The Adventures of Dr. A. Conan Doyle

Reviewing  Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life In Letters, 684 pages, photos, Index, illustrations.  Jon Lellenberg, Daniel Stashower, Charles Foley editors, The Penguin Press, New York , 2007.

Over the course of his intellectually and physically active life Arthur Conan Doyle somehow found the time to write many hundreds of letters, most of them to his mother, Mary, or "Mam," as he called her. His letters constitute a personal chronicle by the creator of Sherlock Holmes, a non-fiction work narrating what could be titled  The Adventures Of Dr. A. Conan Doyle.  

Latitude 73 degrees, 10 N. Longitude 2 degrees E. April 7, 18 80

Here I am well and strong and as ugly as ever off Jan Mayen's Island in the Arctic Circle ...we went to bed with a great stretch of blue water before us as far as the eye could reach & when we got on deck in the morning  there was the whole sea full of great fat lumps of ice.  We pushed through it for a day but saw no the way, in the last four days I have fallen into  the sea five times, which is a pretty good average."

Davos , Switzerland , March, 1894   

"Yesterday I performed a small feat by crossing a chain of mountains on snowshoes (Norwegian skis) and coming down to Arosa.  Two Swiss accompanied me.  I am the first Englishman who has ever crossed an Alpine pass in winter on snow shoes."

Bloemfontein ( South Africa ) April 3, 19 00

I can only find this half sheet of paper so I must try to make the most of it.  ...yesterday, Monday Ap 2 we arrived and I got your letter.  When I had read that I heard there was a battle going on about 7 miles away, so off I started with Gibbs and Shareib in the hope of doing some good...but it was a false alarm....wounded are pouring into town and there is no place for them...last night it was rumored the Boers would raid the town, but we saw nothing but our own signal lights..."

Windlesham, January 30, 19 19

I have indeed been a bad correspondent but my work has been incessant. My letters alone are enough to keep a man busy but on the top I have my spiritual lectures, my history (correcting Vol. V while writing Vol. VI, the whole now exceeding half a million words), a little religious book called "Vital Message" which I am running serially in both England & America, a small book of war poems & other ventures.  So you will make allowance."

The first was written while twenty-one year old Doyle was serving as ship's surgeon aboard the arctic whaling ship Hope. During the cruise he participated in strenuous whaling and sealing work with the crew and experienced the loss of his first patient.  The book quotes a relevant portion of his autobiographical Memories and Adventures about those six months at sea: "I went on board a big, straggling youth; I came off it a powerful, well-grown man."

Conan Doyle was a sportsman who participated in a variety of athletic activities: cricket, tennis, walking, cycling, ice skating, golf.  From Switzerland he wrote his mother about enjoying skiing, which had its humorous aspects that he described in a  magazine article:

"You put them on and you turn with a smile to see whether your friends are looking at you, and the next moment you are boring your head madly in a snowbank, kicking frantically with both feet..." 

Dr. Doyle served as a civilian volunteer surgeon on the Langman Field Hospital staff during the Boer war, one he did not welcome and called "horrid."   Though his dear mother, who sympathized with the Boer cause, implored him not to go, duty called and her son sailed to South Africa.  Artist Mortimer Menpes, on assignment for the Illlustrated London News, visited Doyle and later wrote about his impressions.

"It was difficult to associate him with the author of Sherlock Holmes: he was a doctor pure and simple...'you're overworking yourself (I told him).'  ‘Yes...we are all overworked just now. We have such a tremendous incursion of patients that it almost impossible to cope with them..."

By 1919 Arthur Conan Doyle had been knighted.  As was the case with so many English families, his had been depleted by World War One.  His son Kingsley was badly wounded on the Somme and later died of pneumonia.  His brother-in-law was killed at Mons.  He also lost his sister's husband, her son, his wife's nephew.  Doyle's immediate post-war priorities -- his family's surviving members, completing his history of the War, and spreading the gospel of Spiritualism -- are reflected in the letter cited above. 

Though the loss of his son had precipitated his full embrace of Spiritualism -- believing it allowed him to communicate with Kingsley -- Sir Arthur had interested himself in it years earlier.  He attended séances in the mid-1880s and joined the Society for Physical Research in 1893. 

He wrote his last letter December 27, 1920 from the S.S. Paloma. Three days later, sailing back to England after a Spiritualism lecture tour of Australia and New Zealand, he received word that his beloved mother had died. Her death marked the end of 53 years of correspondence that began when 8 year old Arthur wrote to "Dear Mama" from Hodder House prep school, Lancashire,  that the only thing he was finding difficult "is my Latin exercise." 

These excerpts, perforce, only touch the surface of the depth and breadth of Conan Doyle's life as revealed in his letters. Since he is so well known as the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, the reader will find satisfying information about some of the characters and plots.   For instance, he "detested and abhorred" mathematics; hence, arch-villain Professor Moriarty was a mathematician.   His most famous tale, The Hound of the Baskervilles, was inspired by conversations he had with Daily Express correspondent Bertram Fletcher Robinson, who regaled Doyle with folktales from his native Devonshire. In The Adventure of The Bruce-Partington Plans, Sherlock's brother Mycroft explains that "naval warfare becomes impossible" when a submarine is present.  Doyle was clearly influenced by a letter his friend, Adm. Percy Scott, wrote to the Times about the dangers to surface vessels posed by submarines. 

Readers curious about authors who influenced Doyle will learn that, if it weren't for Edgar Allan Poe, he "might not have created Sherlock Holmes at all."  But it was the adventures penned by Sir Walter Scott that fired his young imagination, kindling a love of reading, literature and history.  Other literary influences included Robert Louis Stevenson, Charles Dickens, and the American western author, Bret Harte. In 1894, Doyle, who believed America to be England 's natural ally, who loved the country and its people, traveled the United States for a lecture tour.  He told a Lotus Club audience that this land held as much romance for him as did tales of old Europe's "shattered castles and steel-clad knights."  He regretted not meeting Oliver Wendell Holmes, whom he esteemed; the great man had died five days after he landed in New York .    

In his correspondence we read about Doyle's other literary efforts:  the autobiographical Stark Munro Letters, historical fiction exemplified by The White Company and Micah Clarke, his ground-breaking science fiction novel The Lost World, plays such as The House of Temperly, and poetry that included The Song of the Bow.

The letters reveal his varied interests: reading, history, photography, current events, the Olympics, causes such as what he believed to be the unjustly convicted George Edalji, politics, British national defense, travel, lecturing, theater, motoring, etc.   

The editors have done a fine job with an Introduction that provides solid information on Doyle's family -- a genealogical context -- along with a brief description of the times in which he lived and wrote, his literary works and the process of editing his letters.  Most useful to the reader is the interconnecting narrative for the letters, a well-written, richly informative biographical framework crafted by Jon Lellenberg and Daniel Stashower, authors of books about Doyle. They cite his memoir, Memories and Adventures, frequently; it might be consulted as a companion volume.

Several days before his death on July 7, 19 30 Arthur Conan Doyle wrote:

"The reader will judge that I have had many adventures. The greatest and most glorious waits me now."  

And this reviewer judges that the letters this life adventurer wrote make for rewarding, enlightening reading; that if you are interested in the creator of Sherlock Holmes, the book constitutes a requisite addition to your library.

John B. Dwyer is a military historian.

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