by James Buchan

On the Trail of Conan Doyle

October 21, 2009 | by James Buchan

SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE is the cuckoo in the nest of Scottish literature. Irish by blood, and perhaps by temperament, he spent his childhood and college years in Edinburgh and absorbed the city’s influences: the scientific traditions of the famous medical school, and the mists and ghosts of Sir Walter Scott and RL Stevenson.

Under these influences, Conan Doyle wrote the better part of a hundred books, from the detective stories of Sherlock Holmes to now forgotten historical novels such as The White Company and Sir Nigel, the science fiction of The Lost World and ‘The Horror of the Heights’, tracts on every sort of subject and a great deal of reminiscence.

The common or vulgar picture of Conan Doyle is that he went off his rocker towards the end of World War One when he lost in quick succession his eldest son, Kingsley, and his beloved younger brother, Innes. The creator of Sherlock Holmes who boasted of making a science of criminal detection spent the last years of his long life preaching Spiritualism all over the English-speaking countries or waiting for hours with a camera in the wood behind his summer cottage in the New Forest to photograph sprites.

Yet, as shown by two excellent new books, Andrew Lycett’s Conan Doyle: The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes and a collection of his correspondence Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters, the author was all of a piece. There was no opposition between the scientific and romantic Conan Doyles, the material and spiritual, young and old. As a struggling doctor in Southsea near Portsmouth in the 1880s, Conan Doyle attended seances with a retired army general. In 1894, he wrote that evidence of communication with spirits would, if established, be “infinitely the most important thing in the history of the world”.

As for Sherlock Holmes, he is a detective with a strong taint of the metaphysical. Holmes’ “deduction” is no such thing and certainly not what the great sceptic David Hume understood by that word. It is guesswork presented as clairvoyance. (“You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive”.) Beneath Conan Doyle’s pleasant life of cricket, golf and Surrey opulence, the letters to the Daily Telegraph and the campaigning, empire and cosmos are in disorder. Beneath Baker Street the ground gapes.

Andrew Lycett, still warm from writing his biography of Kipling, has an exact feeling for the alterations in social atmosphere during Conan Doyle’s long life. Far from the blade-straight Victorian who suppressed his love for a beautiful younger woman while his wife wasted away from TB, Conan Doyle is a well upholstered Edwardian meeting his pretty young mistress at discreet golf or cricket resorts which then serve as atmospheric locations for his famous detective. Lycett’s book has the effect of moving Conan Doyle into our age. He is a character of a modern type who believed he deserved to enjoy the fruits of his ability, his heroic industry and his sacrifices.

The Life In Letters, edited by two American Sherlockians and the author’s great-nephew Charles Foley, consists almost exclusively of letters from Conan Doyle to his mother, Mary Doyle. That in no way limits the book’s interest. “The Mam”, as Conan Doyle called her, was a spirited and ruthless woman and her son’s most important attachment. Their intimacy is close, at times for the reader almost suffocating.

The tone of the letters varies from the winsome to the pugnacious, and the matter from money to literature (but not Irish government or the afterlife on which they disagreed). What does not vary is Conan Doyle’s sense of responsibility to his family and his unbounded belief in himself. There is nothing in Conan Doyle of Stevenson’s terrible self-scrutiny in his last year in Samoa. Every one of Conan Doyle’s books and stories, even the historical novels which have now parted their cables and sunk with Stanley J. Weyman and G.A. Henty to the literary deep, is to its author a “ripper”.

Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle was born in Edinburgh in 1859 to Irish Roman Catholic family of strong artistic leanings and doubtful respectability. His father, Charles Doyle, a gifted draughtsman, drank himself into delirium.

As the household disintegrated, its members scattered, father to a succession of mental institutions in Scotland, three sisters to Portugal as governesses, Arthur to the Jesuits at Stonyhurst College in Lancashire, where he shed the Roman Catholic faith that he spent the rest of his life trying to replace. Mary Doyle roomed in not quite reputable circumstances with a doctor named Byron Waller, of whom Arthur was jealous.

At Edinburgh University, Conan Doyle studied for a period under the surgeon Dr Joseph Bell, the chief model or pattern for Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle later wrote: “‘Gentlemen’, he would say to us students standing around, ‘I am not quite sure whether this man is a cork-cutter or a slater. I observe a slight callus, or hardening, on one side of his forefinger, and a little thickening on the outside of his thumb’”. The Sherlock Holmes of A Study In Scarlet and The Sign Of Four has still not shed his medical origins. He is a “consulting detective” as in “consulting surgeon”, who first appears in a fog of carbolic in a hospital dissecting room, rooms with a failed doctor, and enjoys that medical man’s tipple, cocaine in seven per cent solution.

After a spell as a ship’s surgeon on a whaler in the Arctic and off West Africa, Conan Doyle set up in 1882 in a general practice in South-sea near Portsmouth. He had no money and no patients. Unquenchable optimist as he was, Conan Doyle passed the time counting the people who stopped to read his doorplate. “On Wednesday evening in 25 minutes”, he told his mother, “28 people stopped in front of it, and yesterday I counted 24 in 15 minutes. On the average of one a minute of working hours 2880 people have read it during the week”. His fortunes turned when a man fell off his horse outside his door, “and the intelligent animal rolled on him”.

