Charles Higham’s life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, traces the adventures of that eminent Victorian from his Dickensian childhood in Edinburgh in the 1860’s to his death in 1930, and beyond, to his well-attested messages from beyond the grave to his family and selected friends. The author is a poet and essayist of note whose father, Sir Charles Higham, served with Conan Doyle on the governing board of the First Battalion of Sussex Volunteers during World War I. The author obviously admires his famous subject and finds his character fascinating. He reports Conan Doyle’s many excursions into the realm of the spirits fully but non-committally; he is interested not in proving or disproving the authenticity of Conan Doyle’s otherworldly experiences, but in showing the external forces as well as the personality traits which impelled him to seek them.
Higham relates the incidents of Conan Doyle’s life to his work, not an uncommon structure for the biography of a literary figure; but Conan Doyle’s work, more than most, reflects as well the colorful panorama of contemporary popular culture. Conan Doyle wrote detective and horror stories, historical novels, political and spiritualist tracts, plays, humorous and sentimental sketches, and science fiction. Of these, the political writings must obviously have sprung from contemporary events; the spiritualist material, too, had its roots in its author’s times as well as in his psyche. But the detective stories, the horror stories, and the science fiction works, almost universally, came directly out of the popular press. For example, “A Study in Scarlet,” his first Sherlock Holmes story, deals with a revenge murder perpetrated by Mormons; several articles about this sect as well as about terrorist societies such as the Fenians had recently appeared in the Times and various magazines. A bestial native of the Andaman Islands who figures in the second Holmes adventure “The Sign of Four” was drawn from a hair-raising description of those islanders in a then-current International Review. “A Scandal in Bohemia,” which made Conan Doyle a success once and for all, takes its premise from the Tranby Croft affair, a real-life scandal in the highest circles of society. The lineage-obsessed family in “The Musgrave Ritual” is drawn on the model of Conan Doyle’s own family, while the domestic altercations of Holmes and Watson echo those of his own first marriage. Holmes’s demise in “The Final Problem” takes place, as every fan knows, at the Reichenbach Falls, a location powerfully symbolic to Conan Doyle because he had taken his first wife Louise there in hopes of halting her tuberculosis, and had killed his fictional hero off in order to be able to devote himself to her care. In middle life he wrote science fiction stories about airplanes, submarines, undersea exploration, psychometry, dinosaurs, and space, the technical information for which he lifted wholesale from contemporary scientific journals and newspapers. Thus, to read Conan Doyle is to gain an overview of his times from its philosophical heights to its criminal depths.
Higham’s premise in this biography is that Arthur Conan Doyle was the quintessential Victorian gentleman, whose personality encompassed elements of both Holmes and Watson. He was handsome, athletic, genial, chivalrous, gullible, and brave. Also, or contrarily, he had a cold deductive faculty, a longing for oblivion and union with the cosmos, a Gaelic capacity for fanatic mysticism, and a profound mistrust of physical passion. His antecedents were Scotch-Irish on both sides. On his father’s side the Doyles and Conans boasted famous illustrators, cartoonists, portrait painters, and journalists. His mother was a Foley, a family of humble origins but distant connections. From the first, his life was the focus of opposing forces. His tall, dreamy father, in whom the family’s vein of talent ran scantily, produced etchings of a neurasthenic delicacy and withdrew early into epileptic insanity and alcoholism; his mother’s small stature, on the other hand, belied great courage and strength of will. With stories and studies of heraldry and genealogy, she made for herself and her children a private refuge of honor and pride amid the smoke and misery of nineteenth century Edinburgh. Sent away to school at the Jesuit college of Stonyhurst, young Arthur enjoyed his natural ascendancy at sports, and mined his imagination for tales of adventure and the supernatural with which to regale his schoolmates. But the grimness, the physical discomfort and intellectual rigidity of Stonyhurst dampened his natural high spirits. On a visit to London in 1874 at the age of fifteen, he confronted contrasts in his own family that would later show up in the characters...
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