The Lost World: a reader’s guide




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Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series began with ‘A Study in Scarlet’, which was published in 1887 in Beeton’s Christmas Annual (Conan Doyle had sold the rights to Ward Lock for £25 the previous year, a decision he would later regret, feeling he had been exploited by the publisher). It was described by the Glasgow Herald as the annual’s ‘pièce de résistance’. Its sequel, ‘The Sign of the Four’, was commissioned and published by Lippincott’s Magazine in February 1890 (Oscar Wilde was commissioned to write ‘The Picture of Dorian Grey’ at the same meeting). In his Holmes’ stories, Conan Doyle applied the knowledge he had gathered from his medical studies of how a case was built up by the logical accumulation of evidence. The character of Holmes was partly based on that of Dr Joseph Bell, one of his lecturers at Edinburgh, who had impressed his students with his deductive reasoning.


At this stage, Conan Doyle still intended to continue working in medicine. On a trip to Berlin in 1890 he had met Malcolm Morris, a Harley Street doctor, who advised him to leave Southsea and set himself up as an eye specialist in London. The career move was unsuccessful, but fortunately the Holmes stories were taken up by the newly founded Strand Magazine and quickly became a hit with readers (the first to appear there was ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’), allowing Conan Doyle to increase his author’s fees and become a full-time writer.
Conan Doyle’s first love remained historical fiction and he worried that his detective stories would come to overshadow his more serious literary work. He wrote to his mother Mary in November 1891: ‘I think of slaying Holmes… and winding him up for good and all. He takes my mind from better things.’ To that end, in ‘The Final Problem’ (published December 1893), he plunged Holmes and his arch-nemesis, Professor Moriarty, seemingly to their deaths at the Reichenbach Falls. Conan Doyle’s liberation was short-lived, however, and he was forced to bring Holmes back by popular demand with ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ in 1901. He negotiated a generous fee of £100 per 1,000 words from the Strand for his work. From this he paid a percentage to the journalist Bertram Robinson who had first told him the legend of a terrifying dog at loose on Dartmoor and had provided some local background for the story. Conan Doyle continued to produce Holmes’ stories in the coming years, concluding with the collection published as The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes in 1927. The Complete Sherlock Holmes Short Stories was published the following year.
During a visit to Egypt for Louise’s health in 1895, fighting broke out between the Dervishes and the British, and Conan Doyle cabled The Westminster Gazette, offering his services as a war correspondent. With the outbreak of the Boer War in 1899, he enthusiastically volunteered to serve as a doctor at the hospital set up by his friend John Langman in Cape Town. More than 300,000 copies of his pamphlet The War in South Africa: its cause and conduct were sold in Britain, and it was also made widely available abroad to counter anti-British propaganda. Conan Doyle’s patriotism made him a public figure, his fame going far beyond what he had achieved with his fiction, and he was rewarded, to his apparent embarrassment, with a knighthood in 1902.
Conan Doyle had moved from London to Haselmere in Surrey in 1893. By now he had two children, a daughter Mary Louise, born in 1889 and a son, Kingsley, born in 1892. His wife had contracted tuberculosis soon after their son’s birth and remained an invalid for the remainder of her life, finally succumbing to the disease on 4 July 1906. The following year, Conan Doyle married Jean Leckie, with whom he had had an unconsummated love affair for over ten years (one of the many causes he adopted was that of reforming British divorce laws). They moved to Windlesham in Crowborough, Sussex and had three children. It was here he wrote The Lost World, which was published in 1912.
During the First World War Conan Doyle served as a private in the Crowborough Company of the Sixth Royal Sussex Volunteer Regiment, and as a military correspondent and historian (his six-volume The British Campaign in France and Flanders was published in 1920). His eldest son, having been injured while serving as a captain at the front, died of influenza in 1918. Conan Doyle found some degree of solace from this death, and those of other close family members, through spiritualism;although he had long lost his religious faith, he still believed in an after life. Throughout the 1920s, his time was dominated by his commitment to evangelising worldwide on behalf of the spiritualist movement, leading to publications that included The Wanderings of a Spiritualist (1921), The History of Spiritualism (1926) and Pheneas Speaks: direct spirit communications in the family circle (1927). The Coming of the Fairies (1922) was his account of the story of two little girls from Cottingley, Yorkshire, who had made photographs of fairies (a hoax which had taken him in completely). This along with his spiritualism led to criticism in the press of his credulity.

