Selected products from Arthur Conan Doyle
The Scottish physician and writer Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle’s name is inseparable from the phenomenon of Sherlock Holmes, undoubtedly his greatest character and the eponymous meticulous, deductive and frankly genius hero of crime fiction. However, his prolific writing was in more than just the crime fiction genre; alongside the 56 short stories and 4 novels of Sherlock Holmes he explored science fiction and fantasy as well as plays, historical novels and poetry. Another of Conan Doyle’s notable characters is Professor Challenger, whose aggression and dominance serves as the antithesis of Holmes, and demonstrates Conan Doyle’s capacious imagination and dramatic skill. Returning to his name, it is worthy of note that there is uncertainty surrounding his surname; while he is often referred to as Conan Doyle, where Conan and Doyle are treated as a compound surname, the entry at his baptism records Arthur Ignatius Conan as first names, and Doyle as a solitary last. Indeed, his father’s name was simply Doyle. Moreover, the catalogues of the British Library and the Library of Congress insist of Doyle as his surname. Regardless, he began to refer to himself as Conan Doyle and his second wife would take this as her surname, so he will herein be referred to as Conan Doyle, in accordance with his apparent preference.
He was born in Edinburgh at 11 Picardy Place on 22nd May 1859 to his parents Charles Altamont Doyle, an Englishman of Irish descent, and Mary (née Foley), an Irishwoman, who had married in 1855. He had a brother named Innes. Charles was developing an alcohol dependence which would become incompatible with family life, and they dispersed in 1864 at which point the children were temporarily housed at various addresses across Edinburgh. They reunited in 1867, only to live together at 3 Sciennes place in a squalid tenement flat. Fortunately for the children, they had wealthy uncles who were willing to support them by paying for education and clothing. Accordingly at the age of nine Conan Doyle was sent to Hodder Place, Stonyhurst, a Roman Catholic Jesuit preparatory school. He was here for the two years between 1868 and 1870 at which point he went on to Stonyhurst College where he stayed until 1875 when he went for a year to Stella Matutina, Jesuit school in Feldkirch, Austria.
This school education set him up for a place at the University of Edinburgh, where he studied medicine between 1876 and 1881. Part of his course involved placements in
Aston, (now a suburb of Birmingham, though at the time it was its own town), Sheffield and in Ruyton-XI-Towns, an unusually named village in Shropshire which acquired its numeral when, in the twelfth century, a castle was built there which became the focus of eleven small and disparate communities. It was during this study that he began writing short stories, with the successful submission of ‘The Haunted Grange of Goresthorpe’ to Blackwood’s Magazine arguably his greatest literary achievement at the time. As well as this recognition, he saw his first published piece ‘The Mystery of the Sasassa Valley’, a story set in South Africa, printed on 6th September 1879 in Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal, and only 17 days later his first non-fiction article was published in the British Medical Journal on 20th September, entitled ‘Gelsemium as poison’. Having finished his studies he took an appointment as a Doctor on the Greenland whaler Hope of Peterhead in 1880 and then, following his graduation, he assumed the role of ship’s surgeon on the SS Mayumba during its 1881 voyage to the West African coast.
1882 saw his move to Plymouth where he joined the medical practice of former classmate George Turnavine Budd, though they had a difficult professional relationship and Conan Doyle left shortly thereafter in order to set up his own independent practice. Having arrived in Portsmouth in June of that year and disembarked the SS Mayumba with a mere £10 (£700 today) to his name, he proceeded to establish his practice at 1 Bush Billas in Elm Grove, Southsea, a seaside town in the country of Hampshire. He was not met with initial success, and in order to pass the time between visits from patients he resumed his story writing. During this period he completed his first novel, The Mystery of Cloomber, though it was not published until 1888, and the unfinished Narrative of John Smith, which only recently saw publication in 2011. Alongside these longer works was the steady production of a portfolio of short stories which included ‘The Captain of the Pole-Star’ and ‘J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement’, both inspired by the time he spent at sea. Meanwhile, in 1885 he completed a doctorate on the subject of tabes dorsalis, the slow degradation and demyelination of the sensory neurons that carry afferent information. He also married Louisa Hawkins, who was the sister of one of his patients, that same year. However, two years after this marriage he met and fell in love with Jean Elizabeth Leckie, though he maintained a platonic relationship with her out of respect for and loyalty to his wife for whom he still had great affection.
