Best known for his Sherlock Holmes stories, Arthur Conan Doyle became a literary legend in the late 19th century. The author was born in Edinburgh, Scotland on May 22, 1859 to Charles and Mary Doyle. His father was a moderately successful artist, from a wealthy background, and his mother’s incredible story telling ability became one of the major influences behind Doyle’s writing. He expresses his fondness for her in his autobiography, and the motivation her constant support inspired.
Education and Early Influences
After an offer from his extended family when Doyle was nine, the author was sent to a Jesuit boarding school in England. His memoirs indicate that the seven years he spent here were filled with corporal punishment and bigotry, which went against the morals that Doyle placed value upon. To deal with the unhappy environment, he began to play sports and write to his mother regularly. He would also thrill his school mates with brilliant tales, that he would dictate to small gatherings several evenings per week. Despite the horrors of his school life, Doyle was resilient, and graduated at the age of 17 ‘wild, full-blooded and a trifle reckless.’
Ready to face the world and determined to be successful because of his mother’s ongoing support, Doyle was first faced with the daunting task of institutionalising his father. Charles’ alcoholism had gotten out of control during his son’s absence, and his mental health had deteriorated to match. Doyle described the circumstances of his father’s breakdown and institutionalisation in his 1880 story, The Surgeon of Gaston Fell.
Influenced greatly by the lodger his mother took in after, Dr. Brian Waller, Doyle decided to become a physician. He enrolled in the University of Edinburgh, the same place where Waller had gone to school. Here he met several other future authors, including Robert Louis Stevenson, who was also studying at the time.
The inspiration for his Sherlock Homes character came in the form of one of Doyle’s teachers, Dr. Joseph Bell. The doctor was skilled in observation, logic, deduction and diagnosis, all of which became key traits of Holmes’ personality. After attending university for a couple years, Doyle wrote his first story, The Mystery of Sasassa Valley, which was taken by the Edinburgh magazine Chamber’s Journal. He also published another story that year, An American Tale, this time accepted by London Society.
In his 20th year, Doyle received an offer to become a ship’s surgeon aboard The Hope, a whaling boat about to set sail for the Arctic. He accepted and, despite the brutality he observed while the crew was hunting for seals, thoroughly enjoyed the experience. He later said; it awakened in him the need for adventure and the soul of a wanderer. As with many of the momentous events in his life, the journey was described in one of his stories, A Captain of the Pole-Star.
After his sea adventure, Doyle returned to his studies and graduated in 1881 with a Bachelor of Medicine and Master of Surgery degree.
Professional Doctor and Aspiring Author
After his graduation, Arthur Conan Doyle accepted another offer aboard a vessel scheduled to sail between Liverpool and Africa, The Mayumba. Not enjoying the journey as much as he had on The Hope, he relinquished his position upon its return to England. He then worked for a brief period with an immoral doctor in Plymouth. This experience is described in detail in The Stark Munro Letters, published many years later.
Ambition caused Doyle to move to Portsmouth where he opened his first practice. Within three years the doctor had become well established in the community, due to his compassion and hard-working nature. He also continued writing, pursuing his dream of becoming an established author. In August 1885, Doyle married his first wife, the gentle, amiable Louisa Hawkins.
Sherlock Holmes and the Supernatural
In 1888, a story which had been revised and the title changed, introduced the world to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. A Study in Scarlet, was published in the Beeton’s Christmas Annual, and the characters propelled him to immediate success. Doyle, however, began to resent the popularity of the Holmes stories as he believed that they were a distraction from those he really wanted recognition for, such as historical novels, poems and plays.
Despite the success of Holmes and the birth of his daughter, Mary, Doyle was becoming restless and moved to Vienna to specialise in ophthalmology. When this did not prove to be feasible, the family returned to London and Doyle opened another practice in Upper Wimpole Street. With no patients and lots of time to spare, he began writing a short series featuring Sherlock Holmes. His agent, A.P. Watt, signed a deal with The Strand for all the stories to be published in the magazine.
In May 1891, Doyle developed a near fatal case of influenza. After recovering, he decided to abandon his medical career and pursue his writing full-time. His frustrations with Holmes began to grow, and in 1893, the author wrote a story in which Holmes plunged to his death. It is reported that 20,000 Strand customers cancelled their subscriptions in protest. Doyle then began a period of intense writing, determined to prove his skills beyond Sherlock Holmes.
In 1892, his wife had given birth to their son, Kingsley, which Doyle described as the chief event in their life together. His immersion in writing, however, caused him to overlook her deteriorating health. Louisa was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and given only a few months to live in 1893. Doyle tended to her personally, causing her lifespan to extend many years beyond this prediction.
In the late 1880s, Doyle had developed an interest in the paranormal and spirituality. This inspired him to write The Mystery of Cloomber, a story about three vengeful Buddhist monks. With Louisa’s death looming over them, the author’s fascination with the life beyond increased. He joined The Society for Psychical Research and became very vocal about his spiritual beliefs. Louisa passed away in her husband’s arms on July 4, 1906, after which Doyle fell into a deep depression.
War and Psychic Journeys
Doyle attempted to enlist in the army during The Boer War, but his application was rejected as he was already 40 and slightly overweight. This did not stop him from being a part of the war, however, as he volunteered as a doctor and sailed to Africa in February 1900. There he witnessed more soldiers and medical staff die of typhoid fever, than war wounds. The Great Boer War was a result of this time served, and is a masterpiece that gave many details about the war that would otherwise have remained hidden. In 1902, King Edward VII knighted Doyle for the services he rendered to the crown, during the war.
Even though his high moral values meant that Doyle had remained faithful to his wife after she had gotten sick, he had met and fallen in love with Jean Beckie in 1897. The pair remained close friends and got married on September 18, 1907. They moved to Sussex, with his two children, and settled here for the rest of their lives. They added three more children to their family, Denis (1909), Adrian (1910) and Jean (1912).
Having written many war stories and with the keen observation skills of a writer, Doyle was able to predict WWI and sent articles to several newspapers advising that the country get ‘military ready’ before it began. He also foresaw the possibility of blockades created by enemy submarines and suggested building a canal. Unfortunately, his public warnings were dismissed as ‘ramblings’ by the navy and they ignored his advice. After the war began, 55-year-old Doyle once again tried to enlist and was rejected. Not to be denied the opportunity to serve his country, he organised a civilian battalion which had over 100 volunteers.
The war caused the author to lose many people close to him, including his son, brother, nephew and two brothers-in-law. These deaths increased Doyle’s need to learn more about spirituality and the possibility of life after death. Despite the mocking of the press and the church’s disapproval, he continued to research and talk about the occult. His wife shared his beliefs, and developed the ability to ‘trance-write.’ Most his work became about the supernatural and spirituality, and the entire family took trips abroad on psychic crusades.
Despite being diagnosed with Angina Pectoris, Doyle insisted on taking a final psychic tour in Europe. Upon his return, he was in so much pain that he had to be carried ashore. The adventurer in him would not allow Doyle to remain bedridden, however, and on a cold spring day in 1930 he managed to walk unseen into the garden. He was later found with one hand clutching his heart, and the other holding a single snowdrop. Arthur Conan Doyle died on March 7, 1930, surrounded by his family. The last words the author said before he departed for ‘the greatest and most glorious adventure of all,’ were whispered to his wife, ‘You are wonderful.’