of the expedition. Strongly built, double-planked around the water-line, fortified within with iron frames, and shod with iron at the bow, she had a reputation even amongst whalers as being a ship of no ordinary capacities for encountering heavy ice; and those who sailed in her were fully persuaded that she was as good a ship for the purpose as could be procured."

It carried a crew of fifty-six, Conan Doyle mentions. Its crew list has not survived, but a comparable whaler, the Arctic out of Dundee, carried fifty-eight: its captain, the first and second mates (also serving as harpooners), a surgeon, a steward, a first engineer, a second engineer and blacksmith, three firemen, a carpenter and a carpenter's mate, a "specksioneer" to direct the cutting up of the blubber (also serving as a harpooner), two "fast" or master harpooners and two "loose harpooners" learning the trade, a cooper who also served as a harpooner, eight line-managers (whose skill at line-coiling could be life or death), six boat-steerers for the longboats, a boatswain, a "skeeman" to direct the storage of the blubber in the ship's tanks (both serving as boat-steerers also), a ship-keeper, a cook and a cook's mate, ten able Bodied seamen, five ordinary seamen, and three cabin-boys. the Hope's crew was roughly divided two to one between Peterhead men and shetland Islanders.

The Hope had been built to order for Captain John Gray of Peterhead, who was fifty years old at the time of this voyage. "I see him now," Conan Doyle remembered years afterwards, "his ruddy face, his grizzled hair and beard, his very light blue eyes always looking into far spaces, and his erect muscular figure. Taciturn, sardonic, stern on occasion, but always a good just man at bottom." John Gray and his older and younger brothers David and Alexander were scions of a Peterhead whaling family stretching back three generations. The "undefeatable Grays" anchored an industry which had reached its peak in the middle decades of the century, and was now tapering off amid concerns over diminishing whale populations. The grays responded to the challenge with both forward-thinking pursuit of conservation measures, and equipping their ships with steam engines in addition to sail, in order to push farther into arctic waters. By 1880 the industry had entered its years of decline, but Peterhead whaling, says an historian of the community, "persisted longer than it might otherwise have done because of the tenacity of the Grays. It is probably also true that whaling finally died not because of the industry ailing but because the Grays were failing physically." Both John and David Gray would sell their ships and retire in 1891.

This dismal end was still ahead as gray and his crew prepared for their voyage in 1880. Conan Doyle immediately warmed to the captain, who may not have known until their first meeting that his new surgeon was not the man he expected. "I speedily found," Conan Doyle would write, "that the chief duty of the surgeon was to be the companion of the captain, who is cut off by the etiquette of the trade from anything but very brief and technical talks with his other officers. I should have found it intolerable if the captain had been a bad fellow, but John Gray of the Hope was a really splendid man, a grand seaman and a serious-minded Scot, so that he and I formed a companionship which was never marred during our long tête-a-tête."

Though his time in Peterhead itself was brief, Conan Doyle grasped the degree to which the town's hopes rested on the success of her diminished whaling fleet. an article in Edinburgh's newspaper The Scotsman in 1902 offered a wistful look back at a time of "glory and of a great industry."

There are those living in the town today who can well remember the time when no fewer than 31 vessels left its harbours to engage in the fishing, and when many of its merchants drew much wealth from the previous cargoes with which they frequently returned. Those were great days, as one can readily imagine, for the Peterheadians. there were few of them in the forties and fifties of last century who were not connected in some way or another with the industry, whether as owners of the whaling craft, members of the crews, or engaged in the boilyards, where the "blubber" was manufactured into a saleable commodity. When the spring months drew on the townspeople were wont to turn out en masse to give "God speed" to the fleet as it left on the voyage northward; news of the progress of the fishing was eagerly waited for towards the close of the summer, and when at last the storm-beaten craft returned to the port with hulls deep in the water, as they often did in those days, there was great rejoicing and jubilation.

One study of the British whaling industry has calculated that during its three centuries of existence, at least 6,000 voyages out of thirty-five ports went to the Arctic, to either the "Greenland Ground" – the waters between the eastern coast of Greenland and Norway, out to Spitzbergen – or the Davis Strait west of Greenland, including Hudson and Baffin Bays. The Hope worked the Greenland ground, first the harp seal grounds off Jan Mayen Island north of Iceland, and then farther north to the whaling grounds. "The main target species was the 'Greenland whale,' 'Greenland right whale' or 'bowhead,' Baeaena mysticetus.... also hunted were belugas Delphinapterus leucas, narwhals Monodon monoceros, northern bottlenose whales Hyperoodon ampullatus, walruses Odobenus rosmarus, and several species of seals." Whalers spent six to seven months at sea each year, and from boyhood until retirement or death at sea never knew a normal summer below the Arctic Circle.

Standing on the Hope's quarterdeck as the fleet put to sea in 1880, Conan Doyle was swept up by the pageantry and tradition. "It was, I find by my log, on February 28 at 2 p.m. that we sailed from Peterhead, amid a great crowd and uproar," he would recall. The realities of life at sea made themselves felt soon enough. As the Hope headed north for Lerwick, the principal Shetlands port, it sailed into foul weather and menacing winds. "We just got into Lerwick Harbour before the full force of the hurricane broke," Conan Doyle recalled in his autobiography, "so great that lying at anchor with bare poles and partly screened we were blown over to an acute angle. If it had taken us a few hours earlier we should certainly have lost our boats – and the boats are the life of a whaler."

It would be more than a week before the weather calmed sufficiently. During that time Conan Doyle came to appreciate the Shetlanders' isolation on their remote archipelago. "I spoke to one old man there who asked me the news," he recorded. "I said, 'The Tay bridge is down,' which was then a fairly stale item. He said, 'eh, have they built a brig over the Tay?'" Conan Doyle did not care much for Lerwick, but the eleven days he spent there in early March saw the town at its most bustling and boisterous during the now-gone era of the Scottish whaling fleets. In 1923, an historian of the town asked:

How many can recall the days when in the early days of February and March the harbour was gay with a fleet of Greenland whalers, many of them fine-looking craft – brigs, barques, barquentines, mostly three-masted; steamers and sailing ships, some of them painted with portholes, to resemble ships of war; their flags fluttering in the breeze; their very-much-alive crews ashore, where they speedily got much more alive for a time, and afterwards half dead; when the town was filled with men from the country seeking to be taken on for the voyage; when the shipping offices were besieged day and night, packed with men who having signed on were being supplied with the many things needed for the arctic voyage?


Excerpted from DANGEROUS WORK by ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE Copyright © 2012 by Jon Lellenberg and Daniel Stashower. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) was a British physician and writer most noted for his stories about the detective Sherlock Holmes. Jon Lellenberg and Daniel Stashower are the editors of Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters and Conan Doyle’s first novel, The Narrative of John Smith.


Brief Biography

Date of Birth:
May 22, 1859
Date of Death:
July 7, 1930
Place of Birth:
Edinburgh, Scotland
Place of Death:
Crowborough, Sussex, England
Edinburgh University, B.M., 1881; M.D., 1885

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Dangerous Work: Diary of an Arctic Adventure 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
DagStomberg More than 1 year ago
Dangerously Fascinating - A young medical student hired as a ship's surgeon would become the author of the inimitable super-sleuth probably because in small part of this high adventure discourse. The glamour of the Arctic is experienced by a dazzling account. This publication is unbelievably fine! Dag Stomberg, St. Andrews, Scotland
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This gave a marvelous look into the mind, and heart, of the man who became the author of "Sherlock Holmes". What a gift!