by Carol Westron
Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle was born in 1859 in Edinburgh, Scotland. His father came of a wealthy, Irish Catholic family, prominent in the arts, but he was an alcoholic who plunged his wife and children into poverty. Conan Doyle's mother, Mary, was the mainstay of the family and her children adored her. Mary loved books and was a skilled story-teller. In his autobiography Conan Doyle wrote, 'In my early childhood, as far as I can remember anything at all, the vivid stories she would tell me stand out so clearly that they obscure the real facts of my life.'
At this point, Conan Doyle was known a Arthur Doyle. One of his godfathers was Michael Doyle, and Conan was one of his Christian names. As soon as he left school, he started to use Conan as a compound surname. He never changed his name legally and officially was still called Doyle, the name under which he received his knighthood. However he used the name Conan Doyle and his second wife was always known as Jean Conan Doyle.
When Conan Doyle was nine, wealthy relatives paid for his education in England at a Roman Catholic boarding school run by Jesuits, followed by a year at a Jesuit College in Austria. Conan Doyle hated the boarding school, surviving only by his skill at games and his talent for storytelling; two skills that served him well in adult life. It was at this time he developed the habit of writing regularly to his mother and continued to do this for the rest of her life. His admiration and affection for his mother was very strong and helped him through some immensely difficult times. When he returned from Austria, aged seventeen, he had to join with his mother in having his demented father committed to a lunatic asylum. He later wrote of this time, 'My mother had been so splendid that I could not fail her.'
From 1876 to 1881 Conan Doyle studied medicine at Edinburgh University. His choice of career is believed to have been influenced by a young doctor, to whom his mother let lodgings in order to make ends meet. While in Edinburgh Conan Doyle met writers such as James Barrie and Robert Louis Stevenson. Conan Doyle started to write short stories. The first, The Mystery of Sasassa Valley (1879), was clearly influenced by his admiration for the work of Edgar Alan Poe, and was published by Chambers Magazine. It is interesting to note that two weeks after this, he published his first non-fiction article in the British Medical journal; its title was Gelsemium as a Poison; a useful study for a future crime writer. His second fictional short story, The American Tale was also published in 1879 in London Society. Years later Conan Doyle recalled, 'It was in this year that I first learned that shillings might be earned in other ways than by filling phials.'
When Conan Doyle was twenty, in the third year of his studies, he travelled as ship's doctor on the whaler Hope of Peterhead, which was bound to the Arctic Circle. Although daunted by the brutality of the ship's crew when hunting seals in Greenland, Conan Doyle enjoyed the camaraderie and the adventure of the whale hunt. His Arctic adventure lies at the core of his first story about the sea, Captain of the Pole Star.
Conan Doyle's time on the whaler had 'awakened the soul of a born wanderer', and it was with reluctance he returned to Edinburgh to complete his medical degree. His cynical attitude towards his chosen career is illustrated by the humorous sketch he drew of himself graduating, with the label, 'Licensed to Kill.' However Conan Doyle gained far more from his time at Edinburgh than the career that sustained his early adult years; he gained some of his most famous characters. From his own experience he gained the medical knowledge and experience as a general practitioner that makes Dr Watson such a believable character; and from his university teacher, Joseph Bell, a master of logic and deduction, he gained the foundations of the character of Sherlock Holmes. In fact Conan Doyle wrote to Bell, 'It is most certainly to you that I owe Sherlock Holmes.' The resemblance must have been striking because Robert Louis Stevenson wrote from Samoa, 'Can this be my old friend Joe Bell.' However, many years later, Bell wrote to Conan Doyle, 'You are yourself Sherlock Holmes and well you know it.'
Before settling down as a GP and creating his most famous character, Conan Doyle set off in search of fresh adventure by signing on as ship's doctor on a voyage to West Africa. He disliked Africa and, on his return, joined a fellow doctor he had known at Edinburgh University in setting up a practice in Plymouth. This was a disaster. Conan Doyle's partner turned out to be very unscrupulous and the two men could not work together.
Conan Doyle quit the practice and, in 1882, with less than £10 in his pocket, arrived in Portsmouth, where he rented a house and set up his own practice in Southsea. In the beginning he was so poor that the only two rooms that were properly furnished were those seen by the patients.
