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December 5, 2011 / nethergrove

The Hound of the Baskervilles on Dartmoor

I left the car by the side of the road and followed a path up to Hookney Tor. It wasn’t long before I noticed the tracks in the soft ground ahead of me. Fresh, clean, not six hours old. A chill ran down my spine, and for a moment all modern rationality, all enlightened thought deserted me, and the voice of reason shrank in my head to almost a whisper – they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!

The size of a Labrador I’d say, or at least a very large collie. But I was on my guard. I’d already read the first few chapters of The Hound of the Baskervilles before setting out (they’re set in London), and was ready for a good romp now that the action had finally arrived at Dartmoor. It was already 2pm by the time I reached the Tor, and I was keen to get on with it.

Sherlock Holmes is almost exclusively interested in London. So when he gets the opportunity to visit the backwards countryside, both Holmes and Doyle have a bit of fun with Victorian Celtomania, which saw so many tourists flock to the South West of England to find the relics of what they believed to be some brave Teutonic race. Both mock Dr. Mortimer’s pseudo-scientific phrenology, which noted that Sir Henry had ‘the rounded head of a Celt, which carries inside it the Celtic enthusiasm and power of attachment’ (55), though neither seem to notice how easily racial overtones slip into their feudal ideas what is best for the countryside. Early on we hear Dr. Mortimer agonising over old Charles Baskerville’s death, because ‘the prosperity of the whole poor, bleak countryside depends upon [the rich landowner’s] presence’ (26). When the young Henry Baskerville finally gets a chance to see the Moor from the railway carriage window, Watson reflects that ‘as I looked at his dark and expressive face I felt more than ever how true a descendant he was of that long line of high-blooded, fiery and masterful men’ (55-6).

Conan Doyle visited this part of Dartmoor to research his book in 1901, and his guide managed to pass off the recently ‘restored’ Bronze Age village at Grimspound (in the shadow of Hookney Tor) as being the remarkably well-preserved relics of ancient indigenous people. As Watson’s guide tells him, ‘Neolithic man lived thickly on the moor, and as no one in particular has lived there since, we find all his little arrangements exactly as he left them’ (69). I read in the shadow of the wind, sheltered by one of the rocks of the tor, looking down onto Grimspound, with a flask of hot chocolate, a picnic blanket to sit on, and wrapped up warm in a waterproof jacket, but even more snug in my superior knowledge, laughing at the arrogant ignorance of the late-Victorians.

I was just thinking how nice it was to be able to read somewhere so far away from distraction – no roads, no people, no noise but the wind – when the sun broke out unexpectedly, and I glanced up to see that it had transformed the pewter grey winter moor into a four dimensional ocean of colours, where the contrast between the rich green-gold vegetation and the peat and chocolate shadows gave the whole landscape a kind of depth that makes you want to breathe it all in. Then I looked behind me to see a herd of ten or so Highland cows, with their two-foot horns, holding the high ground around the Tor’s granite fortifications. Below, a few walkers and a dog (not that dog) approached Grimspound. I blot them all out, and hide in the book.

Watson’s gone to see the Stapletons of Merripit House, and had his first experience with the Grimpen Mire. ‘A false step yonder means death to man or beast. Only yesterday I saw one of the moor ponies wander into it’ (67). On cue, ‘something brown was rolling and tossing among the green sedges. Then a long, agonized, writhing neck shot upwards and a dreadful cry echoed over the moor. It turned me cold with horror’ (68). There’s a lot of horror to be had in that moor, by the sound of it, what with an escaped murderer, rugged tors ‘like the huge, corroding fangs of some monstrous beast’ (77), the Grimpen Mire and its inexplicable moaning howls, not to mention the Hound itself. Needless to say, the moor in the book is rather more sensational that the moor before me, despite the Highland cows. The wind finally made its way down my wellies and into my toes, signally that I had to move.

As I made my way down Hookney Tor towards Grimspound, I realised what it was that was so wrong about Doyle’s moor. The point of these reviews isn’t the assess the accuracy of the book-world, but to describe what the place does to the reading. And the place forced me to compare. The problem was something to do with the scale.

Watson does describe the moor as huge, but somehow the way the action flits from one set to another seems rather theatrical, or as if the moor is a kind of theme park. Baskerville Hall, Grimspound, the Grimpen Mire, they all have something of a theatre backdrop about them. The characters are so cartoonish, almost caricatures of rural society, that they seem to fill the moor with their eccentricity. More than anything, the book is bound by its form, and the murder mystery turns any setting into a country house, complete with suspicious butler, alluring women, and old money.

The moor before me is of a totally different calibre. If there is anything resembling a Grimpen Mire on Dartmoor (which I seriously doubt), it is not anywhere around here. Neither is there a Bog of Eternal Stench, Fangorn Forest, or River Lethe. The landscape isn’t exciting in that way at all. I made my way through Grimspound as the sideways hail and rain started, soaking and battering me in equal measure. I’d thought to hide in one of the huts, like Holmes does, but they’re far too muddy, and the low walls don’t offer nearly enough shelter to keep me out of the wind. There’s a kind of dignity in the moor that won’t let itself get typecast as the malignant, desolate plain of the novel. It insists on being a place, not a character. According to my copy’s introduction, The Hound has been variously analysed as the proletariat baying at the gates of the bourgeoisie, and the repressed Victorian Id. Both arguments seem reasonable, especially considering some of the ‘eccentricities’ of characters such as Mr Frankland, who wiles away his fortune taking villagers to court for the sake of his passion for litigation. But Dartmoor, which forced me to run for my car, will have none of it. The wind and the hail seem to be mocking the idea of The Hound of the Baskervilles, and once again I can’t recommend reading the book on location. The best place for it is beside the fire in 221B Baker Street, with a deep pipe and a bottle of port.

I was reading The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle, published as a Penguin Classic in 2001 (First published 1901), on loan from the good people at Barnstaple Library.

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