***2019 The Summer of Sherlock***
Reading a biography of Arthur Conan Doyle seemed like a necessary thing during my Summer of Sherlock. Last summer, I read Andrew Lycett’s bio of Ian Fleming during my Summer of Spies and found that it greatly enhanced my enjoyment of Fleming’s Bond novels. Perhaps I should have tackled this biography earlier in my summer and it might have given me more insight into the man’s writing.
ACD was born in the Victorian era and lived until the British Interwar period. He saw a lot of change during his lifetime, some of which he could embrace and some of which made him angry. So really, just like most of us! In many ways, he was a man of contradictions: a man with scientific training who was fascinated with mysticism; a deeply conservative man who nevertheless held some very progressive opinions; a Victorian gentleman who strove to become modern.
According to his eldest daughter, Mary, “He didn’t concur with the Victorian view that women should marry at all costs--for he thought the un-married woman, with her freedom, was a whole lot happier than a woman married to the wrong man and, he added, ‘The worst of it is, the poor things can never tell till they have married the chap!’” This is somewhat ironic, as he obviously considered himself one of the good ones, which might have been disputed by Mary’s mother, his first wife Louise. ACD spent the last 6-8 years of her life cavorting around with the woman who became his second wife one year after Louise finally expired of tuberculosis. He then proceeded to be absolutely abominable to his two children from his first marriage, until his son’s death after WWI from the Spanish flu, when he seemed to become a little more sympathetic to Mary and the two were reconciled. Until then, he seemed like the worst sort of child support avoiding cad. In all fairness, his letters & papers appear to have been pruned by the children of the second family, who seem to have wanted Mary & Kingsley to disappear from history, so who knows what the true state of affairs was?
It can’t have helped that Mary looked very much like her mother (at least from the photos included in the book, there is no mistaking their relationship to my eyes). But it does speak volumes that Mary had to arrange the funeral and burial of her brother, a task better suited to their well-to-do father.
By contrast, his 3 children from his marriage to Jean seem to have been spoiled rotten. ACD made his own good fortune by working hard, first as a doctor, then as an author, all the while being very careful of his finances. And he can’t be said to be miserly, as he assisted and supported a whole fleet of family members and frequently contributed to causes and campaigns that he valued. It must have been rather frustrating to him to see his younger children behaving in irresponsible and spendthrift ways.
ACD seems to have been an extroverted person, a real networker before networking was a thing. He knew a tremendous number of authors: Oscar Wilde, J.M. Barrie, H. Rider Haggard, H.G. Wells, Rudyard Kipling, among others. He couldn’t always maintain cordial relationships with all of them, but he was aware of them and probably read their works, as they seemed to read his. He was also very much a sportsman, enjoying cricket, golf, billiards and car racing. In those ways, he was very much a man of his time.
Would he be disappointed that the 21st century knows him almost exclusively for his Sherlock Holmes stories? Would he be surprised at the number of modern authors who have made use of Holmes and Watson to spin more stories of their own? It’s funny how we are too close to our own output to realize which aspects of it are the best--he seems to have always viewed Holmes as a distraction from his more “substantive” writing and as a way to make some quick money when it was needed. Another irony here, when a man who devoted his last years to spiritualism used the ultra-rational Sherlock Holmes to raise a few bucks to support that cause!
Its too bad that his estate, especially the letters and manuscripts, got divided up like some kind of pie between his youngest 3 children and then the early deaths of the sons left some of it to daughters-in-law. One observer noted that they were glad not to be involved in the debacle, as all of the people involved were decidedly unpleasant to deal with. As a result, ACD’s papers are scattered between quite a large number of institutions, making the life of the researcher more difficult. Lycett in his afterword describes his trials and tribulations in trying to access, utilize and obtain permission to quote ACD. Lycett may the the first biographer to be able to use these documents, but someone else undoubtedly will take another stab at it when the dust (and the estates) are settled.