- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 16, 2007

Even if you are not a member of the Baker Street Irregulars, that popular society of Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts, you will find this collection of previously unpublished letters from Holmes’ creator fascinating reading. For while much is known about Holmes — “the world’s most famous man who never was” — less has been revealed about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whose life rivaled that of any fiction. As a physician, sportsman, war correspondent, military historian, crusader for social justice and spokesman for spiritualism, his days were full of drama.

Although this book showcases Doyle as a tireless and charming correspondent, most candid are his letters to his mother, Mary Foley Doyle, penned from the age of 8, in 1867, until her death in 1920. He confided to her every aspect of his life, from the most personal (his love for another woman while his first wife was dying with tuberculosis) to the professional (it was his mother who begged him not to kill off Sherlock Holmes).

His letters to “The Mam” were locked away until Jean, Doyle’s youngest child, died in 1997, and the letters were bequeathed to the British Library. The editors, all scholars and experts on Doyle and Holmes, have wisely bridged the text with explanatory, biographical material (including photos), providing a full portrait of the subject and his era.

First we see Doyle as a schoolboy, doing better than his schoolmasters ever expected by becoming a prize-winning student, then, as a young medical student, risking his life as a surgeon on the ship of an Arctic whaling expedition, falling overboard into the ice (at least five times) and enjoying it all “immensely.” In 1882, we see him return to Edinburgh to support his brothers (it was a large family), struggling to make a living as a doctor. His association, against his mother’s advice, with an unscrupulous partner forced him to part ways and open a medical practice of his own.

Throughout all these hardships, Doyle never lost his sense of optimism. To pay his bills he began submitting short stories to popular magazines. They were sent back to him, as he cheerfully put it, “with a perseverance worthy of a better cause.” To his amazement, just two months after the first Sherlock Holmes stories appeared in 1891, he experienced sudden fame and fortune. “In one of the great understatements in literary history,” note the editors, Doyle wrote to his mother: “Sherlock Holmes seems to have caught on.”

Eventually, Doyle became dismissive of his own creation. “I am thinking of slaying Holmes … and winding him up for good and all,” he confessed. “He takes my mind from better things,” which for him meant writing historical novels, whose critical reception was never as positive as that of the adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Eventually, Doyle did kill Holmes off — twice — but the ensuing public outcry and the financial burden of a growing family were so great he was encouraged to bring the popular detective back to life. Despite his early doubts that Sherlock Holmes was not fitted for dramatic representation, Doyle lived long enough to be delighted by the movie performances of John Barrymore and Clive Brook.

Meantime, as he made the transition from doctor to writer, he married Louise Hawkins, a devoted woman who, for 20 years, brought order to his home and gave birth to his two children. She was not the love of his life, however. That distinction belonged to Jean Leckie, a striking younger woman with whom Doyle had fallen deeply in love in 1897. Out of loyalty to Louise, whose own health was failing, he maintained a proper relationship with Jean. He married Jean in 1907, the year after Louise died. In short order, three more children were born.

Along the way we see Doyle campaigning twice, unsuccessfully, as a Liberal Unionist for a seat in the House of Commons; playing cricket with James Barrie and golf with Rudyard Kipling; dining with William Astor, Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt and the Prince of Wales; and exulting in his tours to America (of which he was enthralled). During the Boer War, he served at the front, treating wounded and dying servicemen.

His pamphlet “The War in South Africa: Its Cause and Conduct” was translated into 12 languages and resulted in his being offered a knighthood for his defense of the British cause. Like many literary men of his time, he resisted accepting the title (“the badge of the provinicial mayor,” he complained). In the end, his mother’s wishes prevailed and he accepted the honor (he was ever the dutiful son), but in years to follow he refused to use “Sir Arthur” as a byline (“I am A. Conan Doyle without any trimmings and will so remain”).

He was a man of his era, but in some ways he was ahead of it too. He argued against women’s suffrage yet defended divorce law reform. To the end of his life he battled for the rights of the oppressed and unjustly accused, which led toward the establishment of the Court of Criminal Appeal.

The losses of World War I weighed heavily upon Doyle, making him seek consolation in the spirit world. His beloved son, Kingsley, was badly wounded on the Somme and died of pneumonia at age 26. His brother-in-law, his sister’s husband, her son and his wife’s nephew also were lost in the war.

Spiritualism had always held a keen interest for him. Years before, he had joined the Society for Psychical Research and eagerly attended seances. Now he became wholly committed, spreading his message on spiritualism to huge crowds in Europe, America and Africa. “Is Conan Doyle Mad?” asked London’s Daily Express.

Doyle shrugged off the criticism. “I have learned never to ridicule any man’s opinion, however strange it may seem.” When he died on July 7, 1930, 6,000 people attended a spiritualist memorial service for him at London’s Albert Hall. “The reader will judge that I have had many adventures,” he had written a few days before. “The greatest and most glorious of all awaits me now.”

The life of Arthur Conan Doyle is, by turns, insightful, funny and sorrowful. If, while reading these letters, you find him to be a woefully romantic, idealistic, proud, selfish and foolish man, you cannot deny that he is also immensely likable.

The new release of Doyle’s personal archive — which includes correspondence, diaries, manuscripts and more — has resulted in a spate of other books. Andrew Lycett’s highly acclaimed “The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes” is one. But for my money, the more engaging and vivid portrait is “Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters.” Organized like a biography, we see Doyle living each moment, in his own words. This is truly a memorable and enjoyable book.

Marion Elizabeth Rodgers is the author of “Mencken: The American Iconoclast,” named by Booklist as one of the “Top Ten Biographies 2005-2006,” now out in paperback.

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