Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes: The Life and Times of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes: The Life and Times of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

by Andrew Lycett

See All Formats & Editions

Though Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's name is recognized the world over, for decades the man himself has been overshadowed by his better understood creation, Sherlock Holmes, who has become one of literature's most enduring characters. Based on thousands of previously unavailable documents, Andrew Lycett, author of the critically acclaimed biography Dylan Thomas, offers the


Though Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's name is recognized the world over, for decades the man himself has been overshadowed by his better understood creation, Sherlock Holmes, who has become one of literature's most enduring characters. Based on thousands of previously unavailable documents, Andrew Lycett, author of the critically acclaimed biography Dylan Thomas, offers the first definitive biography of the baffling Conan Doyle, finally making sense of a long-standing mystery: how the scientifically minded creator of the world's most rational detective himself succumbed to an avid belief in spiritualism, including communication with the dead.

Conan Doyle was a man of many contradictions. Always romantic, energetic, idealistic and upstanding, he could also be selfish and fool-hardy. Lycett assembles the many threads of Conan Doyle's life, including the lasting impact of his domineering mother and his wayward, alcoholic father; his affair with a younger woman while his wife lay dying; and his nearly fanatical pursuit of scientific data to prove and explain various supernatural phenomena. Lycett reveals the evolution of Conan Doyle's nature and ideas against the backdrop of his intense personal life, wider society and the intellectual ferment of his age. In response to the dramatic scientific and social transformations at the turn of the century, he rejected traditional religious faith in favor of psychics and séances -- and in this way he embodied all of his late-Victorian, early-Edwardian era's ambivalence about the advance of science and the decline of religion.

The first biographer to gain access to Conan Doyle's newly released personal archive -- which includes correspondence, diaries, original manuscripts and more -- Lycett combines assiduous research with penetrating insight to offer the most comprehensive, lucid and sympathetic portrait yet of Conan Doyle's personal journey from student to doctor, from world-famous author to ardent spiritualist.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"[An] excellent biography.... Comprehensive and authoritative, it is undoubtedly the best account of Doyle to date, and the best we are likely to get." -- The Sunday Times (London)

"Lycett excels in unearthing the sources from which Doyle drew to endow Holmes with unique skills.... [A] brilliant analysis." -- Sunday Herald (Scotland)

"In Andrew Lycett's hugely enjoyable new biography, the sheer breathtaking dynamism of [Conan Doyle] shines through.... [An] impeccably researched book." -- The Sunday Telegraph (London)

"It is the precise and intelligent appreciation of the differences by which Conan Doyle was composed that makes Lycett's diagnosis of his subject so thoroughly satisfying. Using previously unseen archives, Lycett gives us Conan Doyle as a late Victorian and definitive Edwardian, battling with the uncertainties of his own age, weary of the uncertainties of the next one." -- The New Statesman (London)

"Conan Doyle has found a biographer of distinction in Andrew Lycett.... Lycett's brilliant piece of detective work on the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories now allows us to judge his literary worth against that of his peers and properly to set him in the context of his times.... [A] splendid biography." -- The Guardian, Book of the Week selection (London)

"[A] sympathetic new biography...shrewd and thorough...entertaining." -- The Independent on Sunday (London)

"Comprehensive and action-packed.... The first [biography] to incorporate private family papers that became available only after the death of the author's last surviving offspring.... We see Conan Doyle's flaws as clearly as his virtues.... Despite its wealth of detail, the book moves quickly." -- The Washington Post

"Lycett seamlessly interweaves Conan Doyle's letters, autobiography, and published travel writing.... The most detailed map yet published." -- Los Angeles Times

"A sophisticated and fascinating life study." -- Booklist

Michael Sims
Andrew Lycett titles his comprehensive and surprisingly action-packed biography The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes, but he doesn't skimp on his subject's other accomplishments. Conan Doyle complained for decades that his fictional detective's popularity kept the author from achieving better things, and Lycett demonstrates that Holmes was indeed only one child of a busy brain…There have been several biographies of the writer who gave us some of our most potent imagery of late Victorian England and a character even better known than Huckleberry Finn. Lycett's, however, is the first to incorporate private family papers that became available only after the death in 1997 of the author's last surviving offspring, Dame Jean Conan Doyle. His map of his subject's private life is much better detailed because of it.
—The Washington Post
Jeremy McCarter
In The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes: The Life and Times of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Lycett, a former foreign correspondent (and biographer of Rudyard Kipling and Ian Fleming) gives a scrupulous, authoritative account of how an undistinguished doctor from Portsmouth climbed to the pinnacle of late-Victorian literary fame.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Lycett, biographer of Rudyard Kipling and Dylan Thomas, turns his attention to the father of detective stories in this enjoyable if densely packed biography. From his early years in Edinburgh to his life at boarding school, Conan Doyle developed a love of storytelling and mythology. After finishing medical school, he turned to writing as a way to explore his paradoxical interest in spiritualism and science. While writing his first Holmes story, "A Study in Scarlet," published in 1886, Conan Doyle continued to practice medicine and tend to his growing family. Lycett shows that Conan Doyle often viewed his laconic detective's stories as inferior to his other work, which included everything from the social novel to a history of Britain's involvement in WWI. With his detailed descriptions of the Doyle family tree, Lycett often overwhelms the reader with names and dates, but fans won't be disappointed with his unearthing of the origins of the famous detective's name (fellow student Patrick Sherlock and Oliver Wendell Holmes) or Conan Doyle's associations with everyone from Oscar Wilde to Harry Houdini. Those looking for a close reading of the Holmes canon should look elsewhere, but fans of the in-depth literary biography will find this a satisfying read. (Dec.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
The Sunday Times

