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Though Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's name is recognized the world over, for decades the man himself has been overshadowed by his better understood creation, Sherlock Holmes, who has become one of literature's most enduring characters. Based on thousands of previously unavailable documents, Andrew Lycett, author of the critically acclaimed biography Dylan Thomas, offers the first definitive biography of the baffling Conan Doyle, finally making sense of a long-standing mystery: how the scientifically minded creator of the world's most rational detective himself succumbed to an avid belief in spiritualism, including communication with the dead.
Conan Doyle was a man of many contradictions. Always romantic, energetic, idealistic and upstanding, he could also be selfish and fool-hardy. Lycett assembles the many threads of Conan Doyle's life, including the lasting impact of his domineering mother and his wayward, alcoholic father; his affair with a younger woman while his wife lay dying; and his nearly fanatical pursuit of scientific data to prove and explain various supernatural phenomena. Lycett reveals the evolution of Conan Doyle's nature and ideas against the backdrop of his intense personal life, wider society and the intellectual ferment of his age. In response to the dramatic scientific and social transformations at the turn of the century, he rejected traditional religious faith in favor of psychics and séances -- and in this way he embodied all of his late-Victorian, early-Edwardian era's ambivalence about the advance of science and the decline of religion.
The first biographer to gain access to Conan Doyle's newly released personal archive -- which includes correspondence, diaries, original manuscripts and more -- Lycett combines assiduous research with penetrating insight to offer the most comprehensive, lucid and sympathetic portrait yet of Conan Doyle's personal journey from student to doctor, from world-famous author to ardent spiritualist.
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Andrew Lycett studied history at Oxford University. After an early career as a foreign correspondent specializing in Africa and the Middle East, he now writes biographies. His lives of Dylan Thomas, Rudyard Kipling and Ian Fleming have been highly praised.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Two Irish Families
Molten lava and packed ice: even the natural forces that created Edinburgh's jagged landscape came in contrasting pairs. More than 300 million years ago one of the smouldering volcanoes that dotted the surrounding countryside erupted, making a series of crags, the tallest of which, serendipitously known as Arthur's Seat, now towers over the city. Later, vast glaciers ground their way through the lava-rich earth, shaping these contours and forming deep basins where today railways run instead of dinosaurs.
This was the ribbon of soaring pinnacles and perpendicular drops that Robert Louis Stevenson fondly recalled as his "precipitous city." For the full vertiginous effect, he probably also envisaged the steepling, overcrowded tenements or "lands" that spread upwards over what little space the cramped "crag and tail" topographical features permitted, so creating the high-rise skyline of Edinburgh's Old Town.
At ground level, a network of alleys or "wynds" led off the main Royal Mile. By the mid-eighteenth century, the stench, squalor and sheer numbers had become so insufferable that the professional classes leading the pragmatic intellectual movement known as the Scottish Enlightenment wanted somewhere more salubrious to live. After deciding on a solid sandstone ridge a mile away, they drained and bridged Nor'Loch, the inland lake that lay between, and hired a young architect, James Craig, to design a well ordered New Town, full of classical terraces and leafy squares.
As with the Old and New Town, so with Edinburgh in general. It is a city of dramatic contrasts, made tolerable by thoughtful accommodation. Here the ferocity of the outlying Highlands and Lowlands was blunted by the civilizing achievements of the Athens of the North. Here a Scottish fascination with witchcraft and the supernatural came under the skeptical gaze of scholars such as David Hume who congregated at the university. With his home city in mind, Stevenson wrote his classic fictional portrayal of schizophrenia, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, drawing on Edinburgh's real-life Deacon Brodie -- respectable shopkeeper by day, infamous body theif by night. The only thing that remained constant was the bitter cold.
Arthur Conan Doyle was born at a slight tangent to this polarized world in Picardy Place, a quiet enclave off the main road out of town to Leith. Taking its name from the colony of linen-weavers who came there from France in 1729 to start a local industry, it played host to newer arrivals such as Arthur's parents, whose families hailed from Ireland and who enjoyed the security of living across the way from their co-religionists in the Roman Catholic church of St. Mary's.
Arthur himself came into the world early on May 22, 1859. His horoscope later put the exact time as 4:55 a.m., confirming that, in astrological terms, he was a Gemini, born under the sign of the twins, which was doubly appropriate, given the contrary nature of the city and his own future as a figure whose lifelong struggle to find some middle ground between the opposing nineteenth-century forces of spirituality and reason would provide such a fascinating commentary on his times.
In "The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter," Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson discuss the hoary question of "nature versus nurture." When Watson attributes his colleague's remarkable powers of observation and deduction to his "early systematic training," the detective agrees, but only up to a point, arguing that the real reason lies in his veins. Although his family were mainly country squires, "who appear to have led much the same life as is natural to their class," Holmes believes his special skills come from the artistic genes he inherited from his grandmother, a sister of the real-life French painter Horace Vernet. And "art in the blood is liable to take the strangest forms."
