Friday, October 5, 2012

The Exploits and Adventures of Brigadier Gerard by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Everyone knows about Sherlock Holmes, the world's most famous literary detective. Many even know the name of his creator: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. But very few indeed know that Conan Doyle wrote anything but painstakingly rational detective stories about a man in a deerstalker, with perhaps a side journey into The Lost World.

Discovering Conan Doyle's other works comes almost as a shock to the reader, a shock similar to that experienced by the hero of a musical comedy when the buttoned-up-old-maid heroine gets drunk and has her big song about all the wild things she dreams of doing.

The Adventures of Brigadier Gerard were written after Conan Doyle had become heartily sick of Sherlock Holmes and had pushed him off a cliff in the Alps in a death-clinch with archenemy and evil mastermind Professor Moriarty. He then sat down and invented a new character for a new series of short stories.

Brigadier Etienne Gerard is the bravest, the handsomest, the most gallant, charming, and resourceful officer in Napoleon's whole army! We know this, because he tells us so himself.
"Colonel Etienne Gerard," said he, "I have always heard that you are a very gallant and enterprising officer."
It was not for me to confirm such a report, and yet it would be folly to deny it, so I clinked my spurs together and saluted.
Wherever he goes, he leaves broken-hearted ladies and vanquished foes behind him, except for the ladies who occasionally double-cross him (but, ah, anyone could be deceived by such a lady without dishonour!) and the foes that now and then get the better of him (but only for the moment!).
I sat gnawing my fingers and tearing my hair, and even, I must confess, weeping from time to time as I thought of my Hussars of Conflans, and the deplorable condition in which they must find themselves when deprived of their colonel. [...] It went to my heart that they should be so bereaved.
Michael Chabon describes him this way: Gerard "has only one tragic flaw, though in his own eyes, of course, it is his glory and his single greatest advantage in life: He is a Frenchman."

And that, of course, is what is so hilariously delightful about the Brigadier. He is a Frenchman, written by an Englishman, fighting against Englishmen. The stories--which are, need I tell you, terriffic adventures full of  swashbuckling, secret missions, thrilling escapes and ladies in distress--come with lashings of satire. The Brigadier is just like any other Frenchman ever imagined by an Englishman, only much more so: impossibly conceited, excitable, and fanatically devoted to his Emperor. And the Englishmen he meets are just like any other Englishmen ever imagined by a Frenchman, only much more so. And much fun is had by all.

The adventures of this preposterous little Brigadier  were published in two volumes, The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard and The Adventures of Gerard, and have now been published together in one volume by Penguin titled The Exploits and Adventures of Brigadier Gerard.  It is hard to pick a favourite among all the stories of adventure and braggadocio in these stories, but I think the most memorable is How the Brigadier Slew the Fox, which tells the story of a horrible crime--as far as the British are concerned:
But one officer of Massena's force had committed a crime which was unspeakable, unheard of, abominable; only to be alluded to with curses late in the evening, when a second bottle had loosened the tongues of men. The news of it was carried back to England, and country gentlemen who knew little of the details of the war grew crimson with passion when they heard of it, and yeomen of the shires raised freckled fists to Heaven and swore. And yet who should be the doer of this dreadful deed but our friend the Brigadier, Etienne Gerard, of the Hussars of Conflans, gay-riding, plume-tossing, debonair, the darling of the ladies and of the six brigades of light cavalry.
I could mention that these stories are informative when it comes to Napoleonic Europe or French-English relations, but that would hardly be the main reason to recommend them. They are, above anything else, comic gems. I recommend them to anyone needing diversion.

The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard
Gutenberg etext
Librivox recording

The Adventures of Gerard
Gutenberg etext
Librivox recording

7 comments:

morningmusicmaniac said...

I have tried to read these but I must confess I found Gerrard's character so irritating that I gave up. Terrific satires they may be but if you spent any time in his company you would vow to avoid him for the rest of your life! Regards Kim
P.S Have you or are you going to review The White Company?

Suzannah said...

Oh, he'd be insufferable in real life! I do find him hilarious though...

I haven't reviewed The White Company yet. I have the very fondest memories of it and of Sir Nigel, and it'd be good to re-read them before I do a review.

Lady Bibliophile said...

These sound like a real gem. :) I love reading about concieted little Frenchmen, especially ones who manage real exploits in spite of themselves...and written by an Englishman sounds like great fun. All English-written Frenchmen are too dear. Though I've never found a book written about France from a French perspecitive that I could get through. Odd, that.

Suzannah said...

Really? Although, on second thought, all the books written about France by the French are the size of Les Miserables or The Count of Monte Cristo...

Lady Bibliophile said...

Oops! Forgot The Count of Monte Cristo. I like that one, it's almost like a Dickens (the epitome of excellence!) But Les Miserables...

I shall restrain myself. I would review it on the blog, but I know too many people who like it. ;) I like the Focus on the Family drama, I think everyone should know the story through that. But I tried the book and found some things I couldn't look over.

Just my opinion, though; I don't mind if other people enjoy it in book form. :)

Suzannah said...

Really (again!)? You found Monte Cristo OK, but not Les Mis? Odd. I found things to dislike about both of them, but Monte Cristo I found particularly problematic ;).

Lady Bibliophile said...

We shall have to trade thoughts sometime. :) I am intrigued...

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