"[An] excellent biography.... Comprehensive and authoritative, it is undoubtedly the best account of Doyle to date, and the best we are likely to get." -- (London)

Sunday Herald

"Lycett excels in unearthing the sources from which Doyle drew to endow Holmes with unique skills.... [A] brilliant analysis." -- (Scotland)

The Sunday Telegraph

"In Andrew Lycett's hugely enjoyable new biography, the sheer breathtaking dynamism of [Conan Doyle] shines through.... [An] impeccably researched book." -- (London)

The New Statesman

"It is the precise and intelligent appreciation of the differences by which Conan Doyle was composed that makes Lycett's diagnosis of his subject so thoroughly satisfying. Using previously unseen archives, Lycett gives us Conan Doyle as a late Victorian and definitive Edwardian, battling with the uncertainties of his own age, weary of the uncertainties of the next one."-- (London)

The Guardian

"Conan Doyle has found a biographer of distinction in Andrew Lycett.... Lycett's brilliant piece of detective work on the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories now allows us to judge his literary worth against that of his peers and properly to set him in the context of his times.... [A] splendid biography." --The Guardian, Book of the Week selection (London)

The Independent on Sunday

"[A] sympathetic new biography...shrewd and thorough...entertaining." -- (London)

School Library Journal

Released in the United Kingdom last year, this biography draws on thousands of previously unavailable documents-including correspondence, diaries, and original manuscripts-that Penguin published under the title Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Lettersin November. In it, journalist-turned-biographer Lycett (Dylan Thomas: A New Life) presents a detailed, fact-filled portrait of Doyle (1859-1930), the prolific writer whose most lasting achievement was the creation of the character of Sherlock Holmes. For fans of Holmes and another of Doyle's famous characters, Professor Challenger (of The Lost World), this will be essential reading, though even this audience may be put off by Lycett's vast detailing of Doyle's large family, his later consuming interest in spiritualism, and his many pastimes and interests. Lycett at times seems disapproving of his subject, especially in his dwelling on Doyle's extramarital affair (with Jean Leckie, who became his second wife) and on his increasing obsession with spiritualism. Libraries should still keep John Dickson Carr's The Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle(1949), one mystery master's appreciation of another. Recommended for larger academic and public libraries. (Introduction, family tree, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index, and postscript not seen.)
—Morris Hounion

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Kirkus Reviews
The life of Arthur Conan Doyle from the first biographer to be granted access to the Doyle archives. The leading problem in writing about the creator of Sherlock Holmes is that Doyle always considered the detective stories that brought him fame and fortune inferior to his other writing, especially the historical novels and military histories by which he hoped to be remembered. Lycett (Dylan Thomas: A New Life, 2004, etc.) may not find a compelling balance between what Doyle thought was important about his life and work and what most readers will think important, but he does an excellent job rooting the Holmes stories in the financial and legal realities of their author's life. A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four were among many projects the Edinburgh-trained physician planned to start his literary career. The first two series of Holmes short stories were written to order for a particular market; and after killing his tiresomely superior hero off in 1894, Doyle resurrected him only when it suited the requirements of a story he had already planned (The Hound of the Baskervilles) or as a means to some ready cash (the last three volumes of short stories). Lycett's access to archival material sometimes threatens to overwhelm his portrait in minutiae, and his schematic portents (history, faith and family "were to battle for supremacy in Arthur's personality") are seldom persuasive. But his handling of newly available information on the uneasy triangle involving Doyle and his first and second wives; his checkered relationship with Harry Houdini, the debunker of spiritualism whom Doyle persistently and mistakenly claimed as an ally; and the tangled web of copyright lawsuits of filmadaptations of Sherlock Holmes are all welcome. Not by any means a new Doyle, but a familiar one supported by a wealth of new detail.

Product Details

Free Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.60(d)

Read an Excerpt


Two Irish Families

Molten lava and packed ice: even the natural forces that created Edinburgh's jagged landscape came in contrasting pairs. More than 300 million years ago one of the smouldering volcanoes that dotted the surrounding countryside erupted, making a series of crags, the tallest of which, serendipitously known as Arthur's Seat, now towers over the city. Later, vast glaciers ground their way through the lava-rich earth, shaping these contours and forming deep basins where today railways run instead of dinosaurs.

This was the ribbon of soaring pinnacles and perpendicular drops that Robert Louis Stevenson fondly recalled as his "precipitous city." For the full vertiginous effect, he probably also envisaged the steepling, overcrowded tenements or "lands" that spread upwards over what little space the cramped "crag and tail" topographical features permitted, so creating the high-rise skyline of Edinburgh's Old Town.

At ground level, a network of alleys or "wynds" led off the main Royal Mile. By the mid-eighteenth century, the stench, squalor and sheer numbers had become so insufferable that the professional classes leading the pragmatic intellectual movement known as the Scottish Enlightenment wanted somewhere more salubrious to live. After deciding on a solid sandstone ridge a mile away, they drained and bridged Nor'Loch, the inland lake that lay between, and hired a young architect, James Craig, to design a well ordered New Town, full of classical terraces and leafy squares.

