The Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle by John Dickson Carr (1949)
There have been so many biographies of Conan Doyle that it is hard to swing a Giant Sumatran Rat without hitting one, but this early, somewhat imperfect, is worth the time for those who want an insight into the man and for thosse who simply want a good read. Carr and Adrian Conan Doyle (Sir Arthur's son) spent two years going over the vast files of Conan Doyle's estate. Those files contained notebooks, dairies, press cuttings, thousands of letters to and from Doyle, as well as significant ephemera -- records large enough noted to have been fully organized until 16 years after the author's death. Every detail noted and every quote cited, when not taken from the 22 other sources available to Carr, came from this treasure trove of Doyleania.
The result? Although Carr presents the biography like fiction, he insists that is not a novelized biography. By depending on sources that stem mainly from the man himself and those closest to him, Carr gives us a portrait of Doyle's persona instead of the man and, perhaps, in this case the two are not widely different. And Carr is a gentleman as well as a hard-headed romantic, as was his subject; and as a gentleman, some things may well have been glossed over. Indeed, some things appear to have been buffed to a shine while others have been ignored completely. All in all, however, Carr gues a fascinating account of a fascinating man.
The biographer has a way with words. Here he is describing Doyle's family's affairs shortly after Doyle left medical school: "But the situation at home was now really desperate. His father's health was breaking. charles Doyle, frail and old when only middle-aged, had twice been forced to spend a week in bed. The Office of Works raised ominous eyebrows at this slackness after only thirty year's service." With an economy of words and with a stinging wit, Carr aptly describes the tenor of the times.
Doyle himself emerges as a larger than life character, driven by what could best be called a sense of chivalry and all that too-mythical word implies. His mind was ever probing, ever curious. He rallied to causes, fought for tthose he felt were being treated unfairly, and never backed down. During the Boer War, he served in a field hospital where disease was rampant and even when the doctors became fatally ill, he never flinched. He returned to England with sensible recommendations that could save soldiers' lives and fought for those ideas for years. Just prior to World War I, he tried to warn a complacent war department of the threat German submarines posed to the British Navy; all too late was his warnings heeded. Doyle undertook the lost causes of George Edalji and of Oscar Slater and won -- although in Slater's case it took year's to get justice. (Slater himself was a poor use of protoplasm, but Doyle championed him because he had been treated unfairly. That sense of chialry, you see,) Doyle, an Irishman himself, had strong views on the Irish question, and voiced them widely. He was an early and vocal supporter of divorce athough he would never consider it for himself. (He was very fond of his first wife but realized that he had never loved her after he met and fell in love with the woman who would be his second wife with whom he had a very long -- and presumably unconsummated -- relationship until his first wife died after suffering from tuberculosis for thirteen years.) He was a great sportsman, loved boxing and cricket, and introduced skiing as a sport to Switzerland. He loved gadgets, especially motorized ones, and was almost killed when he flipped his automobile once (always denying that he was a bad driver). His mind was always on the lookout for new ideas, new interests.
Doyle had a rather slow start as a writer. Although he sold the first story he had written, it took a while for his second sale. Even his Sherlock Holmes stories were not popular at first. Doyle never intended Holmes to become a series character; it was only at the insistance of his editor (who had a better sense of prophecy than Doyle of his audience) that the adventures continued. Doyle famously disliked the sage of Baker Street, and felt that his popularity diminshed the public perception of Doyle's historical novels -- the work that Doyle was most proud of. In fact, notwithstanding the great popularity of Sherlock Holmes, Doyle's historicals were wildly successful, perhaps too much so as later reviewers dismissed some of Doyle's greater historicals as merely rousing reads as they had come to expect from the author. While certainly not dismissing Holmes, Carr considered Brigadier Gerard to be one of Doyle's greatest characters. Doyle's other main character, Professor Challenger is Doyle himself in all but appearance; Challenger gave Doyle the ability to express thoughts he might have otherwise left unsaid.
One interesting point about the Holmes stories: Doyle got the idea of The Hound of the Baskervilles from his friend and fellow writer Fletcher Robinson (Robinson wrote The Chronicles of Addington Peace, a book that is listed as #33 in the Queen's Quorum, a chronological list of the 125 most important detective and crime story collections); Doyle and Robinson work out the plot of the book together but Robinson decided not collaborate on the novel.
Carr also addresses Doyle's devotion to spiritualism. Common thought had Doyle suddenly convert to spiritualism after the death of his eldest son but Carr points out that Doyle had a thiry-year history of interest in that subject before that point. Doyle neither believed nor disbelieved in the subject; he was familiar with many of the astonishing stories about the subject but did not believe the facts were strong enough to accept as proof. (Carr -- like myself -- is not a believer, but tried to put forward Doyle's beliefs as impartially as possible,) In 1914, for what he considered good and sufficient reasons, Doyle began to accept the validity of spiritulism. He publicly announced his belief in 1916 -- before the 1918 death of his son Kingsley (from pneumonia) just two weeks before the Armistice. A few months before Kinsley's death Doyle had published his first book on spiritualism, The New Revelation. Shortly after the death of his son, Doyle's beloved younger brother Innes also died from pneumonia. These deaths, coupled with the death of so many friends and relatives in the war, prodded Doyle to devote all his energies (and any future earnings) to the cause of spiritualism.
Carr emphasizes that Doyle was not tricked into his beliefs, rather that Doyle was a rational pragmatist who slowly began to realize the validity of spiritualism. Doyle was not one to be gulled. How, then, to explain Doyle's vocal support for the Cottington fairies? Carr doesn't. That entire episode is missing from this biography. (Two young girls claimed to have photographed fairies in their garden. The "fairies" were actually cut-out figures that -- to my jaded eyes -- look like cut-out figures. You can go online and see them for yourself.) This omission makes one wonder what else may have been omitted from this biography.
Carr's The Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle may be flawed, but it is damned interesting.