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Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Author: Mark Campbell

Arthur Conan Doyle (‘Conan’ derived from his great-uncle Michael Conan, a distinguished journalist) was born on 22 May 1859 at 11 Picardy Place, Edinburgh, the son of Charles Altamont Doyle and Mary (née Foley) and the second of ten children, of whom seven survived. Doyle’s father was a civil servant and artist, and his grandfather John Doyle was known as the caricaturist ‘HB’. His brothers were also creative: Henry became the manager of the National Gallery in Dublin, James wrote The Chronicle of England and Richard, better known as ‘Dicky Doyle’, was a cover designer for Punch magazine.

In 1868 Doyle attended the Jesuit preparatory school of Hodder in Lancashire for two years, before spending a further seven at Stonyhurst. It was here that he rejected Catholicism in favour of agnosticism. At 16 he did a further year in a Jesuit school at Feldkirch in the Austrian Tyrol (where he lapped up tales by Edgar Allan Poe) before returning to his birthplace to study medicine at Edinburgh University from 1876 to 1881.

His first published piece, a letter entitled Gelseminum as a Poison, appeared in the British Medical Journal of 20 September 1879. It detailed the effect of the drug on his own system. His first (uncredited) short story, The Mystery of Sasassa Valley, was published in the popular Chambers Edinburgh Journal in October that year.

In 1880, Doyle sailed to the Arctic Circle as an unqualified surgeon on the 400-ton Greenland Whaling ship Hope. A year later he graduated from Edinburgh University as Bachelor of Medicine and Master of Surgery, and attempted to replicate the success of his Arctic Joumey by cruising the west coast of Africa on the steamship Mayumba. But he suffered badly from seasickness and decided it was not the life for him. It was during this time that his father Charles began to receive treatment for alcoholism and epilepsy. (He began as a fee-paying patient and was later committed to an asylum until his death in October 1893.)

Eccentric university colleague George Turnavine Budd engaged Doyle to share his medical practice in Plymouth, but later acrimoniously sacked him. Doyle (along with his brother Innes) sailed to Southsea, a suburb of Portsmouth, and started his own general medical practice at 1 Bush Villas, Elm Grove, in June 1882. Business was quiet, and he turned to writing to keep himself occupied. He joined the Portsmouth Literary and Scientific Society in winter 1883. On 6 August 1885 Doyle married Louise (‘Touie’) Hawkins, the sister of a patient who had died at his premises the year before. In 1887, Beeton’s Christmas Annual published his first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet. Two years later his first child was born, Mary Louise, and his historical novel Micah Clarke was published. Doyle’s second Holmes novel, The Sign of Four, appeared in 1890.

After a brief spell in Vienna in 1891, the Doyles moved to 23 Montague Place, London, where he practised as an oculist at 2 Upper Wimpole Street, just off Harley Street. He received very few patients and decided to write short Sherlock Holmes stories for the new monthly magazine The Strand. With the success of these and the publication of his novel The White Company, he decided to give up medicine in favour of writing.

Three months later, the Doyles rented a large house at 12 Tennison Road, South Norwood. Doyle's first son Alleyne Kingsley was born in 1892. A year later Louise, who had earlier contracted tuberculosis, was declared incurably consumptive and went to the Swiss resort of Davos to convalesce. In November 1893, Doyle joined the Society for Psychical Research, the president of which was Arthur J Balfour (who would later become prime minister), but it would be another 23 years before he began proselytising Spiritualism seriously.

Tired of Sherlock Holmes’ effect on his ‘serious’ literary career, Doyle killed him off in The Final Problem in December 1893. The following year he went on an American lecture tour with his brother Innes. Doyle and his wife then spent most of 1895 in Europe before moving on to a tour of Egypt. When fighting broke out between the British and the Dervishes he volunteered as a war correspondent for The Westminster Gazette, giving a good account of the preparations for the campaign.

In October 1897, he and Louise moved into ‘Undershaw’, a house he had built in Hindhead, Surrey. Because of its height Hindhead (known as the ‘English Riviera’) was considered to have clean, healthy air, and Doyle hoped it would aid in Louise’s recovery. But that year he met and fell in love with Jean Leckie.

