Damning with Faint Praise:
Dr. Hardcastle’s Impressions of Armitage

by Tamar Zeffren

If we rely upon Hardcastle’s description of Armitage as “young” during the harrowing occurrences of this tale, occurring the year before the doctor’s death in February 1908, then Armitage is managing an agrarian livelihood during the post-1815 agricultural depression in Great Britain and other congruent declines in the living standard available to “his station in life.” Here, Doyle’s narrator enacts his own class aspirations through an assessment of the straitened opportunities available to a member of the working class.

Doyle’s narrator does not even afford Armitage the dignity of being first named before being positioned as a representative for an entire tier of society. Hardcastle makes a mordant observation about the collective “countrymen” before introducing any individual characteristics about Armitage. Through the framing device of the beleaguered Dr. Hardcastle, Doyle foregrounds a social and economic perspective associated with a mobile, salaried profession, one positioned with greater social capacity and currency than Armitage can access.

What underlies the piquant impact of “The Terror of Blue John Gap” is the gradual whittling away of Dr. Hardcastle’s confidence that his “series of facts” can do justice to the bizarre events in the Blue John Gap. I posit that this inversion Doyle introduces can also be read as a veiled reference to the Victorians’ tendency, as Nicola Bown, et al. suggest in their introduction to The Victorian Supernatural, to “mock their own fascination with the supernatural.” Scorn often carries with it egalitarian properties, leveling the anxieties of the upper and lower classes alike. Doyle may have included such a strain in this plot to mollify the class disparity that is redolent in Hardcastle’s discussion (and dismissal) of Armitage.

An absorbing detail which, I think, warrants further exploration outside the scope of this brief commentary, is the etymology of Armitage. Doyle chose a surname with Yorkshire roots, that descends from the Old French word “hermite” and from the Greek work ἔρημος, “eremos,” meaning solitary, desolate, or deserted. Perhaps Doyle was also alluding to conditions of increasing density and the centrality of networks of support and reputation-burnishing to Victorian business and professional culture. In contrast, Armitage, both in name and in function, cuts a solitary and credulous figure who is not considered an authoritative figure by a member of the upper class. But, as Hardcastle discovers, a solitary voice is dismissed at one’s peril.


Beckett, J.V. “The Decline of the Small Landowner in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century England: Some Regional Considerations.” The Agricultural History Review, Vol 30, No. 2. British Agricultural History Society, 1982.

Bown, Nicola, Carolyn Burdett, and Pamela Thurschwell. “Introduction,” The Victorian Supernatural. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Luckhurst, Roger. “The Victorian Supernatural.” Cambridge Studies in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture, Series Number 42. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Copyright 2022 Tamar Zeffren


Tamar Zeffren, BSI (“The London Library”), ASH (“Your Extensive Archives, Watson”), is an archivist in the New York area. She is a Baker Street Babe, sits on the faculty of the Priory Scholars, and is the Content Manager for the BSI Trust. She is certified as a Digital Archives Specialist by the Society of American Archivists.