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In Conversation With . . .

Dame Jean Conan Doyle

by Christopher Roden

Dame Jean Conan Doyle, the last direct link with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, died in London on 18 November 1997, aged 84. In early 1990 I interviewed Dame Jean for ACD—The Journal of the Arthur Conan Doyle Society. Our conversation was wide-ranging, and Dame Jean's replies supplied many insights into a daughter's relationship with her very famous father. This interview was first published in ACD, Volume 1, Number 2 (March 1990).


I confess that I was a little nervous before my first meeting with Dame Jean Conan Doyle. True, a preliminary letter outlining plans for the formation of The Arthur Conan Doyle Society had been answered politely and enthusiastically, but I suspect that Dame Jean, like myself, was wondering what would emerge from our meeting.

What did I know of Dame Jean? Little except that she was the daughter of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the man to whom the new Society was to be dedicated. She had been little more than a girl when her father died, had pursued a highly successful career of her own, and was now the guardian of ACD's works and reputation. Further, ACD had himself written 'words of warning' when he compiled the charming collection of tales of his children, Three of Them, in 1923:

The boys are but shallow, sparkling pools compared with this little girl with her self-repression and dainty aloofness. You know the boys, you never feel that you quite know the girl. Something very strong and forceful seems to be at the back of that wee body. Her will is tremendous. Nothing can break or even bend it. Only kind guidance and friendly reasoning can mould it. The boys are helpless if she has really made up her mind. But this is only when she asserts herself, and those are rare occasions. As a rule she sits quiet, aloof, affable, keenly alive to all that passes and yet taking no part in it save for some subtle smile or glance. And then suddenly the wonderful grey-blue eyes under the long black lashes will gleam like coy diamonds, and such a hearty little chuckle will come from her that everyone else is bound to laugh out of sympathy.

I need not have worried: I was welcomed as an old friend, and we were soon engaged in the most stimulating conversation—Dame Jean eager to hear my plans for the Society; myself keen to outline those plans and to learn more of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

At the outset, Dame Jean had made it clear that she did not wish to interfere, in any way, with the Society's activities—and she has kept to her word. It is only natural, of course, that her opinion is sought from time to time, and we are honoured to have Dame Jean as an Honorary Member, and as an advisor to the Society.

It is now a year since that first meeting, and I thought that it would be an opportune time to interview Dame Jean for the Society's Journal—a chance to capture opinions perhaps not fully discussed before, and a chance to obtain her impressions of the work which the Society is trying to do.

The surroundings of Dame Jean's London flat are conducive to talk about Arthur Conan Doyle: a large Gates' portrait of Sir Arthur dominates one wall; on another hangs a portrait of Napoleon gazing over from St Helena to the guardship on the horizon (this picture, one of ACD's particular favourites, used to hang in his billiard room); the bookshelves are full to capacity with his works—and those of the many who, over the years have contributed to Doylean, and Sherlockian, biography.

CR: Dame Jean, Dr Al Rodin has disputed Sir Arthur's statement that, as a medical student, he was 'always one of the ruck—a 60% man at examinations'; and, further, that he was far from being the 'failed physician' presented in many of the biographies. How do you view the various evidence that supports the view that your father, and others, may have underestimated his performance?

JCD: Well, I think it's absolutely splendid that Dr Rodin has carried out so much research, and it certainly ties up with what I would have expected of my father. I have met the daughter of a former patient of his, and she said that her mother and her friends found him the most sympathetic and helpful doctor. But, quite apart from that, it is very annoying when biographers and people writing about my father refer to him as a 'failed doctor'—there's nothing failed about his medical career. Because he had no money (to purchase an existing practice), he had to put a plate in an area where the residents doubtless already had their doctors. He had to wait—and create a practice of his own, which is not an easy thing to do. But he managed to build up to £300 per year, which in those days was not bad! Of course, Dr Rodin has done a lot of research which proves that his knowledge was probably beyond that of the average General Practitioner.

CR: ACD was not destined to see 'active service', although he was, of course, heavily involved in the Boer War in a medical role. Instead, he became a war historian. Do you think that he was so bitterly disappointed at not being 'on active service'?

JCD: Oh yes, there's no doubt at all that he was very disappointed that he was the wrong age for active service. He believed that it was up to every fit man to take up arms in defence of his country, knowing his country to be right, and he had to make second best by using his brain to think up such things as founding the Rifle Societies after the Boer War and before The Great War, thus encouraging the civilian population to learn how to shoot. Also, there was his great interest in the founding of the Volunteer Force, and his warnings about submarine warfare—these were his contributions. I know that he felt that this was second best to being a man of action in the military sphere. He would have been a very splendid service officer, because he had all the qualities of leadership—he would have got the very best out of the people he worked with, and he would have felt for them and worked for them, and they would have given him great loyalty.

