The Arthur Conan Doyle Society
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ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE
A BRIEF BIOGRAPHICAL STUDY
by
Christopher Roden

Although the world has chosen to remember Sir Arthur Conan Doyle chiefly for his creation of the fictional master detective, Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle's life, like the literary canvas he painted, was varied and highly interesting.

Arthur Conan Doyle was born in Edinburgh on 22 May 1859. His mother, Mary, was of Irish extraction and traced her ancestry back to the famous Percy family of Northumberland and from there to the Plantagenet line. It is little wonder that the young Conan Doyle was told tales steeped in history which were to stand him in good stead when, in later years, he was to write his famous historical novels, The White Company, Sir Nigel, and Micah Clarke.

The Doyle family was a large one—Arthur was one of ten children, seven of whom survived to maturity—and life was difficult for his mother, who struggled to bring up the children on the income of some 240 a year provided by her husband Charles, who pursued an unambitious life as a civil servant. Charles Altamont Doyle was the youngest son of John Doyle, the caricaturist 'H.B.'. His brothers had all made something of a name for themselves: James wrote The Chronicles of England; Henry became manager of the National Gallery in Dublin; and Richard became famous as an artist, most well-known, perhaps, for his cover design for Punch.

Whilst Charles Doyle also had artistic talents, he exercised his skills only intermittently, and lack of drive led to the loss of his post in the Office of Works in Edinburgh. After this he lapsed steadily into alcoholism, and his epilepsy grew increasingly worse, so that he was institutionalized for the final years of his life, finally dying in 1893.

The effect of his father's alcoholism on Conan Doyle was profound and, whilst he chose to draw a veil over this particular topic in his autobiography Memories and Adventures, alcoholism is dealt with rather severely when it appears in his later fictional work.

Conan Doyle's education took place at home and in a local Edinburgh school until, at the age of nine, he was sent to the Jesuit preparatory school of Hodder in Lancashire. Hodder was attached to the Jesuit secondary school of Stonyhurst, and it was to the latter that Conan Doyle moved two years later. The time spent at Stonyhurst was not a particularly happy one, although the records show that the young Doyle was a better than average performer. The spartan surroundings and the Jesuit discipline did not appeal to the young ACD, and it appears that he experienced his fair share of corporal punishment. Fortunately, Conan Doyle's mother struggled to meet the expense of his education at Stonyhurst, rather than dedicate the boy's life to the Jesuits in return for a free education.

It was during his Stonyhurst years that Conan Doyle began seriously to examine his religious beliefs and, by the time he left the school in 1875, he had firmly rejected Catholicism, and probably Christianity in general, and had become an agnostic. The turmoil and questioning which must have taken place in his own mind is dealt with in some detail in the semi-autobiographical novel, The Stark Munro Letters.

After leaving Stonyhurst, Conan Doyle spent a further year with the Jesuits in Feldkirch, Austria, before returning to Edinburgh to study medicine at the University from 1876 to 1881. Besides providing him with a medical degree, Edinburgh University also brough Conan Doyle into contact with two characters who were to be important models for future fictional creations: Professor Rutherford, whose Assyrian beard, prodigious voice, enormous chest, and singular manner became translated into Professor George Edward Challenger of The Lost World; and Dr Joseph Bell, whose amazing deductions concerning the history of his patients were to provide the ideas behind the deductive skills of Sherlock Holmes.

Whilst at Edinburgh, Conan Doyle took various jobs to assist his mother with the family's upkeep, jobs which, as a medical assistant, took him to Sheffield, Shrophshire, and Birmingham, and further afield to the Arctic, where he served as a ship's doctor aboard a Greenland whater. Immediately following his term at University, Conan Doyle was to serve as a ship's doctor on a voyage to the West African coast.

In 1882, the enigmatic Dr George Turnavine Budd, whom Conan Doyle had first met when the two were students in Edinburgh, invited ACD to become his partner in a medical practice in Plymouth. Their relationship was a turbulent one, and ended with Conan Doyle moving to Southsea. It is perhaps fortunate for us that the break occurred when it did, for, although he built up an increasingly successful medical practice, it was during his quieter moments in Southsea that Conan Doyle expanded his literary activities—leading eventually to the creation of Sherlock Holmes and the detective's first appearance in A Study in Scarlet, which appeared in Beeton's Christmas Annual for 1887.

Following the acceptance of A Study in Scarlet, for which he was paid the paltry sum of 25, Conan Doyle decided to test his powers to the full with a long historical novel. The outcome was the highly successful Micah Clarke, which finally appeared in 1889. It must have been pleasing to Conan Doyle that the novel became a topic of conversation between himself and Oscar Wilde when the two met, along with J.M. Stoddart of Lippincott's Magazine, for dinner in the summer of 1889—a dinner which ended with Conan Doyle receiving a commission to write a further Sherlock Holmes adventure (The Sign of the Four), and Wilde the commission for The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Meanwhile, other events had occurred in Conan Doyle's life which were to influence his actions and beliefs for many years to come. In 1885 he married Louise Hawkins ('Touie'), whose constant poor health was to lead to frequent domestic upheaval in the forthcoming years; and in 1886 he began to develop an interest in psychic studies following meetings which he had attended in Southsea.

