WQ: The Wilson Quarterly
Teller of Tales: The Life of Arthur Conan Doyleby Daniel Stashower, Shelock Holmes
More than a hundred years have passed since the creation of Sherlock Holmes, perhaps the most famous fictional character of all time. But while the legendary detective lives on in the popular imagination, the man who created him is often overlooked or misunderstood. This fresh and compelling biography examines the extraordinary life and strange contrasts of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the struggling provincial doctor who became the most popular storyteller of his age.
From his youthful exploits aboard a whaling ship to his often stormy friendships with such figures as Harry Houdini and George Bernard Shaw, Arthur Conan Doyle lived a life as gripping as one of his own adventures. Exhaustively researched and elegantly written, Teller of Tales sets aside many myths and misconceptions to present a vivid portrait of the man behind the legend of Baker Street, with a particular emphasis on the Psychic Crusade that dominated his final years -- the work that Conan Doyle himself felt to be "the most important thing in the world."
"I have had a life which, for variety and romance, could, I think, hardly be exceeded," Conan Doyle once wrote. Teller of Tales presents that story with rare panache.
WQ: The Wilson Quarterly
To some extent, this was inevitable. As Daniel Stashower points out in his highly readable new biography of the writer, Conan Doyle was very much a product of the Victorian era: a bluff, hearty, stiff-upper-lip type who put his faith in the virtues of scientific progress, good sportsmanship, and the improving nature of Anglo-Saxon culture. When the optimism of the 19th century died bloodily on the battlefields of the First World War, he was to find himself increasingly out of step with the world around him. In addition, his devotion to the cause of spiritualism, which was to consume much of his time in his later years, further alienated him from his public, which for the most part considered his spiritual pursuits at best a quaint eccentricity, and at worst, evidence that the creator of one of fiction's great rationalists was getting a bit soft in the head.
Although this gives a rather melancholy portrait of Conan Doyle's declining years, it's also true that the enthusiasm with which he embraced spiritualism was characteristic of how he approached everything in his life. Born in Edinburgh in 1859, he grew up in modest circumstances. Irish in heritage, the Doyles were prominent in the arts; Arthur's grandfather was a famous political caricaturist, and an uncle was the director of the National Gallery of Ireland. Doyle's father, however, was somewhat of a black sheep: He was a talented artist himself, but also an alcoholic and an epileptic who was to spend the last decades of his life in an insane asylum, leaving Arthur to be raised by his mother. After getting a medical degree from Edinburgh University, Conan Doyle moved to Portsmouth in the south of England to set up a practice and began writing to supplement his income. He might have remained a provincial doctor with a profitable sideline in literature but for two things: an ill-advised attempt to move to London to set up an ophthalmology practice, the failure of which persuaded him to turn permanently to writing, and, of course, the rising popularity of Sherlock Holmes.
Inspired by Poe's pioneering detective stories, Conan Doyle based his hero on Joseph Bell, his former professor and a brilliant diagnostician who could deduce volumes about a person's background and habits through close observation of their bearing and appearance. To Conan Doyle's surprise, Holmes was to become a genuine phenomenon and, although he was later to weary of the character (most notoriously trying to kill him off in The Final Problem), the public never did.
Stashower, to his credit, doesn't let Holmes overwhelm Conan Doyle the way the character ultimately did in real life, but writing with a fan's enthusiasm and a novelist's sense of detail and pacing (he's a published mystery writer in his own right), he does a good job of evoking the lesser-known aspects of his subject's life. He describes how Conan Doyle helped free men wrongly convicted of crimes on two occasions, defended Roger Casement, the Irish nationalist, ran -- unsuccessfully -- for parliament twice, and served as an army surgeon during the Boer War, later defending the conduct of the British army during that engagement (for which he was later given his knighthood). Conan Doyle was also a indefatigable lecturer on a wide variety of subjects
The most notorious of those subjects was, of course, spiritualism. Although Conan Doyle's devotion to this cause is often written off as an old man's folly, borne of his grief over losing his son and brother in World War I, it's worth noting that this was a very popular movement during the last century -- a "scientific" religion that many people hoped would provide the evidence of life after death that traditional religion had thus far been unable to (future prime minister Arthur Balfour, philosopher William James, and scientists William Crookes and Oliver Lodge all flirted with spiritualism at one point or another). Stashower provides a lot information on both the movement itself and on Conan Doyle's tireless proselytizing for it, and although he admits the irony that the creator of the supremely skeptical Holmes was willing to accept even the flimsiest proof of the spirit world's existence, he also tries to put his beliefs in both the context of the times and of Sir Arthur's life -- a life that is invoked in this book with sympathy and an enthusiasm worthy of its subject.
