During my many years of teaching English to Spanish people there has been one fictional character who has been mentioned again and again, by difficult to teach teenagers, by a middle aged university professor and by many more. Their eyes would light up and they cwould talk about Sherlock Holmes.
I am definately not an expert on Sherlock or Sir Conan Doyle – I have read the books and enjoyed the movies and TV versions. I decided I would like to know more about the man behind the books. In this article I want to share what I have found out about him and share links to much more well informed accounts of him and interesting things.
A Brief overview of the life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle, whose surname was Doyle not Conan Doyle, was born on 22nd of May 1859 in Edinburgh, Scotland. He started using Conan Doyle as a compound surname later in life. His childhood wasn’t easy due to his father drinking and a temporary separation of his parents. They lived in cheap accomodation in bad conditions.
His studies were paid for by his uncles who were well off. He went to schools in Edinburgh, Lancashire and in Feldkirch, Austria. He went on to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh Medical School. He later did an M.D.
First he worked on board a ship sailing to the African West Coast, as the surgeon (SS Mayumba) during this time he wrote journals of his experiences. Then he worked in a couple of practices. He strongly supported the idea of compulsory vaccinations. He tried studying ophthalmology (to become an eye surgeon) in Vienna but didn’t continue with the studies due to the difficulty of the terminology in German. He wrote various medical papers and articles and studied botany too.
While his medical practice in Wimpole street, London, didn’t have many patients he took up writing fiction. He wrote stories, not only about Sherlock but also about Professor Challenger in The Lost World, mysteries about old artifacts, historical novels and more.
Have a look at the list of all his writing here:
Here is an interview with Sir Author in which he says why he started writing the Sherlock stories.
He had a Sherlock Holmes story, A study in Scarlet, first published in the Beeton’s Christmas Annual in 1886. He had been paid 25 pounds sterling for it the previous year. Later he changed to The Strand Magazine.
Sir Arthur said that the character of Sherlock was based on one of his former university teachers, Joseph Bell, who would deduce many things about the patients and was extremely observant. The name of Doctor Watson came from his colleague in his first medical practice, though he doesn’t mention if the character too.
Sir Arthur didn’t want to spend time on Sherlock stories and to quote from a letter he wrote to his mother “I think of slaying Holmes…He takes my mind from better things.” He even killed him in the story The Final Problem in 1893 but due to public pressure brough Sherlock back in 1901 in The Hound of the Baskervilles. More stories followed.
Doyle was married twice, first to Louisa in 1885, with whom he had 2 children (Mary Louise and Kingsley) and later after the death of Louisa from tuberculosis he married Jean Elizabeth and had 3 more children ( Denis, Adrian and Jean Lena).
Sir Arthur had opinions and acted on them by writing and even by running for political office though he wasn’t elected. He had two closed police cases opened and re-investigated with the result that 2 men were found innocent. He supported the campaign for the Congo Free State and wrote a pamphlet about the horrors of the colony. He wrote about the Boer war and the United Kingdom’s role in it. He was a volunteer doctor in Bloemfontein and wrote a paper called “The War in South Africa: It’s Causes and Conduct.” Sir Arthur believed that this was the reason he was awarded a knighthood by King Edward VII.
He was a keen sportsman and took part in football, cricket and golf.
Sir Arthur with his friend Harry Houdini
He was a freemason and was interested in philosophy and the paranormal. He became interested in spiritualism when many young men were being killed in the war and not as often said following the death od his son Kingsley who died 2 years after. He continued to believe in these things all his life and even fell out with his friend Harry Houdini over it. He published a History of Spiritualism. I won’t go in to further detail but here is a link with much more on this subject.
With his son.
Doyle died of a heart attack in his home in Crowborough, East Sussex on July 7th 1930. His final words were to his wife “You are wonderful”. The reading on his epitaph is “Steel true, Blade straight, Arthor Conan Doyle, Knight, Patriot, Physician, and man of letters”.
I feel unsure about my feelings towards Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. However I do respect him and his work but since I know nothing of spiritualism and those matters I don’t know if he was right or not.
He has affected how we think of detection and had Sherlock using methods which were later used by the police.
The Literary Legacy
The books may have stopped but the interest in them and moderm movies, series and spin off books and productions continue.
Sherlock Holmes doesn’t seem to go out of fashion ever! The books still feel fresh and interesting, even though they are set in the 1800s. On the big screen and small screen there are many versions of Sherlock and his friend Watson. There has even been an Italian cartoon dog Sherlock.
Writers are writing new books about Sherlock in the Conan Doyle style, movie makers are doing their own spins on the stories and TV producers are ever evolving the stories.
Thankfully Sherlock Holmes and the legacy of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle are still going strong.
If this has wet your appetite for more…
*I strongly recommend looking at these web sites:
*For free audio books by Sir Conan Doyle:
*For articles in the New York Times about him: http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/d/arthur_conan_doyle/index.html
*For very interesting visuals from the Guardian:
*About the language he used:
*For a tour of the Sherlock Holmes museum: