The Man Behind Sherlock Holmes
This week we celebrate the life and work of the man behind Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle wrote almost 200 novels, as well as numerous other bodies of text, and is most famous for bringing us the famous Sherlock Holmes. 125 years after his creation, Sherlock Holmes still remains one of the most popular fictional detectives in history.
Doyle was born on May 22, 1859 in Edinburgh. His father was a chronic alcoholic, who was moderately successful as an artist. His mother was an avid book lover, who would read to him as a child. He spoke of her fantastic storytelling, noting the sinking of her voice to a 'panic-stricken whisper' whenever she reached the culminating point in a story.
The family did not have very much money, due to Doyle's father's excesses and erratic behavior, and he often spoke of his mother as a saving grace.
"In my early childhood, as far as I can remember anything at all, the vivid stories she would tell me stand out so clearly that they obscure the real facts of my life".
When he turned nine years old, wealthier members of Doyle's family offered to pay for his education. Emotionally, he accepted and was whisked off to the Jesuit Boarding School in England. Throughout his time at the school he spoke of resenting the bigotry surrounding his studies, as well as the incredibly brutal corporal punishment commonly used. His only solace was his regular correspondence with his mother via letter. A habit which lasted, long after boarding school, until she died.
Although he struggled to enjoy school, it was here that Doyle discovered he had a talent for storytelling. Often, he could be found with a crowd of fellow students around him, completely involved in the stories he would tell for entertainment.
Leaving School at 17, Doyle returned home. His father's condition had dissolved into an unfortunate state and it was at this point that Doyle co-signed the committal papers of his father, confining him to a lunatic asylum. This dramatic turn of events is something that haunted Doyle throughout his life as years later he wrote:
"Perhaps it was good for me that the times were hard, for I was wild, full blooded and a trifle reckless. But the situation called for energy and application so that one was bound to try to meet it. My mother had been so splendid that I could not fail her."
As tradition dictated at the time, Doyle should have followed in his father's footsteps and taken the route of an art profession, however he decided to study medicine instead. During his studies, Doyle met a number of influential future authors, such as James Barrie and Robert Louis Stevenson. In saying this, the most influential of all was one of Doyle's teachers, Dr Joseph Bell. Doyle's admiration of Dr Bell's observation, logic, deduction, and diagnosis can be seen in the characteristics of the fictional Sherlock Holmes.
After a couple of years of his studies, Doyle tried his hand at writing. He wrote a short story called 'The Mystery of Sasassa Valley', which was accepted in an Edinburgh magazine called Chamber's Journal. His second story, 'The American Tale' was published in the London Society. Conan noted that it was in this year that he discovered he could make money from something other than starting at the bottom of a medical profession.
At 20 years old, and in his third year at university, Arthur took the opportunity to take a trip to the Arctic Circle as a ship's surgeon. Thoroughly enjoying the ships camaraderie, it found it's way into his writing and can be seen in his first full length story.
After returning to his studies and graduation, Arthur worked as a medical officer on a steam vessel, which navigated from Liverpool to the west coast of Africa. Not enjoying Africa as much as he had the Arctic Circle, as soon as the boat returned to England, Arthur resigned.
Soon after this, Arthur left for Portsmouth. He was close to bankruptcy and set up his own medical practice as a last ditch attempt to make money. Renting a house, he was only able to furnish the two rooms that his patients would see. He was off to a rocky start, but within three years of running his practice, he began to earn a comfortable income.
During the next few years, Arthur struggled to balance the running of his practice and becoming an established author.
In March 1886, Doyle began to write the novel which would propel him to fame. He first named it 'A Tangled Skein' with the two main characters called Sheridan Hope and Ormond Sacker. Two years later, when his novel was published under the title 'A Study in Scarlet' and we were introduced to the infamous Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.
Throughout his life, Doyle wrote a number of novels in which he felt deserved higher recognition than the widely loved Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, which he felt at best were commercial characters.
Although he had impressive literary success and a flourishing medical practice, as well as the birth of his daughter, Mary, Arthur still remained restless. Deciding that he wished to leave Portsmouth for Vienna so he could specialize in Ophthalmology, he made a short trip to Paris, before realizing that the language barrier would be too much. Returning to London, he then opened a practice in Upper Wimpole Street. This business venture flopped monumentally, where it is said that not one patient even entered the practice. This unfortunate occurrence gave Doyle time to think, where he made the most profitable decision of his career. He decided to write a series of short stories about the much loved Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.
In 1891, Doyle was hit with an attack of influenza, which was life threatening for several days. Surviving this, he made the realization that he could not continue his medical and writing career at the same time. Describing the realization as a 'rush of joy', he made this comment about his decision to only focus on his writing:
"I remember in my delight taking the handkerchief which lay upon the coverlet in my enfeebled hand, and tossing it up to the ceiling in my exultation. I should at last be my own master".
Through the birth of his first son and the death of his wife, Doyle remained dedicated to his writing. He even tried his hand at politics at one point, where he ran for a seat in central Edinburgh. Steeped in misery from the death of his wife, he also threw himself into helping Scotland Yard with an investigation or two. All of Doyle's ventures made their way into his continued literature in some way or other.
Doyle remarried in 1907 and moved to Sussex. Jean Leckie was a beautiful woman with many accomplishments, quite unusual for the time. Doyle was only too happy to share many of his wife's activities, trying his hand at a number of plays. Retiring from stage work and fathering two more sons, Doyle continued to write.
His novel 'The Lost World' was an instant success. At the time Sci-Fi didn't exist, so Doyle named this genre a 'boy's book'.
The toll of World War I was cruel on Doyle, when he lost his son. He showed a growing interest in spiritualism and wrote a large volume of literature about it. As time went on he barely wrote any fiction, focusing solely on spiritual endeavors.
In 1929, Doyle was diagnosed with Angina Pectoris, in spite of which he took a tour (his last) of Holland, Denmark, Sweden and Norway to talk about his exploration of spiritualism. When he returned he was so ill he had to be carried to his home from the boat. From this point on, he was bed-ridden.
The following year, Doyle took his last journey. Getting out of bed one morning, he sneaked out of the house and made his way to the back garden. He was found hours later, lying face down on the ground with one hand clutching his heart and one grasping a white Snowdrop.
Arthur Conan Doyle died on July 7, 1930, surrounded by family. He described his death as departing for the "greatest and most glorious journey of all". Before he whispered his last words to his wife, 'You're Wonderful'.