As with the Old and New Town, so with Edinburgh in general. It is a city of dramatic contrasts, made tolerable by thoughtful accommodation. Here the ferocity of the outlying Highlands and Lowlands was blunted by the civilizing achievements of the Athens of the North. Here a Scottish fascination with witchcraft and the supernatural came under the skeptical gaze of scholars such as David Hume who congregated at the university. With his home city in mind, Stevenson wrote his classic fictional portrayal of schizophrenia, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, drawing on Edinburgh's real-life Deacon Brodie — respectable shopkeeper by day, infamous body theif by night. The only thing that remained constant was the bitter cold.

Arthur Conan Doyle was born at a slight tangent to this polarized world in Picardy Place, a quiet enclave off the main road out of town to Leith. Taking its name from the colony of linen-weavers who came there from France in 1729 to start a local industry, it played host to newer arrivals such as Arthur's parents, whose families hailed from Ireland and who enjoyed the security of living across the way from their co-religionists in the Roman Catholic church of St. Mary's.

Arthur himself came into the world early on May 22, 1859. His horoscope later put the exact time as 4:55 a.m., confirming that, in astrological terms, he was a Gemini, born under the sign of the twins, which was doubly appropriate, given the contrary nature of the city and his own future as a figure whose lifelong struggle to find some middle ground between the opposing nineteenth-century forces of spirituality and reason would provide such a fascinating commentary on his times.

In "The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter," Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson discuss the hoary question of "nature versus nurture." When Watson attributes his colleague's remarkable powers of observation and deduction to his "early systematic training," the detective agrees, but only up to a point, arguing that the real reason lies in his veins. Although his family were mainly country squires, "who appear to have led much the same life as is natural to their class," Holmes believes his special skills come from the artistic genes he inherited from his grandmother, a sister of the real-life French painter Horace Vernet. And "art in the blood is liable to take the strangest forms."

So it was with Arthur himself. His family was a source of pride and inspiration, particularly to a déclassé Celt anxious to position himself securely in socially stratified Anglo-centric society. But there were skeletons in the cupboard that were worrying to a scientist schooled in murky Victorian concepts of heredity.

Both sides of his family came from Ireland. But lineages are often hazy there, since so many records were lost in the civil war. At one stage Arthur was so convinced the Doyles were descended from Dubgall, King of Ulster, that he had a stained-glass window built at Undershaw, his house in Hindhead, showing several putative crests, including the Red Hand of Ulster. In fact, his surname meant little more than "dark stranger" or "foreigner," a reference to the king's Viking origins. He later dropped this idea and settled for the Doyles being a cadet branch of the Staffordshire family of that name who went to Ireland with the English invasion and spawned a large clan in County Wexford.

So far as the record extends, Arthur's grandfather John Doyle was a tailor's son who started professional life as an equestrian artist in Georgian Dublin. He won commissions from aristocratic patrons, including Lord Talbot, Lord Lieutenant during a politically turbulent period from 1817 to 1821, and the Second Marquess of Sligo.

One thing is indisputable — the Doyles were devout Roman Catholics. Both John Doyle's sisters became nuns, and his brother James trained as a priest. As the Catholic journal The Month noted, John was the only child of the family who remained "in the world," and with this situation came a certain austerity — a character trait emphasized by his height, bearing and angular patrician features. But his daunting demeanor was offset by a good nature and gentle Irish sense of humor.

In 1820 he married Marianna Conan, whose father also worked as a tailor in the Dublin rag trade. Again her antecedents are blurred, purportedly stretching back to the ancient ducal house of Britanny. Within a short time she had borne him a daughter, Annette. The start of a family was a signal for John Doyle to think seriously about his career. Following the Union of Great Britain and Ireland, educated Irishmen of his type began to look to London as a cultural as well as political capital. At the same time Irish Catholics were making inroads into the discriminatory legislation that barred them from political office.

Ambitious and pragmatic, Doyle made the logical move to London where, with his wife and infant child, he rented a house in an artists' enclave in Berners Street, north of Oxford Street. As mementos and statements of intent, he took some heirlooms with him. According to family tradition, these included silverware, engraved with the Doyle crest and motto "Patientia Vincit" (he conquers through patience); a pestle and mortar; and a portrait, supposedly by van Dyck, of Thomas Wentworth, First Earl of Strafford. This was an odd choice since Strafford, in the early seventeenth century, had been a leading perpetrator of the despoliation of the Catholic landed gentry, which had cost the Doyles their estates. While suggesting that John bore few grudges, it also pointed to the type of commission he hoped to obtain from high-born patrons.

Initially business was slow, and John was forced to move several times with his growing family, spending two years south of the river Thames in Lambeth. A change of artistic direction came after he visited the House of Commons. He found that his combination of wit and draftsmanship was well suited to producing caricatures of the participants in the mother of Parliaments. Making good use of modern techniques of lithography, he began in 1827 to publish a regular series of political sketches, which he signed with the initials HB, a composite representation of his initials. With obsessive secrecy, he managed for sixteen years to keep his identity secret. During that period his sarcastic, well observed and usually benevolent cartoons of Britain's political elite provided a graphic bridge between the angry Regency satires of Gillray and Cruikshank and the more respectful High Victorian output of Leech and Tenniel.

