The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
The Brigadier Gerard Adventures (1894-1910)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
The seventeen Brigadier Gerard Adventures were written by Arthur Conan Doyle and began with “How the Brigadier Won His Metal” (The Strand, Dec. 1894). Although Doyle (1859-1930) is known today primarily for The Sherlock Holmes Mysteries, he was a competent professional writer who produced a range of material, his best work being his historical adventures rather than his mysteries. Conan Doyle preferred The White Company, but the popular and critical favorite among his historical work has always been the Brigadier Gerard stories, which Owen Dudley Edwards describes as “the greatest historical short story series.”1
The Brigadier Gerard stories are set during the later Napoleonic years, from 1807, when a young Étienne Gerard meets Napoleon for the first time, until 1821, when the Emperor dies. Gerard is a member of the Emperor’s 10th Hussars and is proud to serve under Napoleon, despite the fact that, like the rest of the Grande Armée, Gerard is afraid of Napoleon. Doyle portrays the Corsican despot as a cold, hard, frighteningly ambitious and capable man whose smiles never reach his eyes. Decades after Napoleon’s death Gerard continues to boast about his service and to no doubt bore his friends and acquaintances with his war stories:
You do very well, my friends, to treat me with some little reverence, for in honouring me you are honouring both France and yourselves. It is not merely an old, grey moustached officer whom you see eating his omelette or draining his glass, but it is a fragment of history. In me you see one of the last of those wonderful men, the men who were veterans when they were yet boys, who learned to use a sword earlier than a razor, and who during a hundred battles had never once let the enemy see the colour of their knapsacks.2
In this passage Gerard sounds more than a little vain, which is because he is not just a little vain, but remarkably so. In fairness to him, he is nearly as good a swordsman, cavalry officer, and horseman as he thinks he is, and his exploits do much to justify his impression of himself. Gerard fights any number of duels, carries out several of the Emperor’s intrigues, escapes from Dartmoor prison and the clutches of a ruthless Spanish bandit, captures Saragossa single handedly, woos any number of women, befriends English officers, and in general has a fine old time adventuring his way across Europe and Russia. Gerard is not particularly bright, but he is clever enough to get himself out of the difficult situations his ego or occasional gullibility has placed him into.
The Brigadier Gerard stories are fine, light historical tales. Conan Doyle was most proud of his historical stories, rather than his mysteries, and hoped that it was works like The White Company and the Brigadier Gerard stories, rather than his Sherlock Holmes mysteries, which he would be remembered for. Despite the superior quality of Conan Doyle’s historical stories and novels, this has not been the case. But readers with a taste for egotistical adventurers–and the influence of Gerard on George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman stories is obvious3–will love the Brigadier Gerard stories. Readers without a taste for egotistical adventurers will enjoy the stories anyhow, for their good humor and for the easy way Conan Doyle has of conjuring up the Napoleonic years.
Readers may be gulled into thinking that, because the Brigadier Gerard stories are light historical tales, excellently told, featuring a boastful and good-humored protagonist, therefore the stories are unserious or were dashed off by Conan Doyle. Nothing could be further from the truth. Because of his reputation as the creator of Sherlock Holmes—whose stories are a mix of underrated and (more often) overrated (see: The Sherlock Holmes Mysteries)—Conan Doyle never got his just due as a writer; great respect was paid to him for his detective creation while the quality of his prose was overlooked. In the case of the Sherlock Holmes stories, whose prose is usually workmanlike at best, this is actually a good thing. But in the case of the Brigadier Gerard stories, this is a shame. As George Macdonald Fraser writes,
No one ever paced a tale more expertly, or had a better sense of timing. He was a master of suspense and the unexpected, mingling cliff-hanging action and swordplay with romance, homely philosophy, and humor, this last coming from Gerard’s gift of eccentric narrative and the author’s expertly handled contrast between his hero’s blandly egotistic view of events and what is actually happening.4
Similarly, readers may make the mistake of thinking that Gerard’s good humor and sensational exploits mean that the stories are light-hearted. This is not the case: the underpinning of the Brigadier Gerard stories are melancholy and sorrow. Tolstoy and War and Peace, after all, were primary inspirations for Conan Doyle in the writing of the Brigadier Gerard stories,5 and no one would ever argue that either of those worthies were light-hearted. Interestingly, though, for all that the invasion of and retreat from Russia implicitly looms over the Brigadier Gerard stories, Conan Doyle did not address them until “How the Brigadier Rode to Minsk,” the twelfth Gerard story, published eight years after the Brigadier’s debut. In the early stories, when Russia is mentioned by Gerard, it is as a topic which is off-limits to discuss:
To this day, my friends, I do not care to see red and white together. Even my red cap thrown down on my white counterpane has given me dreams in which I have seen those monstrous plains, the reeling, tortured army, and the crimson smears which glared upon the snow behind them. You will coax no story out of me about that business, for the thought of it is enough to turn my wine to vinegar and my tobacco to straw.6
As Owen Dudley Edwards notes, in refusing to deal with Russia, “ACD had accepted the challenge. In so doing he used vibrations brought to perfect pitch within his creative orchestra, but not much used elsewhere in the Gerard stories—not simply horror or terror (several have those) but fear of future haunting.”7 So the Brigadier Gerard stories, despite their humor and their protagonist’s light-heartedness, are serious works—not only of horror and terror, but of satire of the English as well.8 There is in the stories humor and seriousness, light-hearted adventure and melancholy memories, and intelligent and skilled writing withal. What else could one hope for?
If the Brigadier Gerard stories are not the “greatest historical short story series,” they are certainly in the top three.
Print: Arthur Conan Doyle, The Exploits and Adventures of Brigadier Gerard. New York: NYRB, 2001.
For Further Research
Owen Dudley Edwards, “Introduction,” in Arthur Conan Doyle, The Complete Brigadier Gerard Stories. Edinburgh: Canongate, 2010.
George Macdonald Fraser, “Introduction,” in Arthur Conan Doyle, The Exploits and Adventures of Brigadier Gerard. New York: NYRB, 2001.
1 Owen Dudley Edwards, “Introduction,” in Arthur Conan Doyle, The Complete Brigadier Gerard Stories (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2010), i.
2 Arthur Conan Doyle, “How the Brigadier Came to the Castle of Gloom,” The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1910), 3.
3 Fraser’s affection and great esteem for the Gerard stories are made clear in his introduction to The Exploits and Adventures of Brigadier Gerard (New York: NYRB, 2001).
4 Fraser, “Introduction,” x.
5 Edwards, “Introduction,” ii.
6 Arthur Conan Doyle, “How the Brigadier Played for a Kingdom,” The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1910), 214.
7 Edwards, “Introduction,” ii.
8 Edwards, “Introduction,” v-viii.