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ClassicsOnline Home » PEARSON, H.: Arthur Conan Doyle, A Life (Abridged)
Conan Doyle (1859–1930) will always be remembered for the character of Sherlock Holmes, but he was a prolific writer—of short stories, of science fiction and historical fiction—including The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard. In his comprehensive biography, Pearson considers how his life is reflected in his books—including his background as a doctor and his enduring (and public) belief in spiritualism.
Arthur Conan Doyle, A Life
Arthur Conan Doyle was once described as ‘the most prominent living Englishman’, so it is not surprising to discover that biographies of Conan Doyle proliferated in the decades after his death in 1930. This ‘teller of tales’ who lived an upright life based on his own personal code of chivalry and who supported causes both worthy and lost alike, seemed something of an enigma to his friends and to the public.
He had created Sherlock Holmes, one of the handful of truly immortal characters of fiction known the world over, and biographers have searched the details of Doyle’s life ever since to prove that the writer himself was indeed Holmes, and possessed his qualities. The evidence though seems to indicate he was more of a Dr. Watson! The paradox of a writer who could display the mental incisiveness of his detective on the page, yet also believe in spiritualism, which one can never imagine Holmes taking seriously, fascinates his biographers to this day.
One of the latest biographies, Teller of Tales by Daniel Stashower (1999), attempts to put Doyle’s belief in spiritualism, to which he devoted the last part of his life, in its social context.
The mass deaths of World War I had encouraged the desire for belief in and contact with the spirit world. A spiritualist colleague, the Rev John Lamond, wrote one of the earliest Doyle memoirs in 1931.
In 1945, Doyle’s son Adrian wrote from the family perspective in The True Conan Doyle, and in 1949 John Dickson Carr, himself a writer of crime stories, wrote what some aficionados think is the definitive biography. He was lucky to have access to Conan Doyle’s family papers before they became enmeshed in a lawsuit, which continues to this day, and has limited the availability of this source material to subsequent biographers. There is apparently a vast amount of material, as Doyle had a ‘horror of destroying documents’.
Hesketh Pearson’s biography appeared in the same decade as Adrian Conan Doyle’s and John Dickson Carr’s, in 1943. It is written in his usual popular and jaunty style making it a ‘good read’. Pearson draws heavily on Conan Doyle’s own autobiographical writings, Memories and Adventures, published in 1924, and is therefore full of anecdotes from Doyle himself, giving a strong sense of his personality, which was a mixture of humor and earnestness.
Pearson also intersperses the recollections of Doyle’s family and friends, and seemingly knew Doyle personally. Perhaps because of this close association with the Doyle circle, he skirts around some of the issues raised by later biographers. Doyle’s long platonic friendship with Jean Leckie for instance, who became the second Mrs. Conan Doyle, is referred to enigmatically: ‘This marriage in September 1907 to Miss Jean Leckie, whose family he had known for some time, made a new man of him’; and his great obsession with spiritualism is treated tactfully as something of an embarrassment.
Doyle’s greatest faux pas, his belief that a faked photograph of fairies by two little girls in Cottingley, was genuine, receives a one sentence mention—‘Doyle believed in fairies, but did not think their presence was proved until someone had made a photograph of them’. Such sensitive issues in Doyle’s life had to wait for later biographers to explore, when the necessity to tread carefully while friends and family were alive, had passed.
Pearson’s Doyle comes across as a very likeable fellow, who thought of himself as a complex character. Perhaps he was right, for he certainly retains a fascination for 21st century biographers. The Internet is filled with biographies and theses on his works, ranging from the straightforward in a series called Great Scots (which also includes an introduction to the geography and culture of Scotland) to the intellectual in A Post-Colonial Canonical and Cultural Revision of Conan Doyle’s Holmes Narratives. How Holmes would have relished that title!
And so the quest for the real Conan Doyle continues until as the great man said himself; ‘you have eliminated the impossible; whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.’
Notes by David Timson
The text of Arthur Conan Doyle – A Life by Hesketh Pearson is used by kind permission of Michael Holroyd.
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PEARSON, H.: Arthur Conan Doyle, A Life (Abridged)