As he struggled to build up his practice Conan Doyle continued writing. This early writing shows Conan Doyle's life-long love of adventure and mystery. One of his short stories, J.Habakuk Jephson's Statement, popularised the legend of the Mary Celeste and included several fictional details that have now entered popular history and been accepted as fact.
The Mystery of Cloomber, was not accepted for publication until 1888 and published in 1889, when his first Sherlock Holmes story had already established his reputation as a writer. The Mystery of Cloomber is a strange tale featuring three vengeful Buddhist monks and their journey through the afterlife.
In 1885, Conan Doyle married Louisa Hawkins and they had two children. Louisa contracted tuberculosis and died in 1906. In 1897, When Louisa was already ill, Conan Doyle met and fell in love with Jean Leckie. However his code of honour would not allow him to be unfaithful to Louisa and he and Jean had a platonic relationship until Louisa's death.
In 1886 A Study In Scarlet, the first story to feature Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson,
was taken by Ward Lock & Co and appeared in the Beeton's Christmas Annual. In 1888 Conan Doyle published Micah Clarke, a serious historical novel, which Conan Doyle preferred, but the public and publishers wanted more of Sherlock Holmes.
In 1889 Joseph Marshall Stoddart the publisher of Lippincott's Magazine in Philadelphia wished to introduce a British influence into his magazine and invited a few authors to an informal meeting at the Langham Hotel, which was frequently used as a venue in subsequent Sherlock Holmes stories. It was here that Conan Doyle first met Oscar Wilde. In many ways no two men could be less alike and yet they felt an immediate friendship and respect for each other. Conan Doyle described it as 'a golden evening' and later wrote of Wilde, 'He towered above us all, and yet had the art of seeming to be interested in all that we could say. He had delicacy of feeling and tact, for the monologue man, however clever. can never really be a gentleman at heart. He took as well as gave, but what he gave was unique.... I should add that never in Wilde's conversation did I observe one trace of coarseness of thought, nor could one at that time associate him with such an idea.' As a result of the meeting, Stoddart commissioned a Sherlock Holmes novel to be published in America and Britain. In 1890 the second Holmes novel, The Sign of Four was published. It has been noted that, from the time of Conan Doyle's meeting with Oscar Wilde, Holmes' conversation became sharper and wittier. The meeting had an affect on Wilde too; his only novel The Picture of Dorian Grey has the supernatural tones that were so popular with Conan Doyle.
Strand Magazine. Later these were published as anthologies under the titles The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892) and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1894).
From the beginning Conan Doyle gives clear descriptions of Holmes, both in appearance and in his extraordinary personality. 'In height he was rather over six feet, and so excessively lean that he seemed to be considerably taller. His eyes were sharp and piercing, save during those intervals of torpor to which I have alluded; and his thin, hawk-like nose gave his whole expression an air of alertness and decision. His chin, too, had the prominence and squareness which mark the man of determination. His hands were invariably blotted with ink and stained with chemicals, yet he was possessed of extraordinary delicacy of touch, as I frequently had occasion to observe when I watched him manipulating his fragile philosophical instruments.' (A Study In Scarlet, 1886.) Holmes' mind was devoted totally to the studies that could forward his career as a detective; of some matters he was the unequalled master, of matters that did not interest him he knew nothing. 'His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing... I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.' (A Study In Scarlet, 1886.)
The friendship between Holmes and Watson began as a business arrangement, because they both required somebody to share the expense of lodgings. It transformed as Watson was drawn into the pleasure of following Holmes' investigations, until it became a central, deep friendship for both of them. Holmes is a towering figure in crime fiction but Watson is continually under-valued, in crime fiction but Watson is continually under-valued, possibly because he is the narrator, and the decent, ordinary man does not boast about his success. In truth Watson is a man of integrity and honour, possessing both common-sense and medical knowledge, as well as outstanding courage and loyalty. In The Adventure of the Devil's Foot, it is he who has the strength to throw off the effects of poison and save himself and Holmes from the deadly peril in which Holmes' impetuousity has placed them: 'I broke through the cloud of despair and had a glimpse of Holmes’ face, white, rigid, and drawn with horror — the very look which I had seen upon the features of the dead. It was that vision which gave me an instant of sanity and of strength. I dashed from my chair, threw my arms around Holmes, and together we lurched through the door.' (The Adventure of the Devil's Foot; His Last Bow; 1917.)