John was soon earning a comfortable living, enough to move in 1833 to a large, new house at 17 Cambridge Terrace (now Sussex Gardens), north of Hyde Park. By then Marianna had produced seven children, all of whom showed varying degrees of artistic talent. His daughter Annette was a gifted musician, and a pious one, who later became a nun. James, born in 1822, was a scholarly youth, whose adoption of his father's more severe traits earned him the nickname "the Priest." Fascinated by the past, he would make a name illustrating and writing about history. Richard, or Dicky, born in 1824, was the most naturally gifted, and would follow "HB" in a successful career, principally as an illustrator. Henry, born in 1827, was also a promising cartoonist, before later finding his métier as an arts curator. Then there were Francis and Adelaide, who both died young without making a mark, and, finally, on March 25, 1832, came Arthur's father, Charles Altamont, his second name a nod to HB's early patron, the Marquess of Sligo, who held the subsidiary title Earl of Altamont.

The atmosphere at Cambridge Terrace was politically and culturally conservative, as might be expected from an Irish Roman Catholic family making its way in late Georgian society. The children were taught at home, since John was skeptical about English education. As was evident from his choice of the French Chapel off Baker Street as his place of worship, he was Francophile in matters of mind and spirit — a throwback perhaps to his wife's French origins. His son Henry spent a short period at a Jesuit school in the Marylebone Road but, otherwise, the Doyle boys and girls grew up with their own private tutor, Mr. Street, whose services were supplemented by both a fencing and a dancing master. As part of this privileged upbringing, they were expected to devise their own entertainments, centered around a play or a concert every Sunday. With an artist as father, they were also encouraged to go out and observe the world. After visiting the theatre, an exhibition or some public event, they were required to record their experiences for HB, illustrating them with amusing and meticulous line drawings in the family style.

Nevertheless there was an energy and sociability about the place. Ensconced in his comfortable four-story house, John Doyle was at last able to relax and enjoy the company of his wide circle of friends. Seated on prized Chippendale chairs, making merry around a large mahogany table in the high-ceilinged dining room, artists such as Wilkie and Landseer jostled with writers including Walter Scott, Thackeray and Dickens (the last of whom had originally been a parliamentary journalist colleague). Benjamin Disraeli was one of many politicians who visited, rooting for ideas as he tried to reinvent aristocratic romanticism for an industrial age.

This contented, productive ménage was cruelly broken just before Christmas 1839 when Marianna died of heart disease. Charles was only seven and, although he already showed the family aptitude for drawing, he was more withdrawn than his siblings. Lacking his wife's support, John Doyle reined in his professional, though not his social, commitments, and devoted more time and energy to his children.

The precocious Dicky responded well, as is clear from his journal for the year 1840. Significantly, he made no mention of his mother's recent death: emotional outpouring was not a Doyle family trait. Instead, with great facility, he wrote about and drew whatever he came across — his tutors, his visits to the Tower of London, his observations of military processions in the park and his involvement in a nursery version of the Eglinton Tournament. Within a short time Dicky was selling lithographed copies of his sketches of this mock-chivalric event, which his father had recently attended in Scotland. At first he did not find many takers: only his Aunt Anne (Conan) and Christopher Moore, an Irish sculptor who was a friend of the family, bought copies, and HB had to settle the 4 pounds 18 shillings bill for the printing. But Dicky persevered, sending one set to Count d'Orsay, Disraeli's friend and the leading dandy of his day, who commented that the boy, though still only fifteen, was "undoubtedly a genius of the first order."

Anticipating the medievalism that would inspire the Pre-Raphaelites, Dicky also painted a large version of the eponymous archer hero of Walter Scott's novel Quentin Durward. History and its interpretation were endlessly discussed in the Doyle household. Dicky told his father he preferred reality to fiction (at that stage, at least), adding, as a sop to the old man's Francophilia, that, after examining the histories of England and France, he found them both full of romance, but favored the latter for its picturesque and poetical qualities.

Dicky particularly liked the historical feeling shown by the artist Paul Delaroche. It is not clear if he knew that Delaroche was Horace Vernet's son-in-law, and that together with Vernet's father and grandfather, also distinguished painters, they made up the sort of creative dynasty the Doyles would become. Dicky was more interested in the way these nineteenth-century French genre painters combined drama, realism and imagination. It was all about ways of observing and interpreting the world.

At exactly this time Delaroche was undertaking an official report on the new art of photography for the French government. Though he was apocryphally reported to have said, on examining a daguerreotype, "From today painting is dead," he was actually more enthusiastic, suggesting that this new technique would be a boon to artists.

Taking this all in, though with rather less enthusiasm, was Dicky's brother Charles who even, at the age of ten, gave the impression of finding childhood in an artistic hothouse overwhelming. In one letter to his father, he excused himself for not being able to recall any particularly striking painting at the Royal Academy and promised to return to have another look. In another, he signed himself off plaintively, "Your diminutive son Charles, who watcheth." He was as good as his word, for he passed on the gist of this lively family debate about history and its representation to his son Arthur who, nearly half a century later, would create the fictional detective who prided himself on his descent from Horace Vernet.

