The Hound of the Baskervilles

The Hound of the Baskervilles is perhaps the most well-known of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, certainly it is the most adapted for film or TV.  When it was written in 1901, Arthur Conan Doyle had not written a Sherlock Holmes story for 8 years.  To all intents and purposes, Holmes was lying dead at the bottom of the falls as described in The Final Problem.  Conan Doyle worked around this issue by introducing the reader to a new mystery which took place before Holmes’ death.  The Hound of the Baskervilles is a tale well-known to most of us.  Dr Mortimer asks Holmes to look into the inexplicable and sudden death of Sir Charles Baskerville of Baskerville Hall in Dartmoor.  Sir Charles made Dr Mortimer aware of a family legend of the curse of the Baskervilles involving a large and bloodthirsty hound supposed to roam the moor.  Mortimer saw the paw prints of a “gigantic hound” at the place where Sir Charles died and is concerned for Sir Charles’ heir, a young Canadian, Sir Henry Baskerville.   Holmes sends Watson to Dartmoor to act as bodyguard to Sir Henry, investigate and report back on a daily basis by telegram.  Watson does a good job of describing the various residents of the moor and the goings-on in this eerie landscape. The story includes an escaped convict from a local prison, assumed identities, cruelty, family intrigue, ambition and the use of the landscape as a means to torment and frighten.  It is an atmospheric story, full of suggestion and strange noises breeding anxiety in the reader.  Conan-Doyle makes great use of the landscape and weather conditions to create a feeling of terror.  Needless to say in the end, Holmes steals Watson’s thunder and solves the case with seeming ease.

I don’t know whether Arthur Conan Doyle felt inspiration from the landscape around his home, but according to WR Trotter in “The Hilltop Writers”, he was joined in Hindhead/Haslemere by several other literary heavyweights around the turn of the century.  There was a 10 year period when writers such as Grant Allen, George Bernard Shaw, George Elliot, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Margaret Oliphant and Christina Rossetti and others moved here permanently or stayed for extended periods.  With the industrial revolution came not only the railway, but also advances in printing and communications which allowed these writers to live in such wild country while remaining within easy reach of the capital city.  Whenever there is a congregation of talent they invariably feed off each other and for a while Hindhead and Haslemere became a hub of intellectual activity that included artists and scientists as well as writers.  The solitude of the hills, heaths and common land will have offered a welcome interruption to writing; a landscape to inspire.

The National Trust bought the Hindhead Commons and the Devil’s Punch Bowl soon after its inception at the instigation of Sir Robert Hunter, one of its founders.  Hunter lived in Hindhead and was often found walking on the common.  Arthur Conan Doyle was a member of the first Hindhead Commons Committee and often walked out with Hunter (according to The National Trust).  Conan Doyle was an incredibly active man and known as an able sportsman, so I can imagine he took solace in the exercise the landscape afforded.

I have walked there in all weathers and although on a beautiful day the views from the hills are amazing and far-reaching, there is still something mysterious in this beauty.  A week ago as I dropped one of the younger Fictionhabits at cricket practise, the low-lying cloud was clinging to the surrounding hillside, obliterating the summits, bringing a claustrophobic and eerie atmosphere to the village green.   Historically, the Punchbowl was regarded with fear and superstition as a dark malevolent province of
smugglers and deadly spirits and few people dared set foot there. I think it is a combination of this history and the legends of devils and feuding gods together with the barren, sandy landscape as well as the acoustics within the Devil’s Punch Bowl itself that evokes some of its mystery.  When you are at the bottom of the Devil’s Punch Bowl it is very quiet, which can seem quite weird.  In bad weather, it is desolate, but there is something quite lovely about trekking the hillsides in the rain and admiring the hollow from above.

Did Arthur Conan Doyle take inspiration from his surrounds when writing The Hound of the Baskervilles?  I don’t have any definite evidence that he did.  I know he visited Dartmoor as part of his research and walked the moors for a couple of weeks taking in the atmosphere.  He wrote the book itself, however, at Hindhead and there are some similarities between descriptions of Dartmoor in The Hound of the Baskervilles and the countryside around Undershaw.

Take, for example, the view Watson and Henry Baskerville first encounter when approaching the station and compare it to an engraving of a sketch by JM Turner from 1811 called Hindhead Hill.

Source: Wikipedia

“Over the green squares of the fields and the low curve of a wood there rose in the distance a grey, melancholy hill, with a grey jagged summit, dim and vague in the distance, like some fantastic landscape in a dream.”

Other descriptions in the book could also quite easily be Hindhead Common or the Devil’s Punchbowl.  The following are a few examples all taken from Watson’s first descriptions of the moor.

“Bronzing bracken and mottled bramble gleamed in the light of the sinking sun” “Both road and stream wound up through a valley dense with scrub oak ad fir”  “A steep curve of heath-clad land, an outlying spur of the moor lay in front of us”

Later in the story, while chasing a man during the night, Holmes and Watson “run through the gloom, blundering against boulders, forcing our way through gorse bushes” Gorse, bracken and heather are found in abundance on Hindhead Common.

This year, from 11th May – 25th September the British Library is running an exhibition called Writing Britain which aims to examine how the landscapes of Britain permeate great literary works.  As far as I am aware, Arthur Conan Doyle does not feature, so I can only wonder at how the landscape close to my own home and only a stone’s throw from his, may have inspired his most celebrated piece of writing.

By the way…the judicial review of Waverley Borough Council’s planning decision regarding Undershaw took place at the High Court on Wednesday 23rd.  No decision was made on the day, the judge will publish his findings by the end of July.  I will keep you posted.

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5 thoughts on “The Hound of the Baskervilles”

  1. What an interesting article. Well-written, thoroughly researched and grounded in a personal knowledge of the area. I look forward to reading more.

  2. I haven’t read any of the Sherlock Holmes books, would you recommend starting from the beginning or can I jump in with The Hound of the Baskervilles?

    1. Thanks for commenting RG! The beauty of the Sherlock Holmes stories is that you don’t have to read them in order. There are some characters other than Holmes and Watson who feature in a few of the stories, but this isn’t an issue really. The Hound of the Baskervilles is one of 4 short novels ACD wrote featuring Holmes, the rest are short stories, 56 of them. Some hardcore Sherlockians get peeved about THoftB because Holmes appears in very little of it, but I like it for it’s atmosphere and melodrama compared to the other stories. I do like a lot of the short stories though, they are very clever and well written, with some superb description. He captures Holmes’ character with real brevity. If I had to recommend a starting point, I would suggest A Study in Scarlet. It is the first novella and describes how Holmes and Watson met, plus it is a great story, after that The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – by then you will be hooked…!

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