Although Watson married and left his lodgings in Baker Street, he still accompanied Holmes on several investigations. Apparently Watson's wife died during the time that Holmes was in hiding after his supposed death at the Reichenbach Falls. Certainly when Holmes returns, Watson immediately returns to his old lodgings and his old place as Holmes' assistant. 'It was indeed like old times when, at that hour I found myself seated beside him in a hansom, my revolver in my pocket, and the thrill of adventure in my heart.' (The Empty House; The Return of Sherlock Holmes; 1905.)
'Not another word did he say of the case until late that night when he was turning away, with his lighted candle, for his bedroom. “Watson,” said he, “if it should ever strike you that I am getting a little over-confident in my powers, or giving less pains to a case than it deserves, kindly whisper, “Norbury” in my ear and I shall be infinitely obliged to you.”' (The Yellow Face; The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes; 1894.)
Holmes needs Watson as the stable influence in his life and the person whose solid utterances spark his ideas, but Holmes also has a genuine affection for Watson as is shown when Watson is wounded while helping him foil a criminal: 'In an instant he had whisked out a revolver from his breast and had fired two shots. I felt a sudden hot sear as if a red-hot iron had been pressed to my thigh. There was a crash as Holmes’s pistol came down on the man’s head. I had a vision of him sprawling upon the floor with blood running down his face while Holmes rummaged him for weapons. Then my friend’s wiry arms were round me, and he was leading me to a chair.“You’re not hurt, Watson? For God’s sake, say that you are not hurt!” It was worth a wound–it was worth many wounds–to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask. The clear, hard eyes were dimmed for a moment, and the firm lips were shaking. For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain. All my years of humble but single-minded service culminated in that moment of revelation.' (The Three Garridebs; The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes; 1927)
Conan Doyle was a keen sportsman. While living in Southsea he used the pseudonym A.C. Smith to play as the goalkeeper for Portsmouth Football club, (an amateur club that has no connection with the present club.) An excellent cricketer, he played ten first-class matches for Marylebone Cricket Club and, as a bowler, took one extremely prestigious wicket, that of W.G. Grace. Throughout his life Conan Doyle was a participant in many types of sport, including golf, shooting, hiking, hunting, bicycling, billiards, boxing and skiing (he was one of the first people to bring the Scandinavian sport to Switzerland), and body-building, (which was then known as 'muscle development.') In the early 1900s he also enjoyed driving fast cars and travelling in hot air balloons and early air planes.
In 1890 Conan Doyle travelled to Vienna to study ophthalmology. This was not totally successful as he didn't speak Austrian well enough to understand the lectures. However he returned to England and set up his practice in London as an ophthalmologist. He recorded in his autobiography that not a single patient crossed his door, which he seemed to regard as a good thing as it gave him more time for writing.
The White Company (1891) which he regarded as his greatest literary achievement. He had to neglect The White Company in order to complete the Sign of Four, which caused him to make a radical literary decision. Late in 1891, he wrote to his mother, 'I think of slaying Holmes... He takes my mind from better things.' His mother wrote back, 'You won't! You can't! You mustn't!' However, Conan Doyle ignored her advice and in 1893, in the short story The Final Problem (part of the anthology, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes; 1894), Holmes and his arch-enemy, Professor Moriarty, plunged down the Reichenbach Falls, and readership of Strand Magazine also plunged as twenty thousand readers cancelled their subscriptions.