Another example of this trickle-down effect was the influence of Marianna Doyle's brother Michael Conan, who came to stay at Cambridge Terrace around the time of her death. He had been educated at Trinity College, Dublin — unusually for a young Catholic, as this was still an avowedly Protestant institution, proud of having been created by Queen Elizabeth I in the first flush of England's colonization of Ireland, and he would, on pain of excommunication, have had to obtain special permission from his bishop to attend it. But this was in the early 1820s, before the opening of government offices to Catholics, and he was ambitious and none too fussed about religion. So he followed his married sister and brother-in-law to London where he qualified as a barrister and, as a deft painter in his own right, made useful contacts in the art world. (By then, two other Conan sisters, Anne and Elizabeth, had also moved to London, and joined the Doyle household.) But Michael decided to try his hand at journalism, initially working for the Morning Herald, which in December 1832 sent him as a foreign correspondent to report on the French siege of Antwerp, a curious sequel to Belgium's brief struggle for independence. On this occasion, the French troops were commanded by the veteran Maréchal Étienne Gérard — the surname adopted by Arthur Conan Doyle as the hero of his Brigadier Gerard stories in 1894. The fictional Brigadier was described as a cousin of the Maréchal, who in real life was accompanied at Antwerp by another veteran of the Napoleonic wars, Maréchal Baron de Marbot, whose sparkling memoirs, published in French in 1891, were later to provide useful source material to Arthur.

Back in London, Michael Conan found himself a more appropriate job, writing for the Art Journal. With his additional interests in heraldry and genealogy, he exerted a powerful presence in Cambridge Terrace. Young Charles was later able to pass on a sense of this to his own son Arthur, who recalled the powerful unseen presence of his journalist uncle during his childhood and how impressed he was when he finally met Michael Conan, a formidable man of letters in the tradition of the early Irish nationalists. As he entered his teenage years, Charles preferred to be out of doors rather than cooped up at home. His passion was fishing — casting distractedly for roach in the river Brent or sniggling for eels in the Paddington canal. He even went to the trouble of writing to Lord Canning for permission to angle in the Serpentine. As he would later say, he liked this particular pastime because it meant you could forget the cares of the world. His solitary whimsical view of the world comes across in his letters to his friend Frederick Ellis, whose father ran the Star and Garter Hotel in Richmond, Surrey — a haunt of the Doyle family friend, Charles Dickens. Once the young Charles Doyle admitted to liking Dickens's Dombey and Son, but mainly because Mr. Toots's dog was so similar to the Doyles' own Prinny. If pressed, he said he liked the historical and Gothic romances of the prolific, now forgotten novelist G.P.R. James. Perhaps the most revealing insight into his undemonstrative nature was his denunciation in 1845, at only thirteen, of the humorous magazine Punch for pillorying the Whig-turned-Conservative politician Lord Brougham. Charles may have been a skilled draftsman, but the family trade of caricature was clearly not for him. He was too sensitive, and that business too invasive.

Dicky had no such inhibitions. His illustrations now incorporated humor, history and fantasy, with a subsidiary line — since meeting the painter Richard Dadd — in sprites and fairies, that gave him licence to express his Celtic fancifulness and aversion to modernity without adopting the grave religiosity of the Pre-Raphaelites. But his forte was his incisive, quirky cartoons that he published under the name Dick Kitcat. His uncle Michael Conan brought these to the attention of his friend Mark Lemon, editor of Punch, who promptly offered Dicky a job in 1846. Three years later Dicky designed a cover that showed a cheerful Mr. Punch, sitting at his desk with his dog Toby, while what his biographer Rodney Engen describes as "an unmistakeable Doyle cloud of fairies, goblins, monsters, knights and maidens in distress pour from cornucopias on either side of the page." With minor alterations, this design was retained as the famous Punch cover, epitomizing the spirit of the periodical for the best part of a century.

By then the Doyle family had suffered further losses. Both Francis and Adelaide had died in the early 1840s and, with HB less active, everyone else needed to earn a living. Dicky was already successful, and Henry and James were commencing careers as artists. But Charles, without their self-will, was beginning to lag behind, and did not like it. So the decision was made to remove him from London's distractions and send him north to Edinburgh where he would be subject to the disciplines of a formal office environment, working as a deputy to Robert Matheson, the surveyor who molded the shape of Scotland's official buildings, as a clerk in the Office of Works. There he could put his skills to productive use as a designer and draftsman, and would be assured of earning a salary of 220 pounds a year.

The Foleys, the family of Arthur's mother Mary, were a more volatile Anglo-Irish hybrid. On her father's side, she looked back to a dynasty of hearty, mainly Protestant, yeomen with substantial holdings around Lismore in County Wexford. They owed their wealth and standing largely to their connections with the Dukes of Devonshire who have their Irish seat at Lismore Castle. Shortly after the Devonshires' arrival in 1748, Mary's grandfather Thomas Foley was appointed agent of their estate. He also operated a mill on the busy river Blackwater which, since the roads were so bad, was the main artery for travelers and commercial traffic to the sea at Youghal. But he became significantly rich when he acquired the rights to fishing on eleven miles of the river — source of some of the best salmon in Ireland.

As a result the Foleys were linked to the Anglo-Irish ascendancy, and, as such, subject to nationalist opprobrium, although they survived relatively unscathed, since the Dukes were liberal landlords. Their sympathies were clear, nonetheless, from the pride the family took in the distorted legend of old "Black Tom" Foley and his son Patrick killing a member of the Whiteboys, a secret party of agrarian activists that flourished in the late eighteenth century.

