Arthur Conan Doyle was the most highly paid, and among the most popular and most celebrated British authors of his day. In the period between 1890 and 1910 he was known throughout the world, and was able to influence British government policy on many issues through direct and indirect contact with politicians and administrators, much in the way his friend Rudyard Kipling did. His most famous creation was the consulting detective Sherlock Holmes, plausibly claimed as the most famous fictional character of all time.
A recent biography of Conan Doyle by Russell Miller, The Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle (St Martins Press NY 2008) is the first to have unrestricted access to a vast collection of Conan Doyle’s letters and personal papers, and this makes it the most personal and revealing portrait so far. Earlier lives were a bit on the reverential side. Miller organised the presentation of the life under three headings: early life and medical career; famous author; and advocate of spiritualism. It’s a life full of incident and adventure, and also of strange contrasts, and Miller’s book was full of surprises for me. An entertaining and easily read account of Doyle’s life, it also presents an impressive amount of background research in a helpful and unobtrusive way. Here are the highlights.
The Doyles were an Irish family. John Doyle, Arthur’s grandfather, was a successful caricaturist and painter who lived in Dublin and in 1820 married Marianne Conan there. The family moved to London, attained great celebrity, but little wealth, and John’s son Richard also took up a career as a caricaturist, working for the recently founded Punch magazine, for which he designed a masthead still in use. John’s youngest son Charles was the least distinguished member of the family, taking up a dull administrative post in Edinburgh, where his son Arthur was born in 1859. Charles, gentle and melancholic and a talented painter, eventually succumbed to alcoholism, and spend the last years of his life in a lunatic asylum. His family was bought up by Charles’ wife Mary. Arthur’s mother was to be the great formative influence of his life, with whom he had his longest and closest relationship.
Miller follows Doyle’s autobiography Memories and Adventures for his early life. Doyle was a fluent, productive and at times careless writer, capable of a truly astounding production rate when enthusiastic. His autobiography is full of inaccuracies and far from revealing, but it does tell a good story. Miller is himself an engaging writer, and I found this first part of the book by far the most interesting.
Arthur was over six feet tall, broad shouldered and burly, weighed 15 stone and excelled at cricket (he once bowled out the great WG Grace), football and boxing. He studied medicine at Edinburgh University where he was a classmate and friend of JM Barrie (author of Peter Pan) and where RL Stevenson had been a student the previous year. He had been writing since childhood but it was at this period of his life he first had stories accepted by London magazines. A conscientious but not enthusiastic medical student, Arthur took an opportunity in 1880 to sail to the Arctic as a surgeon on a whaler. It was an experience he relished and it was the source of material for several later stories. He was popular with his shipmates, who christened him The Great Northern Diver because of the number of times he fell in the water (a life threatening event he cheerfully survived). In search of further adventure, Arthur took a post as ship’s doctor on a vessel bound for Africa after graduating from university. The experience was far from rewarding, and on his return he settled down to the mundane effort of earning a living.
One of Arthur’s first experiences as a doctor was as a partner to a fellow graduate at Edinburgh, George Budd. Budd was eccentric, pugnacious, regarded by his friends as a genius, and when he first contacted Arthur after graduation, he was starving. But his business prospered, and he called on Arthur for assistance. Arthur found, to his amazement, that Budd’s success was due to his abuse of his patients. They had to wait inordinate lengths of time for a consultation, were frequently abused by Budd for disturbing him with their conversation, treated with a prescription which was often a placebo: and came back for more. Budd had a fantastic reputation as a curer, and needed help to deal with the huge number of patients he had. But he turned paranoid, accused Arthur of dishonesty and of stealing his patients for his own practice, the two men quarrelled, and fought, and Arthur went his own way.
Basil Rathbone’s portrayal of Sherlock Holmes helped make the deerstalker hat and Inverell cape (which Sherlock wore on only one adventure) part of his permanent wardrobe, created the association between pipes and deduction followed by Maigret, and brought out the startling similarities between Sherlock and Dracula
It was while waiting for patients in his new practice at Southsea that Arthur conceived the character of Sherlock Holmes. He was a blend of EA Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin and one of Arthur’s lecturers at Edinburgh University, Joseph Bell. At the time Arthur was enthusiastic about the detective novels of Emile Gaboriau, which were then hugely popular. Both Gaboriau and Poe were favourite authors of his. Detective fiction was obviously saleable, and Arthur wanted to be an author, not a doctor, and he cast around for something distinctive that would make his own work stand out. He thought of Bell, whose lectures were full of deductive jumps of reasoning based on exact observation of patients which amazed and enthralled his students. Bell also contributed his physique to the portrait of Sherlock Holmes. Arthur never ceased to acknowledge the contribution of these men to his creation. A Study in Scarlet (the first Sherlock Holmes story) was written in 1886, and after a string of rejections was published by Ward Lock and Co in 1888. The publishers paid Arthur £25 for the book.
