Arthur Conan Doyle
Like the elusive Sherlock Holmes, his most famous creation, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a man of many contradictions. Scientifically educated, he believed in sťances and fairies. An advocate for more equitable divorce laws, he believed that women should be denied the vote. A humanist who identified with oppressed peoples, he staunchly defended English colonialism at its most aggressive. He dreamed of being a serious historical novelist, yet he is best remembered for stories that he considered pot-boilers. The product of a pragmatic, fiercely protective mother and a detached dreamer of a father, Conan Doyle became a man with astonishing self-confidence, a tireless self-promoter who also retained some measure of childish innocence throughout his life.
Arthur Conan Doyle's humble beginnings did not predict his future success. Born on May 22, 1859, to a middle-class, Catholic family, he grew up on Edinburgh's rough-and-tumble streets, far from his successful grandfather and uncles, who hobnobbed with London's intellectual elite. His celebrated grandfather, John Doyle, had reinvented the art of political caricature. John Doyle's eldest son, also named John, became a well-known caricaturist himself, and the second son, Richard, began his career as a successful cartoonist for Punch (an early magazine devoted to political satire) and ended it as a famous book illustrator. Two other sons were also successful in different fields.
Arthur's parents, Mary Foley Doyle and Charles Altamont Doyle, had moved to Scotland from London, hoping that Charles could advance his career in architecture. Having inherited some measure of his family's artistic talent, Charles began with every hope of success, but never realized his dreams. Plagued by depression and alcoholism, Charles was a distant father and husband, becoming so detached from reality that he ended life in an asylum. With considerable charity, his son Arthur later said of him, "My father's life was full of the tragedy of unfulfilled powers and of underdeveloped gifts."
As the only active parent, Mary
Doyle had a strong influence on Arthur, the eldest surviving son
of seven children, instilling in him a love of chivalric romances
and a firm belief in the English code of honor. She made the boy
memorize and recite his family's genealogy, ancestor by ancestor.
When left to himself, Arthur loved to read American "wild west"
adventure stories, especially those of Bret Harte and Thomas Mayne
Reid, an Irish immigrant to the U.S. who wrote The Scalp Hunters
(1851), young Arthur's favorite book. As an adult, Conan Doyle felt
that the highest vocation he could pursue as a writer was to create
well-researched historical romances idealizing British history.
By this time, Charles Doyle had lost his job, and the family had difficulty paying the school fees. A lodger named Bryan Charles Waller became the family's protector, eventually supporting Mary, Charles, and their children completely.
Once at university, Conan Doyle found the work difficult and boring. He gained more amusement from playing sports, at which he excelled, than in listening to lectures in large, crowded lecture halls. More interesting than studying was describing his instructors' eccentric personalities. Among his teachers was the man Conan Doyle later acknowledged as his inspiration for Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Joseph Bell. Dr. Bell taught his students the importance of observation, using all the senses to obtain an accurate diagnosis. He enjoyed impressing students by guessing a person's profession from a few indications, through a combination of deductive and inductive reasoning, like Holmes. Although Bell's methods fascinated Conan Doyle, his cold indifference towards his patients repelled the young medical student. Some of this coldness found its way into Sherlock Holmes's character, especially in the early stories.
Around the time he obtained his medical degree,
Conan Doyle's crisis of faith, which had been brewing since his
days with the Jesuits, came to a head. He announced to his uncles
that he had turned away from organized religion, shocking them deeply
and causing them to withdraw their support. Because he refused to
practice his family's religion, Conan Doyle was forced to make own
way in the medical profession, with neither financial help nor letters
of introduction to influential people. He was an uneasy agnostic,
however, and although he hoped that pure rationalism could take
the place of religion for him, it never did. Around 1880, he began
to attend sťances, and by the end of his life he had become an ardent
In 1886, Doyle finished the first Sherlock Holmes
novella, A Study in Scarlet. After several rejections,
he was forced to sell it outright for £25 for inclusion in
the 1887 Beeton's Christmas Annual, a holiday collection that often
sold out, but did not usually attract much attention in the national
press. The work was reprinted in 1889 and many more times, but Conan
Doyle never earned another penny from it. Sign of the Four,
the second work to feature Holmes and Watson, also achieved a small,
but by no means brilliant, success.
While writing the early Holmes stories, Doyle also began what he considered his most important work: chivalric, historical novels based on British history, primarily, Micah Clark, Sir Nigel, and The White Company. Although these novels were widely admired, none of them created the stir caused by the first series of short stories featuring Sherlock Holmes and John Watson that appeared in The Strand Magazine, starting in 1891. Despite their overwhelming success, Conan Doyle never suspected that these stories would be the foundation of his literary legacy.
