Though Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is principally known for the creation of Sherlock Holmes, he was a man active in many fields of endeavor—political crusading, medicine, “psychical research”—and the author of many novels and stories that had nothing to do with his most famous character. The Arthur Conan Doyle Collection will not only showcase the world’s greatest detective but will serve as a home for other children of Doyle’s prolific pen.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Year Unknown
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1859, though both sides of his family had their roots in Ireland. His father, Charles Altamont Doyle, came from an artistic Dublin family (Charles’ brother was celebrated Victorian artist Richard Doyle) and was himself a noted illustrator, but it was his mother Mary’s fondness for storytelling that seems to have been most important in forming Arthur’s talents and tastes. Young Doyle’s pursuit of storytelling as a career, however, was sidetracked for many years; following early education at an English Jesuit school, he took up the study of medicine at the University of Edinburgh in 1876. One of his instructors at Edinburgh, Dr. Joseph Bell, was a keen-minded practitioner of deductive reasoning, who later served in part as the model for Sherlock Holmes.
Doyle first began writing during his University days, submitting short stories to various magazines. His first story, “The Mystery of Sasassa Valley,” was published in the Edinburgh magazine, Chamber’s Journal. Doyle graduated from Edinburgh in 1881, having spent an extra year as an apprentice doctor on an Arctic whaling vessel. Following his graduation, Doyle briefly served as a ship surgeon on board the Mayumba, an African trader, but abandoned this berth to start his own practice in Portsmouth in 1882.
Beeton's Christmas Annual 1887 First appearance of A Study in Scarlet
Doyle’s practice was not particularly lucrative, and he found he needed to supplement his medical income by writing more magazine stories, particularly after his marriage to Louisa Hawkins in 1885. He struck gold in 1887 with the sale of A Study in Scarlet, the first Sherlock Holmes novel, to Beeton’s Christmas Annual. The following four years saw a virtual parade of successful Doyle works; his first historical novel, Micah Clarke (1888), the second Holmes novel The Sign of Four (1890), and his most famous historical novel, and his own personal favorite, The White Company (1891). 1891 also saw the publication of the first Holmes short story, “A Scandal in Bohemia” in The Strand magazine and the beginning of a long association between Doyle, Holmes, and The Strand. In the meantime, Doyle’s medical practice, which in his own words had “never been very absorbing,” ground pretty much to a standstill due to his writing, which now became his principal occupation and not a sideline as it had been at first.
Though Holmes was an international literary phenomenon (the character proved even more popular in America than in England), Doyle tired of the sleuth rather quickly. Doyle admired his character’s analytical mind, but he himself was a romantic, and much preferred to write historical adventures set in more chivalrous times. He felt that the continual demand for more Sherlock stories hampered his real life work, the chronicling of olden times. In 1893, despite the howls of an irate public, he killed Holmes off in the short story, “The Final Problem.”
Doyle survived his readers’ rage at his killing of Holmes, and continued his highly successful authorial career with historical tales like The Refugees, Uncle Bernac, Rodney Stone, and the “Brigadier Gerard” short stories, as well as contemporary adventures like the novel Tragedy of the Korosko. He also penned many short stories of mystery, adventure, and horror for The Strand—one of which, “Lot 249,” was perhaps the first living-Egyptian-mummy story in English literature.
When the Boer War broke out, Doyle did medical service at an army hospital in South Africa, after failing to get into the army due to his age and weight. In 1902, following the end of the conflict, he wrote a celebrated political pamphlet justifying the British role in the war that won the appreciation of his government and led to his knighthood and appointment as Deputy-Lieutenant of Surrey the same year. The Hound of the Baskervilles, the first Holmes adventure since “The Final Problem,” was also published in 1902, following serialization in The Strand. Though this adventure was dated before Holmes’s still-official death, Doyle by now felt that he had accomplished enough in non-Sherlockian venues to yield to popular demand and bring the detective back, so he explained away his demise the following year in “The Adventure of the Empty House,” which inaugurated a new series of Holmes short stories in The Strand.
Holmes and Watson Sidney Paget 1893
Following the death of his wife Louisa from tuberculosis in 1906, Doyle buried himself in work, turning out novels and tales at a steady rate, including Sir Nigel, the prequel to The White Company. In 1912 he produced the book that alone among his works came to rival Holmes in influence on popular culture—the original “land of living dinosaurs” adventure story, The Lost World. The protagonists of The Lost World, especially the brilliant but egomaniacal Professor Challenger, would join Doyle’s cast of recurring short-story characters.
World War 1 found Doyle strongly desirous to enlist, but far too old; he nevertheless assisted the British government by helping to develop inflatable life vests for use by the navy. He also toured the battle lines to gather material for a history of the war. As the conflict dragged on, it became more and more hateful to Doyle, particularly when his son Kingsley died of war wounds shortly after its conclusion. It was the war that drove him into the enthusiasm that would occupy most of his remaining life, Spiritualism. Though he continued to write, Doyle’s chief pursuit now was the attempt to scientifically prove the “survival” of personality beyond death. He even went so far as to convert Professor Challenger to Spiritualism in the 1926 novel The Land of Mist.
In 1930, Doyle died at his estate of Windlesham, in Sussex, and was buried at Minstead, in Hampshire, where he had set part of his beloved White Company. Though the conceited and scientific Holmes, and, to a lesser extent, the brusque and ill-mannered Professor Challenger are the creations for which he is most famous, Doyle had much more in common with his Doctor Watson and his Sir Nigel Loring (hero of The White Company and Sir Nigel). He was impulsive, highly chivalrous, quixotic, and sometimes naïve almost to the point of gullibility, yet a very noble gentleman—and an outstanding writer.