By 1890 Conan Doyle had resolved that a change was necessary and that he would journey to Vienna to study the eye. By the spring of 1891 the Doyles were back in London, renting rooms in Montague Place whilst Conan Doyle looked around for a suitable office where he could erect his plate as an oculist. He eventually found accommodation at 2 Upper Wimpole Street. The patients did not come, however, and, without even a ring at the doorbell to disturb him, he was able to devote his time to writing.

It was fortuitous that The Strand Magazine first saw publication at almost the same time, in January 1891, and that Conan Doyle took the opportunity on hand to revive the Sherlock Holmes of his two successful novels for a series of adventures. 'A Scandal in Bohemia' was the first to appear, in July 1891.

Whilst Conan Doyle continued to contribute Sherlock Holmes stories to The Strand, he became more and more anxious that he should be writing books that would make his a 'lasting name in English literature'. In November 1891 he wrote to his mother: 'I think of slaying Holmes . . . and winding him up for good and all. He takes my mind from better things.'

The idea of Holmes's death remained with him, and it seems that it was during a visit to Switzerland in 1893 that Conan Doyle was shown the Reichenbach Falls, which he was subsequently to choose as the location for the 'fatal' struggle between Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty. 'The Final Problem', the adventure which was to bring the news of Holmes's death to a horrified nation, appeared in The Strand in December 1893. It is with the apparent death of the great detective that we can best leave the relationship between Conan Doyle and Holmes in order to concentrate on the many other varied events which filled Conan Doyle's life.

The tuberculosis to which Touie had fallen victim had completely disorganized the lives of the couple, and it was hoped that a winter in Egypt might effect a cure. The Doyles left England in the autumn of 1895 and journeyed to Cairo. The surroundings were to provide Conan Doyle with his plot for the desert drama The Tragedy of the Korosko, which first appeared in 1898. It was during this visit to Egypt that fighting broke out between the British and the Dervishes, and Conan Doyle seized the opportunity which presented itself to cable The Westminster Gazette asking to be appointed their honorary war correspondent. In this capacity he made his way to the front to witness the action at first hand: an experience which would equip him well for similar involvement in war, and war reporting, in later years.

Shortly after their return to England, the Doyles moved into a new house which ACD had had built at Hindhead in Surrey—an area chosen because it was believed that the air of the Surrey countryside would be beneficial to the health of the ailing Touie. Meanwhile, Conan Doyle's literary output continued unabated, and during this period he produced his famous novel of the Regency, Rodney Stone; a tale of early married life, A Duet with an Occasional Chorus; and his Napoleonic portrait, Uncle Bernac.

In late December 1899, Conan Doyle once more became involved with warfare as the shadow of the problems in South Africa was cast over Britain. Anxious to serve his country, he attempted to enlist with the Middlesex Yeomanry and was devastated when their only response was to place him on a waiting list. Almost immediately, however, he was contacted by John Langman, who was sending out to Africa a hospital of 50 beds at his own expense. Langman suggested that Conan Doyle should help him to choose the personnel and that he should also supervise the entire operation in an unofficial capacity. Keen to serve in whatever way he could, Conan Doyle accepted enthusiastically.

The Langman hospital sailed for Cape Town in February 1900, reaching its destination on 21 March. Conan Doyle was to spend his next months in the filth of the enteric hospital. He wrote:

'Our hospital was no worse off than the others, and as there were many of them the general condition of the town was very bad. Coffins were out of the question, and the men were lowered in their brown blankets into shallow graves at the average rate of sixty a day. A sickening smell came from the stricken town. Once when I had ridden out to get an hour or two of change, and was at least six miles from the town, the wind changed and the smell was all around me. You could smell Bloemfontein long before you could see it. Even now if I felt that lowly death smell compounded of disease and disinfectants my heart would sink within me.'

Following the war an extraordinary outbreak of defamation had occurred around the world over Britain's conduct, and this prompted Conan Doyle to write a short pamphlet, The War in South Africa: Its Cause and Conduct, which was widely translated. Conan Doyle held the opinion that it was the reaction engendered by this pamphlet that resulted in his being knighted and appointed as Deputy-Lieutenant of Surrey in 1902.

During the early years of the twentieth century Conan Doyle twice stood for Parliament, once in Edinburgh and once in the Border Burghs. On both occasions he turned in a respectable vote, although he was not returned.

Following the death of Touie in 1906 ACD entered a period of blackness, during which he was unable to settle to work until a case, in which he considered  there had been a grave miscarriage of justice, came to his attention.

George Edalji's story began in 1903. Edalji's father, a Parsee turned Christian, had been vicar of the parish of Great Wyrley, a mining district near Birmingham, for almost 30 years. The father had married an Englishwoman and the family had become the butt of practical jokes and menacing anonymous letters. Even though these letters threatened the family, it was considered by the Chief Constable of Staffordshire that they were written by George. When the key of the local grammar school was found on the Edaljis' doorstep, the Chief Constable wrote to Edalji's father that he knew George had been responsible, and that 'he hoped to give the culprit a dose of penal servitude'. Although this latter incident occurred in 1895, it had obviously been kept in mind, for, when an outbreak of savage attacks on horses and cattle occurred in the district in 1903, a new spate of anonymous letters bega; letters which accused George of being one of a gang of cattle killers. The family home was searched, some dubious evidence uncovered, and this resulted in George Edalji being sentenced to seven years' imprisonment.

