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AN Wilson – The joy of Sherlock Holmes and Conan Doyle's letters

Blog | By AN Wilson | Jul 13, 2020

Holmes in the Strand Magazine (Sidney Paget)

I have read rather less than usual during Lockdown, but two authors have been sustaining. I start the day with about an hour of Chaucer, whom I am reading very slowly. The evening is devoted to a Sherlock Holmes story. In both cases, I feel an almost passionate gratitude , I have been enjoying them so much.

I like the sound of Arthur Conan Doyle. Not long before we were locked away, I wandered into one of those shops selling the books chucked out from publishers’ warehouses. They are depressing places, especially if you come across piles of your own books.

Presumably, every unsaleable volume in the shop had once seemed like a good idea to some gullible publisher, unwisely drinking at luncheon with a pushy agent.

But actually, some remainders are good books which have not for some reason or another appealed to the herd. And such are the absolutely fascinating Letters of Arthur Conan Doyle.

The book is based almost entirely upon the holding of Doyle letters in the British Library, most of them written to his mother, “the Mam”. Mary Doyle predeceased her son by a mere nine years, so that we have here the whole story, from the shabby genteel origins in Edinburgh, to life as a struggling doctor and writer; to the creation of Sherlock Holmes, which was both a boon and a curse, since the other things Doyle wrote – the historical romances, the Professor Challenger stories, were good, but not in the Holmes league.

Because he wrote to the Mam – often in sad circumstances, – the breezy tone is consistent. Christmas at Stonyhurst, the northern boarding school to which Doyle was sent as a child, in part to escape life with an alcoholic father, (he even drank furniture polish, as revealed here in a letter from the Mam) is translated in letters home into an idyll beside which Hogwarts would seem Jesuitically stern.

“There was a band on the side of the pond playing Rule britania [sic] and other popular songs we [sic] began skating after being all provided with cigars & matches we had scarcely begun to skate when the masters on the sides began throwing jumping crackers & squibs among us & letting off rockets & Roman Candles & so we enjoyed ourselves till 11 o’clock & then we all got a tumbler of punch to drink the Rector’s health with”.

Which other schools in England at this date provided the 14-year-olds with cigars as a treat? Did Gerard Manley Hopkins, when he taught at Stonyhurst, smoke cigars with his pupils?

A photograph shows Doyle, who had already quietly abandoned belief in Catholicism, clutching his cricket bat ; cricket and football were enjoyed at Stonyhurst as much as skating. After he qualified as a doctor and practised in Southsea, he wrote to his mother – “On Saturdays I play football on the quiet and so get a little exercise for I am getting stout (15 stone eight was my last weight)”. A footnote usefully informs us that “today he is counted as one of the founders of the Portsmouth Football Club”. The letters tell us more about Doyle the sportsman than they do about Doyle the writer, and that is in a way as it should be, since wherever the writing came from will always remain a bit mysterious.

After enjoying cross-country ski-ing in Norway he was one of the first, in collaboration with two local brothers named Branger, to introduce the idea of ski-ing to the Swiss Alps. . “ ‘Ski-ing’ opens up a field of sport which is,I think,unique…I am convinced that the time will come when hundreds of Englishmen will come to Switzerland for the ‘ski-ing’ season in March and April”. . That was in 1894.

There is a certain tedium in Doyle’s innocent acceptance of the wealth and status which came with his success, and when we see him smiling out at us in the uniform of the Deputy Lord Lieutenant of Surrey and when we read his gleeful records of Jean’s social climbing, we feel rather sorry for Doyle the writer, who did not really survive all this. “I told you, did I not, of Jean’s great social success at Hever & how Lady Sackville wrote to her three times in a week”… …”

You can imagine what Holmes would have made of this nonsense . Far more interesting than the later Doyle social climbing are the impressive letters written by Doyle the young doctor in Southsea, desperate for patients and heroically bringing up, single-handedly,his eleven-year old brother Innes. For much of the time, they had nothing to eat but potatoes. “Innes is cooking the potatoes and announces that they are nearly ready – so adieu for the present. Innes makes an admirable door opener but I have to teach him discretion. He opens the door to a patient, and then yells up the stair, ‘Hurrah,Arthur, it’s another baby!’ to the mother’s great discomfiture”.. Innes went on to a distinguished army career and became a brigadier.