CR There is some evidence to suggest that ACD 'idolised' women. Why do you think, therefore, that he was so opposed to the suffragette movement?

JCD: Well, this is rather a tricky one! He undoubtedly thought that women were the superior sex—I was certainly brought up to think that I was not inferior in any way to my brothers, that women are more refined than men. He would not have opposed the suffragette movement on the score of women being unsuitable to have the vote, but he was an idealist in many ways—very concerned with the Divorce Law reform, and he had heard of so many cases of brutality in the home, that he did feel that to have a political divergence of opinion between husband and wife would add to all this violence. He also felt, and this is where the idealistic side of my father came into it, that women would probably, in a happy marriage, influence the husband and that in a way his vote would be her vote. But his objection to the suffragettes was that he was so shocked by their violence. He felt that violence was a demeaning feature of human beings and that, while men were brutish in a way, women were above such things, and he was very very horrified that women should have stooped to violent action.

CR: Just taking the subject of Divorce Law reform a little further, do you think that your father's desire for reform was, in any way, influenced by his own experiences during his first marriage, and his relationship with your mother during that period?

JCD: I don't think his actions were influenced by that because he was happily married, and he wouldn't have fought for divorce on the grounds of incompatibility or anything like that. But it did give him a great understanding of other people who might be locked into an unhappy marriage, and not be able to get a divorce and be able to marry somebody who they really loved. It wasn't the same in his own case, but he was conscious of the suffering of others. He was very very conscious of the brutality of some husbands to their wives. On the other side, he also felt that where a wife was, say, insane, it was iniquitous that the husband was not free to marry someone he loved. He had a great understanding of the possibility of really great love in this world and that it was so wrong that people, having made their first vows, couldn't break them under any circumstances whatsoever.

CR: Do you think Sir Arthur would have made a good M.P.?

JCD: No! He could never have been a Party man. He would have made a superb Independent, putting the view that the man in the street would have thought was a humane point of view, but he couldn't have played Party politics—he would have hated that, and it was a very good thing that his efforts to get into Parliament failed.

CR: One of his Parliamentary elections ended in his being defeated by dirty tactics: a leaflet distribution which proclaimed his links with the Jesuits. Had he been successful, religion would have played a different role because his absolute devotion to the pursuit of Spiritualism in his later life would undoubtedly have brought him into conflict with the British electorate. How do you think the electorate would have reacted to an M.P. with those Spiritualist beliefs?

JCD: I think that the Opposition would have made a heyday of the whole thing, and he would have been subjected to a lot of ridicule. But I don't think it would really have cropped up, for I think that by the time he was convinced about his belief in Spiritualism, he wouldn't have spared the time for Parliament, so I don't think it's a situation which could ever have occurred.

CR: You must have witnessed many of the Spiritualist activities at first hand. What effect did the crusade have on a young family which, inevitably, underwent long periods away from home?

JCD: Well it certainly did have a great effect on us, for we travelled with my father and mother on his missions in the cause of Spiritualism. This started when I was aged six, and we went to Australia. That was the first time that my father hand mother had broached the subject of Spiritualism with me. I remember the day so clearly: it was on board the ship on the voyage to Australia. He explained to me that there was no such thing as death—what people called death really meant the passing on to another life. So, of course, from then on, I always had this feeling that death didn't end all. This was a very nice thing for a child to grow up believing. Later on, of course, when we were a little older, the travelling cut across our schooling, but my father and mother decided that it was a better education than staying at school and listening to lectures.

When we went to South Africa, I was sixteen, rising seventeen, and was just at a crucial stage because, although I wasn't involved in examinations (as my eyesight was so bad that I was only able to carry through the study of certain subjects, which limited my education, alas), I was in the interesting position which one gets at school—being a senior and having responsibilities—so I didn't want to go to South Africa. My father always brought us up to make our own decisions, from a very early age, and he wanted me to decide whether I should go or not. I chose not to go, after much thought, but my father then said that this would hurt my mother so very much—because she was so devoted to us all—so he asked couldn't I think again? Did I really want to hurt my mother to that extent? I, of course, didn't and so I went; and I'm very glad that I did so, because it was one of the last years of my father's life, and also I had the most interesting experiences on the trip.

