The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes
The Life and Times of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Free Press: 576 pp., $30
Although it is nearly 150 years since his birth, Arthur Conan Doyle continues to fascinate readers. Author of a dizzying array of novels, short stories, articles, essays and nonfiction books, he was knighted in 1902 for his service to the crown in defending the British conduct during the Boer War. Although his principal fame was as one of the two highest-paid writers of his day (along with his good friend Rudyard Kipling), Conan Doyle stood for Parliament twice, volunteered for service during the Boer War and World War I, and was active in organizing the defense of England. Late in his life, he became the leading spokesman for spiritualism.
“Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters” collects hundreds of unpublished letters, almost exclusively written to his mother. The editors (Jon Lellenberg, Daniel Stashower and Charles Foley, all fellow Baker Street Irregulars and friends of this reviewer) have lavished the letters with careful annotations and contextual information, presenting the skeleton of a biography. Yet the letters reveal nothing of Conan Doyle’s inner life and make little mention of his writing’s contents.
Perhaps, as may be expected from someone writing to his mother, Conan Doyle confined his letters to tales of the family, reports of his successes (and failures), mentions of his encounters with celebrities and brief accounts of his adventures in the Arctic and Africa. What is lacking is the depth of thought that even Sherlock Holmes, that most rational of beings, displays. In such stories as “The Cardboard Box” and “The Naval Treaty,” Holmes waxes philosophical about fate, beauty and education. Although Conan Doyle famously protested that “the puppet is not the master,” these beautiful soliloquies must be seen as his own reflections, notably missing from his letters.
The closest Conan Doyle comes here to sharing his own deeper feelings is in writing about the Boer War, when he argues with his mother about his participation. She contends that “there are hundreds of thousands who can fight for one who can make a Sherlock Holmes” and that his loss would be the ruination of the family. Conan Doyle responds that his enlistment might inspire young men to do the same, adding: “I had grave doubts before war broke out, but ever since I have been sure that it was a righteous war & worth sacrifices.”
The outbreak of war in 1914 brought similar expressions of patriotism and concern from Conan Doyle, but the letters reveal nothing of his heartache at the ensuing loss of his brother Innes or his son Kingsley. Equally missing are discussions of his lapse from Catholicism and his passionate belief in spiritualism. However, this is not to say that the letters are useless to the biographer: There is an immense amount of detail about his life, much of it hitherto unknown or unconfirmed, and the editors are careful to explain these for the benefit of the reader. The editors also faced a daunting task in ordering the letters, for many of them are undated.
Andrew Lycett’s “The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes: The Life and Times of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle” is the first biography to benefit from access to the previously unavailable letters. Although the Conan Doyle estate limited Lycett’s use of quotations, the letters yielded valuable data. (Lycett’s tussles with the estate are detailed in a gossipy afterword, as is a brief history of the post-mortem feuding among Conan Doyle’s relatives.)
Probably most debated about Conan Doyle’s life is the nature of his relationship with his second wife Jean Leckie. In 1897, the 38-year-old writer fell in love with Leckie, then 24. Before the death of his first wife, Louise, who was terminally ill with tuberculosis, Conan Doyle incorporated Leckie into his life (platonically, he maintained), with the approval of his mother and some family members. Not all were happy, however, and in 1899, in self-defense, Conan Doyle wrote: "[Louise] is as dear to me as ever, but, as I said, there is a large side of my life which was unoccupied which is no longer so.” Lycett concludes that this “appears to be an admission that he enjoyed sexual relations with Jean,” a verdict that Conan Doyle hotly denied elsewhere.
This is not to accuse Lycett of invention. Although he gratingly refers constantly to his subject as “Arthur,” Lycett seamlessly interweaves Conan Doyle’s letters, autobiography and published travel writing as evidence of his plausible conclusions. He also includes much material from Conan Doyle’s fiction (which evidently draw on his own experiences) and previously unremarked material, such as his legal battle over film rights with William Gillette, author of the highly successful play “Sherlock Holmes” (nominally a collaboration with Conan Doyle).
Although none of the numerous biographies of Arthur Conan Doyle is yet definitive -- significant portions of his private correspondence and papers remain sealed -- the days when his biographers were limited to a family-controlled view of the man are over. The gift of Holmes scholar Richard Lancelyn Green’s immense collection of Doyleiana to the Portsmouth City Council, the recent acquisitions of Conan Doyle letters and papers by the British Library and the Toronto Reference Library and the publication of Conan Doyle’s letters to his mother herald a new climate for the student of his life. Until all of these riches are fully explored, Lycett’s work is the most detailed map yet published.