Patrick Foley was the eldest of Thomas's nine children from three wives (a number that reflected the high mortality of the time rather than any special concupiscence). Because of his seniority, Patrick took over the mill and fishing rights. His half-brother, also called Thomas, was required, as the son of his father's second wife, to look further afield. So he became a lawyer, a calling that gave him the wherewithal to live comfortably at his nearby seat, Tourtane.

William, the first child of old Thomas Foley's third wife, Hannah Lowe from Cardiff, also sought advancement through the professions. In 1825 he gained a place to study medicine at Trinity College, Dublin, where, unexpectedly, he was recorded as being a Roman Catholic. This suggests that his father was originally a Catholic, adopting Protestantism as a convenience when he married his first wife, Margaret Fitzgerald, who was definitely a member of the Church of Ireland. As a result Patrick, the first of two children from this marriage, continued in his mother's religion, and this was confirmed when he married Elizabeth Cliffe, daughter of a powerful Protestant family with whom the Foleys were allied in business, land ownership and, for a while, fishing rights. From then on there was never any doubt that Patrick's side of the family was firmly Protestant. But by the time his father married for the third time, his commitment to his first wife's religion seems to have slipped and he reverted to Catholicism, the faith in which his son William (some thirty-five years younger than his half-brother Patrick) was brought up.

After graduating from Trinity, the easy-going William duly became a doctor, though not one fired with any great ambition. In 1835 he married Catherine Pack who, with her sister, ran a girls' boarding school that had been started by her mother in Kilkenny. Catherine came from a more cultured Irish family. While the Foleys were essentially upwardly mobile creatures of the Waterford soil (though they did make unsubstantiated claims of having arrived with English conquerors in the seventeenth century), the Packs were more firmly entrenched in the Anglo-Irish establishment — a position that brought pedigree, responsibilities and pretensions. For the best part of a century they had centered on the ancient city of Kilkenny, where they turned out a succession of distinguished clergymen, doctors and soldiers. Earlier they had lived in King's County (now County Offaly) where they had married into an illegitimate branch of the Percy family, headed by the Duke of Northumberland.

Catherine's grandfather, Richard, had been headmaster of Kilkenny College, Ireland's leading Protestant secondary school, where he was succeeded by his son Anthony. Her great-uncle, Thomas Pack, had been a dean of the Church of Ireland Cathedral of St. Canice in Kilkenny. And this clergyman's son Denis (her first cousin once removed) was the dashing and spectacularly brave Major-General Sir Denis Pack who, after being wounded eight times in the Peninsular wars, commanded a brigade of Picton's division that played a crucial role at the battles of Quatre-Bras and Waterloo (where he was again wounded). As the youngest of Richard Pack's sons, Catherine's father William had been forced into trade as a grocer and wine merchant in Kilkenny. But he had married well enough to the daughter of Matthew Scott, who ran one of the woolen mills that powered the town's economy.

When she opted to marry a Catholic, Catherine Pack took the brave and romantic decision to turn her back on her family's Protestant heritage and adopt her husband's religion. However, six years later, in August 1841, William Foley died suddenly in Clonmel while still in his early thirties. Accompanied by her children, his widow was forced to return to the Pack stronghold of Kilkenny, where, following family tradition, she again started her own girls' school.

However, her circumstances had changed. She was now a Roman Catholic, a faith she held with the conviction of a convert. It was perhaps significant that she chose to situate her school in James's Street, opposite the convent and to use French as her medium of instruction. It was a very difficult time to set up on her own: by the middle of the decade the potato famine was hurting genteel town-dwellers such as herself just as much as impoverished agricultural laborers in the countryside. Its deathly consequences forced the closing of her school and may have deepened her religious feelings. In April 1847, aged only thirty-eight, she was forced to put her Kilkenny property up for sale and, shortly afterward, she moved with her two young daughters, Mary and Catherine, to Edinburgh.

Quite why she opted for the capital of the Scottish Enlightenment is a mystery. Because of the famine, vast numbers of Irish were emigrating, many to Scotland, where work could be found in the linen and construction trades, though Glasgow was a more popular destination than Edinburgh. Later, her daughter Mary used to talk of a Scottish family link between her grandfather Matthew and the great novelist, Sir Walter Scott. But she was given to romantic flights of fancy and may have got this wrong. More likely, her religious enthusiasm alienated her Pack relations, who remained jealous of their privileged links to the (Protestant) Cathedral, where Sir Denis Pack was remembered in a marble bust sculpted by Chantrey. The truth may be that, in difficult circumstances, the self-consciously upright Packs, with their long line of deans and headmasters, had made Catherine Foley's life in Kilkenny intolerable.

Edinburgh was a city in transition. Boosted by immigration from Scotland's internal regions as much as from across the Irish Sea, its population had grown further with the recent arrival of the railways. As a result it had been forced to expand beyond its strict demarcation into Old Town, now little more than a slum, and New Town, the preserve of the affluent middle classes. Catherine and her daughters found accommodation on the fringes of the latter at 27 Clyde Street, not far from the Catholic parish church of St. Mary's. There Catherine returned to the teaching profession, but in a slightly different way: she set up the Governesses' Institution supplying British and foreign governesses to families and schools.