Conan Doyle died at his home on 7 July 1930 following a heart attack. He was originally buried in the rose garden at Windlesham, but was later interred with his second wife in Minstead churchyard in the New Forest.
In his biography of Conan Doyle, Andrew Lycett writes:
At the time the obituaries were respectful. But there was a sense that his day had past. As the bright young things of the jazz age struggled with economic depression, they were not greatly interested in a man who had become obsessed with another world.
His reputation as an author was not helped by the activities of enthusiasts such as the Baker Street Irregulars who lived in a fantasy world in which Dr Watson actually wrote the Holmes stories and Conan Doyle was just his literary agent! However, Conan Doyle’s skill as a storyteller can not be in doubt, whether this be in historical, detective or science fiction, and he remains one of the world’s most popular authors.
The Lost World
I have wrought my simple plan
If I give one hour of joy
To the boy who’s half a man,
Or the man who’s half a boy
The Lost World (1912) is an exciting tale of heroism and skulduggery involving bad-tempered scientists, unrequited love, hidden diamonds and dinosaurs. The plot hinges upon the irascible character of Professor Challenger who goes to South America to verify some of the observations made by other naturalists. He discovers that prehistoric creatures, long thought to be extinct, still exist on the continent. He later returns to the ‘lost world’ to gather the evidence that will convince his sceptical colleagues back home in London of his amazing find. He is accompanied by a small party comprising reporter Edward Malone, adventurer Lord John Roxton and rival academic Professor Summerlee. The explorers reach an isolated plateau where they encounter pterodactyls and other Jurassic monsters. They are also caught up in a war between a primitive tribe of Indians and a fierce race of ape-men.
The Lost World was serialised in The Strand from April 1912, illustrated with photographs of Conan Doyle and his friends in the guise of the explorers, and was published in book form in October that year. The ‘lost world’ is a subgenre of science fiction covering those stories in which the protagonists come across a fascinating – and usually dangerous – place previously untouched by Westerners. The discovery often follows a perilous journey that has been prompted by a mysterious map or an intriguing rumour, and the more hackneyed stories feature fearful and superstitious native peoples and stiff-upper-lipped white heroes. Early lost world stories include Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1863) H Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines (1885) and She (1887), Bulwer Lytton’s The Coming Race (1871) and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Land That Time Forgot (1924). Less typically, in James Hilton’s Lost Horizon (1933), it is the travellers who are shown to be ignorant savages rather than the ‘lost’ people, and in Joseph O’Neill’s Land Under England (1935) and Douglas V Duff’s Jack Harding’s Quest (1939), the inhabitants demonstrate superior scientific knowledge.
Lost world stories have proved popular with filmmakers, including Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) and its sequel The Lost World, both based on novels by Michael Crichton. Conan Doyle’s own novel was first released in a film version in 1925 starring Wallace Beery and Bessie Love. The dinosaurs were created using the same stop-motion animation that was later used in King Kong. Before the film’s release, Conan Doyle had shown a clip from one of the animated sequences at a gathering of magicians in New York that included Harry Houdini. Many in the audience were convinced they were watching an apparition of actual dinosaurs cavorting in a primeval swamp!
Conan Doyle’s name has also been linked to a much more elaborate hoax, the fossilised remains of Piltdown Man which were discovered not far from Crowborough around the time The Lost World was being serialised. This creature was thought to provide the missing evolutionary link between apes and humans. It would be 40 years before the fossil was discovered to be a fake. Although Conan Doyle did know the man who uncovered the find, Charles Dawson, sending him a letter of congratulation, he is unlikely to have been involved with what has been called ‘the science fraud of the century’.
With The Lost World, Conan Doyle was deliberately setting out to write ‘a sort of wild boy’s book’, as he described it to his friend Roger Casement, a change of pace from his previous fiction. He was fascinated by the field of exploration and complained jokingly at a Royal Societies Club luncheon that with the world’s far-flung places already mapped ‘the question is where the romance-writer is to turn when he wants to draw a vague and not too clearly-defined region’ (this sentiment is echoed by Malone’s editor in the book).

The Amazon basin still retained its mysteries, however. At a Royal Geographical Society talk in 1911, Conan Doyle met Colonel Percy Fawcett, who had charted the South American interior. During their conversation, he quizzed him about the topography of the Ricardo Franco hills, which later provided some of the inspiration for his descriptions of the plateau in The Lost World. Fawcett eventually disappeared without trace in 1925, supposedly searching for a legendary ‘lost’ white civilisation in Brazil. Conan Doyle must also have read the work of the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who had undertaken an extensive expedition to the Amazon in the mid-nineteenth century, accompanied by Henry Walter Bates, as it is the findings of these two explorers that Challenger is putting to the test in his own South American journey.
Conan Doyle was equally fascinated by dinosaurs. He enjoyed fossil-hunting and discovered several fossilised iguanodon footprints in a quarry close to his home (the travellers come across a family of these creatures in the book). One of his principle sources for information on dinosaurs was Sir Edwin Ray Lankester’s Extinct Animals (1905), which Challenger refers to in order to identify Maple White’s drawing. Lankester, who had been keeper of Natural History at the British Museum, was proud to be associated with the novel and was an admirer of Conan Doyle’s work, despite his vigorous opposition to spiritualism.
The belligerent Edinburgh-educated Challenger was partly based on Conan Doyle’s own personality, and partly on that of William Rutherford, his former professor of physiology, an eccentric, heavily bearded man with a booming voice. Challenger went on to star in further stories, of which the best is probably The Poison Belt, published the following year and seen by some as an attack on the complacency that was leading Europe to war. Challenger ranks alongside Sherlock Holmes as one of the great characters of British fiction.
Discussion Questions
These questions are designed to help guide discussion in reading groups, but can also be of value to the individual reader. There are no right or wrong answers; only your opinions. In addition, there is a chapter by chapter summary of the book with further questions available to download as a Word document from the website.


