Recently I have been reading the memoir To Keep the Memory Green, which is a fantastic collection of reflections on the life of Richard Lancelyn Green (1953-2004). As you know I am currently working with the Richard Lancelyn Green bequest at Portsmouth City Library and I have the great privilege of working through the thousands of documents, objects, pictures, photographs, etc. Richard collected throughout his life. His collection is forming the basis of my PhD and I have always been struck by how without him, my life would be very different. Yet Richard himself seemed a mythical figure to me, all I knew of him were the bare facts of his life and his expansive collection, and it almost seemed to me as if the collection and his life were one and the same.
To Keep the Memory Green has given me a wonderful insight into the man behind the papers; it has really brought his memory alive. For me, this book contains a great deal of meaning as it encapsulates the personality of a man, sadly no longer with us, but has allowed me to learn who he is through the memories of those who cared for him and cultivated great relationships with him. I have been struck by what a privilege, but also what a huge task, my PhD is when it is in memory of such a fantastic and kind man.
The first thing I learnt about Richard is that he had a huge bank of knowledge far beyond Sherlock Holmes and ACD. Douglas Wilmer comments:
‘How he had room for his so-called ‘obsession’ and all the other multifarious interests that occupied him, one will never know. He was a great film and theatre buff, he loved travel, browsing round the wonderful art galleries of Italy, London, and America, showing surprising knowledge of so many of the works on show. He loved his music and the opera and he had also, of course, his immense knowledge and collection of literature and first editions, outside his Doylean interests.’ (Douglas Wilmer, 2007, p.25)
For me, not only was this impressive (I would be happy to obtain half of his knowledge in my own lifetime), but it also revealed to me that Richard was much more than the collection I am working with. The summary of the man is not within the walls of Portsmouth City Library. Although this may sound obvious, I hope to discuss within my work the impact the Doylean collection had on Richard and speculate on its greater meaning. Learning of Richard’s wider tastes was a reminder to look beyond the Doyle collection to Richard’s own (very Sherlockian) way of collecting all kinds of facts and knowledge.
The memoir written by Richard’s sister, Cilla, of their childhood, was very revealing of Richard as a person. Through my research I have inherited a curiosity about childhood that is shared with the Victorians. They were obsessed with the nostalgia of childhood, feeling that childhood shapes a person and I believe this was true for Richard. His childhood had a great impact on his later interests: I learnt, for example, that Richard had not always grown up with money at his disposal, meaning he spent huge swathes of time creating, writing and acting with his siblings for entertainment; he was also blind in one eye due to a childhood accident with a pair of scissors, which seemingly never affected his relationships. He was also the youngest child like me and had ‘all the attendant perks’ (C. Lancelyn Green, 2007, p. 43) that come with it. My brothers will happily tell you I got away with far more than they did and I’m sure it was the same for Richard. Yet what struck me most was Cilla’s observation of how carefully Richard compartmentalised his life. She recalls:
‘He never talked to me about Sherlock Holmes, or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle…unless I asked…At his death I was amazed and ashamed not to have realised how breath-takingly wide was his knowledge of his chosen subject, or the degree of respect he had earned in the world of Conan Doyle scholarship.’ (C. Lancelyn Green, 2007, p. 56)
This a testament to Richard’s humility. What is clear to me from these memoirs is that Richard never fully grasped what a great scholar he was. I know for myself, when people ask me about my research I give general answers because I’m sure they don’t want a break down of all the literary theory I’ve been reading that week. Richard was always aware of his audience, so to speak, and it was a sign of his love for his sister that he wanted to engage her on subjects she was interested in and not ‘bore’ her with his own, vast, Doyle expertise.
Another fact I did not know about Richard: he was the Chairman of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London when the decision was made to erect the Sherlock Holmes statue outside of Baker St tube station. Having seen the statue for the first time the other day, and knowing it is one of only a few in the country that is of a fictional character (sorry to admit that), this was a huge revelation to me. The statue is a huge topic of conversation for me! What does it mean to society to have Sherlock Holmes commemorated in this way? Does this ascribe more meaning to the canon? … To know that Richard poured his time and energy into raising the money and getting permission for the statue to be made gives even more meaning to this statue. Richard was integral to its erection and I may now be tempted to discuss the statue as an extension of Richard’s collection.
Yet out of all I have read so far, I think my favourite memoir is ‘The Bibliophile and the Bookseller’ by R. Dixon Smith. Firstly, I gained a valuable insight Richard’s collecting habits: even if he had an item already, if the one he’d found was in a better condition, he would buy it. However, he had no issues with passing on the old copy. He loved to keep his collection pristine: Dixon Smith remembers commentating on their condition, only to be sheepishly told ‘these are actually my reading copies…my real copies are at Poulton Hall’ (Dixon Smith, 2007, p. 88). On top of his collecting habits Richard was hilariously ingenious and wonderfully generous. Dixon Smith recalls a visit to the UK where Richard organised a viewing of Conan Doyle’s home in South Norwood:
‘How did you manage that?’ I asked.
‘Well, I simply told the owner that I was an estate agent’, he told me. ‘I made an appointment to show you the house tomorrow’.
He had told the owner that his clients were interested in buying the home. The owner’s daughter showed us the home, and I have often wondered what she thought of Richard’s clients – two men and one woman. (Dixon Smith, 2007, p. 91)
I love this anecdote! It is so mischievous and clever, but harmless. It is so very Sherlock Holmes! I like to think Richard got this cheeky side from being the youngest child and getting away with so much (mainly because I’d like to myself!)
Richard always thought of other people. He regularly gave gifts to his friends, often very rare items (first editions etc.) and he was always keen to please. Marina Stajic recalls when she was going to stay with Richard he sent her a letter cautioning her that:
‘I do live surrounded by a thousand cardboard boxes – and in a state bordering on chaos’ (Lancelyn Green, 2007, p. 122)
Yet Stajic’s experience of his home was far from this ‘truth’:
I did not find any semblance of chaos in the house and Richard was the most charming and thoughtful host during my five-day stay. (Stajic, 2007, p.122)
Richard has been revealed to me as far more than an ‘obsessive collector’, he was kind, generous and extraordinarily knowledgeable on a wide variety of topics. I have yet to finish To Keep the Memory Green so I will share with you more of my findings and favourite moments at a later date. The book is a wonderful tribute to a man who was so obviously loved by all who met him and I hope that I can do his memory justice by writing about him and about the topic he so loved.
All quotations have been taken from and are the copyright of: To Keep the Memory Green ed. Steven Rothman and Nicholas Utechin (London & New York: The Quartering Press, 2007)