Published online by Cambridge University Press: 24 April 2021
For a man who never set foot there, South America seemed to exert an unusual degree of influence over Conan Doyle's imagination. His great post-imperial romance The Lost World was his most sustained exploration – in every sense of the word – of the imagined continent, and much can be read into his decision to locate a dinosaur-inhabited plateau in the centre of the Amazonian rainforest. For the British explorers under the leadership of Professor Challenger who set offin search of evidence of prehistoric life in the modern age, the interior of Brazil is one of the last remaining blank spaces on the map: only in such unexplored terrain can prehistory survive, untroubled by the twentieth century. The blank space exerts an irresistible appeal over the Challenger expedition, which comprises men who long to add to the world's knowledge, to their own celebrity and to their own wealth (they discover diamonds, inconveniently located in the lair of some particularly aggressive pterodactyls). Exploration in The Lost World is given a strikingly sexual twist: the novel's narrator, McArdle, repeatedly uses the word ‘penetrate’ to describe his mission, which for his part is motivated by the desire to impress a young woman called Gladys:
we should return to London with first-hand knowledge of the central mystery of the plateau, to which I alone, of all men, would have penetrated. I thought of Gladys, with her ‘There are heroisms all round us.’ I seemed to hear her voice as she said it.
As Louise Guenther has shown, South America was a highly sexualised continent in British culture in the long nineteenth century: its sexuality was both literal, with breathless accounts of its population of dusky and voluptuous beauties, and figurative, inviting exploration and exploitation by a virile commercial and imperial nation.
Some of Doyle's other fictions exemplify this tendency. ‘The Story of the Brazilian Cat’, one of Doyle's most successful attempts at the horror genre which was first published in the Strand in 1898 (illustrated, like the Holmes stories, by Sidney Paget), features an aristocrat with the telling name of Everard King who has returned to his estate in rural Suffolk after ‘an adventurous life in Brazil’ where he collected both a wife and a large puma-like cat called Tommy.