  • Conan Doyle dedicates the novel ‘To the boy who’s half a man/ Or the man who’s half a boy’. To what extent do you think this is a boy’s book?



  • Critic Michael Coren says the ‘other characters are mere shadows in comparison’ to Challenger. Do you agree with this? Do you think this matters in an adventure book of this type? Why?



    • Do you think we are supposed to approve of Gladys’ wish to be the wife of a hero? Why? What views of marriage and of women does Conan Doyle present in the book?




    • How does Conan Doyle present scientists and science in this book? How are men of science, like the professors, contrasted with men of action, like Lord John Roxton?



    • Conan Doyle refers to non-white races in a language that was common at the time. How does it feel to read this type of language today? How are the different races – the ape-men, Indians, Africans, “half-breeds” and Europeans – compared?




    • What effect does it have telling a large part of the story in the form of reports sent back to the newspaper by Malone? What is the effect of having the account of the dramatic events at the Zoological Society near the end of the book as a newspaper article rather than as first-person narrative? Why do you think Conan Doyle uses these devices?




    • What do you think Conan Doyle’s attitude is to war and conquest from his description of the battle with the ape-men and its aftermath? How do you think we are supposed to respond to the annihilation of the ape-men?



    • How have the travellers each become ‘a better and deeper man’ as a result of their journey to the lost world?



    • What impact do you think the book had on readers of the time, and how might this compare with its impact on modern readers?



    • Now you have finished the book, would you recommend it to other readers? Why?


Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin was born in Shrewsbury on 12 February 1809. His father, Robert, was the town’s leading doctor. His paternal grandfather was the physician-philosopher Erasmus Darwin. His mother Susanna was the daughter of the master potter Josiah Wedgwood. Erasmus and Josiah had been founding members of the Lunar Society, a gathering of some of the most influential intellectuals and industrialists in Britain in the late eighteenth century.

As a boy, Darwin enjoyed collecting birds’ eggs and interesting rocks, fishing, shooting, going for solitary walks, stealing fruit and, according to his autobiography, telling ‘deliberate falsehoods… for the sake of causing excitement’. He was taken out of school by his father in June 1825 because of his poor grades and in October was sent to Edinburgh to study medicine. However, Darwin had little interest in the subject; he found the lectures boring and the surgery demonstrations horrific. He was more interested in the study of nature and one of the things he valued most about being in Edinburgh was the time he could spend at the Natural History Museum there.
Darwin abandoned his medical course in April 1827 and the following January took a place at Christ’s College, Cambridge with the intention of becoming a clergyman. He wrote in his autobiography: ‘During the three years which I spent at Cambridge my time was wasted, as far as the academical studies were concerned, as completely as at Edinburgh and at school.’ He ‘got into a sporting set, including some dissipated low-minded young men’, collected beetles and was a member of the Glutton Club, which was devoted to eating ‘birds and beasts which were before unknown to human palate’. He also attended lectures given by the Rev John Stevens Henslow, Professor of Botany, which reinforced his interest in natural history.
Darwin received his degree in April 1831. Henslow, who had become his mentor, introduced him to the eminent geologist Professor Adam Sedgwick whom Darwin accompanied on a walking tour in North Wales that summer. Darwin had previously attended geology lectures at Edinburgh and had found the subject dull, but now, with Sedgwick’s help, he became fascinated by it. His knowledge of geology would later help him develop his theories about the earth and the species that live upon it.
At the end of August Darwin received a letter from Henslow telling him of an offer to join a survey of South America as a volunteer ‘gentleman-naturalist’. The survey was being conducted from the ship HMS Beagle under the command of Captain Robert FitzRoy. Having overcome his father’s opposition – Robert thought his son should be settling down to work at his age, not gallivanting on unpaid voyages – Darwin set sail from Plymouth on 27 December 1831. He did not return to England until October 1836 when the ship docked at Falmouth, having circumnavigated the southern hemisphere; Darwin had suffered seasickness throughout much of journey. Darwin would later write:
The voyage of the Beagle has been by far the most important event in my life, and has determined my whole career... I have always felt that I owe to the voyage the first real training or education of my mind...