So yes, Spiritualism did play quite an important part in my childhood.

CR: We frequently hear it stated that Bignell Wood became something of a Spiritualists' retreat, and that the outside world was excluded. To what extent is that true?

JCD: This is absolute nonsense! Bignell Wood was a birthday present from my father to my mother, because they both loved the New Forest so much. The idea of it was that they should both have a break from their usual very busy life at Crowborough and in London, and get away and just relax. It's true that, once or twice, mediums did come and stay at Bignell Wood, but that was fairly rare, and really our life down there was the fun of seeing our neighbours—it was a most friendly place—people used to just pop in from breakfast time onwards. It was open house. They'd come in and say, 'Oh, we heard from the grocers,' or 'we heard from the postman that you were back', and we had a wonderful friendly time in the New Forest. There's nothing more ridiculous than to think it was some sort of retreat in which my father held his sťances and so on.

We had a very interesting life at Bignell Wood. My father was very friendly towards the gypsies, and used to go off in the forest and talk with them; it was such a wonderful holiday home. Lots of fun. So I do hope that people will stop writing such nonsense about Bignell Wood.

CR: How was Conan Doyle, the man, affected by the ridicule to which he was subjected over the affair of the Cottingley Fairies?

JCD: Well, obviously it's not pleasant to be ridiculed; but he was very well aware that he was laying himself open to it, as he was in his mission regarding Spiritualism. This is one of the proudest feelings I have when I remember my father: he had such great moral courage. As had men like Sir Oliver Lodge and, later on, Lord Dowding: they all knew that the World would ridicule them, but they had the guts to stand by what they believed in. So, as far as my father was concerned, I'm sure he thought that it was just too bad if the rest of the world ridiculed him—it was what he believed was true.

CR: Tell me about ACD, the father.

JCD: I could go on for hours! He was such a wonderful father—there are different stages of course in one's relationship. My earliest recollections are when I was a tiny child—about the time of Three of Them (if anyone remembers that). I fell into a little river, I suppose it was only a stream really. It was down at Bournemouth; I was in a white fur coat, and I remember I lay on my back looking up at the sky, and then a large figure appeared and fished me out—it was my father. I suppose that's my first memory of him. And then, there were the days he used to come and see us in the Nursery and then later on, when we moved from the Nursery into the rest of the house, he became my very best friend, and to my brothers their 'elder brother', of whom they were so fond and to whom they took all their troubles. They always said that they could discuss anything with their father. Of course, we loved our mother dearly but it was quite a different relationship: she loved our father so much, and he was the pivot of the household, of course, and he was so supportive. I have visions of him when he took me up to join the Brownies, and then when he used to take me to the dentist, and visit the school when we had Speech Days, sports, and so on. He always came down with my mother—he was never too busy to do those things. So he was a very supportive father, and he was such fun. He was always inventing these wonderful games, and he always seemed to have time for this. But one of my last memories of him before he became ill was when I was driving my Austin Seven, in a dreadful temper—I'd had a row (not with him), the usual sort of adolescent row, and I was driving too fast, and turned the car topsy turvy. I wasn't hurt, and I came home and I remember being so frightened that my father would be furious when he knew I'd driven in a temper, and brought the accident on myself. But there he was—so kind and reassuring. I was treated as suffering from shock. When he died, I knew that life would never be the same again.

CR: In his somewhat unkind biography, Pearsall dismisses ACD as a 'cultural Philistine'. This is a little hard to accept. Have you any particular recollection of ACD's tastes in music and art?

JCD: His taste in music was very much for popular music. He was not completely unmusical—you'll remember that he learnt to play that big brass bass instrument, the Bombardon, when he was in Feldkirch; and after that, his next venture into the world of music was singing sea shanties in a whaler. But he loved music such as 'Cavalleria Rusticana', 'How beautiful they are, the Lordly ones', 'Samson and Delilah', some opera—he loved that sort of music, well-known music, hundred best tunes music. I don't think that he appreciated Bach or music like that.

When it came to art, he had a great appreciation of the Old Masters and was particularly interested in the context of history. He didn't approve of the Impressionists—how many experts in art in those days approved of the Impressionists? It seems incredible to me that anyone could have disapproved, but they did, and he was one of them. All of this doesn't mean that he was a Philistine—he wasn't an expert in Arts other than Literature, but he was so well read and could remember what he read, and he lived a very full life—you can't be deeply interested in everything.

