rthur Conan Doyle’s literary output is prodigious. During his writing career Sir Arthur wrote twenty-one novels and over 150 short stories. He also published nonfiction, essays, articles, memoirs and three volumes of poetry. He left thousands of letters to the press, his mother (about 1500 letters), family, friends and acquaintances, including Winston Churchill, P. G. Wodehouse, Theodore Roosevelt, and Oscar Wilde. Jeffrey and Valerie Meyers, editors of The Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Reader: From Sherlock Holmes to Spiritualism (2002) write:
He shared Dickens's sense of justice and social responsibility, his warm humanity and delight in the lively individuality of the characters he created. Like Dickens, he published his stories and novels, often in serial form, in the weekly magazines that were the staple of popular entertainment in the late nineteenth century. Like his younger contemporary and friend, H. G. Wells, he used his scientific education and medical training in his fiction and challenged the prevailing belief in the idea of progress. Like Wells, he also became an important public figure whose opinion was sought on the crucial issues of the day, an influential speaker at a time when the lecture was a popular event. [x]
The Sherlock Holmes stories
Between 1887 and 1927, Doyle wrote four novels and fifty-six stories with Sherlock Holmes, a brilliant London-based “consulting detective” famous for his astute observation, deductive reasoning and forensic skills to solve difficult cases. Holmes's fictional forefather was Edgar Allan Poe's detective C. Auguste Dupin, but it was Conan Doyle who first introduced to literature the character of the scientific detective. Holmes, one of the best known and most popular characters in English literature, is not only a successful master detective, but he is the epitome of the Victorian and imperial values.
Sherlock Holmes embodies the system that he comes to protect. He is the man of reason, of science, of technology; he is from the upper class and was educated at Oxford; he eventually becomes rich; and he frequents best city clubs and other haunts of the gentleman. [Lehan 84]
The first novel that introduced Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson of 221B Baker Street, London, A Study in Scarlet, a tale of murder and revenge, appeared in Beaton’s Christmas Annual in 1887, and the second, The Sign of the Four, in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine in 1890. After publishing the first set of Sherlock Holmes stories in the Strand Magazine between 1891 and 1893, Doyle was not particularly proud of his detective fiction. He planned to write an opera, a book of medical short stories and a Napoleonic saga. He believed that historical romances, and not his detective stories, were his most important work. (Wilson 22) In 1893, he tried to kill off Holmes at the height of his popularity by plunging him over the Reichenbach Falls with Professor Moriarty, Holmes's greatest enemy, but in 1902 Holmes appeared in The Hound of the Baskervilles because the reading public demanded further adventures of the great detective. As a matter of fact, Doyle did not bring Holmes back to life, but told a story that had taken place before his disappearance at the Reichenbach Falls. (Redmond 24) However, there was such a great public outcry that he eventually resurrected the master detective in “The Adventure of the Empty House” in the 1903 October issue of the Strand Magazine.
Doyle created the first truly great detective in fiction and gave a great impetus to detective story as a fictional form. The tremendous popularity of Sherlock Holmes in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods can be explained by the fact that he not only embodied the late Victorian faith in the power of logic and rationality, but above all restored confidence that the British were capable to maintain law and order not only in Britain but also in the Empire at large.
The Professor Challenger stories
Although the Sherlock Holmes stories are his best fiction, Conan Doyle wrote novels and short stories in many genres. These include historical fiction, horror and suspense, psychological thriller, science fiction, poetry, and plays for the stage. In addition, Sir Arthur wrote nonfiction works on a variety of subjects: essays on literature, accounts of England’s involvement in the South African War and World War I, memoirs and diaries, writings about photography, works on the paranormal, occult and Spiritualism.
Arthur Conan Doyle is also the author of fantasy and science fiction, which includes three novels and two short stories: The Lost World (1912), The Poison Belt (1913), The Land of Mist (1926), “The Disintegration Machine” (1928), and “When the World Screamed” (1929). The Lost World introduced his second most famous character, Professor George Edward Challenger, who guides an expedition deep into an isolated plateau in the South American jungle where some prehistoric animals (dinosaurs) and indigenous race of ape-like people still live. Challenger, a scientist of enormous intellect and adventurer, was designed to be a character to rival Holmes. The Poison Belt is an apocalyptic novel that features the same characters who appear in The Lost World. Astronomers discover that the Earth is about to be engulfed in a belt of poisonous gas “ether” from outer space. Prior to (apparently) extinguishing all life on the planet, the belt causes a mysterious outbreak of illness whose symptoms are irritability, loss of inhibition, coma, and (pseudo) death. (Harris 453) In span class ="book">The Land of Mist (1926) Professor Challenger is converted to Spiritualism.
The Challenger stories, which recall Jules Verne’s science fiction, are less popular of Doyle's fictions than the Sherlock Holmes stories. However, they contain interesting narrative structure and their themes concern imperialism, positivist science, the male role, evolution, degeneration theory and atavism. (Christensen 121)
Arthur Conan Doyle wrote several popular works of historical fiction. The first was Micah Clarke (1889), which is set in the seventeenth century during the Monmouth Rebellion. The White Company (1891) recounts the history of a company of medieval English archers during the Hundred Years' War, in the years 1366 and 1367. In 1906, Doyle published its prequel, Sir Nigel, which is set in the early phase of the Hundred Years' War. Doyle also wrote a series of short stories about a Napoleonic hussar named Etienne Gerard, which were first published in magazines and eventually in book form: The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard (1896) and Adventures of Gerard (1903). They are “brilliant evocations of the Napoleonic ethos.” (Dirda 73) Earlier in 1892, he published The Great Shadow and Other Napoleonic Tales. It should be noted that Conan Doyle was often disappointed at being famous chiefly for the creation of the Sherlock Holmes character. He had a much higher esteem of his historical novels than the Sherlock Holmes stories.