Detective fiction, based on the exploits of members of the real life detective branch of the London Police Force which had been recently established, was very popular in the 80s. Dickens and Wilkie Collins had created iconic detectives; there was a mass of less distinguished work, and almost all of it was based on the reminiscences of real life detectives. Seeking to be different, Arthur harkened back to Poe’s work of 1841, and put the focus on deductive reasoning based on exact observation, the secret of Dupin’s success. However, probably Arthur’s greatest innovation was the introduction of Doctor John Watson, who observes uncomprehendingly Holmes’ reasoning. Dupin was unashamedly arrogant, and so is Holmes, but the relationship between Holmes and Watson allows us to see far more about Holmes than we do of Dupin, and he, in this oblique way, becomes a fully realised character. So much so that many, from A Study in Scarlet onwards, believed him to be a real person (some do to this day). Arthur was less romantic. He wanted to make money from his writing, and had hit on a way to do so. He then thought of another innovative idea. Instead of serialising a novel in magazine format, which had made best sellers of Dickens and Dumas, Arthur came up with the idea of writing a series of stories featuring the same character. Poe had written three; Arthur was to write 56. In the event Holmes would become an overwhelming success, an institution, and a millstone around Arthur’s neck.
Aside from the first novel and the first six stories, the exploits of Holmes and Watson held little interest for Arthur. He revelled in their amazing popularity, and enjoyed the lucrative contracts he was able to negotiate, but his basic attitude to the Holmes stories was that they were potboilers. He wrote them for the money, while privately deploring the public demand for such work. As a result he put very little effort into the stories once he had devised the basic puzzle, and they are full of inconsistencies, errors, trite situations, silly dialogue and implausible denouements. The public didn’t care, and clamoured for more.
While waiting for publication of A Study in Scarlet, Arthur started work on a much more ambitious book, a historical novel about the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685 against the papist King James II. Over a years’ meticulous research went into Micah Clarke, a somewhat ponderous novel that Arthur long regarded as his greatest achievement. His career was to be full of similar misjudgments.
Miller is adept in painting a portrait of the times. A dinner in London organised by Joseph Stoddart of Lippincott’s Magazine of Philadelphia in 1889 for instance, at which the guests were Oscar Wilde and Arthur, two seemingly disparate characters. Yet Arthur admired Wilde enormously, and Oscar was in turn complimentary about Arthur’s books. Stoddart commissioned two novels, Wilde’s Portrait of Dorian Gray, in which he attempted narrative and action, modes with which he felt himself defective but in which Arthur excelled; and Arthur’s The Sign of Four, another Holmes novel in which Sherlock is revealed as somewhat decadent and a cocaine addict. It was also a story in which Arthur made moves to abandon the character, as it ends with Watson’s intention of marriage and disassociation with Holmes.
In 1891 came another ponderous historical tome, The White Company. Arthur survived bad reviews of this, and negotiated very profitable contracts for its publication, something he was to prove adept at for the rest of his career. The book was a best seller, though regarded as a boys’ adventure story rather than a meticulously researched historical work (which it was).
In 1891 also was founded The Strand magazine, a new concept that combined illustration with serious literary work and reportage. The Strand was to be the publishing success story of the decade in Britain. An early contributor and one of the foundations of the magazine’s success was Arthur Conan Doyle, who started his first series of Holmes stories, later collected as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, for The Strand. Though The Strand may well have been successful without Arthur’s involvement, his contributions made it phenomenally so. And The Strand, through Arthur’s negotiating skills, made Arthur a rich man, and gave him bargaining power and audience pull in the even more lucrative American market.
The flaw in Arthur’s creative output was not only a conflict between what he considered his lightweight moneyspinner, the Sherlock Holmes’ stories, and his ‘serious’ output of historical novels, poetry and plays. It was to be found in his method of writing. A meticulous researcher, Arthur was a fluent and productive writer, producing a regular output of 3,000 words a day, and he never revised his work. If it succeeds it does so because of its narrative flair, not by its style or insight into character and motivation. This is why Arthur was so often categorised as a boys’ adventure story writer (though read voraciously by adults: Robert Louis Stevenson suffered the same fate, though he was a much more meticulous writer).