After writing three series of twelve Holmes stories,
receiving the unheard-of sum of £1000 for the last dozen, Conan
Doyle was sick to death of the popular detective and decided to kill him
off in the 1893 story, "The Final Problem." Conan Doyle considered the
Holmes stories light fiction, good for earning money, but destined to
be quickly forgotten, the literary equivalent of junk food. "I couldn't
revive him if I would, at least not for years," he wrote to a friend who
urged Holmes's resurrection, "for I have had such an overdose of him that
I feel towards him as I do towards pâté de foie gras,
of which I once ate too much, so that the name of it gives me a sickly
feeling to this day." The vehement public reaction to Holmes's death must
have shocked Conan Doyle. People wore black armbands and wrote him pleading--or
threatening--letters. Still, it was nine years before he capitulated to
public opinion and brought Holmes back.
Towards the end of their lives, long after Conan Doyle's death, the aged "girls" admitted to having used paper cutouts as stand-ins for the fairies. Interestingly, Conan Doyle's own Uncle Richard had invented, in his book illustrations, the typical representation of a fairy as a little girl with dragonfly wings and a gossamer gown. No matter how many times Conan Doyle was tricked by mediums later proven to be dishonest, he continued to believe in spiritualism. The famous American magician Harry Houdini made a project of trying to convince Conan Doyle of his error, but all he managed to do was ruin their friendship. Houdini saw spiritualism as cruel because it gave people false hope; Conan Doyle, who was already suffering from serious heart disease, wanted to believe that death was a grand new adventure. He fought his infirmity, trying to continue writing and traveling as before. He died at the age of 71, secure in his spiritualist beliefs.
Doctor, writer, believer in the supernatural--Conan
Doyle's personality encompassed all these traits that contributed to the
Sherlock Holmes stories we love to read today. Conan Doyle's fanciful
imagination, combined with his scientific training, created ideas that
have helped to shape the modern mystery and science fiction genres. One
of the first to anticipate the dangers of submarines in warfare, he wrote
a Sherlock Holmes story on the subject. His novel The Lost World
is the ancestor of Jurassic Park and countless other films. Another
of his stories, "The Ring of Thoth," was probably the plot source of the
1932 film The Mummy with Boris Karloff. An 1883 medical article
called "Life and Death in the Blood," outlining the imaginary voyage of
a microscopic observer through the human body, anticipated the main idea
behind the film Fantastic Voyage. Conan Doyle's most long-lived
idea, however, was Sherlock Holmes himself, who has continued to evolve
in our time through the works of other writers and filmmakers, taking
forms even his creator could never have imagined.
Sherlock Holmes: A Hero for His Time--and Ours
When "A Scandal in Bohemia" was published in The
Strand Magazine in 1891, readers were greeted with Sidney Paget's
moody drawings, which represent Holmes as tall, handsome, and elegant,
despite Conan Doyle's original description, according to which Holmes
was extremely thin, with a large nose and small eyes set close together.
Apparently Paget's younger brother Walter, whom the artist used
as a model, was quite a handsome fellow. Years later, after his
brother's death, Walter himself illustrated a few of Conan Doyle's
stories in The Strand.
Others, such as the American illustrator Frederic
Dorr Steele, who based his Holmes on William Gillette, also created
a compelling vision of the detective and his world. Holmes usually
remained tall and thin, but not always young or handsome.
Conan Doyle wrote the Holmes stories quickly, never imagining that they would receive much scrutiny. If he forgot a date or fact from a previous story, he forged ahead without looking it up. This bad habit has resulted in some startling discrepancies. Was Watson wounded in the leg or the arm? How could Watson's deceased wife be on a visit to her mother's? Is Watson's given name "James" or "John"? To correct these and other inconsistencies, Sherlockians comb the "canon," or "sacred writings," for clues, seek secondary sources (inventing some themselves when all else fails), and write "scholarly" articles, using Holmes's methods to solve contradictions in the works or following clues to add new "facts" to Holmes's and Watson's biographies.
One favorite Sherlockian controversy centers on the "original" location of 221b Baker Street, a non-existent address in Conan Doyle's time. When Baker Street was renumbered during the 1920s, 221b was created on the block formerly called Upper Baker Street. Many faithful representations of the sitting room at 221b Baker Street have been constructed throughout the world. All contain the violin, the tobacco-holding Persian slipper, and other Holmesian accouterments mentioned in the stories.
The Game is played seriously, but is played best when it avoids pomposity. Christopher Morley once wrote, "What other body of modern literature is esteemed as much for its errors as its felicities?" Conan Doyle, on the other hand, wondered why anyone "should spend such pains on such material." He alone, it seems, was immune to the fascination exerted by Sherlock Holmes and John Watson on generations of readers.