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The Mythmaker

Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters
By Jon Lellenberg, Daniel Stashower, and Charles Foley
(Penguin Press, 706 pp., $37.95)

This is a book devoted to a versatile and almost entirely forgotten writer. He wrote lively historical novels set in the middle ages, or in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He wrote plays and poems and at least one novel of modern life that was thought somewhat risque. He also wrote light sketches about three children called (alas) Laddie, Dimples, and Baby. He wrote science fiction and adventure stories and a history of World War I in several volumes.

A good deal of this might be worth reviving, especially perhaps the Brigadier Gerard stories, in which Arthur Conan Doyle had the bright idea of looking at the Peninsular War through the eyes of a Frenchman and an ordinary soldier. But of course Jon Lellenberg, Daniel Stashower, and Charles Foley (henceforth LSF) would not have produced this collection of Conan Doyle's letters, linked by passages of short narrative, had he not been the inventor of Sherlock Holmes. Like his older contemporary Arthur Sullivan, creator with W.S. Gilbert of the Savoy operettas, he is remembered for the sideline that distracted him from his more serious and (as he supposed) more durable work.

As it happens, Conan Doyle had a more eventful life than most writers. He was trained as a doctor and worked in general practice for a number of years in Southsea, a district of Portsmouth on the Hampshire coast, until Sherlock Holmes's success allowed him to write full time. He was an enthusiastic sportsman: cricket was his greatest love, but he was also a pioneer in the new sports of skiing and rally driving. He had a taste for adventure, and interrupted his medical career to sail north aboard an Arctic whaler; and he also joined in the crew's other principal activity, clubbing seals. (He thought it the best time of his life.) During the Boer War, when he was already middle-aged and famous, he put his literary career aside to go out to South Africa as a military doctor. The conditions were tough--one of his colleagues had to be sent home in a state of nervous collapse--but he saw it out. Back home, he championed two victims of miscarriage of justice, in the face of official obstruction. In the Great War he was back visiting the front again. And in the last decade of his life, up to his death in 1930, he championed the cause of spiritualism, traveling as far as Australia to spread his gospel and enduring a good deal of mockery. ("Is Conan Doyle mad?" one newspaper asked.) Besides great energy, he had moral and physical courage.

Still, it was a life more fascinating to live than to read about. Conan Doyle is not a very interesting letter-writer, and it is a further limitation that the vast majority of these letters were written to the same recipient, his mother. Perhaps because they are alive to this limitation, LSF offer their book in part as "a window opening onto a bygone age." This is fair enough. Conan Doyle's private life was a period piece of a peculiar kind. His first wife caught consumption, and spent many years of increasing invalidism before finally succumbing. Meanwhile her husband had fallen deeply in love with a much younger woman, Jean Leckie, who became a kind of platonic mistress to him for almost a decade, until his wife's death freed them to marry. Conan Doyle never contemplated leaving his wife, for whom he seems to have retained a sincere if mild affection, and he was indignant at the suggestion that he and Jean had consummated their affair. This combination of passion and restraint, of infidelity and high-mindedness, does indeed seem to belong to a world distant from our own.

For all his virtues, Conan Doyle also reveals in these letters a self- complacency and an exaggerated view of his importance that is a little comic: one catches the accents of Mr. Toad, and even of Mr. Pooter. He thought that his Micah Clarke was better than Stevenson's Kidnapped. His White Company, he declares, is a "very good" book, and "the first in English literature to draw the most important figure in English military history, the English bowman soldier." He described The Stark Munro Letters as "vital and original": "I really dont [sic] think a young man's life has been gone into so deeply in English literature before." Another of his books was "absolutely fresh and new, " with "a quality of heart which is rare in English literature." His history of the Great War would amaze people and sweep the country, because he was the only man who knew the facts. When he became a spiritualist evangelist, he compared himself to St. Paul. "There is no doubt that thought in Adelaide will never be the same again," he wrote after speaking in that city. Even his love affair, he said, showed a courage that was almost unique in history. And he was heroic in financial matters, too: "I don't suppose any man has ever sacrificed so much money to preserve his ideal of art as I have done." In fact, money is one of his favorite topics in the letters to his mother, and it is here that the flavor of Pooter can be felt.

In the earlier part of their book especially, LSF are on the lookout for pieces of Conan Doyle's life that may have found their way into his stories. They have dug up a Dr. James Watson, one of his fellow physicians in Portsmouth. Is this the man from whom Conan Doyle took the name of Sherlock's friend? Probably not, as he notoriously had difficulty remembering whether Watson's first name was James or John. So Dr. Watson of Southsea was not after all like James Bond, author of a book on birds of the Caribbean, whose name was recognised by Ian Fleming as fitting him for more exacting challenges. When Conan Doyle wanted a name for his creation, he seems to have looked for something solid, Anglo-Saxon, and inconspicuous, and Watson fitted the bill.

