Sunday, 19 September 2010

Did The Hound of the Baskervilles take its inspiration from the Dales?

By Laurie Whitwell

IT IS a Sherlock Holmes tale remembered as much for its evocative Dartmoor setting as the demonic beast of its title.

But more than a century after The Hound of the Baskervilles was originally published, speculation is growing that a secluded spot in the Yorkshire Dales inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's popular novel instead.

Trollers Gill, a limestone gorge near the village of Appletreewick in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, is, according to legend, haunted by a ghostly dog with saucer-like eyes.

And Holmes expert Professor Francis O'Gorman has now verified claims that this black creature, known as a Barguest, could have provided Conan Doyle with the blueprint for his fearsome hound.

Key to the idea is Conan Doyle's close relationship with his mother, Mary, who lived in Masongill on the west tip of the Dales at the same time the author was penning his 1901 masterpiece.

As a keen teller of folk stories, the suggestion is that Mary could have heard and passed on the tale of Trollers Gill and its spectral dog to her son.

Conan Doyle once wrote of his mother's gift for "sinking her voice to a horror-stricken whisper" when she reached the culminating point of a story.

The official storyline of the novel's origins says that Bertram Fletcher Robinson, who met Conan Doyle while they were both covering the Boer War as journalists, told his friend, after they had returned home, of the mythical black hound which stalked the Devon moors.

A dedication to "Robinson" at the start of the book was seen as evidence that Conan Doyle owed a debt of gratitude to his fellow correspondent.

But four years ago, the Yorkshire Post revealed how the accepted version of events was beginning to be challenged.

Writer Chris Phipps made a documentary on the possibilities of a Yorkshire link and suggested that as Conan Doyle frequently visited his mother at Masongill, it was possible she was the first person he talked to about the concept of The Hound of the Baskervilles.

And now, 80 years after Conan Doyle's death, Professor O'Gorman, the head of the School of English at Leeds University and editor of the 2006 edition of The Hound of the Baskervilles, has given credence to that theory.

"The canonic view of Holmesians (fans of the super sleuth) is that Robinson and Dartmoor were the sparks for the tale," he said.

"There has even been a suggestion that Conan Doyle stole the idea from Robinson – who died mysteriously – and might have felt some pang of guilt at not crediting him more fully with the genesis of the tale.

"But stories of phantom dogs in the English countryside, the black shucks of legend, are widely known staples of folk tales – Robinson hardly deserved credit for passing specialist information to Conan Doyle.

"However, it is suggestive that Conan Doyle's relationship with his mother was significant – they wrote a large volume of letters to each other – and the theory of a link with Yorkshire cannot be entirely overlooked."

Such a view is strengthened by Dr Bryan Charles Waller's role in getting Mary to Masongill.

He lodged with the Doyle family in Edinburgh while studying at the university there, and then persuaded Conan Doyle's mother to move into his cottage in the Dales after her husband, Charles, was committed to an asylum in 1883.

Dr Waller also had influence over Mary's son, convincing Conan Doyle to train as a doctor.

So it seems likely that Conan Doyle was told about the legend of the Trollers Gill Barguest by either Dr Waller or his mother on one of his many trips to the pair's Masongill home.

"Conan Doyle certainly had a wide-ranging knowledge of potentially useful material, and was always imaginatively alert to legend and tales of the supernatural, wherever he
found them," said Prof O'Gorman.

Whatever the genesis of the story, the importance of Yorkshire to the writer is clear.

In 1885, he married Louisa Hawkins at St Oswald's Church in Thornton in Lonsdale, near Ingleton. The marriage certificate still rests there.

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