Ian Toll is a freelance writer. He lives in New York City.
The New York Times Book Review
"An appealing and much-needed biography of the man who created one of literature's renowned eccentrics." (The Wall Street Journal)
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Read an Excerpt
The Empty Chair
I have learned never to ridicule any man's opinion,
As many as six thousand people crowded into London's Royal Albert Hall that night, while hundreds more were turned away at the doors. Inside the great hall, men in evening dress and ladies in long gowns found their seats and whispered excitedly to one another. They had come to see and hear Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, perhaps the most beloved author of his generation, and he was expected to deliver startling news.
In most respects, the gathering was no different from the hundreds of lectures Conan Doyle had given in such places as Paris, New York, Melbourne, and Capetown. On this particular night, however, the sense of anticipation was especially intense. The reason was simple: Conan Doyle had died five days earlier at his home in Crowborough.
Even so, expectations remained high. Conan Doyle's death, according to the beliefs he himself passionately espoused, would not necessarily prohibit his appearance on the lecture platform that evening. At the time of his passing on July 8, 1930, Conan Doyle had long been established as the world's best-known and most outspoken proponent of spiritualism, the belief that the dead communicate with the living through an earthly conduit, or medium. For fourteen years Conan Doyle had devoted the better part of his time, energy, and resources to this cause, which he often described as "the most important thing in the world." For those who found comfort and meaning in his beliefs, he was "the Saint Paul of spiritualism." For those who did not, he was a sad and deluded old man who had squandered his greatness. The Albert Hall memorial, many believed, would settle the issue once and for all.
Sir Arthur's widow, Lady Jean Conan Doyle, entered the hall accompanied by her sons, Denis and Adrian, her daughter, Jean, and her stepdaughter, Mary. Denis and Adrian wore evening dress and carried top hats. Lady Conan Doyle, in keeping with the beliefs she shared with her husband, had chosen a dress of gray lace rather than traditional mourning garb, to signify that Sir Arthur's "translation" to the other side was not an occasion for sorrow. "I know perfectly well that I am going to have conversations with my father," Adrian Conan Doyle had told the press at his father's funeral. "We shall miss his footsteps and his physical presence, but that is all. Otherwise he might have only gone to Australia."
At the edge of the lecture platform, a row of chairs was set out for the family. A square of cardboard held one of them in reserve. It read: "Sir Arthur Conan Doyle." Lady Conan Doyle sat to the left of her husband's chair, just as she had for twenty-three years at nearly all of the many lectures, meetings, and other assemblies to which her husband lent his name and influence. This gathering, she had confided to a friend, would be the last public demonstration she would ever attend with her husband.
Conan Doyle's chair would have been the only empty seat in the house. Some accounts estimated the size of the crowd at ten thousand, though this would have seriously strained the hall's capacity. Extra seats had been set up to accommodate some of the overflow.
As the audience settled, Mr. George Craze of the Marylebone Spiritualist Association stepped to the microphone to open the proceedings. He offered a few words of welcome, then read out a written statement from Lady Conan Doyle. "I want in my children's, and my own and my beloved husband's name, to thank you all from my heart for the love for him which brought you here tonight," her message stated. However, she continued, she wished to correct an erroneous impression that Sir Arthur's materialized form was expected to appear in the empty chair. "At every meeting all over the world I have sat at my beloved husband's side, and at this great meeting, where people have come with respect and love in their hearts to do him honour, his chair is placed, as I know that in psychic presence he will be close to me, although our earthly eyes cannot see beyond the earth's vibration. Only those with the God-given extra sight, called clairvoyance, will be able to see the dear form in our midst."
Ernest Hunt, a spiritualist colleague of Conan Doyle's, added a forceful elaboration. Pointing to the vacant chair, Hunt warned that it would be "a very trifling thing if any people here with hectic imagination were to persuade themselves imaginatively that they could see Sir Arthur's form there. Nor would it be to me of surprising worth that some gifted clairvoyant could see the form. But it would be a great thing for you to see in the vacant chair a symbol of God's call to you to qualify for being Doyle's successors."
These words, however heartfelt, did little to quell the mood of charged expectancy. Since the first reports of Conan Doyle's death there had been a wave of heated speculation about his possible return. "Widow Indicates Hope of Message," declared a front-page headline in the New York Times. "Return of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Spirit Awaited by Widow and Sons," reported the New York American. London's Daily Herald gave details of a secret code word Conan Doyle had left with his wife, to prove the veracity of any spirit contact.