With two daughters to support, Catherine Foley also needed a lodger to make ends meet. She probably asked the church to recommend someone, for the person who appeared on her doorstep was Charles Doyle, looking for a place to live shortly after arriving in Edinburgh in 1849 as a raw seventeen-year-old. "Very pleasant people and very Irish," he reported back to his friend Ellis, once he had settled in.

Though Charles did not stay long with the Foleys, it was time enough to note the attractions of his landlady's daughter, Mary — a bright twelve-year-old, with soulful grey eyes. Before he got to know her, however, she was spirited away to a school in France where, like her mother, she was imbued with a lifelong passion for French culture.

Charles had other matters on his mind, as he worked to emulate his brothers' success. Before the end of the year, he had entered a competition to design new stained-glass windows for Glasgow Cathedral. If this was a positive move, he betrayed his lack of confidence by sending his drawings back to Cambridge Terrace for approval. The following August he played a prominent role when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert visited Edinburgh to lay the foundation stone for the National Gallery of Scotland. Young Charles raised the flag on Holyrood Palace as the royal couple arrived and reportedly also helped prepare the Queen's apartment.

But it was soon clear from his letters home that he was not happy. Edinburgh, with its quaint tumbling houses on the Canongate, was attractive enough, even if the overall stink was disgusting. But the Castle's looming presence reminded him of a prison and made him uneasy. As for the local people, they were uncouth. Finding himself on the streets one New Year's Eve, he was astonished by the displays of drunkenness and revelry. When, ever courteous, he offered to accompany two women home, he was further taken aback when a friend gave him a weighted truncheon, or "life-preserver," so he could crack the heads of anyone who molested them. This might not have mattered if he had found someone who shared his quirky view of the world. But Scots humor was rather more boisterous.

Sensing his natural introspection giving way to depression, Charles, who was not yet twenty, sought solace in the faith that had been an important part of his upbringing. The intensity of Scottish Presbyterianism probably contributed to his unease. It was less than a decade since the upheavals of the 1843 Disruption, when the more dogmatic members of the established Church of Scotland had staged a revolt against the alien practice of patrons appointing the minister and had gone off to form their own fundamentalist Free Church. At the same time the austere Anglican Church in Scotland was under threat from the Romanized rituals and practices of the Oxford Movement.

Britain as a whole was undergoing a period of spiritual reassessment as it sought to come to terms with the materialism of the industrialized age and related advances in science. Having played its part in meeting this challenge, Charles's own Roman Catholic Church was now seeking to capitalize on the situation, not only by ministering to Anglicans, such as those in the Oxford Movement, who were dissatisfied with their religion, but also by regaining political and civil liberties lost since the Reformation. In this latter context, it had won a notable victory in 1829 when the Catholic Emancipation Act allowed, inter alia, the Irish nationalist leader Daniel O'Connell to take his seat in the House of Commons. (One of John Doyle's most famous cartoons showed a bucolic O'Connell celebrating this legislation.)

Twenty years later, Roman Catholics were hoping to make further advance by reasserting their right to appoint their own bishops. But when Rome announced the resumption of the Catholic hierarchy in September 1850, the Protestant establishment in Britain viewed this as another example of "papal aggression" and Lord John Russell's government banned it. However this prohibition was never enforced — the result, in no small part, of the political skills of Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman, the man chosen by Pope Pius IX to be the first Catholic Cardinal-Archbishop of Westminster. Coming from an Irish merchant family, Wiseman was also a friend of the Doyles. Both Dicky and Henry drew him: the latter's 1858 portrait now hangs in the National Gallery of Ireland.

So Charles rallied to the Catholic cause in Edinburgh. In March 1851 he attended a meeting in the Waterloo Rooms to protest against the new Ecclesiastical Titles Assumption Bill and other anti-Catholic measures. When a seconder was required for a motion calling for the resolutions to be sent to Parliament, Charles obliged. He was not the only member of his family who took this religious discrimination seriously. Dicky had been going from strength to strength with his caricatures of English manners and customs in Punch. But four months earlier he had taken the drastic move of resigning from the magazine in protest at what he regarded as the anti-Catholic tone of its coverage of this same Bill. In taking his public stand, Charles may have been showing solidarity with his well known brother.

At the time Dicky was still living in Cambridge Gardens and enjoying a discreet affair with Blanche Stanley, daughter of Lord Stanley of Alderley. But in September 1851 she dealt him a cruel blow by marrying the young Earl of Airlie, who was more her social equal. Dicky poured his heart out to his younger brother in Scotland. Two years later he got his own back when, illustrating his friend Thackeray's novel The Newcomes, he gave Lord Airlie's features to the worthless Scottish Lord Farintosh (a surname later appropriated for a client of Sherlock Holmes in "The Speckled Band").

Meanwhile there had been changes at Cambridge Gardens. The Irish journalist Michael Conan had moved out, with his wife Susan and sister Anne, to a house on Campden Hill, though his other sister, Elizabeth, continued living with the Doyles until her death from cancer in March 1851. John Doyle himself was winding down as an artist, producing his last political sketch that year. Since, for medical reasons, he was unable to paint in oils, he thought that he might follow Charles and find employment with the Office of Works. When this initiative failed, he became amiably eccentric, lobbying the government with his "inventions," such as ventilated tents and waterproof boots that he thought would improve the lot of troops in the Crimea — another inspiration for Arthur, who would later pepper the War Office with ideas for innovations such as body armor.