All this time, he was attending seances and writing supernatural or pseudo-scientific stories for the likes of Boys Own Paper, Bow Bells, All the Year Round , Temple Bar and Good Words as well as bombarding The Lancet and the British Journal of Photography. In 1885, he married Louise Hawkins (‘Touie’) in less than auspicious circumstances: her brother had just died under Conan Doyle’s roof and treatment.

They moved to London, Arthur threw up medicine and published the first Holmes stories, A Study In Scarlet (1888) and The Sign Of Four (1890) in a series that was to go on, with long interruptions and much grumbling by the author, until 1927. By the late 1890s, Conan Doyle had progressed (as Innes Doyle put it) “from a penny a line to a shilling a word”. The surviving sisters were brought back from Portugal and married, ‘The Mam’ was set up all cosy, and Conan Doyle built himself an extravagant country house in Surrey .

By now, Touie had been diagnosed with TB and was an invalid. In 1897, Conan Doyle met a beautiful young woman of a more artistic or soulful type than his consumptive Touie. Jean Leckie was, as Conan Doyle put it to his mother with some delicacy, a “darling” whereas Touie was just a “dear”. Charles Foley and his American colleagues hold to the family view that Conan Doyle and Jean Leckie were not lovers until after Touie’s death in 1906. Lycett also believes their love was Platonic.

By now, Conan Doyle was shedding his Victorian inhibitions. Back from the South African War, where he worked as a volunteer surgeon in Bloemfontein, he squired Jean to a cricket match at Lords and ran into his sister Connie and her husband, the writer E.W. Hornung. There was a terrific family row. Yet Conan Doyle was soon writing to his mother about “such a nice little golf hotel at Ashdown Forest”.

“Now suppose”, he continued, “you and I were to go this hotel for a few days. It would be sweet. Then suppose at your invitation J came to join us. Then in a few days I would ask Stewart Leckie the brother for a couple of days golf – he is very keen – and then he & J could go back together”.

Lycett does not seem to have seen that letter or others about similar jaunts in which Mrs Doyle was not of the party. That may be because, as he complains at the end of his book, Charles Foley as executor of the literary estate withdrew sixty or seventy letters from the Doyle Papers at the British Library as being of “merely of family interest”. Lycett must fall back on the census of 1901, which shows not only Conan Doyle and his mother registered at the Ashdown Forest Hotel over the weekend of 16-17 March, 1901, but also

Jean Leckie. It does not sound to me a bit like Platonic love. Mary Doyle’s complicity is surely not unconnected with her own conduct in the matter of Dr. Waller.

Conan Doyle stood for Parliament for Scottish seats in both 1900 and 1906 but proved uncongenial to the voters of both Edinburgh (Central) and the Border Burghs. These were the years of his causes, pursued with unflagging vigour: divorce reform, the Congo, a channel tunnel, mining stocks, auto-cycles, prohibition, body armour, skiing, the Empire, submarines, fossils, the government of Ire-land, the Olympic games, and various miscarriages of justice in Britain. As the war took its toll of Conan Doyle’s family, Spiritualism became his capital interest and makes its way even into his letters to his mother.

A Life In Letters tails off with The Mam’s death in 1920. Lycett gives due weight to Conan Doyle’s Spiritualist tours of the United States, South Africa and Australia though his subject was, as he puts it, “in danger of becoming a bore”. Yet Conan Doyle is sincere, and so desperate to comfort himself and others, that even a hard heart can be moved. “Death”, he wrote in Light, the journal of the London Spiritualist Alliance, “makes no abrupt change in the process of development, nor does it make an impassable chasm between those who are on either side of it. No trait of the form and no peculiarity of the mind are changed by death but all are continued in that spiritual body which is the counterpart of the earthly one at its best”.

Jean, too, was committed to the cause, but was more practical. She had summoned up a spirit guide by the name of Pheneas, an Arabian from Ur in the Chaldees before the age of Abraham, who proved useful in all sorts of domestic business. In 1924, when they were looking for a country cottage, Pheneas promised to send out “a search party out for an earth dwelling that would be suitable for you to dwell in”. Pheneas found a charming cottage, at Bignall Wood in the New Forest, but could not prevent a fire in the thatch in 1929.

Arthur Conan Doyle died on July 7, 1931. At his memorial service in the Albert Hall six days later, he was represented on the platform by an empty chair. A clairvoyant named Estelle Roberts suddenly spoke up: “He is there”. She went across and whispered something to Jean. “I saw him distinctly”, Estelle Roberts said later. “He was wearing evening dress”.


CONAN DOYLE: THE MAN WHO CREATED SHERLOCK HOLMES
By Andrew Lycett
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20.00
pp432, ISBN 0297848526

ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE: A LIFE IN LETTERS
Edited by Jon Lellenberg, Daniel Stashower and Charles Foley
HarperPress, £25.00
pp720, ISBN 0007247591

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