Born of Irish parents in Edinburgh 150 years ago this month, he is best remembered, writes Paul Hurley, SVD, as the creator of Sherlock Holmes.
Most mornings a postman with a sack of letters climbs up the stairs of 221b Baker Street near Madame Tussaud’s in London. Nearly all are for a Building Society there, but some are addressed to a Mr Sherlock Holmes. For this Baker Street house was the home of the famous detective.
The four novels and 56 short stories that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about him between 1886 and 1927 are so vivid in many people’s minds that some Holmes admirers don’t believe he was fictional. A recent survey shows that one in four Londoners are convinced that he is still alive.
Sherlock Holmes first appeared in the novella, A Study in Scarlet, which Conan Doyle wrote in 1886 and sold for about €30. Since then the Holmes stories have sold some 150 million copies in nearly 50 languages and the sleuth has also featured in about 150 films since 1903 and in hundreds of radio and TV series. There are Sherlock Holmes societies in many countries, more than 20 in the U.S. alone. So there seems little doubt that he is fiction’s most enduring character.
What kind of man created him?
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was born of Irish Catholic parents in Edinburgh on 22 May 1859. His father, Charles, though born in London, came from an artistic Dublin family, and his mother, Mary Foley, was from Kilkenny. Arthur was the third of their nine children, seven girls and two boys. He was given a second family name, Conan, after his godfather, Michael Conan, an Irish journalist in Paris.
His father, Charles, a civil service clerk, regarded himself as a failure, compared with his creative father and brothers in London. He withdrew into himself, living in a world of self-pity; he
was soon a stranger to his wife and children and became an alcoholic. “The result was that the Doyles lived in a state of constant poverty, moving from one rented run-down house to another that were not quite tenements,” says Martin Booth, one of Arthur’s biographers. Inevitably his
mother bore the brunt of their poverty’s strain. She was a small, intelligent woman, educated in France, who adored Arthur, her eldest son. During several summers she brought her children to Lismore, County Waterford, on holidays paid for by her own Foley family there.
The Foleys also paid for Arthur’s education. At nine he was sent for two years to Hodder, the junior school for Stonyhurst Jesuit college in Lancashire, where he spent six years. It was one of his teachers there, Fr Francis Cassidy, SJ, who first encouraged him to write and develop the love for reading he got from his mother. At 14 he was fluent in French and he got high marks in his matriculation exam. “Though he may have been loath to admit it later on, Arthur learned much more from the Jesuits,” writes Booth. “They taught him discipline and gave him strength of character.”
At 16 he went for a year to another Jesuit college, at Feldkirch in the Austrian Alps, to perfect his German. He also enjoyed Alpine sports, continued his wide reading and discovered the works of Edgar Allan Poe, author of the first detective stories. From his books Arthur learned the mechanics of short-story writing, on which he was later to build his own literary reputation. “He came away from Feldkirch with pleasant memories of both the school and the Jesuits who
ran it,” adds Booth.
Because his mother’s father had been a doctor, she encouraged him to study medicine when he returned home to Edinburgh. He began his medical studies in 1876 and graduated with honours five years later.
After some temporary posts in England, he went as hip’s doctor on the Hope, an Arctic whaling vessel, for seven months in 1880. On his return he told his family and friends that he had left the Church and become an agnostic, at the age of 21. He later stated, in his autobiography, “It was all Christianity and not Catholicism alone which had driven me to an agnosticism, which never degenerated into atheism.” Reading about “Darwinism, meeting doubting and cynical students and seeing daily the poverty of the sick, to whom God seemed to have turned a blind eye, all helped to sway” his decision. A few years later his mother also left the Church – “under the influence, if not the pressure, of her son”, says his Catholic biographer, Michael Coren – and became an Anglican.
“Doyle longed all his life to believe, in flag, empire, family, religion,” writes Coren. “The last was central. So if the Church was to be abandoned he had to look for an alternative.” He found it
first in Freemasonry, which he joined in 1887 – and which features in some of the Sherlock Holmes stories – but especially in spiritualism. Apart from his writings, the rest of his life was largely devoted to his belief that the spirits of the dead can be contacted by the living. He regarded his efforts to promote spiritualism – on which he spent most of his great wealth – as
the main work of his life. He travelled round the world promoting it, wrote many books about it, attended séances and became its best known proponent.
“Britain was then awash with mediums jumping on the bandwagon, faking séances but raking in the money,” says Martin Booth. While touring the U.S., Conan Doyle became very friendly with Houdini – until the magician esposed spiritualism. And when, in his book, Modern Spiritualism, Fr Herbert Thurston, SJ, stated that it “smacked of the Antichrist”, Conan Doyle was furious and replied with a pamphlet condemning the Catholic Church. His reputation was badly damaged by his lifelong promotion of spiritualism, which he called “psychic religion” and one of his “many adventures”.
Another was his involvement in the Boer War. In 1900 he served for a few months with the British army’s medical corps in fighting against the Boers in South Africa. He became a great supporter of the British Empire – for which he was knighted in 1902 – and wrote a history of the Boer War, as he later did about the Great War. But he also defended Roger Casement’s exposure of atrocities against Africans by the Belgians in the Congo. He met Casement and tried to prevent his execution.
Conan Doyle was married twice, first in 1885 to Louise Hawkins, with whom he had two children, and after her death to Jean Leckie, a Scottish girl, who bore him three more children. In his big house at Hindhead in Surrey he lived “the carefree life of a sporting country gentleman and entertained all the great writers, artists and politicians of his day”. A fine sportsman, 6ft in height and thick-set, he played cricket, soccer, golf, was a good boxer, skier and competed in car racing.
But it is for Sherlock Holmes that he is best remembered. Fiction’s first major serial character, he was the forerunner of many others, from Hercule Poirot to James Bond. The first Holmes story, like many of the others, was published in a magazine, the 1887 Beeton’s Christmas Annual, produced by the cookery expert’s husband. The sixtieth and last one, The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place, appeared 40 years later in the Strand magazine in 1927. Conan Doyle then wrote, “Sherlock, like his author, grows a little stiff in the joints. Now farewell to him for ever!”
When he tried to end the Holmes stories earlier, in 1893, by having him plunge over a Swiss waterfall, he was obliged by public pressure – 20,000 Strand readers cancelled their subscriptions – to revive him. Among his first reappearances was in The Hound of the Baskervilles, one of the best of all the stories. Conan Doyle complained that Holmes distracted him from writing “better things” and regarded Sir Nigel, one of his seven historical novels, better than any of the detective ones.
When he said he had modeled Holmes on Dr Joseph Bell, one of his Edinburgh medical professors, Bell replied, “You are yourself Sherlock Holmes!” They had indeed a lot in common. Both were agnostics, enjoyed a good joke and spoke French and German. Dr Watson described his companion as a very complex character. But the oft quoted phrase, “Elementary, my dear Watson”, never actually appears in the Holmes’s stories, though he does sometimes say, “Elementary”. P.G. Wodehouse wrote a poem in praise of Holmes and Mgr Ronald Knox started a scholarly “higher criticism” of the series in his Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes.
Conan Doyle died at home of a heart attack in 1930, aged 71. Earlier he had stated, “I desire to die as I have lived, without clerical interference.” He was buried in an Anglican churchyard at Minstead, Hampshire, where his headstone is inscribed, Knight, Patriot, physician and man of letters. And he is commemorated by a statue at his birthplace in Edinburgh, not of himself, but of Sherlock Holmes.