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Sunday, 22 May 2011

“Happy Birthday to You” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle:


Today, the 22nd May, is the 152nd anniversary of the birth of Arthur Conan Doyle, the man who, amongst other things, created the world’s most famous detective, Sherlock Holmes.

I’ve never read a Sherlock Holmes book, and don’t have an irrepressible desire to, though I do own ‘A Study in Scarlet’ and ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ and WILL get round to reading them one day, when the appetite is there. Not only am I a little so-so with his work, but – and this may possibly be down to ignorance on my part combined with the fact that I have never read his work – I have never had a fondness for Arthur Conan Doyle either, and have therefore never peered into his life.

So, why am I writing about the birthday of a man I have no interest in? The shallowness of that will become clear, but first, let us meet Arthur;

Born on 22nd May 1859 in Edinburgh into an Irish family, Arthur's father was an alcoholic and so the family would often struggle for money. At school, Arthur became besotted with the works of Sir Walter Scott and Edgar Allan Poe, giving him a taste for literature at an early age. 

As he grew older he studied at Edinburgh University and trained as a doctor, gaining his degree from Edinburgh University in 1881. To fund his education he took a job as a surgeon on a whaler ship bound for a voyage to the Arctic for seven months, and the following year he worked on Mayumba, a passenger ship bound for West Africa. On this trip Arthur nearly died of typhoid.

When he returned to England, Arthur headed for the south coast, and became a doctor in Southsea, Portsmouth. As well as his surgery, he became interested in the paranormal and spiritualism (more of which you can read about here) He also declared an interest in the work of the Society for Psychical Research, which was set up in 1882 to scientifically investigate paranormal phenomena, such as the practice of speaking to the dead. Arthur, however, disagreed with much of the scientific experiments and research, feeling that he didn't need laboratory experiments to prove what he already knew to be true.

With very few patients attending his surgery he needed another source of income. With his love of literature still bright, he set about writing detective fiction, and created the character of Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock was based on Dr. Joseph Bell, a surgeon and criminal psychologist, who lectured at Edinburgh Infirmary.

In 1891 Arthur published six Sherlock Holmes stories in Strand Magazine. The following year he was paid £1000 to write a series of Sherlock Holmes stories. Whilst the money was helpful and exactly what he needed, he wanted to write historical novels like the writer he admired most, Sir Walter Scott. Sherlock had become an albatross to Arthur, and so in 1893 he decided to kill the detective and end the series. The last Sherlock Holmes mystery was to be ‘The Final Problem’ Once this was written, Arthur could concentrate on writing the historical novels he so wanted to. But, Sherlock’s popularity prevailed, and the public were not pleased with Arthur’s decision to kill their hero, and so, in 1902, under pressure from Sherlock’s fans, Arthur – probably begrudgingly – wrote Sherlock’s best known adventure; ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles.’


In the Boer War of 1899 – 1902 Arthur served as a doctor, and when the conflict had finished turned his hand to some serious non-fiction, writing ‘The War in South Africa’ in 1902, in which he gave his opinions on why the war was right, and that Britain was clear of conscience, despite the cruelty, concentration camps, and strong-handed tactics. Arthur was knighted for his pamphlet justifying Britain's involvement in the Boer War in 1902 by Edward VII.
On 2nd September, 1914, soon after the start of the First World War, Liberal politician and head of the War Propaganda Bureau, Charles Masterman, organized a secret meeting of Britain's leading writers to discuss ways of best promoting Britain's interests during the war. Those who attended the meeting included, as well as Arthur, Arnold Bennett, John Masefield, William Archer, G. K. Chesterton, Sir Henry Newbolt, John Galsworthy, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, Gilbert Parker, G. M. Trevelyan and H. G. Wells. 

The writers at the conference agreed to the utmost secrecy, and it was not until 1935 that the activities of the War Propaganda Bureau became known to the general public. Several of the men who attended the meeting agreed to write pamphlets and books that would promote the government's view of the situation.

In 1914 Arthur wrote the recruiting pamphlet, ‘To Arms!’ The War Propaganda Bureau arranged for Arthur to take ‘To Arms’ to the Western Front. Following this, in 1916 he published ‘A Visit to the Three Fronts’ and also during the war, he wrote a six volume history, ‘The British Campaign in France and Flanders.’

He also reported on the war for the Daily Chronicle.
Arthur’s son, Kingsley Conan Doyle, joined the British Army and was wounded at the Somme. He died in October, 1917, after developing pneumonia.




After the war, Arthur began holding séances with his wife, Jean, in an attempt to get in touch with Kingsley, and his brother and two of his nephews who had also been killed during the Great War. Shortly after this, Arthur declared himself a full spiritualist and claimed he had spoken to spirits of the dead. By now, he had forgotten about his famous detective, and instead wrote several books on spiritualism including ‘The New Revelation’ (1918) and ‘The History of Spiritualism’ (1926).

Arthur died of a heart attack on 7th July 1930.

So for what shallow reason have I written this post about a man whose literature I respect, but who doesn’t strike a chord with me? Well, to begin with, because he was a Victorian, and just because he isn’t one of the first people who comes into my head when the words ‘Victorian literature’ is spoken, does not detract from the fact that many people will be fans of his work, and those who are not may still find his life interesting.

Secondly, and here comes the shallow part, I happen to share a birthday with Arthur, so, despite our differences we shall be raising a glass and celebrating together. Happy birthday to you, too, Arthur!

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