In June 1852 John's musical daughter Annette succumbed to the general religious fervor and joined the Society of the Daughters of the Heart of Mary in Kensington as a nun. Predictably the order had strong links with France where its founder had been a Jesuit. However, since it was not strictly community-based, Annette was able to continue to live at home and look after her father. Her experience encouraged her aunt, Anne Conan, to follow suit and join the same order in 1854, when Michael Conan and his wife took the logical step, given the family's admiration for France, of moving to Paris as correspondent for the Art Journal.

These comings and goings did little to boost Charles's morale, which was further dented by his lack of advancement at work. Dicky, who was closest to him, encouraged him to seek outlets for his illustrations. He also tried to buoy his brother's spirits with tidbits of London literary gossip. But the family's anxiety was evident from a letter from John Doyle asking Charles plaintively if he had increased his circle of friends as a result of Thackeray's visit to Edinburgh in late 1851.

When Charles obtained a commission to illustrate a scroll celebrating Cardinal Wiseman's links with Scotland, he again lacked confidence in his own ability and asked his family's advice. His brother James bluntly told him that this seemed "very like carrying a certain combustible material to Newcastle," and added, "Allow me to say that your remark about your not being equal to the job is nothing less than 'bosh'."

Charles's life took a turn for the better when Mary Foley returned from France in 1854. She had blossomed into an attractive young girl, whose vitality and intelligence poured from her petite five-foot-one-inch frame. Her mother was delighted when this sincere and obviously well connected young Catholic began to show a romantic interest in her daughter. Equally happy, Charles sent Mary's photograph to Dicky who, though still smarting from being jilted, conceded that the girl had "Irish charm" and told his sister Annette, "She looks nice — decidedly so for a "sun pictur [a photograph] that don't flatter." Dicky sketched her from this likeness, giving her round face an openness and intelligence, tempered with a touch of reserve, evident in her prim mouth and light brown hair swept back behind her ears.

Charles took his brother's favorable reaction as a signal to propose to Mary, who was still only eighteen when they walked up the aisle together at St. Mary's Church on July 31, 1855, the feast day of St. Ignatius. The couple took a short honeymoon at an inn on the outskirts of Edinburgh before settling down to married life in a series of rented apartments.

Before long the young Doyles had their first child, a daughter, Annette, who was born on July 22, 1856. When the infant was baptized in St. Mary's the following day, she was given the additional name Conan, ostensibly in honor of one of her godparents, the nun Anne Conan, but more probably out of respect for her grandmother's family, which had played an important role in Charles's upbringing.

The responsibilities of fatherhood did not sit easily with Charles, however. Dicky, who had visited Edinburgh the previous summer, redoubled his efforts to help his brother by finding him alternative sources of income. He put him in touch with London magazines and advised him on strategies to make sure he was paid. He even suggested Charles should become his Edinburgh agent or, failing that, earn some money touching up his own early watercolors.

More practically John Doyle tried to get his son a transfer to London. Charles scoffed at this suggestion, telling his sister Annette, "I have the greatest horror of being herded with a set of snobs in the London Office, who would certainly not understand and probably laugh at the whole theory of construction, as also the technical terms in use among the builders here, to whom brick is an unknown quantity." When an opening in the Accountant-General's office was proposed, he said this was something he "simply could not stand." After that job failed to materialize, Charles entertained the idea of emigrating to Australia and earning a living as a gold prospector. Arthur probably heard embellished accounts of his father's youthful ambition, encouraging him to add flashes of Australian color to several Sherlock Holmes stories such as "The Boscombe Valley Mystery."

Marriage did at least spur Charles to increase his output of illustrations. He developed a reputation as a comic artist in periodicals such as the short-lived Illustrated Times. After an exasperating decade in the shadows at the Dickensian Office of Works, he was at last allowed to take credit for his own designs, notably when he helped his boss Robert Matheson on the octagonal fountain in the courtyard at Holyrood Palace in 1858-59. Charles was responsible for the small statues of historical figures surrounding the spire, that Matheson obligingly described as "more in the class of a work of Art than ordinary building work." But the trade magazine The Builder saw only a "confused and miserable mixture, ugly in outline and puerile in detail."

Such professional brickbats did little to boost the mild-mannered man's confidence, which had been further undermined when his second daughter Catherine died from water on the brain in October 1858 when she was six months old. As Dicky discovered when he passed through Edinburgh shortly afterward, Charles was in poor spirits and living in distressingly reduced circumstances at 11 Picardy Place when his first son arrived on the morning of May 22, 1859 and was given the names Arthur Ignatius Conan at his baptism at St. Mary's two days later.

As usual among the Doyles, these names were carefully considered. Arthur signified history and place, albeit a romanticized version, looking back to King Arthur, the mythic architect of Britain; Ignatius faith, evoking the saint's day on which Charles and Mary were married; and Conan kin, referring to the mixed Irish and European heritage of his mother's forebears. These three strands were to battle for supremacy in Arthur's personality.

Copyright © 2007 by Andrew Lycett

Originally published in Great Britain in 2007 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson

Meet the Author

Andrew Lycett studied history at Oxford University. After an early career as a foreign correspondent specializing in Africa and the Middle East, he now writes biographies. His lives of Dylan Thomas, Rudyard Kipling and Ian Fleming have been highly praised.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews