by Tom Ruffles
[ strangeness | bookreviews ]
We think we know Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He brilliantly created the super-sleuth Sherlock Holmes, and himself combined the cerebral with the man of action. But he suffered a decline in his old age to the intellectual level of Nigel Bruce's version of John H Watson, lost in the supernatural. Andrew Lycett's marvellous biography, following works on Dylan Thomas, Rudyard Kipling and Ian Fleming, shows that there was more to him than the man of two halves that this popular image suggests.
The achievements are singular. Conan Doyle was a workaholic who wrote about a wide range of subjects at a prodigious rate. He at various times practised as a doctor, did a stint as a ship's surgeon on a whaler, and later served as a surgeon in the Boer War and wrote a history of the conflict; wrote a multi-volume history of the First World War (and briefly visited the front, which he bizarrely characterised as "the most wonderful spot in the world - the front firing trench"); travelled extensively; threw his considerable weight behind efforts to rectify miscarriages of justice in the George Edalji and Oscar Slater cases; stood for Parliament; campaigned tirelessly for spiritualism; played a lot of cricket, golf and football; was an early adopter of skiing and motoring; and acted the all-round celebrity.
But Lycett does not shrink from depicting his subject's less pleasant aspects. His treatment of his first wife Louise does him no credit (He took a mistress and absented himself from home for long periods as Louise became increasing ill with TB.) Lycett points out the sad truth that she came only third in his affections after Jean Leckie, whom he met in early 1897 and married a year after Louise's death in 1906, and his mother. Conan Doyle's words to his mother after his bereavement, that he had tried to avoid giving Louise a moment's unhappiness but rather had wanted to give her every attention and comfort that she wanted, Lycett describes as disingenuous. They are that, but more strongly they smack of hypocrisy, as Conan Doyle had made little effort to disguise his relationship with Jean during Louise's lifetime, and tended to prefer his London flat to the sickroom. The verdict he reaches about whether he provided said comfort and attention – "Did I succeed? I think so. God knows I hope so" - is pious humbug. After her death, there was an effort to airbrush Louise out of the family history, a campaign against which his eldest child Mary fought a rearguard action.
He was prone to using emotional blackmail on Louise's children to get his own way, and would ludicrously complain about how tight his finances were when they asked him for help. They were sidelined after their father's remarriage, particularly Mary. She and her brother Kingsley became extremely close to each other as a result, which must have made it especially difficult for her when Kingsley died just a fortnight before the end of the First World War. She was left with an indifferent, and at times callous, father (at one point he told her that he would not continue to pay for her singing course in Dresden on the grounds that her voice was flat and she lacked a good ear, though he eventually relented). He was far more interested in her step-siblings than in her, to the extent that she said of him that he had become a hard man in the two years since her mother died. She only seems to have achieved a rapprochement later, when working with him in his psychic bookshop, and she was still excluded from his literary estate.
Balancing this warty portrait, his fervent belief in spiritualism, which it would be easy to mock, is treated sympathetically, as are the rather blimpish politics. Lycett does not address in detail the Cottingley fairies episode that so damaged Conan Doyle's credibility, but he does point out that Conan Doyle came from a family immersed in fairy lore (he was preparing an article on the subject before he saw the photographs), and, ever-conscious of the possible hereditary effects of his father's insanity, thought that proof of the existence of fairies would indicate that his father had an ability to communicate with spiritual beings. In all these complicated areas, Lycett guides the reader with a light touch, giving enough context to make sense of Conan Doyle's attitudes without burdening the reader with unnecessary detail.
For a man who professed to be bluff and straightforward, Conan Doyle was extremely complex, and Lycett draws out the development of his religious and political ideas, and shows how these had their roots in his family background, including childhood exposure to Irish nationalism and his fear that his father's mental condition had an hereditary component. The curious relationship between his mother and her 'lodger' Bryan Waller is treated sympathetically, and Lycett discounts a sexual relationship between them (despite her youngest child being given the unlikely moniker 'Bryan Mary Josephine' - no wonder she was known as Dodo), but their closeness, especially as Mary's husband was still alive for the first 17 years of their relationship, strikes one as most un-Victorian.
A fascinating coda to Conan Doyle's life is given by Lycett in which he charts the series of unfortunate events that befell the archives after his death. The boys from his second marriage, in particular, were clearly an unpleasant pair who had inherited no sense of their father's capacity for hard work, but rather used the revenue derived from the estate to indulge their hedonistic lifestyles. The convoluted story of Conan Doyle's papers is a sad one of selfishness and greed, and their resulting dispersal has made the job of scholars harder than it should have been. An example of this difficulty, 77 years after Conan Doyle's death, was the refusal by Conan Doyle's estate to allow the reproduction of a large number of quotations, which at the last minute Lycett was obliged to paraphrase. Even after three-quarters of a century, there are still undercurrents of self-interest and control at work with respect to Conan Doyle's legacy. However, Lycett has been fortunate in being able to consult hitherto inaccessible collections of papers, making this by far the most comprehensive biography of Conan Doyle to date.
Lycett has juggled the threads of a busy and varied life and produced a tremendous portrait of a national institution, balancing his subject's strengths and weaknesses. The intricacy of his task is indicated by the number of acknowledgments, leaving aside the lack of cooperation from some archive controllers. That he is up to date is indicated by references from 2007 in the bibliography. The narrative could have been cluttered by the number of people in it, many with similar names, and a useful family tree indicates how large the family was (oddly his daughter Mary is called the wrong name and has the wrong year of birth).
The one point that I would take issue with, and this is really a matter of perspective, is Lycett's contention that Conan Doyle straddled "the fault line in the British psyche between rationality and superstition". He believes that Conan Doyle retained a sense of the numinous which was perhaps a relic of his discarded Catholicism. This caused him to resist "the juggernaut of materialism" and led him to use his scientific training to try to prove life after death. But Conan Doyle considered his spiritualist quest to be rational and not numinous, definitely not superstitious, and nothing to do with the faith that Catholicism required. The irony (a word Lycett frequently uses) is that while professing a rationalist outlook in examining life after death, Conan Doyle fell so short in applying canons of evidence. His problem was not that he tried to combine rational and irrational, but that his enthusiasm for a cause led him to gloss over uncritically weaknesses in the evidence.
The subtitle of the book is perhaps surprising, given Conan Doyle's range of interests, but I think it is clear that if Conan Doyle had not created Holmes he would have been a very minor footnote in literary history, whereas the Holmes stories, with their endless opportunities for reinterpretation, make him a giant. Conan Doyle himself rated his historical novels more highly, which shows his poor judgement about his work. At one point Lycett rather curiously compares Holmes to Cutcliffe Hyne's unintentionally camp creation Captain Kettle. But Captain Kettle bears no similarity to Holmes. If he resembles any Conan Doyle character, it has to be Sir Nigel, both ridiculous confections taken far too seriously by their creators. Conan Doyle wrote some interesting books over and above the Holmes output, but it is those stories that ensure his immortality.