January 29, 2008

New Works on Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes

The Times Literary Supplement has a review of two new works about Arthur Conan Doyle. Dinah Birch comments on both Andrew Lycett's biography Conan Doyle: The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes, and Jon Lellenberg, Daniel Stashower, and Charles Foley's edition of Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters.

Lycett’s capable work, Conan Doyle: The man who created Sherlock Holmes, gives a detailed picture of these multiple occupations, despite the frustration of the dispersal and destruction of significant documents after Doyle’s death. The surviving letters, newly published in the wake of what seems to have been a competitive tussle between Lycett and the editors of Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in letters, John Lellenberg, Daniel Stashower and Charles Foley (the present executor of the literary estate), are not presented with the same scholarly expertise. Nor are they consistently stimulating in their own right, for they do not suggest that Doyle was much given to the subtleties of introspection. Mostly addressed to his mother, they are brisk, good-humoured and straightforward. What emerges, however, sometimes with unexpected force, is his search for spiritual meaning that would transcend the rationalities of his scientific education, or the orthodoxies of social custom. He abandoned his parents’ Catholic faith in early manhood, but continued to hunger for a confirmation of immortality – “infinitely the most important thing in the history of the world”. At the time that Sherlock Holmes first emerged in Doyle’s writing, he began to develop what would become a lifelong interest in spiritualism. This is more than coincidence. Holmes will have no truck with the supernatural: “This agency stands flat-footed upon the ground, and there it must remain. The world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply”. But his omniscience often seems a little more than human. Holmes’s function, and his appeal, is to supply unfailing answers, and that sense of a constant dependability was also what Holmes wanted from his religious life. Perhaps spiritualism, with its promise of direct communication with the dead, could supply it. Doyle moved warily for years, experimenting, attending table-rapping sessions, reading reports and investigations. His stubborn materialism held him back, but he longed to be convinced that spiritualism could offer solid evidence of the survival of the spirit after death.

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