If Lady Conan Doyle clung to the hope of a message, however, she believed that such communication could only come through a "spirit sensitive." The notion that her husband's materialized form would suddenly pop into view arose from a series of ambiguous statements made by Conan Doyle's spiritualist colleagues. "I should imagine that he would be quite capable of demonstrating already," declared one of the organizers of the Albert Hall event. "He was quite prepared for his passing."
After five days of such statements, the attempt to inject a note of moderation had come too late. Throughout the hall eyes were kept trained on the empty chair beside Lady Conan Doyle, hoping for some telltale indication of an otherworldly presence.
For a time, the evening proceeded like any other memorial service. Friends and colleagues rose to pay tribute, hymns were sung, and passages of Scripture were read. A telegram from the prominent physicist Sir Oliver Lodge, who shared Conan Doyle's spiritualist beliefs, praised the author's unwavering dedication: "Our great-hearted champion will soon be continuing his campaign on the other side with added wisdom and knowledge," adding, "Sursum corda!"lift up your hearts.
After nearly an hour, the more conventional portion of the service drew to a close. George Craze returned to the microphone and asked the audience to stand for two minutes of silent reflection. "The completeness of the silence," wrote one journalist, "was unforgettable."
As the congregants took their seats, Craze stepped forward once again. "This evening," he began, "we are going to make a very daring experiment with the courage implanted in us by our late leader. We have with us a spirit sensitive who is going to try to give impressions from this platform. One reason why we hesitate to do it in such a colossal meeting as this is that it is a terrific strain on the sensitive. In an assembly of ten thousand people a tremendous force is centered upon the medium. Tonight, Mrs. Roberts will try to describe some particular friends, but it will be the first time this has been attempted in such a tremendous gathering. You can help with your vibrations as you sing the next hymn, `Open My Eyes.'"
Mrs. Estelle Roberts stepped to the front of the platform as the last notes of the hymn faded. A slimly built, fluttery woman with dark hair and large brown eyes, Mrs. Roberts stood at the microphone for several moments wringing her hands. Her anxious, dithery appearance belied a canny flair for the dramatic. She had been a favorite medium of Conan Doyle's before his departure for the spirit plane, and he had remarked more than once on her "mesmerizing presence."
In one sense, George Craze had been correct to call the evening a daring experiment. Mrs. Roberts had been called upon to make contact with departed soulsConan Doyle's among them. In so doing, she would also attempt to make believers out of skeptics. Though spiritualism was by no means uncommon in 1930, it was generally practiced in the darkened confines of the séance room. There, under conditions set by the medium, one might expect to see tambourines floating in the air, or ghostly messages appearing on chalk slates, or any number of other discarnate effects taken to signify spirit contact. Under the bright lights of the Albert Hall, there would be no floating tambourines. Instead, Mrs. Roberts would be expected to stand before the microphone and pluck spirit messages out of the ether, apparently at random, and deliver them to individuals in the crowd. Any evidence of otherworldly phenomena, then, would show itself solely in the force of her spoken testimony.
The mesmerizing presence that had so impressed Conan Doyle was not immediately apparent. For some time, Mrs. Roberts did nothing more than rock back and forth on her heels, and soon the sounds of coughing and restless movement could be heard from the audience. At this, she appeared to gather her resolve. Shielding her eyes like a sailor on lookout, Mrs. Roberts swept her eyes over the gallery, tiers, and boxes. Her attention fixed not on the faces of the expectant crowd, but on the empty space above their heads. "There are vast numbers of spirits here with us," she announced. "They are pushing me like anything."
With that, she launched into a long unbroken monologue, apparently describing a series of spirits whom only she could see. "All around was a great concourse of spirit people anxious to communicate with their friends," she would later write. "For half an hour, by means of clairvoyance, I relayed their messages to individuals among the mass of people in the hall."
In fact, she did more than relay messages. She described the features of the departed spirits, along with their characteristics, their method of speech, and even their clothes. The audience sat in rapt attention as she related tales of whole families reunited in the spirit world, then pointed out their loved ones in the crowd. "There was something uncanny," one journalist noted, "in the sight of ten thousand people sitting in the Albert Hall, half afraid, yet half hoping that they might be singled out."
"There is a gentleman over there with hardly any hair," said Mrs. Roberts, pointing to a man in the gallery. "Yes, there! That's right. I see standing there in front of you, a spirit form of a young soldier." She peered into the lights, as if for a better view.
"He looks to be about twenty-four. In khaki uniform. Upright. Well-built. Mouth droops a little at the corners. He passed suddenly." Mrs. Roberts angled her head, as though listening to a soft voice.
"He gives me 1916 as the year of passing. He distinctly calls you `Uncle.' `Uncle Fred.'"