Arthur Conan Doyle also wrote nonfiction. In 1907, he published Through the Magic Door, a long essay about the charisma and charm of books. He also wrote several books dealing with public topics, such as The Crime of the Congo (1910). He also published A History of the British Campaign in France and Flanders ( 6 vols., 1916-1920), and A Visit to Three Fronts (1916). In 1914, Doyle wrote several pamphlets about the war. In 1924, Doyle published his excellent autobiography, Mysteries and Adventures, which recounts his life from early childhood, education, voyages as a ship's doctor, medical practice in Southsea, his literary endeavours, experiences from the Boer war, legal and political campaigns, interests in sports, and commitment to spiritualism.
In 1900, Doyle served in the Boer War as a volunteer doctor in the Langman Field Hospital at Bloemfontein between March and June. After return home he wrote a lengthy book, The Great Boer War, which sought to justify the British cause and to emphasise the great need for army reform and modernisation. The book was hailed in the press for its accuracy and fairness. (Pascal 99) In 1902, Doyle received his knighthood from the British Crown for a pamphlet, The War in South Africa: Its Causes and Conduct, in which he defended England's position in the Boer War in South Africa and for his service to the nation. He was reluctant to accept the title, but his mother talked him into it. (Pascal 103) There is also a theory that king Edward VII, who was an avid reader of Sherlock Holmes stories, knighted him to encourage him to write more stories about the 'master' detective'.
Interest in spiritualism
Arthur Conan Doyle became interested in the paranormal in the late 1880s and studied it for the rest of his life. In the last quarter of his life, he abandoned literary career and devoted himself to spreading the spiritualist message throughout the world. He lectured on spiritualism in Great Britain, Australia, and South Africa, and the United States, during which he covered 55,000 miles and addressed a quarter of a million people. In 1926, he published The History of Spiritualism in two volumes at his own expense.
Sir Arthur was a large, vigorous, active man, with all of the Englishman's traditional fondness for sports. Throughout all his adult life he wore the “walrus” moustache of the late Victorian era. He was an outstanding sportsman; he played football, and billiards. While living in Southsea he was a goalkeeper for Portsmouth Association Football Club. He was also a keen cricketeer. “For many years Conan Doyle even belonged to a rather literary cricket team called the Allahakbarries, its name punningly combining the Arabic formula praising God with a nod to the team’s captain J. M. Barrie (creator of Peter Pan).” (Dirda 13) Between 1899 and 1907, he played 10 first-class matches for the Marylebone Cricket Club. He also practised boxing and was a pioneer motorist and a rally-driver. In the 1890s, he started ski-touring to Switzerland. He was an occasional bowler and keen golfer. In 1910, he was elected captain of the Crowborough Beacon Golf Club, East Sussex.
Conan Doyle was always a partisan of the underdog. He campaigned successfully against miscarriages of justice. He conducted a long campaign to defend the half-British and half-Indian solicitor George Edaljii, who had been accused of mutilating animals. Julian Barnes' novel, Arthur and George (2005) recounts this episode in his life. Conan Doyle also campaigned for the release of Oscar Slater, a German Jew born in Upper Silesia, who was accused of murdering an old woman in Glasgow. Doyle exposed inconsistencies in the police investigation and Slater was finally freed.
Conan Doyle was also an early champion of building the Channel Tunnel, which, he believed, was necessary, “for the deployment of troops and armaments in France in an anticipation a German war.” (Wynne 21) For his various accomplishments he received the honorary degree of LL.D. from the university of Edinburgh in 1905, and was a knight of grace of the order of St. John of Jerusalem.
Death and legacy
Towards the end of his life Sir Arthur suffered angina which he contracted during his exhausting world tours. He died of heart failure on July 7, 1930, in Crowborough, East Sussex, leaving his widow Jean, their three children, Dennis, Adrian and Jean, and his daughter Mary, by his first wife. His eldest son, Kingsley, who served in World War One, was seriously wounded at the 1916 Battle of the Somme; later he developed pneumonia which he contracted during his convalescence and died in 1918 aged 25.
The last words of Conan Doyle were addressed to his wife. He whispered smiling to her: “You are wonderful.” (Davis xvi) He was 71 years old. Sir Arthur and his second wife are buried at the New Forest Church of All Saints, Minstead. Legend has it that as a devoted spiritualist, he was first buried in an upright position in the garden of his home at Crowborough. The house in Crowborough was sold, but the graves remained until 1955, when the Doyle family decided to fulfil Lady Jean's original wish that they be buried together at All Saints. The remains of Sir Arthur and Lady Jean were exhumed from the garden and reinterred in the churchyard. After a short private ceremony the couple were laid horizontally to rest. The epitaph on the gravestone in the churchyard at Minstead in the New Forest, Hampshire, reads: “Steel True, Blade Straight, Arthur Conan Doyle, Knight, Patriot, Physician & Man of Letters.”
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a versatile and complex personality; he was physician by education, keen sportsman, war correspondent, campaigner for social justice, creator of the world's most famous fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, author of historical and social novels, and active Spiritualist. As Douglas Kerr has written in his recent book: “Arthur Conan Doyle was, arguably, Britain's last national writer.” (13) An Irish by ancestry, Scottish by birth and upbringing, and British by choice, devoted to Crown and Empire, he still remains one of the most popular British authors and a national icon.
Last modified 14 November 2013