CR: Your own distaste for pastiche is no secret. I believe, however, that it is fair to say that the majority of Sherlockians look on pastiche as a means of 'reading the latest news' of their heroes—heroes which your father created. At various times, ACD himself also enjoyed the efforts of others to bring Holmes to the printed page—notably J.M. Barrie and John Kendrick Bangs. Does your view of pastiche in any way moderate with the entry on the scene of such a distinguished author as Anthony Burgess, with his 'Murder to Music'?

JCD: No, I don't think it moderates at all. I think that Anthony Burgess's pastiche comes in the same category as Barrie's, except that Barrie's was a parody, not a pastiche. I haven't read Burgess's story yet, but it's a compliment when a very well known, established author troubles to spend his time writing a pastiche on another author, who must surely be of considerable standing to justify a pastiche. But my real objection to pastiche is that they are usually written by very average writers, and I do think that a good writer would create his own characters; and one does feel that some of the pastiches that have been written would never have been published if they hadn't had the name Sherlock Holmes attached to them. I think it very wrong that writers should come along later on and write new stories about an established character because, gradually, little differences occur; little distortions of the original character, and to say that Sherlockians are eager for more stories about their heroes, shows that they have a very sort of greedy attitude—they ought to be protecting their hero from other peoples' taking advantage of the original creation.

How confusing it must be to someone who has not read one of the original Holmes stories, to first come across him in pastiche—it creates a totally false impression and could, possibly, deter that person from reading any of the originals. I just think that it's a very poor thing to do. I can't imagine that any of the really serious authors, such as Burgess, would ever consider writing any more than one short pastiche, which is no more than a literary exercise.

CR: Much of the existing biography of ACD is regarded, in one way or another, as being unfair or incomplete. One wonders whether a 'definitive' biography is every truly desirable, as it takes away the 'chance discovery' of fresh insights. But any truly new work is hampered by lack of access to the family's papers. Whilst recognising that those papers which remain are private family documents, I believe that the Society's members would appreciate knowing the current situation.

JCD: I hope that no one will attempt another biography until the papers are available to be studied by the author, because there's always the fear that people will want to produce something that's new and, therefore, sometimes they imagine things that are not, in fact, the truth. Far better to wait and see the papers. Personally, I hope that the papers will be free to be consulted, but when I can't say. The trouble is that they are part of the controversy over a law suit which has been going on now since the early seventies. It was very nearly resolved a couple of years ago, but just at the time the agreement would have been signed, my former sister-in-law, Nina Mdivani, died, and this, of course, put things back again. One waits and hopes that the Trustees of my father's estate will take steps to end this law suit, and bring it to a satisfactory conclusion by agreement of all parties—but I can't say when. I find it extremely depressing that it has gone on so long. The longer it goes on, the harder it is for me, because it will involve me in a lot of work when once the papers are free. One gets older, and less able to take on things which are rather a strain on one's physique.

CR: Is it conceivable that, once matters are resolved, the remaining papers could be donated to form the basis of a National ACD collection?

JCD: So much depends on whether there is a proper collection in existence somewhere where it will be quite safe for the papers to be left, knowing that the Collection would be safe forever. Of course, the papers belong to one of my sisters-in-law, Anna Conan Doyle, and myself. We have to agree on who owns what, and it would be up to her to decide where her share should go. But I know that I, myself, would want to make quite sure that the papers are able to be referred to by people studying my father's life. I hope they will remain in this country.

CR: There are reports, especially through various Sherlockian journals and book dealers, that there has been an increasing awareness of ACD's non-Sherlockian works of late. No doubt you would share the view that this is highly encouraging. What would you say to someone embarking on the non-Sherlockian works for the first time?

JCD: Well, of course, it entirely depends on the person. If I was talking to someone who was an action man, or someone like myself who was a service woman, I might suggest the Brigadier Gerard stories. On the other hand, if it were one of my young relatives, I'd suggest The Lost World. Then for some of my older friends, I would very strongly recommend them to read Through the Magic Door, which is one of the books that I should most like to re-read. I'm pretty certain that they would never have read it, and I think that, at a time of life when they may have more time to explore new intellectual worlds, they would find it a most interesting introduction to literature. The White Company and Sir Nigel, I do realise, have dated—the style has dated just as the great Sir Walter Scott's style has dated. It doesn't mean that they're not well worth reading. They are. But I don't think it would be a good introduction to my father's works. To the young, fifteen year olds and so on, I should have thought Rodney Stone would have great appeal. But really my father wrote so many books on a variety of different subjects, one would just have to tailor it to the individual.

The author's rather special copy of Three of Them

© Christopher Roden 1990, 1997,2003.

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