I’m not particularly superstitious, but when my daughter asked me one day whether I had ever read any of E.W. Hornung’s stories about the gentleman thief Raffles on the very day after I had picked up a copy of Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman in a used bookstore and read it cover-to-cover, it seemed significant. Not so significant that I should have agreed shortly afterward to her suggestion that we give up a year or so of our lives to annotating the entire Raffles canon—but you know how it is. I had never in all my (too) many years before read any Raffles stories at all; and then, answering to a sudden impulse, I had done so just in time to maintain my undeserved reputation as “mom-who-has-read-everything.” I felt like I owed something to Fate.
Raffles and his somewhat thick sidekick Bunny (in case you’ve never read about him, or seen one of the myriad movies or British TV series featuring the character), are dark twins to their exact contemporaries, the Victorian/Edwardian gentleman detective Sherlock Holmes, and stodgy Dr. John Watson.
The creation of Raffles was, I think, both E.W. Hornung’s tribute to, and retaliation against, his overbearing brother-in-law Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for what must have been (judging by Conan Doyle’s surviving correspondence) a lot of pretty nasty jibes around the family dinner-table concerning Hornung’s habits, talents, and background. Both men were novelists, and several of Hornung’s early novels were either set in, or featured, Australia—a country in which Hornung had lived for several years and of which he had fond memories. Conan Doyle made no bones about the fact that he considered the place barely civilized. Hornung’s father was a Hungarian immigrant; Conan Doyle (who was, um, Irish) prided himself on his thoroughgoing Englishness. Perhaps worst of all, Hornung loved the game of cricket more than he loved breathing; but, short-sighted and asthmatic, he was terrible at it, while Conan Doyle was a very good player. It must have stung.
By coincidence, after I had finished my part in annotating the Raffles stories, I read a brief biography of one of my favorite writers, John Fowles, who is best known, perhaps, for The French Lieutenant’s Woman* (though I personally preferred A Maggot). While reading, I was struck by some uncanny parallels between Fowles’s life, and the life of the fictional jewel-thief, Arthur Raffles. Both had little family, and lots of education. Both were Head-Boy and stand-out athletes at their prep schools, and captains of their school cricket teams, for which both were bowlers. Both made the decision, in their early adulthood, to eschew being what Fowles termed “a British Establishment young hopeful,” and follow an unconventional path in life. Offered two jobs—one a good one at Winchester, the other a poor one at “a ratty school in Greece,” Fowles of course took the one in Greece, and turned soon after to writing novels, a disreputable profession if there ever was one. At a similar turning-point in his life, Raffles decided to play amateur cricket and rob his social peers.
My familiarity with Raffles coupled with my admiration for John Fowles makes me the ideal candidate to write Fowles’s biography, I think. One of The French Lieutenant’s Woman’s most interesting stylistic points is that it offers readers a choice of possible endings to the story. In writing Fowles’s biography, I’m going to do the same. Does John Fowles become a novelist, or does he become a jewel-thief? Knowing, as I do, how Arthur Raffles’s life played out, I can make either choice seem perfectly plausible—except for one detail. John Fowles the novelist became rich, while Raffles the thief died penniless. I think we all know that it usually works out the other way.
*The only novel I have ever enjoyed for its extensive footnotes.