Conan Doyle was a contradictory character in many ways. He believed in his historical works and felt shackled by Sherlock Holmes, but he was also a commercial writer, especially as, in 1891, he had decided to leave medicine and devote his time to writing. In 1902 Sherlock Holmes returned in The Hound of the Baskervilles. However, he got over the dilemma of Holmes' death by setting thenovel at a time before Holmes plunged down the Reichenbach Falls. Public outcry may have caused this change of heart, or the need to replenish his bank balance, but the most interesting thing about The Hound of the Baskervilles, arguably the greatest full-length Sherlock Holmes novel, was that Conan Doyle had not set out to write a Holmes adventure. He had been planning a dark, atmospheric book about the moors and the strange, supernatural hound that haunted it, but he realised his book lacked suitable central characters. He decided to use Holmes and Watson. He may have been motivated by utilitarian reasons: something along the lines of why invent new characters when you've got some perfectly good ones packed away in mothballs?. However it seems probable that he welcomed this return. Certainly Holmes and Watson move through the story in a more masterful and complete way than they did in the earlier full-length Holmes stories.
In 1900 Conan Doyle horrified his family by announcing his intention of volunteering to fight in the Boer War. His reasons for this decision were probably as complex as Conan Doyle himself. He had an unquenchable sense of adventure and the desire to experience battle at first hand, having written about it so often. However, as a letter to his mother revealed, he also had a strong feeling of his duty as a role-model,which he expressed with a sort of naïve arrogance: 'What I feel is that I have perhaps the strongest influence over young men, especially sporting men, of anyone in England, bar Kipling.' By this time Conan Doyle was over forty and somewhat overweight and the army turned him down. Undeterred, he served as a volunteer doctor, and discovered, as many doctors and nurses had done before him, that far more men died of disease than of wounds.
On his return to England, he threw himself into politics and stood for a radical seat in Scotland. Because of his Jesuit education he was accused by his opponents of Roman Catholicism. Despite this he lost by only a narrow margin. In 1906, another attempt to win another seat also failed and Conan Doyle abandoned his attempts to enter Parliament although not his interest in politics. Conan Doyle wrote two books about the Boer War and South African politics: the long and comprehensive The Great Boer War (1900) and The War in South Africa: Its Cause and Conduct (1902.) Conan Doyle always believed that it was his books about the Boer War that caused King Edward VII to knight him in 1902. Although, as the King was a fan of Sherlock Holmes, perhaps it was also to do with Conan Doyle's decision to resurrect Holmes as well. It is clear that the King, and many of his subjects were delighted when Holmes reappeared in Watson's surgery and explained that only Moriarty had died at the Reichenbach Falls, but Holmes had been forced into hiding because he was being hunted by other vicious criminals, most notably Colonel Sebastian Moran. The Holmes stories were again published in Strand Magazine and then as an anthology, The Return of Sherlock Holmes in 1905.
Conan Doyle also depended on lecture tours to help pay the bills. His writing was especially popular in America, and on his first American tour in 1894 he visited thirty cities. The Americans took him to their hearts, liking his energy, sportsmanship and, according to an article in The Ladies Home Journal, because his personality was 'thoroughly wholesome.'
In 1906 Conan Doyle's first wife, Louisa, died after a long struggle with tuberculosis; and, around the same time, his father died in the asylum. Conan Doyle was plunged into depression and it was at this time that he became more closely interested in Spiritualism. His interest had first been provoked when he attended spiritualist meetings as a young doctor in Portsmouth, and his fascination with mystical beliefs was obvious in much of his work.
In 1906 he also became actively interested in issues of legal injustice and he investigated the case of George Edalji, a half-British, half-Indian lawyer, who had been convicted of sending threatening letters and mutilating animals. The evidence was flimsy and the animal attacks continued after Edalji had been imprisoned. Conan Doyle's robust intervention resulted in Edalji being exonerated. (The story was fictionalised in Julian Barnes' novel Arthur and George, published 2005.) It was partly as a result of the Edalji case and Conan Doyle's work in clearing him that in 1907 the Court of Criminal Appeal was established to help correct other miscarriages of justice.
Conan Doyle's other fight against the legal system came many years later. In 1908 Oscar Slater, a German Jew and gambling den operator, was convicted of bludgeoning to death an eighty-three-year-old woman. Conan Doyle was one of several people who felt that the conviction was unsound and he paid many of the costs for the successful appeal in 1928.