But Arthur’s achievement was considerable. He is one of the greatest creators of atmosphere in English literature. You only have to think of the yellow fog that permeates the London streets in the Holmes stories. Throughout all his stories Arthur shows a strong awareness of the uncanny, of eerie states of mind, of hidden currents of personality, of the effect of threatening environments. In view of his later involvement with spiritualism this is remarkable, all the more so as he probably was unconscious of it.
In 1893, in a story called The Final Problem, Arthur finally got rid of Holmes, who fell to his death grappling with his (newly introduced) arch enemy Professor Moriaty. The Strand lost 20,000 subscribers and gained as many letters of abuse and protest. The Prince of Wales was said to be very upset. The only one happy was Arthur, who longed to get on with his ‘serious’ work, “even if I buried my banking account along with [Sherlock]”. Arthur made amends with the exploits of Brigadier Gerard, another of his historical tales set in the period of Napoleon. It, like most of his work, was extraordinarily popular, and issues of The Strand with a contribution by Arthur’s were guaranteed to sell out.
After producing a massive history of the Boer War (he was an advocate of the Empire in the Kipling mould), Arthur returned to fiction with a tale of the supernatural which he called The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1901. Problems with construction led him eventually to incorporate Sherlock Holmes into the story. The results were enormous sales and a huge fee for Arthur, and probably the most popular of the Holmes stories. I can still remember when I first read it: I was 13, and it scared me silly. Again, note the eerie atmosphere created by the swirling mists on the moor, having the same effect as the London fog in creating mystery and suspense. Soon Arthur was under pressure to write more Holmes stories, and obliged with stories collected under the title The Return of Sherlock Holmes. The American rights alone earned him the equivalent of half a million dollars.
I had read somewhere that Arthur had played a part in solving some real life crimes, using the same deductive skills as Holmes. Miller makes it plain this is an exaggeration. Arthur used his fame and influence to re-open cases which he believed had been conducted unjustly. His intervention was inconclusive, but in two cases his judgment was later proven to have been correct.
In 1906 Arthur took up the case of the Edalji family, Pakistanis living in Staffordshire, the victims of a flood of virulent poison pen letters who were accused of mutilating animals of nearby farms. The local police enquiry was based mainly on racial prejudice, and Arthur wrote a newspaper article which aroused popular outrage and made the case one of national concern. New evidence was presented, the appeal was successful. Yet the outrages continued, The Edaljis were driven from the area and it was not till 1934 that the real criminal confessed.
In 1909 Arthur took up the cudgels to protest at human rights outrages in the Congo, something that both Kipling and Conrad refused to do. He wrote a book, The Crime in the Congo, based on first person narratives, sent copies to prominent politicians throughout the world, and embarked on a lecture tour to bring matters to the attention of the British public. Response from the Belgian government was slow and inconclusive, but Arthur may have prevented the situation from deteriorating further.
In 1912 Arthur took up the case of Oscar Slater, convicted of the murder of an elderly woman and given a death sentence commuted to life imprisonment. There seemed little doubt the police case was corrupt, and put together to protect the real perpetrator by finding a fall guy. Slater had no connection with the murdered woman, had an alibi for the time of the crime, his description did not match that of the likely criminal as noted by bystanders at the scene of the crime, and no evidence was adduced to prove him guilty. The case against him was based on the fact he was a lowlife character, poor, and Jewish, and the conviction was a triumph of anti semitism. Arthur’s intervention, and demolition of the police case, was inconclusive. Several years later a detective involved with the case revealed that the police had concealed evidence. Finally, after serving 20 years, Slater was released on good behaviour, but not exonerated.
Also in 1912 came Arthur’s science fiction masterpiece The Lost World. This featured another memorable protagonist, Professor Challenger, and is a kind of palaeontological adventure story which is full of original concepts (mined later by Michael Crichton in Jurassic Park). It was followed by another story featuring Challenger, The Poison Belt, in which a spectacular story idea is virtually thrown away half way through. Other Challenger stories are even more disappointing. Something was happening to Conan Doyle, and his creativity seemed to dry up, virtually overnight, as he took up another pursuit, one which was to obsess him for the rest of his life and make him a famous, celebrated laughing stock.
