Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters

By JON LELLENBERG, DANIEL STASHOWER AND CHARLES FOLEY

On November 22, 1891, after writing five Sherlock Holmes stories now considered enduring classics of the mystery genre, Arthur Conan Doyle sat at his desk composing a letter to his mother. He dipped his pen in ink and scratched these words onto the paper: “I think of slaying Holmes in the sixth & winding him up for good & all. He takes my mind from better things.”

Only three years after writing the first story featuring the world’s greatest fictional detective and already Conan Doyle was tired of him! Creator and creation had a troubled, complicated relationship. Holmes may have been the millstone around Conan Doyle’s neck, but he also put plenty of coin in his pocket. Once he’d set Sherlock Holmes in motion and the public latched on to the stories, Conan Doyle found himself shackled to the character forever. He never did kill Holmes; he only gave him a false death at Switzerland’s Reichenbach Falls in 1893′s “The Final Problem,” then reluctantly resurrected him ten years later in “The Adventure of the Empty House.” Over time, Sherlock Holmes has grown larger in the public’s imagination while his author retreats farther into the shadows.

Now, a trio of Sherlockian scholars — Jon Lellenberg, Daniel Stashower, and Charles Foley — have done their best to bring Sir Arthur Conan Doyle back into the limelight with a biography told through his correspondence. Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters collects hundreds of letters, many of them never before published, and annotates them with historical context, photographs and excerpts from Conan Doyle’s works, including his own Memories and Adventures from 1924.

About a thousand letters from Conan Doyle’s 54-year correspondence with his mother were among his papers — which had been locked away for a half century due to what the authors call “family disagreements.” Before her death in 1997, his youngest child, Dame Jean Conan Doyle, bequeathed them to the British Library, and now they arrive in our hands in this handsome and impressive biography.

In these pages, Conan Doyle is a jovial man who skis in the Alps, plays cricket, pedals his newfangled Autowheel bike for miles across the English countryside, runs for Parliament, advocates the development of body armor during World War I, and volunteers to go into the thick of battle (though he is rejected time and again, because England cannot risk losing so valuable a writer). We see him take up the cause of George Edalji, a Eurasian attorney who had been arrested and convicted (unjustly, due to his race, Conan Doyle believed) for mutilating cattle; this case was the basis for Julian Barnes’s 2006 novel Arthur and George. We watch him hobnobbing with the likes of Oscar Wilde and Winston Churchill. At every turn, Conan Doyle comes across as a man who is fully a product of the Edwardian era: arrogant, magnanimous, eager for adventure, and fully confident of what he believes will be his lasting fame.

Born in 1859 in Scotland and trained as a doctor, Conan Doyle’s interests varied widely, as did his writing. It will probably come as a surprise to casual Sherlock Holmes readers to learn that his creator was just as popular in his lifetime for novels about Napoleon, a safari in search of dinosaurs, boxing, and the lost city of Atlantis. His nonfiction works included books about the Boer War, social reform, medicine, spiritualism, and fairies.

If nothing else, Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters is bound to spark an interest in the books that lie outside the circle of Sherlock. Take for instance The White Company, Doyle’s personal favorite of his literary children. An adventure novel about knights during the Hundred Years War, it is rarely read these days and hardly remembered at all outside hard-core Doyle fan clubs. I confess that I, too, have neglected it, but when I pulled it off the shelf and opened it at random, I found a passage that hints at writing to rival that of the Sherlock stories. In one scene, our hero, Alleyne, is standing at the bow of a boat, escaping across a channel with “the fresh wind full in his teeth, the crisp winter air tingling on his face.” His enemies are in close pursuit; then, suddenly:

“What was that?” he asked, as a hissing, sharp-drawn voice seemed to whisper in his ear. The steersman smiled, and pointed with his foot to where a short heavy cross-bow quarrel stuck quivering in the boards. At the same instant the man stumbled forward upon his knees, and lay lifeless upon the deck, a blood-stained feather jutting out from his back. As Alleyne stooped to raise him the air seemed to be alive with the sharp zip-zip of the bolts, and he could hear them pattering on the deck like apples at a tree-shaking.

