Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Lycett's biography of ACD

Lately I've been reading a biography of Arthur Conan Doyle by Andrew Lycett called The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes. It cost more than I usually like to pay for a book, but considering that it's almost 600 pages long, I think it's worth the price. It's very interesting and readable, full of new information that I haven't read in any other biography of ACD.

I would recommend this book to anyone who's a fan of ACD and craves an enormous amount of background detail about him (and his family, friends, and literary influences). Lycett practically goes month to month though ACD's life, giving vivid glimpses of daily life, such as ACD joking in a cartoon that he was now "licensed to kill" when he earned his medical degree! It really humanizes him to me. To give you an idea of the biography's pace, it took about 150 pages before I got to ACD writing A Study in Scarlet. I'm still not even halfway through the book yet.

I bought this as an ebook, but now I kind of wish that I'd bought the print version, so that I could see the illustrations/photos in the book. Also, the book is divided into chapters, as well as bigger divisions. But the ebook only has the larger divisions in its Table of Contents, not the individual chapters. I have to put in bookmarks at the chapters myself as I come to them. Maybe I'll find a print copy later at a library or used bookstore.

According to Lycett, during ACD's childhood, his family were constantly moving from house to house around Edinburgh. Young Arthur was obviously devoted to his mother Mary (who he called "Ma'am"), but was uneasy about his alcoholic, epileptic father Charles. He also had to live up to his extended family, like Michael Conan, who helped pay for Arthur's schooling. Artistry and creativity ran in the family, and Mary often had literary friends around as well, which helped to shape Arthur's love of storytelling.

Also, with Charles often drunk or institutionalized, Mary had to make money, and in 1876 she took in a young lodger named Bryan Waller, who was a doctor only five years older than Arthur. But according to Lycett, Waller eventually became so close to the Doyles, that when he moved elsewhere for his medical practice, the family came with him. He in some ways usurped Charles's role as man of the house, and Mary even named one of her children after Waller. It reads almost as if Mary was having an affair with Waller. Yet Lycett says that Mary often named her children after relatives or friends of the family, so that wouldn't necessarily mean anything. He argues that if the child was illegitimate, they wouldn't dare publicly draw attention to it that way. I don't know about that, but if Mary Doyle and Bryan Waller did remain platonic friends, I think that may have influenced ACD's later abstinence when he courted Jean Leckie while his first wife Louise was alive. Learning from his mother's example, I suppose. Whatever happened, it was an odd situation. Lycett says that Arthur had a difficult relationship with Waller, sometimes wanting to stick up for his absent father, and sometimes following Waller's advice, in becoming a doctor for instance. Sometimes he'd argue that his mother should not stay with Waller anymore too.

When ACD went to medical school, he became a skeptical man of science, telling his family that he wasn't Roman Catholic anymore, but agnostic. He wrote paranormal stories, but also wrote magazine articles criticizing superstition and the occult. He was the young man enthused about Darwin and Winwood Reade (both to be later mentioned in Holmes stories), the man quoting Thomas Carlyle and reading Ralph Waldo Emerson. It's all part of the many facets of ACD's complicated mind, and it makes him seem really human to me, like a person I would really know. Lycett also shows that many prominent scientists of the age were experimenting with hypnotism and psychics (including the Society for Psychical Research), which lent an air of legitimacy and respectability to spiritualism. In that context, ACD's eventual conversion makes sense. He attended seances at the same time he was inventing the ultra-rational Holmes. Lycett lets you see that both sides are authentically part of ACD. Lycett quotes from some of ACD's non-Holmes stories, and it sounds like ACD does believe in God, but he just doesn't like organized religion. Not so far from how I feel.

I mean, I know ACD was gullible about the Cottingley fairies at the end of his life, but I don't buy that he was just going senile and irrational when he became devoted to Spiritualism. He just found something he believed in, and that had been building in him for a long time. Sherlockians always seem to be disappointed in him whenever they discuss his Spiritualism, and they sometimes suggest that it was a sad, pathetic reaction to the death of his son, not something he'd been toying with for decades. Lycett even suggests that ACD was drawn to Spiritualism out of worry for his father Charles and his fits of madness. Many things contributed, I suppose.

The other ACD biographies I've read before have been done by Sherlockians, so their focus is almost always on finding Sherlock Holmes or other canon characters in ACD's life. Due to ACD himself singling out his professor Joseph Bell as the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes, almost every biography focuses on Bell as well. By contrast, Lycett focuses on other influences during ACD's university days. While still earning his doctorate in Edinburgh, ACD periodically took time off from the university to take jobs, like in Dr. Reginald Hoare's practice in Birmingham. Hoare and his wife Amy eventually became family friends, and ACD was even performing experiments on himself by taking large doses of yellow jasmine and writing it up for a medical paper.

ACD also went on a six month whaling trip, but I had never read before that he joined the other crewmembers in the kills. Apparently the ship also hunted seals while they were in Greenland, and ACD got several of those seals himself. It totally fits with his active, adventuresome nature, though modern me is appalled at the hunting and whaling. For three months in late 1881-1882, Doyle also served on a ship to West Africa, where he met the black diplomat Henry Highland Garnet, on his way to his final post as U.S. Consul to Liberia. They had a respectful conversation about history and how Europeans offend Africans by coming to their land with guns, and ACD seemed to agree with him about it. But when he did visit the African continent to indulge in his photography hobby, he seems to have learned nothing positive, for he later wrote in an article that "you abhor [our black brothers] on first meeting them, and gradually learn to dislike them a very great deal more as you become better acquainted with them." Yet in another article of the same period he says that Africans are "a quiet and inoffensive race of men, whose sole ambition is to be allowed to lead an agricultural life, unmolested and in peace." He's just a mess of contradictions. This same contrast is later reflected in his Holmes stories; Steve Dixie in "Three Gables" is like a minstrel show character, but there's a fairly sympathetic story of a mixed race child in "The Yellow Face."

Lycett also tells us about ACD's struggles once he gets his doctorate and tries to start a practice with the charismatic and mercurial George Budd (although much of this was covered in ACD's semi-autobiographical Stark Munro Letters). But once ACD is in a solo practice on his own in Portsmouth, we see his struggles to find patients even though he was doing some writing on the side. He even had his younger brother Innes move in with him to help as a servant. ACD did everything to economize and seek out other medical work from insurance companies and consulting with other doctors. In fact that was how he met his wife Louise; her brother was being treated by another doctor, and ACD took him in as a resident patient to try to give him round the clock care, but Louise's brother died. ACD also worked in another doctor's eye practice, which makes his decision to specialize in ophthalmology not so absurd and unexpected.

(But then he gave up all medicine when his writing career took off, as we all know. I am glad for that, certainly!) I don't know when I'll finish the book, but I am still enjoying it. I'm learning so much.

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