So it was with Arthur himself. His family was a source of pride and inspiration, particularly to a déclassé Celt anxious to position himself securely in socially stratified Anglo-centric society. But there were skeletons in the cupboard that were worrying to a scientist schooled in murky Victorian concepts of heredity.
Both sides of his family came from Ireland. But lineages are often hazy there, since so many records were lost in the civil war. At one stage Arthur was so convinced the Doyles were descended from Dubgall, King of Ulster, that he had a stained-glass window built at Undershaw, his house in Hindhead, showing several putative crests, including the Red Hand of Ulster. In fact, his surname meant little more than "dark stranger" or "foreigner," a reference to the king's Viking origins. He later dropped this idea and settled for the Doyles being a cadet branch of the Staffordshire family of that name who went to Ireland with the English invasion and spawned a large clan in County Wexford.
So far as the record extends, Arthur's grandfather John Doyle was a tailor's son who started professional life as an equestrian artist in Georgian Dublin. He won commissions from aristocratic patrons, including Lord Talbot, Lord Lieutenant during a politically turbulent period from 1817 to 1821, and the Second Marquess of Sligo.
One thing is indisputable -- the Doyles were devout Roman Catholics. Both John Doyle's sisters became nuns, and his brother James trained as a priest. As the Catholic journal The Month noted, John was the only child of the family who remained "in the world," and with this situation came a certain austerity -- a character trait emphasized by his height, bearing and angular patrician features. But his daunting demeanor was offset by a good nature and gentle Irish sense of humor.
In 1820 he married Marianna Conan, whose father also worked as a tailor in the Dublin rag trade. Again her antecedents are blurred, purportedly stretching back to the ancient ducal house of Britanny. Within a short time she had borne him a daughter, Annette. The start of a family was a signal for John Doyle to think seriously about his career. Following the Union of Great Britain and Ireland, educated Irishmen of his type began to look to London as a cultural as well as political capital. At the same time Irish Catholics were making inroads into the discriminatory legislation that barred them from political office.
Ambitious and pragmatic, Doyle made the logical move to London where, with his wife and infant child, he rented a house in an artists' enclave in Berners Street, north of Oxford Street. As mementos and statements of intent, he took some heirlooms with him. According to family tradition, these included silverware, engraved with the Doyle crest and motto "Patientia Vincit" (he conquers through patience); a pestle and mortar; and a portrait, supposedly by van Dyck, of Thomas Wentworth, First Earl of Strafford. This was an odd choice since Strafford, in the early seventeenth century, had been a leading perpetrator of the despoliation of the Catholic landed gentry, which had cost the Doyles their estates. While suggesting that John bore few grudges, it also pointed to the type of commission he hoped to obtain from high-born patrons.
Initially business was slow, and John was forced to move several times with his growing family, spending two years south of the river Thames in Lambeth. A change of artistic direction came after he visited the House of Commons. He found that his combination of wit and draftsmanship was well suited to producing caricatures of the participants in the mother of Parliaments. Making good use of modern techniques of lithography, he began in 1827 to publish a regular series of political sketches, which he signed with the initials HB, a composite representation of his initials. With obsessive secrecy, he managed for sixteen years to keep his identity secret. During that period his sarcastic, well observed and usually benevolent cartoons of Britain's political elite provided a graphic bridge between the angry Regency satires of Gillray and Cruikshank and the more respectful High Victorian output of Leech and Tenniel.
John was soon earning a comfortable living, enough to move in 1833 to a large, new house at 17 Cambridge Terrace (now Sussex Gardens), north of Hyde Park. By then Marianna had produced seven children, all of whom showed varying degrees of artistic talent. His daughter Annette was a gifted musician, and a pious one, who later became a nun. James, born in 1822, was a scholarly youth, whose adoption of his father's more severe traits earned him the nickname "the Priest." Fascinated by the past, he would make a name illustrating and writing about history. Richard, or Dicky, born in 1824, was the most naturally gifted, and would follow "HB" in a successful career, principally as an illustrator. Henry, born in 1827, was also a promising cartoonist, before later finding his métier as an arts curator. Then there were Francis and Adelaide, who both died young without making a mark, and, finally, on March 25, 1832, came Arthur's father, Charles Altamont, his second name a nod to HB's early patron, the Marquess of Sligo, who held the subsidiary title Earl of Altamont.
The atmosphere at Cambridge Terrace was politically and culturally conservative, as might be expected from an Irish Roman Catholic family making its way in late Georgian society. The children were taught at home, since John was skeptical about English education. As was evident from his choice of the French Chapel off Baker Street as his place of worship, he was Francophile in matters of mind and spirit -- a throwback perhaps to his wife's French origins. His son Henry spent a short period at a Jesuit school in the Marylebone Road but, otherwise, the Doyle boys and girls grew up with their own private tutor, Mr. Street, whose services were supplemented by both a fencing and a dancing master. As part of this privileged upbringing, they were expected to devise their own entertainments, centered around a play or a concert every Sunday. With an artist as father, they were also encouraged to go out and observe the world. After visit...
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