Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s toast to ‘The Ladies’

From the Whitefriars Journal, vol. III, no. 7, January 1908, pp. 104-7.

At the Whitefriars Christmas Dinner at the Trocadero on 13 December 1907, the Club Guests included Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Miss Evelyn Sharp replied to the toast.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle received a cordial greeting on rising to propose the health of ‘The Ladies’. He said:

I can only regret my own particular lady is not here to be included in the toast. (‘Hear, hear.’) But as the Prior had said, an unfortunate family tragedy has prevented her being present, but she desired me to say earnestly how greatly honoured she had been by the invitation of the Club, and how very sorry she was not to be with you to-night.

I naturally ask myself why this toast should have been allotted to me, for it takes my memories back, pleasantly enough, over twenty-five years or so to a time when this toast was always given to the youngest male member of the company. This youthful Romeo might hope by his ingenuous countenance; and by his obvious sincerity to make up for the fearful hash which he generally made of the toast. I naturally ask myself ‘Wherefore art thou Romeo?’ (Laughter.) I have a better right perhaps to ask the Prior or those gentlemen who placed me here. I am as capable as ever of making a fearful hash of the toast, but I can, alas! no longer plead that excuse of youth which was mine when I first made this toast, possibly in honour of the mothers of the ladies I see before me; (Laughter.) Still there is something to be said for the course which your Committee have taken. Middle age has its memories and experiences. One does not live so long without understanding how dismal a place the world would be without woman. In the Biblical account the world was only without her for a very short time, and yet we are told that even in that short time Adam had to be cast into a deep sleep. (Laughter.) As I am doing the duty of these more youthful orators, I should like to borrow one little extract from a speech of which I have heard. This young enthusiast burst into poetry on the subject of the toast, and his poem was:

Oh the gladness of their gladness, when they’re glad,
And the sadness of their sadness, when they’re sad,
But the gladness of their gladness,
And the sadness of their sadness,
Is as nothing to their badness – when they’re bad.

Some other young enthusiast in the company was rather stirred by the unchivalrous nature of these lines, and he composed his little bit of doggerel, which he insisted on giving too:–

Their gladness may be greater than it should.
And their sadness may be greater than they would.
But their gladness and their sadness,
And their little bit of badness.
Is as nothing to their goodness – when they’re good.

Discarding the earlier libellous lines, we all unite on the last line, ‘There is nothing like their goodness, when they’re good.’ (Applause.) It was put in a homely way by an old sea-captain whom I knew. He was three times a widower, and knew something. He said, ‘It is like eels and snakes all mixed up in a bag. The odds are you get an eel.’ Then his face darkened as he said, ‘I have had three dips, and I got a snake every time.’ (Laughter.)

I have a great respect for all learned and political ladies. (Laughter.) I am not against the Suffragette – (laughter, and ‘hear, hear’) – at least not here and now. (Laughter.) I think it is well to say this, because it seems to me one might as well be a mad dog or a Cabinet Minister as have any misunderstanding on that point (Laughter.) At the same time I must say that my feelings do go out to the primitive womanly woman. (‘Hear, hear.’) After all, that is what woman is for, and all must be added thereunto. (‘Hear, hear.’) I have admiration – I confess to some little dread also – for the woman who goes forth strongly into the world, and who does things there, but my heart goes out to the woman who does nothing, except that essential thing, to set us an example of all that js opposite to ourselves – all that is gentle and sweet and kind. (‘Hear, hear.’) My only fear is that, in the stormy struggle for existence, this gentle type of woman may be pushed into oblivion. One observes that in these days, where the struggle is fiercest, that type seems to be always pushed more and more into the background. Woman, may become stronger, may present more faculties than she had before, may be more sure of herself, and yet sometimes, one feels that something also is shed as well as gained; something of the glamour and the greatness of womanhood seems to be lost in the process. One somehow thinks that the fully developed clever woman will be clever enough to conceal her cleverness, – (‘hear, hear’) – to make it subordinate to that womanly end of her being, which is her sweetness.

I read a terrible thing the other day. A woman at a political meeting picked up some mice which had been let loose upon the platform and fondled them. (Laughter.) When I read that I thought it the beginning of the end. I confess I love a woman who fears a mouse. I have no doubt I speak as a fool, but still it is a proud thing to be the spokesman of the majority. (Continued laughter.) The mouse has always been a good friend of mankind. Man loves to take the woman’s part against the mouse. (Laughter.) He likes to spring between them, and dare the beast to do its worst. (Continued merriment.) So, by this small physical danger, he hopes to win glory and gratitude and all sorts of nice things. It is a sad day when a woman picks up a mouse and fondles it. If this is to go on one asks oneself: ‘What good is the mouse going to be to mankind?’ It seems to have lost its use in the scheme of creation. (Laughter and applause.) To appreciate a woman one must have known what it is to be without one. It is like the epicure, who really does not know the value of food until he has starved.

Once in my lifetime I had the unhappy experience for seven months of never seeing a woman’s face. It would seem as though I had begun a preparation for writing about criminal literature by going where criminals go. (Laughter.) But that was not so. For seven months 1 had been in the Arctic Ocean in a whaler. Then I remember the day when we neared the north coast of Scotland. I remember the lighthouse lying far out on the horizon. As we neared the lighthouse we dipped our ensign to it in salutation of our mother country. There was a flagstaff near the lighthouse, and out of the lighthouse came someone – and all through the ship the rumour ran that it was a woman. The men were gathered on the fo’castle, the captain had his telescope on the bridge, and I had the binocular. She was of very mature years, and I think she wore sea boots, but, none the less, what emotion did she not cause in our breasts! (Laughter, and ‘hear, hear’.) Only two remembrances have I of that return – one is the thrill I had when, after the long Arctic summer, where there is no night, I saw the first star. The other was seeing that woman by the lighthouse flagstaff. It was not much of a star, and, I am bound now to confess, it wasn’t much of a –––– (‘Oh, oh’, and loud laughter.) But both of them moved us on account of what they represented.

I have spoken long enough, and yet I feel that I have really said nothing, but if one spoke seriously on such a topic one would tend to become more serious than such occasion permits. If one spoke frivolously, one would seem not to appreciate the greatest gift that life can give. It seems to me that the essential radical difference between woman and man is that one thinks and the other feels. Some French philosopher has said that life is a comedy to him who thinks, and it is a tragedy to him who feels. (‘Hear, hear.’) That is just, I think, where it happens that a woman always carries the heavier end of the burden of life. Too often the brain-driven man sees the comedy, while a heart-driven woman only the tragedy. (‘Hear, hear.’) Neither can understand the other’s point of view, each seeing through a different medium. We drink this toast tonight, and we drink it with the more enthusiasm because we, as devotees of Literature and Art, find ourselves here associated with ladies who have the same end – sister-writers and sister-artists – in whose success we rejoice, and whom we are delighted every now and then to come in contact with. (Applause.)

The toast was duly honoured.