But LSF have found a more telling connection between fact and fiction. In one of the last Holmes stories, Watson refers to "my old school number, thirty-one," and 31 was Conan Doyle's own number at the Jesuit boarding school at which he had been educated in his teens--that is to say, the number allocated to him for things like coat pegs, lockers, and so on. There does seem to be an implication here, at the end of his career, that Watson had been his alter ego. And here perhaps is the key to Dr. Watson, who is the real stroke of genius in the Holmes saga, just as in P.G. Wodehouse's stories it is Bertie Wooster, the baffled narrator, who is the truly original (and oddly subtle and complex) invention, rather than the superhuman Jeeves.

Watson is often taken to be a simple, stolid John Bull, with not a lot of brain. "Good old Watson!" says Holmes. "You are the one fixed point in a changing age." But that is in "His Last Bow," perhaps the weakest of all the Holmes stories, written in a burst of wartime patriotism and at a moment when the author himself was starting to misinterpret his own creation. The "real" Watson is more complicated. When we first meet him, in A Study in Scarlet, he has returned from the North-West Frontier, where he has been wounded by an Afghan bullet, and is newly arrived in London, restless and lonely. Watson is chivalric, as well as solid. He is rather perceptive about Holmes, and he never loses a liking for adventure: his recurrent willingness to abandon his practice for a few days to follow Holmes on his latest escapade is more than a convenient narrative device. Reading Conan Doyle's letters explains, if nothing else, why his Watson always seems authentic: he had only to represent himself, and a fully rounded figure would appear upon the page.

Sherlock Holmes is a more problematic case. Many people would say that he is one of the most vivid characters in all literature. But his most famous attribute, his deerstalker hat, owes more to the illustrator than to the text, and is in any case a stage prop rather than a part of his nature. And Conan Doyle's portrait of his hero is famously inconsistent. At first Holmes's mind is powerful but narrow: he neither knows nor cares that the earth goes around the sun, and he is wholly indifferent to literature. But later he becomes superbly cultivated, letting fall allusions to Hafiz and Horace. The tension in his spirit between severe intellect and fierce passion runs pretty much throughout all the stories, though even here Conan Doyle does not quite seem sure whether Holmes is rigidly self-controlled or close to neurosis. The opium craving was perhaps a mistake, but having given him this attribute, Conan Doyle was stuck with it.

And yet as every reader knows, Sherlock Holmes somehow--mysteriously, one wants to say--works. People think of him as a real person, a trap into which LSF themselves fall in one place. Rather sportingly, Conan Doyle quoted the wit who remarked that although Holmes might not have been killed when he fell over the cliff, he was never quite the same man afterwards. Here LSF add a solemn footnote to point out that Holmes was not in fact killed at the falls. This not only misses the joke, it is wrong: it would only be true if Holmes were a real person. The fictional Holmes did perish in his last struggle with Moriarty. ("Killed Holmes," Conan Doyle wrote in his diary at the time.) The alternative Holmes who lives on belongs to other, later stories.

Perhaps all one can do is to say, rather helplessly, that he has the quality of myth about him. Just as Odysseus remains Odysseus through all the varied and inconsistent stories that the Greeks told about him, so Holmes survives his contradictions. The time of his creation was indeed a mythic moment. It is striking how much of our modern mythology was made in Britain in the last two decades of the nineteenth century: Treasure Island, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Jungle Books, King Solomon's Mines, The Turn of the Screw, and The Prisoner of Zenda all originate in this short period, along with Sherlock Holmes; and Peter Pan followed very early in the new century. And perhaps our own mythic instinct may explain why The Hound of the Baskervilles is easily Holmes's most famous case. At first blush that seems surprising, for the story does not make much sense and the denouement is an anticlimax: the large dog turns out to be a large dog. Conan Doyle himself, not one to underrate his own works, thought the book "not as good as I should have wished." Yet the story has an archetypal quality: the great Grimpen Mire seems to have come out of the collective northern subconsciousness. T.S. Eliot borrowed the name to describe humanity "in a dark wood, in a bramble,/On the edge of a grimpen, where is no secure foothold"; and thus Four Quartets became one of the more unexpected places to which Conan Doyle spread his influence.

