Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters, edited by Jon Lellenberg, Daniel Stashower and Charles Foley, is a real treat for Sherlock Holmes fans. The letters were written to Doyle’s family, publishers and others, but most of them are to his ‘Mam’, who he was very close to all his life. He describes her as a wonderful storyteller, and attributes his own gifts to her influence, while his gift for dramatic effect came from his father, an artist whose alcoholism led to lengthy stays in sanitoria and asylums in the latter part of his life.
As well as some fascinating insights into Conan Doyle’s personal life and politics, they also provide some background to the development of the Sherlock Holmes stories.
In 1879, Conan Doyle published his first short story in Chambers Journal. Over the next seven years he wrote many others, including two unpublished novels. It wasn’t until 1886 that he wrote the first Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet. After a number of rejections, it was published in 1887 as a Beeton’s Christmas Annual. He was paid £25 for the copyright, but received no royalties. The second Holmes story came about after Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine (based in Philadelphia) hosted a dinner in 1889 at the Langham Hotel in London, during which Doyle was impressed with Oscar Wilde, who complimented him on his novel Micah Clarke. From that dinner, the magazine commissioned Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray as well as Doyle’s The Sign of Four.
The Holmes stories were inspired by Doyle’s love of Edgar Allen Poe’s detective Monsieur Dupin as well the plots of French writer Émile Gaboriau, whose Monsieur Lecoq was one of the earliest fictional police detectives. It’s a lovely literary touch when Holmes criticizes both detectives in A Study in Scarlet (one that I confess to having copied in my own books, Arrowood, where my Victorian detective is consumed by jealousy of Sherlock Holmes). Doyle modeled Sherlock’s method on that of his medical Professor, Dr Joseph Bell, and ‘his eerie trick of spotting details. If he were a detective, he would surely reduce this fascinating but unorganized business to something nearer to an exact science.’ Bell would diagnose people just by looking at them: ‘He would tell them their symptoms, he would give them details of their lives, and he would hardly ever make a mistake’.
The first two Holmes novels were not successful. However, Doyle was encouraged to write more when he received a letter from the eminent Dr Tait saying that he and Lord Coleridge were admirers of the detective. In 1891 The Strand magazine published A Scandal in Bohemia to widespread public acclaim. It was only now that Holmes, and Conan Doyle, became famous. The publishers of A Study in Scarlet then wrote to him, asking if they could subtitle the first novel with the name of Sherlock Holmes. Doyle refused.
In 1891, Doyle wrote twelve Holmes stories for The Strand. He was a fast worker, writing four in one two-week period. These became The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Doyle was thinking of killing Holmes in the final story of this first collection, but his mother persuaded him against it. The Strand commissioned another twelve stories in 1893, and this time Doyle did kill off Holmes in the last of the collection, The Final Problem. At this point, Doyle was determined not to write any more Sherlock stories. In a letter to his Mam, he writes ‘I am in the middle of the last Holmes story, after which the gentleman vanishes never never to reappear. I am weary of his name.’
Sherlock was brought back to life in 1903 when Norman Hapgood, the editor of Colliers Weekly, offered Doyle $45,000 for thirteen new stories. However, this wasn’t the prompt that started him writing Sherlock stories again. In 1901, he began writing The Hound of the Baskervilles, which was set before Sherlock’s death and therefore didn’t require a resurrection.
The plots of some of the stories came from other people. The plot for The Empty House was suggested by Jean Leckie, Doyle’s long-time lover, while Doyle’s friend, the journalist Bertram Fletcher Robinson, suggested the ‘central idea and the local colour’ of The Hound of the Baskervilles. The two men took a trip to Dartmoor to scout locations, and Doyle insisted both their names appear on the book. Although this is Holmes’ most famous case, Doyle was not happy with the story.
There are apparent similarities between Doyle’s experience of his father’s alcoholism and Watson’s disapproval of Holmes’ drug-taking, particularly in the early stories. There are also some interesting similarities between Holmes and Conan Doyle himself. For example, Doyle shared Holmes’ athleticism, playing cricket, golf, boxing and shooting, while Holmes was proficient at baritsu, boxing and sword-fighting. In The Adventure of the Three Garridebs, set in 1902, Sherlock refused the knighthood he was offered. This was clearly based on Doyle’s experience, as he was also offered a knighthood in that year, and was initially against accepting it, calling it ‘the badge of a provincial mayor’. However, much to his mother’s relief, he eventually relented was knighted in Buckingham Palace by King Edward. And while Doyle’s passionate, campaigning belief in Spiritualism seems at odds with Sherlock’s insistence on logic, science and evidence, Doyle declared himself against all dogma, and always argued that the spiritualist movement was not based on faith, but on irrefutable evidence of contact with the dead.
There is also an interesting note on fandom in the late Victorian period: there was such great enthusiasm for the Holmes stories in 1903 that readers asked Doyle for help finding their missing persons, and sent him gifts to pass on to Sherlock, including tobacco, pipe cleaners and violin strings.
Conan Doyle was many things: a doctor, author, parliamentary candidate, campaigner, medic in the Boer War, world traveler, spiritualist, and dedicated family man who had a love affair with a woman who was not his wife for most of his first marriage. As someone who loves the Holmes stories and has a particular fondness for his vivid secondary characters, I couldn’t help being slightly disappointed at the picture of Doyle that emerged from reading his letters. First, there’s little evidence he had any enthusiasm for the Holmes stories apart from their ability to make him money. He clearly preferred his other, more serious writing, particularly his historical novels and military histories, which he believed were much more worthy. Most writers are obsessed with reviews, and Doyle was no different. The letters to his Mam contained endless details about the reviews he had had and which famous person had said what about his writing. He was upset when he got bad reviews and when his work ignored, and never failed to report a glowing report. He was proud of the public engagements and invitations to speak that his growing fame opened up for him, and he wanted his Mam to know about them all. He also reported endlessly about his finances, detailing how much money he had, how much each story was earning him, how his investments were performing, and how much money he was spending. In fact, he wrote so much about money that the editors of the collection have removed a lot of these reports from the letters. His financial preoccupations are understandable, however, since he lived a precarious life as a young doctor, helping support his mother and younger siblings while his father was unable to provide.
Although he stood for parliament as a Liberal, his politics defy easy categorization. On the one hand he supported progressive causes (reform of the divorce laws and opposition to the British presence in Egypt) and fought campaigns against miscarriages of justice. On the other he was against Irish Home Rule (until changing his mind in 1907), and disagreed with women’s suffrage. There are also a few rather racist passages about Africans in his letters which are unpleasant to read. A man of his time, no doubt, but it’s difficult to warm to him knowing his views on some of these issues, particularly when we consider the representations of black people in stories such as The Sign of Four and The Adventure of the Three Gables. However, Doyle’s racial attitudes were not consistent. He was central to the campaign to free George Edalji after the young lawyer was wrongly convicted of cattle mutilation. Edalji was the son of an Indian pastor who had faced huge prejudice in rural England. Doyle was appalled by the slavery and massacres in the Congo perpetrated by the Belgian King Leopold II, and used his fame to write articles and letters to dignitaries across the world protesting the crimes. We should also remember The Adventure of the Yellow Face, a Holmes story about a mixed-race child which carries a message of acceptance and love rather than rejection.
All in all, reading the Conan Doyle letters is fascinating on many fronts. Doyle was a complex and well-travelled character, and his letters reveal many of the tensions and debates of the later Victorian era.
Mick Finlay is the author of the Arrowood mystery/crime novels set in Victorian London. The third in the series, Arrowood and the Thames Corpses, is available in North America from HarperCollins in June 2020 (UK in April).