But first came the devastating events of the Great War, which destroyed the way of life and sense of security of virtually everybody in Europe, and killed by death or disease a large proportion of the next generation.
Arthur was too old to enlist, 55, but he did anyway, and was rejected. In his patriotic fervour he invented the concept of the Home Guard, and warned (no one was listening) of the dangers of submarine warfare. As he had for the Boer War, Arthur eventually produced a massive account of the First World War, based on diaries and reminiscences of key figures in the conflict. This six volume work was Arthur’s “greatest work” (so he thought – again). But its defense of bumbling and criminally incompetent generals who needlessly slaughtered millions of soldiers for no very clear strategic objectives has left it on the refuse heap of forgotten histories.
Arthur had been bought up in a devout Catholic family. He had outraged them by declaring himself an agnostic during his university studies, on the grounds that he found flaws in the contentions of every ‘revealed’ religion he had encountered. Now he was to take up a faith, the beliefs of spiritualism, that the dead survived their death, and could make contact with the living. It had been wildly popular, though sceptics wondered why the departed had nothing better to pass on than shining lights and rapping tables. Arthur had lost more than a dozen family members through the war, including his youngest brother and eldest son. One can see why he needed such a faith. His tragedy was that by the time he became a spiritualist, most who had been enthusiastic about it had passed on to other fashions. Arthur was seen increasingly as a deluded old man, ludicrously credulous.
Yet his faith was understandable. Arthur had been an agnostic, and he was a believer in science, like most of the educated people of his day. He had seen his world transformed by the effects of the Industrial Revolution, and the British Empire grow to become the greatest in history. He had invented a character, Sherlock Holmes, who was in the forefront of the scientific detection of crime (several of Sherlock’s ideas, such as plaster casting of footprints and making a record of fingerprints, were only later adopted by the police force). Then he had seen his empire involved in ruin and a generation of men who should have carried on the scientific revolution slaughtered on the battlefields during the bloody and pointless carnage of the Great War. As Kipling put it: “If any question why we died, tell them, because our fathers lied”. Arthur badly needed something else to turn to to counter the enormous disillusion he must have felt.
The contrast between the scientific method of Holmes and the fatuous belief in spirits of the dead was extreme, and Arthur took a battering in the press for his beliefs. His reputation took a further nosedive when he expressed belief in the fairy photographs of Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths. These were a series of fake images made with cutouts from magazine illustrations conceived as a practical joke. But they were taken seriously by many, including Arthur. Many went on the lookout for fairies at the bottom of their garden in one of the strangest crazes of the 20s.
In 1920 Arthur had met and became friends with the American magician Harry Houdini. The men differed over their belief in spiritualism: Arthur toured the world advocating it; Houdini devoted a lot of time exposing the methods of fraudulent mediums. The friendship eventually turned to enmity over the issue. Arthur lost many friends over his espousal of spiritualism. It took his death from a heart attack at age 70 in 1930 for those who knew him personally to reassess the man and to see the enormous enthusiasm and courage with which he stood up for what he believed in, a trait which earned the devotion of both his wives, and all his closest friends.
Miller’s biography succeeds in recreating many aspects of Conan Doyle’s character as well as bringing the times to life with considerable flair.
There’s far more to Arthur Conan Doyle than Sherlock Holmes or Professor Challenger. He has suffered in critical estimation by writing detective fiction, which in English at least is not critically examined, but merely enthused over. Most of his other voluminous writings, once best sellers, are now little read. Much of what he wrote so readily is indeed forgettable, perhaps none so much as some of the Holmes books which he so despised of his output (while other Holmes stories contain some of his best work). Now Holmes has resurfaced in a Hollywood film, looking for all the world in the posters like another Die Hard movie. The Holmes books will have yet another boost of popularity. The time is right for a resourceful publisher to go through Arthur’s stories and select the best. Always a variable writer, a judicious selection would bring Arthur to the forefront of English story writers, a place where he belongs. Like Kipling, a contemporary also devastated by the Great War, (who produced late in his career four of the best short story collections ever written), Arthur has a genius for evoking the uncanny and the mysterious, for revealing other imaginative worlds at the borders of our mundane reality. Footprints and cigar ash that reveal character to the seer who can see, dinosaurs that survive to menace humans, wraiths that entice on Arctic wastes, Arthur is a mythographer who knows our fears and fantasies and can bring them to life in a thrilling story. His imaginative powers combined disparate elements of his personality in a way his rational self could not.
©2011 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.