The man in the gallery stiffened, and nodded that the details were correct.
"He speaks of a brother Charles," she continued. "Is that correct? He wants to know if you have Aunty Lillian with you. Do you understand?"
From his seat, the man nodded more vigorously.
"The boy tells me that there is a little anxiety going on, and wants me to tell you he is helping you. He" Abruptly, as if pushed by unseen hands, Mrs. Roberts broke off her discourse and took a few lurching steps across the stage. She turned to an empty space on the platform behind her. "All right," she said, as though addressing a large and unruly knot of people. "All right."
She turned back to the audience and pointed to a woman seated in one of the boxes. "There is a gentleman here, John Martin. He says he is looking for his daughter Jane. Correct?"
The woman in the box confirmed that her name was Jane, and that her late father's name had been John Martin. Mrs. Roberts continued. "He has got her mother, Mary Martin, with him. Little Willie is with them. Also your sister Mary. Your sister-in-law Elizabeth is with him. You understand?" Mrs. Roberts opened her mouth to continue, then pitched forward as though shoved by invisible hands. "All right!" she said, glaring at the empty space behind her. "Just a minute!" She turned to the front of the platform, gathered herself, and carried on.
Then as now, opinions differed sharply as to whether such revelations were produced by psychic means or by more earthbound contrivances such as audience confederates and careful vetting of potential contacts. The crowd at the Albert Hall consisted mostly of those sympathetic to spiritualist phenomena, and at least one of those who received a message was himself a practicing medium. To a large extent, it seems fair to say, Mrs. Roberts was preaching to the converted.
But the audience also held a fair number of nonbelievers who had come only to pay tribute to Conan Doyle. "It was either an amazing proof of communication with the dead," said one skeptic, "or it was the most cold-blooded and cruel fraud." A reporter from the Saturday Review was more blunt: "I should like to have heard Sherlock Holmes examining the medium at the Albert Hall last Sunday, for the methods that were employed were hardly reminiscent of Baker Street. Indeed, far from satisfying Holmes, I doubt if the evidence would even have been good enough for Watson."
After half an hour or so, the nonbelievers could no longer suppress their irritation. From various parts of the hall, some forty or fifty people rose from their seats and headed for the exits. From the platform, Mrs. Roberts registered her distress: "I can't go on with all these people walking out," she announced. A blast of organ music rang out to cover the confusion, and for a few moments it appeared the memorial might come to a premature end.
At that moment, however, just as the meeting threatened to disband in an atmosphere of disarray, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle made his appearance. "He is here!" Mrs. Roberts shouted. "He is here!" The skeptics stopped in their tracks. All eyes locked on the empty chair.
Later, Mrs. Roberts would claim that Conan Doyle had been on the platform all along: "I saw him first during the two minutes' silence," she would recall. "Then when I was giving my messages I saw him again. He was wearing evening dress. He walked across the platform and sat in the empty chair. He was behind me, encouraging me while I was doing my work. I recognized once more that fine, clear voice of his, which could not be mistaken."
Whatever one's opinion of her psychic abilities, Mrs. Roberts's timing could not be faulted. Her announcement galvanized the audience. From the farthest reaches of the house, people strained for a better view of the empty chair.
A serene smile spread across Lady Conan Doyle's features. Mrs. Roberts stepped over to her side. "I have a message for you, dear, from Arthur," she said. Lady Conan Doyle gave a nod.
"Sir Arthur told me that one of you went into the hut this morning," Mrs. Roberts said, referring to a building on the family's Crowborough estate. "Is that correct?"
"Why, yes," said Lady Conan Doyle. "I did."
Mrs. Roberts nodded, and leaned forward. "The message is this: Tell Mary"
Just then a second blast from the pipe organ drowned out the medium's voice, so that only those sitting nearby could hear. Mrs. Roberts spoke for some moments, while Conan Doyle's family listened intently. Occasionally one of his sons would lean forward to add a word of explanation or clarification. Lady Conan Doyle simply sat and listened.
For the rest of her life, Lady Conan Doyle would decline to discuss the contents of the message, saying only that she was perfectly convinced it had come from her husband. "I am as sure of that," she told a reporter that night, "and of the fact that he has been here, as I am that I am speaking to you."
Her sincerity was evident as she sat listening to the words of the medium. For several moments she sat perfectly still, her features radiant, her eyes fixed on a point at the far end of the hall. She held her gaze for several moments, then brushed her cheek and looked away.
Meet the Author
Daniel Stashower is the author of four mystery novels and a winner of the Raymond Chandler Fulbright Fellowship in Detective and Crime Fiction Writing. He lives in Bethesda, Maryland.
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