Though he struggled to find a publisher for the stories he wrote in these stretches of inactivity, his literary career would take an historic turn in 1886 when, on 20th November, Ward Lock & Co offered Conan Doyle £25 for all rights to A Study In Scarlet. The first and one of the most famous of the Sherlock Holmes franchise, it introduced the public to a new, empirical and methodical mode of crime fiction, and indeed criminality itself, by the combination of a perspicacious, brilliantly observant and data-driven detective whose army doctor companion Watson provided further scientific support as well as a means of observing and narrating Holmes’s processes and adventures. The novel was a success; a letter from Robert Louis Stevenson who had acquired a copy of the novel in Samoa, wrote with “[his] compliments on your very ingenious very interesting adventures of Sherlock Holmes”, while noting the similarity between Holmes’s methods and a certain Joseph Bell, upon whom Holmes was based. Conan Doyle even wrote to Bell explaining so, and that “round the centre of deduction and inference and observation which I have heard you inculcate I have tried to build up a man”. It was met with positive reviews in The Scotsman and The
Herald and this success encouraged Ward Lock & Co to commission a sequel, The Sign of Four, which appeared in Lippincott’s Magazine in February 1890, under agreement with the Ward Lock company. On 28th January 1889 his first child was born, Mary Louise, and three years later on 15th November 1892 they had a boy, Arthur Alleyne Kingsley, who became known only as Kingsley.
Now that he had a family to look after, he began to look more closely at the arrangement he had with his publishers and Conan Doyle soon began to feel that, as a new, inexperienced writer, he had been somewhat exploited by them, resolving to curtail his involvement with their business and instead beginning to write for the Strand Magazine from his home at 2 Wimpole Street. Meanwhile Conan Doyle was enjoying something of a sporting career, playing under the pseudonym A.C. Smith as goalkeeper for Portsmouth Association Football Club (though this club had no connection to present-day Portsmouth F.C, founded two years after Conan Doyle’s amateur side disbanded in 1896). He was also a keen cricketer and played ten first-class matches between 1899 and 1907 for the Marylebone Cricket Club, making a highest score with the bat of 43 against London County. As an occasional bowler he only took one wicket in these ten matches, though it was W.G. Grace’s stumps which he hit; a notable triumph of the right arm. His sporting interests extended to golf, for which he was elected captain of the Crowborough Beacon Golf Club in East Sussex for 1910. He once even visited Rudyard Kipling at his farm in America, bringing with him a set of golf clubs and giving his fellow famous writer an extended two-day lesson.
He went to Vienna to study ophthalmology in 1890 before returning to London and setting up a practice as an ophthalmologist, though he recorded in his autobiography that not a single patient ever crossed his doorway. This left him with more time for his writing, though by now he was beginning to feel somewhat exhausted by Holmes and wrote to his mother in 1891 “I think of slaying Holmes ... and winding him up for good and all. He takes my mind from better things.” This was met with an entreaty from his mother of “you won’t! You can’t! You mustn’t!” These “better things” were his historical novels such as The White Company (1891) and The Great Shadow (1892). Then, in defiance of his mother and the wishes of the general public, in December 1893 he wrote Holmes’s apparent death in the clutches of a high-consequence brawl with arch-nemesis Moriarty above the Reichenbach Falls in Germany. Both of their deaths seemed certain, and it seemed the end of the Sherlock Holmes phenomenon. He now had time to focus on other work, most notably his pamphlet justifying the United Kingdom’s involvement with the Boer War, an involvement for which they were frequently and heavily criticised. The War in South Africa: Its Cause and Conduct was widely translated after its publication in 1902, and was based to a certain extent on the time he had spent as a volunteer doctor in the Langman Field Hospital at Bloemfontein between March and June 1900. It was this and his book The Great Boer War, written in 1900, which he considered the reasons for his knighthood in 1902 by King Edward VII, and he was subsequently appointed Deputy-Lieutenant of Surrey. In 1903 however, owing to the public demand of which he became increasingly aware after successive letters from fans pleading for the resurrection of their great hero, he seemingly brought Holmes back from the dead; in ‘The Adventure of the Empty House’, the first story for ten years, he reassures the reader that Holmes had merely arranged for his fall to appear fatal in order that his other enemies (particularly Colonel Sebastian Moran) might consider him dead also,
whereas in reality he never falls at all. Fans were ecstatic and Conan Doyle continued to write Holmes stories.