But The Hound of the Baskervilles, set in Devon, is not a typical piece, because Sherlock Holmes is not only one of literature's great smokers, he is also one of its great Londoners. And he is a Londoner of a very particular era. The last of the stories were written in the 1920s, but just as Peter Pan never gets any older, so no reader really believes in his heart that Holmes exists beyond the 1890s. His London, we feel, is the London of fogs and hansom cabs, of an East End where sinister lascars skulk and (to move from fiction to life) where Jack the Ripper, another mythic figure, goes about his ugly business. It is usually cold or damp, or both. "It was a bright, crisp February morning, and the snow of the day before still lay deep upon the ground," is a typical sentence to set the scene in Baker Street. Or: "It was a cold morning of the early spring.... A thick fog rolled down between the lines of dun-coloured houses." The second of these quotations comes from The Adventure of the Copper Beeches, in which Holmes and Watson take the train to Winchester. Once they are in the country the weather changes entirely, into "an ideal spring day," with a blue sky flecked with little fleecy clouds. Even the weather points up the distinctiveness of Holmes's London.

Conan Doyle's spiritualism also seems very "period" now. Here we need to distinguish, as he himself did not always do, between psychical research and the spirit world. In the early twentieth century, many intelligent people were ready to take psychic phenomena seriously. That was not in itself unreasonable: the world is full of very mysterious things--light, time, elementary particles--and it is not in principle absurd that mental transference might be among them. In practice, we have dropped the idea, because there is no evidence for it. Spiritualism, on the other hand, if it is to mean anything, is concerned with a supernatural realm, and not with the physical realm at all.

No doubt the Great War had something to do with it. Conan Doyle noted that he had been able to put more than a dozen grieving mothers in contact with their dead sons. And his own nephew, Oscar Hornung, who had perished on the western front, also got in touch, for some reason using a working-class Glasgow family as intermediaries. Oscar turned up again just before Conan Doyle set out for Australia to speed him on his way, this time accompanied by Conan Doyle's own son, who had died of the Spanish influenza.

Despite the natural feelings of the bereaved, it is hard now to understand how people could have believed this stuff. Perhaps the affair of the "Cottingley fairies," to which LSF give only half a Delphic sentence, may offer a clue. Two Yorkshire girls claimed to have seen fairies, and also to have caught images of them on film. They looked exactly like pictures cut out from a modern book, which is of course what they were. Why was Conan Doyle deceived? If we meet an angel, the one thing of which we can be sure is that he will not look like a figure from a stained-glass window; and if we find fairies at the bottom of our garden, we can be certain that they will not resemble the fancies of an Edwardian illustrator. But spiritualism seems to represent a willful failure of imagination. It sees the life after death not as utter transformation, but as the continuation of earthly life in its familiar concreteness--with superior facilities, of course. "We carry on our wisdom our knowledge," Conan Doyle wrote, "our art, literature, music, architecture, but all with a far wider sweep. Our bodies are at their best. We are free from physical pain. The place is beautiful." He added that there would even be whiskey on the other side.

Skeptics have often wondered why the dead are so erratic in their visitations to those of us who are still this side of the veil, and why, when they do turn up, they have so little of interest to say. Conan Doyle saw the problem: he knew a certain lady who had spent the first few years after her death trying to set up a bureau of communication to organize interchange between earth and the spirit world on a more efficient basis. After a decade and a half she abandoned the project, realizing, as Conan Doyle admitted, that most spirits are not interested in this world at all.

Conan Doyle is immortal, but his immortality rests on a small part of his output: the best of him is in Sherlock Holmes, and the best of Holmes is in the first two collections of short stories. In many ways he was an accomplished magpie, somewhat like J.K. Rowling in our own time, borrowing ideas from other writers and adapting them for his own purposes. The historical novels do not disguise their debt to Walter Scott. The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton, in which Holmes and Watson do a spot of burglary--from the best of motives, to be sure--takes us toward the milieu of the gentleman thief Raffles, the creation of Conan Doyle's brother-in-law E.W. Hornung. His Last Bow takes its story--the capture of a German spy on the eve of World War I-- all too obviously from Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps. The Lost World derives from Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines, though it lacks the intensity, and the sheer scariness, of that remarkable book. The Hound of the Baskervilles owes a good deal to Blackmore's Lorna Doone, with Dartmoor replacing Exmoor as the sinister wilderness that finally swallows up the villain.

But Sherlock Holmes himself is fully Conan Doyle's invention, even though his immense fame meant that he ultimately escaped his creator's complete control. Conan Doyle wrote a number of stories about Professor Challenger, a gruff, noisy scientist, and at the end of his life, in The Land of Mist, he had Challenger try to expose spiritualism, only to be persuaded of its truth by irrefutable evidence. Still, some instinct of literary self-preservation told Conan Doyle that Holmes must not follow that path. In The Sussex Vampires, written in 1924, when Conan Doyle's spiritualist mission was at its height, Holmes proclaims his skepticism: "This Agency stands flat-footed upon the ground, and there it must remain. The world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply." It says a good deal for Sherlock Holmes's autonomy that although he would have been the most prestigious of all recruits to the cause, Conan Doyle knew that he could not convert him.

Richard Jenkyns is Professor of the Classical Tradition at the University of Oxford.

By Richard Jenkyns