In an era of intellectual balancing acts, Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) was one of the most dazzling tightrope-walkers of them all. Politically he was one of those sturdy late-Victorian patriots for whom the label "Liberal Unionist" might have been expressly invented. Spiritually he was a lapsed, Stonyhurst-educated Catholic whose obsession with the cult of psychic phenomena took in everything from table-rapping to disembodied voices.
The materialism of the age nagged at him constantly: Carlyle was always on his desk to remind him of its corroding influence. Even the Sherlock Holmes stories are a half-way house between an instinctive Romanticism and the super-realism of Holmes's forensic techniques. Significantly, Conan Doyle thought that the adventures of the Baker Street detective belonged to "the fairy kingdom of Romance" – not a phrase that would have meant much to the amateur criminologists who made up most of his fan base.
None of these compromises, taken on their own, would have made him exceptional. Literary London in the 1880s probably contained 50 Conan Doyles: clever young men, keenly aware of the rise of Darwin, TH Huxley and Herbert Spencer, whose sense of intellectual certainty was dissolving before their eyes. What gave the Edinburgh civil servant's son his edge was his sheer energy. To read even a page of his letters, attractively assembled by a trio of Baker Street irregulars, is to be struck by their indefatigability, and the boisterous, devil-may-care side to his character that expressed itself in whaling trips to the Arctic and swimming excursions in shark-infested African harbours.
Literature, when he came to it – and his first published work dated from his days as a medical student – was approached in the same all-or-nothing spirit: furious bouts of writing against impossible deadlines, in which the romantic view he took of his subject matter was always balanced by the shrewdest of professional touches.
Still, though, he might have been simply representative. As Andrew Lycett shows, in his sympathetic new biography, it took Holmes to drag him out of the ruck of historical fictioneers in which the late-Victorian age abounded. The question of upbringing, too, loomed large. The Doyles were Irish and artistic: Arthur's uncle Richard, the famous "Dicky" Doyle, was responsible for the enduring original Punch cover. There was also a rackety and faintly licentious strain – Doyle Snr ended up in an inebriates' home – which Conan Doyle was concerned to keep in check while acknowledging its animating force. "I've got a strong Bohemian element in me, I'm afraid," he wrote home from the whaling trip, "and the life seems to suit me."
He was serious about medicine, contributed to The Lancet and had ambitions to be an eye surgeon, but literature always seemed the safer bet. James Payn of the Cornhill magazine and Herbert Greenhough Smith of the Strand offered encouragement and, by the early 1890s, with the Holmes stories firmly established in the public imagination, he was earning nearly £3,000 a year – a small fortune by Victorian standards.
Even then, compromise was required. The much-cherished historical romances – The Exploits and Adventures of Brigadier Gerard and The White Company – were respectfully received, but it was Baker Street to which the sensation-hungry faithful flocked. Periodically abandoned and revived, Holmes lasted until as late as 1927.
As Lycett demonstrates, Holmes's creator was adept at tapping into contemporary anxieties: with its details about foreign spies and thefts from the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich, "The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans", which appeared in the Strand's Christmas number of 1907, perfectly reflects the trigger-happy xenophobia of the time. The popular prestige of his creator – second only to Kipling's – by this stage extended far beyond literature. His knighthood, which he havered over but accepted to please his adoring mother, was as much a reward for propaganda work in the Boer War as for The Hound of the Baskervilles, which King Edward VII admitted to having yawned over.
If the post-Great War public had an over-riding impression of Conan Doyle, it was as an advocate of the paranormal, an accomplished platform debater defending psychical research from the onslaughts of scientific rationalists. There were good reasons for this. His son Kingsley died a fortnight before the war's end: within a month his father was hearing spirit voices, courtesy of a bluff Midlands medium named Annie Brittain.
Of these two massive encapsulations of his life, A Life in Letters fairly hums with Conan Doyle's trademark enthusiasm. "You never saw such a theological skeleton", he remarks of a missionary met on an early trip to West Africa. "His real mission on earth was to be a billiard cue."
Shrewd and thorough, Lycett's The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes is similarly entertaining, while occasionally falling prey to the ripest kind of biographer's speculation. Noting that Conan Doyle sent a copy of The White Company to Tennyson on its publication in 1890, he canvases the "intriguing possibility" that a visit his subject paid to Haslemere just as he was finishing the book took in a trip to Tennyson's mansion at Aldworth. "If so," he extrapolates, "he would have discussed the novel and, with Tennyson's Arthurian Idylls of the King as a model, been encouraged in his idea of a chivalric romance stressing the need for order and morality in an age of empire."
As we don't know whether he met Tennyson, discussed his books with him, had read the Idylls or was encouraged to see them as a template for his imperial project, all this, sadly, has to be filed under the heading "interesting if true, but unlikely".
One warms even further to Lycett on discovering, from his courteous afterword, that the Conan Doyle estate, in the person of Charles Foley, denied him permission to quote from a large amount of copyrighted material. Case-hardened literary pro that he was, Conan Doyle, you imagine, would have sided with biographer rather than letter-editing great-nephew.Reuse content