The following year, he wrote two relatively unknown short stories for The Strand in which Holmes makes off-stage appearances. In The Man With the Watches (July 1898), ‘a well-known criminal investigator’ sends an ingenious solution to the Daily Gazette, while in The Lost Special (August 1989, later serialised by Universal in 1932) it is implied that Moriarty is the villain and Sherlock Holmes the ‘amateur reasoner of some celebrity’.

In 1899 Doyle became involved in the Boer War. He sailed to South Africa in February 1900 as part of John Langman’s 50-bed medical unit and worked in appalling conditions in a hospital in Bloemfontein that dealt with enteric fever. He began writing The History of the Great Boer War there, and also published a pro-British pamphlet entitled The War in South Africa: Its Causes and Conduct. In Doyle’s opinion, it was this pamphlet that led to his knighthood on 9 August 1902.

Having already succumbed to public pressure and written The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1901 (a story set before Holmes’ disappearance at the Reichenbach Falls), he finally resurrected Sherlock Holmes properly in September 1903 in a short story called The Empty House.

Louise died on 4 July 1906, aged 49. The same year Doyle involved himself in the case of George Edalji, a Parsee barrister whom he claimed had been wrongly accused of maiming animals. The year after, Doyle married Jean Leckie and they moved to ‘Windlesham’ , a large house in Crowborough, East Sussex. Three children were born to this marriage: Denis Percy Stewart (1909), Adrian Malcolm (1910) and Jean Lena Annette (1912, known as Billy).

Doyle wrote more Sherlock Holmes short stories and continued campaigning against injustices. He wrote a leaflet attacking the Belgian misrule in the Congo, exposing the suffering of the natives, and investigated the case of the convicted murderer Oscar Slater. In 1909 he became president (for ten years) of the Divorce Law Reform Union. Three years later he wrote The Lost World, the first of three novels to feature Professor Challenger.

Aged 55 when the First World War broke out, Doyle joined the Crowborough Company of the Sixth Royal Sussex Volunteer Regiment, but this was disbanded after a few weeks. On 2 September 1914, the Liberal politician Charles Masterman, head of the War Propaganda Bureau, asked Doyle to attend a secret meeting of Britain’s leading writers to discuss ways of best promoting Britain’s interests during the War. After this, Doyle went away and wrote the recruiting pamphlet To Arms! He then visited the Western Front, and the pamphlet A Visit to the Three Fronts resulted in 1916. During the war Doyle also started his six-volume The British Campaign in France and Flanders, completed in 1920.

In 1916, Doyle first announced his belief in Spiritualism - he claimed that the year before he had received a communication from his brother-in-law Malcolm who had died at Frameries, Belgium, in 1914. He became a passionate convert and spent the rest of his life writing and lecturing on the subject all around the world. His eldest son Alleyne was wounded at the Somme and died of pneumonia in October 1918.

Doyle believed in the Cottingley Fairies (later admitted to be a hoax), and was friends with sceptic Harry Houdini: they exchanged a series of letters on psychic matters, later published. He opened a psychic bookshop with a library and museum, and set up a psychic press which published several books.

He originally intended the short story His Last Bow (1917) to be the final word on the Great Detective, but nevertheless went on to write a further twelve Holmes stories over the next seven years.

By 1925 he was dividing his time between Bignell House near Minstead in the New Forest and his Crowborough abode. Following a lecture tour of Scandinavia and Holland in 1929 he developed angina pectoris and suffered a heart attack. Bedridden for several months, he died on 7 July 1930 aged 71. His last book, The Edge of the Unknown, had appeared a week earlier. He was buried at Crowborough but his remains were later moved - along with his wife Jean who died on 27 June 1940 - to Minstead Church. His tombstone inscription reads:

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

"Steel True
Blade Straight
Arthur Conan Doyle
Patriot, Physician & Man of Letters"

Mark Campbell kindly gave permission to use this chapter. We are very grateful.

You can buy his fantastic Sherlock Holmes book here:

Sherlockian Holmesian

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