In 1907 Conan Doyle married his second wife, Jean, and for the next few years he was so content in his married life that his literary output slowed considerably, although this was the point at which his theatre work was at its height. Conan Doyle had an abiding love of the theatre and wrote several plays. He found the theatre a congenial way to supplement his writing income. Early in his writing career, in 1893, he collaborated with J.M. Barrie and Ernest Ford in writing an operetta, Jane Annie, or the Good Conduct Prize. His play writing career was not without humour, as when, in a production of The Speckled Band in 1912, Conan Doyle insisted on using a live snake. Neither the actors nor the snake appear to have enjoyed the experience and Conan Doyle admitted that it had not been his best decision: "The Python either hung down like a pudgy yellow bell rope, or else when his tail was pinched, endeavoured to squirm back and get level with the stage carpenter who pinched him, which was not in the script." Despite the uncooperative reptile, the play was a great success but, nevertheless, in 1912 he decided to give up on theatre work because it was demanding too much of his time and energy. As he put it, 'Not because it doesn't interest me, but because it interests me too much.'
In 1912, Conan Doyle introduced a new character into the literary world, the extraordinary Professor Challenger. In The Lost World (1912) the narrating character, journalist Edward Malone, describes his first meeting with Challenger: 'His appearance made me gasp. I was prepared for something strange, but not for so overpowering a personality as this. It was his size, which took one's breath away – his size and his imposing presence. His head was enormous, the largest I have ever seen upon a human being... He had the face and beard, which I associate with an Assyrian bull; the former florid, the latter so black as almost to have a suspicion of blue, spade-shaped and rippling down over his chest.' Only his eyes told a different story, for they were 'blue-grey... very clear, very critical, and very masterful.' Challenger is an egotistical, arrogant and overwhelmingly annoying man, but his ingenuity, quick wits, strength and courage save his fellow explorers from numerous dangers. As Malone records, early in the book, Challenger is so continually insulting that his companions become immune to his unpleasantness: 'He was too absurd to make me angry. Indeed, it was a waste of energy, for if you were going to be angry with this man you would be angry all the time.'
he Lost World and the following four Professor Challenger books were sold as boy's adventure stories. In this adventure, a group of explorers find themselves trapped in a pre-historic world in the Amazon. It is interesting to note that, as the character of Sherlock Holmes was based upon Professor Joseph Bell, Professor Challenger was based upon the Edinburgh Professor of Physiology, William Rutherford. (Edinburgh University must have been quite a place to study in those days.)
The character of Edward Malone was based upon that of E.D. Morel, and that of Lord John Roxton upon the diplomat Roger Casement. both leaders of the Congo Free State reform campaign, which Conan Doyle also supported. Indeed, in The Lost World, Roxton is an explorer and adventurer who is familiar with South America and who, some years before, had helped to defeat slavery in the area. (Casement organised the Anti-Slavery Society to help gain justice for the natives of the Congo.) In looks and manner, Roxton could not be a greater contrast to Challenger, 'He has a gentle voice and a quiet manner, but behind his twinkling blue eyes there lurks a capacity for furious wrath and implacable resolution, the more dangerous because they are held in leash.' And the words that Conan Doyle put into Roxton's mouth could be those of Casement campaigning against slavery, or Conan Doyle himself. 'There are times, young fellah, when every one of us must make a stand for human right and justice, or you never feel clean again.'
The Lost World is a story of heroism and adventure, as Edward Malone records as they set out: 'So tomorrow we disappear into the unknown. This account I am transmitting down the river by canoe, and it may be our last word to those who are interested in our fate.'
The Lost World was well received and Conan Doyle went on to write another four Professor Challenger books.Conan Doyle's interest in politics and passion for justice had made him a supporter of the campaign to reform the Congo Free State and in 1909 he wrote a long pamphlet, The Crime of the Congo. It is clear that he admired both Morel and Casement, the leaders of the reform movement, but at the outbreak of the First World War he broke contact with both of them. Morel was one of the leaders of the Pacifist Movement, while, at the outbreak of War, Conan Doyle, aged fifty-five, had again applied for military service and, when rejected, had organised a civilian battalion of over a hundred volunteers. Roger Casement had become an Irish Nationalist and, in 1916, he was accused of plotting to help the Germans to invade Ireland, found guilty of treason and condemned to death. Despite his own passionate patriotism, Conan Doyle fought to have the death sentence reduced to imprisonment, arguing that Casement was insane. The plea for clemency failed, at least partly because the Government made public Roger Casement's diaries, which revealed him to be a predatory homosexual. There has been a lot of discussion over the years about whether these diaries were forgeries, but recent scientific tests have established that the handwriting does belong to Casement.