His interest in politics piqued by the issues surrounding the Boer War, the interest he had in criminal justice which was so prominent in his crime fiction transferred to that of real-life and he became a fervent advocate of justice, investigating two closed cases of incorrect conviction. The first, in 1906, saw the shy half-British, half- Indian lawyer George Edalji exonerated for imprisonment for crimes of mutilation towards animals which he hadn’t committed. Though the police were convinced of their prosecution, the crimes continued even after he was imprisoned and Conan Doyle, analytical and methodical as his invention, proceeded to privately investigate the case and the outcome, Edalji’s acquittal, encouraged the establishment of the Court of Criminal Appeal in 1907. Meanwhile his wife Louisa had been suffering from tuberculosis and died on the 4th July, and Conan Doyle married Jean Elizabeth Leckie, the woman with whom he had fallen in love in 1897, the year after. The second case of injustice was some twenty years later, though pertaining to a crime committed in 1908 allegedly by one Oscar Slater, a German Jew and gambling-den operator convicted of bludgeoning an 82 year old woman to death. Conan Doyle noticed inconsistencies in the evidence which, combined with his general sense of unease about the case, motivated him to pay for the majority of Slater’s legal fees and eventually see him released in 1928.
He now had his first child with Jean, whom they named Denis Percy Stewart and was born on 17th March 1909, and then on 19th November 1910 they had Adrian Malcolm. Jean Lena Annette followed on 21st December 1912. Over the next few years there would be various deaths in his family. His first wife having already passed away, Kingsley was taken ill after complications of pneumonia following injury near the Somme in 1917. His two brothers-in-law also died, and after Kingsley’s condition worsened and he passed away on 28th October owing to the complications of his convalescence and his brother Innes, now Brigadier-General died of the same, Conan Doyle sank into a deep depression, eventually finding solace in Christian spiritualism. Despite the veracity of his writing, he was not free from misunderstanding. Convinced of the authenticity of five (now known to be) hoaxed photographs of fairies by ELsie Wright in June 1917, he wrote a book The Coming of the Fairies in 1921 exploring them and other supernatural phenomena, followed up in 1926 by The History of Spiritualism, a broader look at the particulars of the movement. Encouraging the Spiritualists’ National Union to modify their precepts, his turn to spiritualism was so strong that he wrote a Professor Challenger novel on the subject, entitled The Land of Mist, in 1926.
His friendship with Harry Houdini, another noted Spiritualist, led him to believe that Houdini was possessed of supernatural powers and that his feats were not tricks but proof of the supernatural. He expresses this view in The Edge of the Unknown (1930), and Houdini’s inability to convince Conan Doyle of the illusory nature of his feats led to a bitter and very public falling-out. Conan Doyle has been posthumously implicated in the Piltdown Man hoax (and even accused of being its perpetrator by Richard Milner), a discovery of fossilised hominid remains which fooled the scientific world for over 40 years. Milner posits that Conan Doyle’s motive was revenge on the scientific establishment for their debunking of Houdini, and that within The Lost
World which was released the year the remains were found contains several hidden and encrypted clues indicating his involvement.
On 7th July 1930 Conan Doyle was discovered in the hall of Windlesham Manor, his house in Crowborough, East Sussex, clutching his chest. He died of a heart attack at the age of 71, and his last words, directed to his wife, were “you are wonderful”. As a Spiritualist, his burial brought controversy as there was debate as to where he should properly be buried. Eventually he was interred on 11th July in Windlesham rose garden, though he was later removed and buried with his wife in Minstead churchyard in the New Forest, Hampshire. The epitaph on that gravestone reads
Arthur Conan Doyle
Patriot, Physician and man of letters