Saturday, November 28, 2009

Off Topic Biography---Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Teller of Many Tales In Many Genres

Teller of Tales: The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle, Daniel Stashower, Henry Holt Books, Inc, 472 pp., index, bibliography, illustrations, 1999, $16.00.

I say Arthur Conan Doyle and you say Sherlock Holmes. But don't stop there. Doyle lived a very long, complicated and multi-layered life. This biography won the 1999 Edgar (Allan Poe) Award for Best Biographical Work and it generously explores the origins of Doyle's detective fiction, his science fiction, his fantasy fiction, his historical adventure fiction and his military histories. Sired by an alcoholic father, Doyle was born in 1859 to a Scots family with a very strong, enduring mother. He started as a very young whaling ship's doctor looking for adventure and soon afterward became a struggling provincial doctor who with few patients and time on his hands. He then decided to write his way out of poverty.

The extended Doyle clan were prosperous Irish-Catholic families, who had a prominent position in the art world. Charles Doyle, Arthur's father, a chronic alcoholic, was the only member of his family, who apart from fathering a brilliant son, never accomplished anything of note and was institutionalized for the greater part of Arthur's life. At the age of twenty-two, Charles had married Mary Foley, a vivacious and very well educated young woman of seventeen.

Mary Doyle had a passion for books and was a master storyteller. Her son Arthur wrote of his mother's gift of "sinking her voice to a horror-stricken whisper" when she reached the culminating point of a story. There was little money in the family and even less harmony on account of his father's excesses and erratic behavior. Arthur's touching description of his mother's beneficial influence is also poignantly described in his biography, "In my early childhood, as far as I can remember anything at all, the vivid stories she would tell me stand out so clearly that they obscure the real facts of my life."

It is safe to say that Arthur Conan Doyle turned his life's adventure into literature. As a whaling crew's physician and adventurer, he walked on ice floes, killed seals, and nearly drowned. As a merchantman's crew physician he explored the coast of Africa and battled typhoid among the crew and within himself. As a war correspondent, as a medical volunteer in during the Boer War, as WWI front line army administration observer, he always wrote for himself, his familiar and then later turned the adventure into fiction or military history.

Made famous by Sherlock Holmes, Doyle created other popular characters such as Professor Challenger and Brigadier Gerard. Challenger visited The Lost World
and Brigadier Girard a variety of Victorian Era conflicts. Doyle wrote and invested his theatre plays, sometimes writing well and making returns on his money, other times not. Critics give Doyle recognition for his combat scenes in The White Company and in his administrative reports from the European and Italian Fronts of WWI. In three instances, Doyle challenged judicial convictions of those whom he felt to be innocent or unrepresented before the bar. Establishing a reputation that would be today called an Innocense Mission, he investigated and paid from his own pocket judicial appeals in capital and non-capital crimes.

Throughout his life, he felt infuriated, challenged, and intrigued by the spiritual realm. Having been sternly educated in a Jesuit school, exposed to other cultures view of death in his travels, and finding evidence of an afterlife in his own life's experiences, Doyle practiced Spiritualism. Mediums using automatic writing and channeling spirits were apart of the last three decades of Doyle's life. In part, having lost sons and nephews in WWI, his investigation of Spiritualism gave him some comfort. Spiritualism came to the fore during the 1830s and continued to be matter of scientific investigation by early psychologists through until 1930s in both Europe and America.

Hale and hardy throughout his life, Doyle eagerly embraced sports but not hunting. An avid but unskilled driver of the new automobile, he wrecked a vehicle near his house and was pinned under the car in such a fashion that his back carried the weight of the vehicle. After several minutes his nearby friends lifted the auto off of him and he slowly walked away from the accident. With his reputation for great strength, none of his friends were surprised that his back could carry the weight of vehicle for several minutes and not collapse his chest.

Stashower's biography is well worth reading for its glimpse into the Victorian Era and its description of a writer's life well lived.

For Further Information: Sherlock Holmes on The Web that has a fairly comprehensive collection of research, bibliography, chronology, and literary history and criticism resources.


Unknown said...

This is indeed a fine biography. Stashower (in partnership with two others) has also produced a newer and more unique biographical work on Conan Doyle called Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters that provides a first-hand insiders view based on previously unpublished private letters by Conan Doyle. He sent most of these letters to his mother and they offer a more personal and intimate view of the man.

Gary said...

Stashower's biography is great. One minor point. You linked is to someone who claims the copyright to Arthur Conan Doyle's work. This claim has been denied. See this web site: You would be better off linking to Mr. Redmond's site: It is much more comprehensive.