Now honestly, with the zip-zip of flying arrows, how could you not keep reading? It’s no wonder that Doyle once said The White Company was his “highest point” as a writer. Time has served to dash Conan Doyle’s expectations of posterity. Few read The White Company these days. Mention another mega-seller of Conan Doyle’s day, The Lost World, and most folks will think you’re talking about the sequel to Jurassic Park. Pepper your next cocktail conversation with titles like The Captain of the “Polestar,” The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard, or The Firm of Girdlestone, and you’ll be lucky if you get a pinprick-sized glint of recognition in the eye of anyone except those who prowl the dimmest, dustiest corridors of antiquarian bookstores.

Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters also reveals the steadfast devotion of Conan Doyle to his brother, sisters, and mother. The vast majority of the letters quoted in the volume are addressed to Mary Doyle, a matriarch to be respected. In fact, one alternate title for this book could be “A Mama’s Boy Writes Home.” Once she dies in 1920, the book’s correspondence abruptly stops and the authors wrap up the last decade of Conan Doyle’s life in a brisk four-page epilogue.

Mary Doyle, who is “very quick & fiery” in her judgments, dominates the landscape of this book and is just as complex a character as her son. She writhes in maternal agony when Conan Doyle says he’s going off to war (“This is altogether too dreadful,” she writes in one letter, begging him to reconsider), but on the other hand she wholeheartedly approves of an adulterous affair he carried on for ten years while his first wife was dying of tuberculosis.

Conan Doyle’s relationship with “The Mam” is an appropriately complicated one — he is a loving son who always sends her five pounds each Christmas; but then, even at 23, he can be a petulant child:

Many thanks for your letters. Why are they all in such a dismal & lachrymose strain. Just at the time when I need a little cheering & encouragement taking my first unaided step into the world with no other aim than to carve out a fortune for yourself and me you do nothing but depress & discourage me. I am beginning to positively dread the sight of an Edinburgh postmark. Write something cheery, like a good little woman, and don’t be always in the dolefuls…


And while Doyle’s epistolary devotion to Mary was unflagging, their relationship often took a combative turn: mother and son locked horns over issues like religion, the Boer War, and spiritualism, to which Conan Doyle dedicated himself with all the passion of a missionary in the last decade of his life, a move that garnered him public ridicule in addition to Mary’s displeasure.

Mama’s boy or not, Conan Doyle was a man who was cocksure of his ability to take the public’s imagination by storm. The early pages in A Life in Letters show how he struggled to pull himself out of poverty, working long hours as a medical student and dabbling with stories on the side. “I have a wonderful story on hand ‘The Winning Shot’ about mesmerism and murder & chemical magnetism and a man’s eating his own ears because he was hungry,” he wrote in 1882.

Soon editors began accepting his stories, and the young doctor grew ever more enthusiastic and confident in this unearthed talent of his. In 1883, he wrote to his mother: “I must hurry on and write something larger & more ambitious. I want some three figure cheques and shall have them too. Why should I not have a future before me in letters.”

With the publication of the first Holmes story, “A Study in Scarlet” in 1887, and especially “The Sign of the Four” three years later, his future was assured. Unfortunately, in A Life in Letters, when the linchpin of his career — Sherlock Holmes’s conception and gestation — arrives, it’s a crushing blow to find there are no letters here from that time period. The authors bridge the gap as best they can with excerpts from Conan Doyle’s memoir and interviews, but the immediacy of the moment as seen through his letters is lost.

Not making too big a deal out of Holmes, pushing him to the shadows for once, probably would have pleased Conan Doyle, and he’d be delighted at all the space devoted to the writing and marketing of his other works — historical novels such as Micah Clark or Rodney Stone. Conan Doyle will never be able to shake off Sherlock, but this new biography goes a long way toward helping us appreciate a writer who not only created the definitive literary sleuth but transmuted his own energetic personality into the zip-zip that would define the explosion of popular fiction to follow in his footsteps.