Dinah Birch: The ghosts of Arthur Conan Doyle

Posted by Kendall Harmon

Writing allowed Doyle to express both sides of his nature. It was not his first ambition, for the family plan was that he should make his way as a doctor, and he toiled for years in a profession that was never congenial. He practised in Southsea, sometimes sitting up late at night so that he could slip out and polish his name-plate unobserved. Who would trust a practitioner too poor to employ a servant? Lonely and downcast, Doyle was joined by his stalwart younger brother Innes, and together they established an unorthodox male household that was one of the seeds of the ménage at Baker Street. An adequate living began to take shape, but it was clear that Doyle did not have the makings of an eminent doctor. Yet his efforts were not wasted. As he strained to discover accurate diagnoses and effective cures, he conceived the image of Sherlock Holmes. The scarcity of patients gave him time to write, and he was plying journals, sometimes successfully, with a copious supply of the apprentice work that sharpened his storytelling skills. Literature became more rewarding, personally and then financially, than medicine. Doyle the doctor, and Holmes the detective, grew up together. They have much in common, for close observation was the chosen weapon of both men. One of Doyle’s prototypes for Holmes was his old professor at Edinburgh, Dr Joseph Bell, austere and analytical. But Holmes was primarily modelled on Doyle himself, with bursts of mental and physical energy interspersed with the attacks of depression that would sometimes bring the great detective low: “But is not all life pathetic and futile? . . . We reach. We grasp. And what is left in our hands at the end? A shadow. Or worse than a shadow – misery”. Holmes was a reflection of Doyle. He was also his antithesis – solitary, always confident of victory, and impervious to sexual temptation, while Doyle feared defeat, needed company and was extremely susceptible to attractive women. Every reader wants to possess Holmes’s powers, but most of us, like Doyle, are a good deal closer to Watson: “Facts are facts, Watson, and, after all, you are only a general practitioner with very limited experience and mediocre qualifications”. It was a fair estimate of Doyle’s position as a young doctor.

Sherlock Holmes rescued Doyle, but it did not happen overnight. The sleuth’s first appearance, in “A Study in Scarlet” (1887), attracted little notice, and it was only when Doyle had begun to make his name with more substantial fiction that Holmes’s exploits caught the attention of publishers and readers. The real breakthrough came with Micah Clarke (1889), a vigorous historical novel describing the events of the Monmouth Rebellion. Doyle’s protracted struggle to find a publisher for this work shows him at his best – indomitable, but not so convinced of his own gifts that he would be offended by repeated rejections, or refuse to take advice as to how his work might be improved. The novel had a good reception, and was soon followed by The White Company (1891), set in the Hundred Years War. These books secured the reputation that opened the way for Holmes’s prominence. But it was characteristic of Doyle’s self-distrust that it took an alarming bout of illness, when his life seemed threatened, to liberate him from earlier ties:

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Posted November 26, 2007 at 5:39 pm [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]

1. Wilfred wrote:

An “unorthodox male household”, eh?  Hmmm, sounds like the Robinson’s.

November 27, 12:16 am | [comment link]
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