Place Your Bids!—Sherlocking the Auction of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Narrative of John Smith

A couple of years before the world was introduced to Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Scarlet, struggling 23-year-old physician Arthur Conan Doyle went to the post to mail out his very first manuscript to a publisher. Unfortunately, his debut novel, The Narrative of John Smith, would never see its first printing…until this September, more than a century later.

What caused such a long delay? Well, the original manuscript was, in fact, subsumed by some administrative mishap in the British postal system. In other words, it got lost in the mail. Fast forward to 2004, the manuscript was purchased at Christie’s, an esteemed fine arts auction house based in London, by the British Library for £47,800 (US$84,606). Seven years later, the British Library, an institution with a most reputable literary collection, announces its plans to publish the acquired book.

But ah, wait! There’s more to the story than meets the eye.

The manuscript bought at the auction is not the original manuscript of Conan Doyle’s first novel (and there is no record of the package’s miraculous retrieval.) The manuscript in question, and to be distributed in print, is Conan Doyle’s rewrite of The Narrative of John Smith from memory. Rachel Foss, head curator of modern literary manuscripts at the Library warns that this young Conan Doyle piece is “fairly loose in terms of plot and character.” That should come as no surprise. Yes, the craft of the written word is perfected with practice and age. But even the most talented authors would be hard-pressed to recall a piece of their writing in its entirety. The 150-page novel is really the first six chapters that Conan Doyle can remember.

A page from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s manuscript research notes
A page from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s manuscript research notes from Toronto Public Library collection
This is not to say this book will not fly off the shelves. Beyond the quality, there are many other selling points—like pure fascination with the creative mastermind behind a range of iconic characters in fiction, from Professor Moriarty to Professor Challenger. British actor Stephen Fry hails the “boundless energy, enthusiasm and wide-ranging mind, not to mention pitch-perfect, muscular and memorable prose.”

The British Library is certainly not the only institution bidding on the letters and manuscripts of Conan Doyle. Toronto Public Library has acquired several pieces for its collection, including a series of autographed notebooks on natural science, history, and politics that surely provides much insight into the mind of one of the greatest writers. (Here’s a link to the holdings and auction results from 2004.)  Will these notebooks be getting a print-run anytime soon?

Oh, and fanatical fans of Conan Doyle, do not despair! There are several unsold items, still in the care of the heirs of Anna Conan Doyle, such as a lot of eccentric letters, memorabilia, reflections on Oscar Wilde, World War I, and more. So plan a trip to London for the next Christie’s The Conan Doyle Collection auction, especially if the profits from the printing of The Narrative of John Smith exceed the cost. Bids in!

Check out our Sherlockiana feature page for more on the world’s greatest detective.

Image courtesy of Toronto Public Library.


  1. khadija

    I am a fan of Conan Doyle. I plan to to attend the auction.

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