Even looser and more episodic than the earlier The White Company, this is still an enjoyable historical novel. Set against the backdrop of the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685, this novel might be viewed as a less famous cousin of R. D. Blackmore’s Lorna Done, which had been published 20 years earlier.
Following its titular hero from boyhood to adulthood (which sees Clarke becoming a soldier and, like the young Daniel Defoe, fighting at the Battle of Sedge moor), it is, like many of Conan Doyle’s novels, ultimately about heroism, which Doyle here treats with particular skepticism. Like The Mystery of Climber, this neglected Conan Doyle novella was reprinted by Hesperus Press a few years ago.
In some respects now wildly politically incorrect, in others oddly prescient, the story focuses on a group of European travelers in Egypt aboard a ship called the Toronto. Being a White Company French character in a work of fiction written by a British man in the late nineteenth century, Gerard is vain and self-regarding, believing himself the greatest soldier and lover in France.
But Doyle writes about his adventures with warmth and we, despite Gerard’s self-aggrandisement, warm to him in turn even while we laugh at him. The inspiration for numerous later ‘lost world’ novels featuring dinosaurs and prehistoric creatures, this is Conan Doyle’s greatest science-fiction novel and the first of a trilogy to feature the huge, bluff, bearded scientist Professor Challenger.
There would have been no Jurassic Park without this novel, in which Challenger and a group of explorers (accompanied by young reporter Edward Malone) travel to a remote plateau in South America, where creatures that the world thought long extinct still survive in the wild. Sir Winston Churchill famously said that he liked Doyle’s historical fiction as much as the detective stories, and The White Company, for our money, stands on a par with many of SherlockHolmes’s adventures.
The titular company is a band of fourteenth-century English mercenaries, who, led by Sir Nigel Losing, travel to France (skirmishing with pirates on the way) to fight in the Hundred Years’ War. Doyle himself thought this novel his greatest achievement, and although we (and many readers) must reserve that honor for the best of the Sherlock Holmes canon, this book isn’t far behind.