Conan Doyle's active brain was eager to suggest ways in which the death toll in the Great War could be reduced. He suggested the idea of life-belts and life-boats for the Navy but his ideas were ignored. From the start he realised that submarines and airships were new factors in the conflict and foresaw the danger of a blockade of the Channel by submersibles long before anybody in the Government considered it. Most people in power disregarded him, but Winston Churchill wrote to thank him for his ideas.
The Valley of Fear was serialised in Strand Magazine, but many readers felt cheated as Holmes was not in the major part of the book. However late in 1914 Conan Doyle produced the far more satisfying His Last Bow, in which Holmes infiltrates and vanquishes a German spy ring, a fine piece of literary propaganda. In 1916 Conan Doyle was given permission to visit battlefronts in France as research for his book The British Campaign in France and Flanders. The memory of the scenes of slaughter he witnessed there never left him.
Conan Doyle had always been interested in Spiritualism and the supernatural. In his early days as a doctor in Portsmouth he had attended Spiritualist meetings in Southsea. In 1919, faced with the deaths of his first son, Kingsley, his brother Innes, his two brothers-in-law and his two nephews, Conan Doyle sank into depression and found refuge in Spiritualism. Indeed he threw himself into it with the fervour he had shown to all his interests and causes throughout his life, and his passion has done much to damage his reputation. In The Coming of the Fairies (1922) he supports the existence of the Cottingley Fairies. These were five photographs taken by two girls, which some years later were confirmed to be a hoax. Even at the time most people were sceptical; the originals of the photographs were easy to find as they came from a popular child's book of the time, but Conan Doyle put his considerable reputation behind them. For a time Conan Doyle was a friend of Harry Houdini, the popular American magician. Conan Doyle tried to convince Houdini that the magician's illusions were genuine spiritual manifestations, which Houdini rejected as absurd. Houdini insisted that the spiritualist mediums employed trickery but Conan Doyle was adamant in his belief. When Conan Doyle's mediums claimed to have long messages from Houdini's dead mother, the two fell into a spate of bitter public recriminations and their enmity continued until Houdini's death.
From 1918 onwards Conan Doyle wrote little fiction but many books about Spiritualism, including The History of Spiritualism (1926), in which he praised the psychic phenomena produced by popular spiritualists. He was supported in his new beliefs by his wife, Jean, and any lecture tours were to promote Spiritualism.
Unfortunately, the damage done to Conan Doyle's credibility has left him open to other accusations, such as the one levelled by American historian Richard Milner that Conan Doyle had been behind the 1912 Piltdown Man hoax, creating a counterfeit fossil that fooled the world for many decades. Milner claims that Conan Doyle wanted revenge on the scientific world for rejecting his favoured spiritualists and that he had left clues about this in The Lost World.
The Land of Mist, which involves Challenger in strange, supernatural events. He also wrote two Professor Challenger short stories in 1928 and 1929. In 1927 he published the last anthology of Sherlock Holmes short stories, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes.
Conan Doyle died of a heart attack in 1930. His last words were to his wife, 'You are wonderful.'
Sir Arthur Conan was born in Edinburgh and studied medicine. He began writing while he waited for his practice to grow and, with 1887's A Study in Scarlet, created Sherlock Holmes, one of the most famous literary characters of all time. He was a volunteer physician in the Boer War and wrote a book on spiritualism.
Carol Westron is a successful author and a Creative Writing teacher. Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times. Her first book The Terminal Velocity of Cats was published in 2013. Since then, she has since written 5 further mysteries. Carol recently gave an interview to Mystery People. To read the interview click on the link below.
To read a review of Carol latest book This Game of Ghosts
click on the title.