Friday, February 10, 2017

Review of "Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life" by Hesketh Pearson

I'm a big Sherlock Holmes fan so I was interested to learn a little about his creator, Arthur Conan Doyle. This short colorful biography of Doyle by Hesketh Pearson seemed to be just the ticket.

Arthur Conan Doyle was born in Scotland in 1859 and went to school in England for most of his primary education. Doyle was a burly fellow who liked to box, and often defended kids who were being bullied. He also enjoyed reading, particularly adventure stories and detective tales.

Doyle attended medical school at the University of Edinburgh and - while a student - apprenticed as a 'doctor' on a Greenland whaler. This was a pretty easy job except for the distressing seal hunts. After receiving a Bachelor of Medicine in 1881, Doyle did a short stint as ship's surgeon on a vessel that traveled down the coast of Africa, but was miserable for the entire trip. By now, at 21 years of age, Doyle was an imposing fellow - 6 feet tall and 225 pounds, with brown hair and gray eyes.

Doyle next joined the medical practice of his former classmate, George Budd, in Plymouth. Budd was a 'half-genius, half maniac' who was interested in everything and had a variety of schemes for making money. The personality and energy of Sherlock Holmes is based, in part, on Budd.

Doyle soon fell out with his partner and in 1882 - with 6 pounds in his pocket - moved to Portsmouth to open his own medical office. Doyle had few patients, was perpetually broke, and had to pawn his watch three times. In a way this was a blessing in disguise because Doyle started selling stories for extra cash. After a while Doyle's practice improved and he was fairly busy between 1884 and 1886. During this time he married Louisa Hawkins, with whom he had two children.

Doyle's first Sherlock Holmes story, 'A Study in Scarlet' came out in 1886, followed by a couple of historical novels. The success of these publications led Doyle to devote more time to writing. Still, Doyle continued to strive for a successful medical career and went to Vienna to study ophthamology. The classes didn't go well because of the language barrier and - when Doyle opened a new 'oculist' practice in London - he didn't get a single patient. Thus Doyle eventually became a dedicated writer and gave up doctoring.

Doyle wrote much more than Sherlock Holmes stories, but the detective yarns were his most successful publications. The fictional sleuth's phenomenal powers of observation were based on Doyle's medical school professor, Dr. Joseph Bell....who made shrewd deductions about his patients. For instance, Bell identified a man as a cobbler because 'the inside of the knee of his trousers is worn down where he rests his laptsone'; and Bell pegged another patient as a recently discharged army man who served in Barbados because 'he kept his hat on (as was customary in the army) and had elephantiasis.... which was prevalent in the West Indies.'

In time Doyle got tired of Sherlock Holmes and, in 1893, tried to kill him off at the Reichenbach Falls. The subsequent backlash from readers, editors, and publishers forced Doyle to resurrect the consulting detective.....who went on to live for many more years. People seemed to think Holmes was a real person and Doyle received hundreds of letters from all over the world - some addressed to Holmes, some to Watson, some to Doyle....asking for help solving mysteries. (Ha ha ha)

Amongst his other activities Doyle tried to enter politics and stood for Parliament in central Edinburgh in 1900. Doyle was unsuccesful because he wasn't schooled in 'political doubletalk.' Doyle openly supported a Catholic University in Dublin - which aliented Protestant northerners, and was against Home Rule - which put off Catholic southerners. Having a sense of humor, Doyle declared ''this united Ireland north and south for the first time in history."

Doyle's first wife died from tuberculosis in 1906 and he wed Jean Leckie In 1907. Jean has been called the 'great love of Doyle's life' and they had three children together.

Doyle was a sort of 'Renaissance man', with a wide array of interests. He played football, cricket, and golf. He joined a 'volunteer force' (for older men) during WWI, and happily participated in the drilling, marching, camping, rifle practice; and so on. He suggested improvements in miliary equipment (like body armor and shields) and advised new medical practices for soldiers.....and many of his ideas were accepted.

Doyle's religious beliefs changed over the course of his life. He was brought up Catholic, then became an agnostic, and finally accepted spiritualism. Doyle wanted to believe in a 'future life' and would attend seances to commune with the dead. He also studied phenomena like haunted houses, sepulchral voices, moving tables, automatic writing, materialization of limbs, levitation of bodies, mysterious sounds, fairies, etc. Many people disdain Doyle for these beliefs.

I'll always be grateful to Doyle for creating one of my favorite people (fictional or real). Kudos sir, for a job well done.

There are many biographies of Arthur Conan Doyle, most of them more detailed than this one. Nevertheless I'd recommend this book to fans interested in a quick overview of Doyle's life, told with heart and humor. (FYI: I listened to the audio version of this book, narrated by Tim Pigott-Smith.)

Rating: 3.5 stars


  1. Replies
    1. You have his historical novels and Professor Challenger....and everything? Wow! Are they good?