Conan Doyle's investigations and articles caused a storm of indignation throughout the country. A Government committee was formed to report on the case but, although they were severe on the condemnation of Edalji, they held to the theory that he had written the anonymous letters and therefore denied him any compensation for his long period of suffering. Others felt differently and the Law Society, which had barred Edalji from practising, immediately re-admitted him to their roll of solicitors, and the Daily Telegraph began a subscription for him which raised some 300.

Conan Doyle married Miss Jean Leckie in 1907. The two had met as early as 1897 and had maintained a respectable friendship throughout the years of Touie's illness. They had fallen in love as soon as they met, but Conan Doyle's moral outlook was such that the relationship is believed to have remained on a platonic basis until their marriage. George Edalji was one of the guests at the wedding reception. ACD wrote: 'There was no guest whom I was prouder to see'.

Shortly following their marriage, the Conan Doyles moved to Crowborough in Sussex, and it was at Windlesham that they were to live for their remaining years. However, Conan Doyle's name was to be in the forefront of the public's mind for some time to come. In 1910 he became involved in a second case of injustice—this time that of Oscar Slater, a German Jew, wrongfully accused of murder. The case was long and protracted, with Slater serving an eighteen-year term of imprisonment until finally, in 1927, he was released and awarded 6,000 compensation. Conan Doyle described Slater as 'not a very desirable member of society', but he nevertheless pursued the case as vigorously as that of Edalji. At the very end, there was disagreement between Conan Doyle and Slater over the money which ACD had expended in Slater's cause—a disagreement which was never settled.

In 1912 Conan Doyle was to introduce another famous character into the world of literature with the appearance of Professor Challenger in The Lost World, a tale of pre-history alive and surviving on a remote South-American plateau. Challenger was to have further adventures, including The Poison Belt which appeared in the following year.

The impending war in Germany was much in Conan Doyle's mind at this time, and it was during this period that he began to advocate the need for a channel tunnel—a dream that took some three-quarters of a century to realize.

With the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Conan Doyle was instrumental in forming the local volunteer force which was shortly to be re-formed as an official body. ACD served as a private in the Crowborough Company of the Sixth Royal Sussex Volunteer Regminet. In 1915 he began writing his six-volume history of The British Campaign in France and Flanders, which was completed in 1920. Once more, in the role of a war journalist, Conan Doyle visited the battle fronts of the British, French and Italians, where he was to meet and talk with Haig and other generals.

By 1916, Conan Doyle's explorations into psychic matters had convinced him that he should devote the final years of his life to the advancement of Spiritualism. He began to write extensively on the subject, and to travel the world with his family promoting his beliefs. From those who had lost loved ones during the First World War he found a ready acceptance for his arguments, but his beliefs were to bring him into conflict with many people during the course of the final thirteen years of his life.

Spiritualism became Conan Doyle's religion and his driving force, taking him to Australia, America, Canada, and  South Africa for lecture tours which he recorded in various biographical studies. He was careful in his testing of mediums but, not unnaturally, those cases where he was deceived have been seized upon by critics to justify what they regard as his credulity. Credulity was a charge also to be levelled atConan Doyle when, in 1922, he declared the famous Cottingley Fairy photographs to be genuine. This latter case has been frequently documented, and the photographs are famous the world over.

Following a tour of Scandinavia and Holland in 1929, Conan Doyle returned to England exhausted, and suffered a heart attack. He remained weak and ill for several months and died at home on 7 July 1930.

Conan Doyle's contribution to the literature of the English language was immense. His major historical novels, The White Company, Sir Nigel, Micah Clarke, Uncle Bernac, The Refugees, and The Great Shadow are perhaps less well known today than the remarkable number of short stories, written chiefly for the popular magazines of his time: Tales of Adventure and Medical Life, Tales of the Ring and Camp, Tales of Pirates and Blue Water and tales of horror and the supernatural. His major fictional creations, Sherlock Holmes, Professor Challenger, and Brigadier Gerard have collections of stories of their own, collections which will continue to be read and enjoyed the world over for many years to come.

Above all, perhaps, Conan Doyle should be remembered for his energy and variety of talents. He was a fine sportsman—at cricket he once captured the wicket of the great W.G. Grace, a feat which inspired him to write a poem on the subject; he played football, rugby, golf, and was sufficiently innovative to introduce cross-country skiing into Switzerland. He wrote to the newspapers on all manner of topics, was always a strong campaigner for the underdog, and had a keen interest in photography, which enabled him to contribute authoritative articles to The British Journal of Photography.

Whenever we read the adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, Professor Challenger, Brigadier Gerard, or his many other creations, we encounter Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. For there is something of the great man in all of his writings.

Christopher Roden 1997/2003
 

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