It was during the course of the voyage that Darwin gradually developed an understanding of the processes by which the world was continually changing and how the life forms upon it were likewise continually changing – physically and behaviourally – in order to survive. The processes had been going on for millions of years and would keep unfolding slowly until the end of time. Darwin’s understanding was partly based on his comparison of what he had read in other people’s books with his own direct observations of the world around him, and partly through the development of ideas of his own.
Darwin termed the mechanism by which living things adapted to the changing environment ‘natural selection’ – later referred to as ‘evolution’ – and this knowledge provided the basis for his landmark book On the Origin of Species published in 1859. Natural selection refers to the preservation of useful traits through successive generations, for example, a particular shape of bird beak that suits the availability of insects or a particular thickness of animal coat that suits the climate. There is no human or higher power manipulating the outcome. It happens naturally; birds with the right kind of beak or animals with the right kind of fur are more likely to survive, to inter-breed and to pass on their particular genes than others. In the nineteenth century, it was highly controversial to suggest that species could change without divine intervention: most people believed everything in life was meticulously planned by God. Consequently, for over 20 years Darwin kept his thoughts to himself as he was aware of the harm they might do to his reputation. He wanted to be absolutely sure of his evidence before presenting his case.
In the meantime, Darwin married his first-cousin Emma Wedgwood on 29 January 1839. Their first of ten children, William Erasmus, was born in December. Darwin was not the typical Victorian father, being close to his children and rarely chastising them. His son Francis wrote: ‘He kept up his delightful, affectionate manner towards us all his life.’ Because of his health problems – partly the result of tropical fevers suffered during the Beagle voyage – Darwin became increasingly reclusive. He and his family left the noise and bustle of London in September 1841 to settle into their new country home at Down House in Kent where Darwin remained for the rest of his life.

Darwin was kept busy classifying his collections, exchanging correspondence with colleagues, going for daily contemplative walks, writing books and taking various cures for his ailments. As part of his research into how species might change over time, he became an enthusiastic breeder of pigeons. His son George wrote: ‘I remember that from time to time there was a pigeon fancying party; the guests struck me as being rather a queer set.’ Darwin became convinced that all varieties of pigeons – wild or domestic – had descended from the rock-pigeon, either through natural or artificial selection. Similarly, he believed that humans and modern-day apes were not different in kind, but only in degree, as they shared a distant, common ancestor.
In April 1856, Darwin invited a small group of friends to Down House for a special meeting in which he put forward his ideas on natural selection. Around this time, the geologist Charles Lyell, another of Darwin’s colleagues, recommended that he read a paper on the origins of new species by the naturalist-explorer Alfred Russel Wallace who was on an extensive expedition in the Malay archipelago (this is the same Wallace who is referred to in The Lost World). Lyell urged Darwin to write up and publish his own theories on the subject.
Darwin began drafting what was then called ‘Species Sketch’ and would later become the book On the Origin of Species, on 14 May 1856. He corresponded with Wallace, still out in the Far East, and on 18 June 1858 received another of Wallace’s papers, this one setting out an outline of the transformation of species based on the principle of natural selection. To prevent Darwin’s own work being overtaken by that of Wallace, Lyell and Hooker arranged for a paper jointly credited to ‘Messrs C Darwin and A Wallace’ to be read at the meeting of the distinguished Linnean Society in London on 1 July. It was entitled ‘On the Tendency of Species to Form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection’.
On the Origin of Species was published by John Murray on 22 November and all 1,250 copies sold out that day (the John Murray Archive is in Edinburgh). A second edition quickly went into production. Darwin continued his writing and researches for the remainder of his life, including conducting detailed studies of orchids, climbing plants, variation in domestic animals, the processes of sexual selection, expressions of emotions, insectivorous plants, and the earth-moving efforts of worms. He also published books on barnacles, coral reefs and volcanic islands.
After a series of seizures, he died on the afternoon of 19 April 1882 at Down House. He had expected to be buried quietly alongside two of his children in the local churchyard but, following the intervention of members of the scientific community, he was given a state funeral with internment at Westminster Abbey on 26 April.
The previous year, Darwin had added a section to his autobiography, which he had written in 1876 as a personal memoir for his children and grandchildren. This included the following words of self reflection:

... my success as a man of science, whatever this may have amounted to, has been determined, as far as I can judge, by complex and diversified mental qualities and conditions. Of these, the most important have been – the love of science – unbounded patience in long reflecting over any subject – industry in observing and collecting facts – and a fair share of invention as well as of common sense. With such moderate abilities as I possess, it is truly surprising that I should have influenced to a considerable extent the belief of scientific men on some important points.
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