Monday, November 19, 2007

Review—The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes

Arthur Conan Doyle is best known as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, the Baker street sleuth who, along with his sidekick Dr Watson, solved many an intractable mystery. Little is known about other facets of his personality, notably his late-life interest in the occult. Now, Andrew Lycett (pictured below), well regarded for an illuminating biography of Dylan Thomas, expertly resurrects a life that is fascinating for the many contradictions it juggled.

Arthur didn't always harbor writerly ambitions. Born into a modest Irish family in Edinburgh in 1859, Arthur's uncle and grandfather were celebrated caricaturists. Arthur's father Charles, however, was a self-doubting man, prone to frequent bouts of drunkenness. While Charles was an uninspiring figure, his wife, Mary, ran the affairs at home capably. It was her dogged approach to ensuring a better life for her son that brought about a radical departure in Arthur's education vis-à-vis his less-than-salutary home environment. He attended a leading Roman Catholic boarding school, the tony Stonyhurst, before studying medicine at Edinburgh University. Lycett draws a frank portrait of Arthur's childhood, relating incidents of his father's drunkenness and Arthur's lonely jottings in school. Given the kind of personality he inhabited as a boy, it is little wonder that Arthur devoted himself to a life of contemplation when he came into his own.

He trained to be a physician and practiced for a while in Southsea. But his practice, whatever little it was, never brought him professional satisfaction. So, even as he awaited patients, his mind began to shape up the image of a detective who would be well-versed in the tricks of the medical trade. Little wonder then that Holmes is one of the few sleuths in literature who is equally at home with venoms and chemicals as he is with guns and revolvers. Arthur, even as he still continued his practice, began submitting his stories to journals. Soon his work was being published, so much so that after a while, it became financially feasible for him to contemplate a life devoid of medicine. By the late 1880s, Arthur had established his name as a respectable wordsmith, and thus, Sherlock Holmes was born. While Arthur modeled the sleuth on himself, there were notable aspects in Holmes' personality that differed from his own. Psychologically, a creation famous for his restrained, self-assured masculinity must have provided succor to a man with a deeply troubled childhood.

Arthur's unfortunate marital situation is tackled with grace by Lycett. Married to the sister of a patient, Arthur never experienced bliss with Louise Hawkins. In 1893, Louise contracted tuberculosis and was mostly bed-ridden for the remainder of her life. Other accounts of this marriage have tended to be sympathetic with Arthur, especially in his treatment of his wife. Lycett, however, is unwilling to give him the benefit of the doubt. Even as he narrates Arthur's growing closeness with Jean Leckie, an attractive young woman he met in 1897, Lycett is loath to indicate, like others have done, that Arthur was committed to his wife during her protracted illness. This is made all the more apparent in the quick marriage between him and Jean that ensued shortly after Louise's death. The affair must have been especially troublesome for a man who liked to think of himself as an upright British gentleman. Perhaps it was a need to reclaim his honor that forced Arthur to champion various causes with a missionary zeal in the aftermath of Louise's death. Prominent among them was the George Edalji case, the story of the injustice perpetrated on a half-Indian solicitor and fictionalized in Julian Barnes' Arthur and George.

Then the First World War intervened. It resulted in grave personal losses for Arthur—the death of his beloved son, Kingsley, and brother, Innes, both of who had bravely participated in the war deeply shook him. To tide over the crisis, Arthur took to spiritualism, a belief that the spirits of the dead can be contacted via mediums. The paradox of a rationalist writer giving in to a belief in séances and table-rapping was, in no small measure, detrimental to Arthur's literary reputation, but like in other things, Arthur was resolute in his beliefs. Indeed, he advocated a scientific basis for the possibility of communing with the dead. Andrew Lycett's book is a fascinating study of a man who brought every bit of his vast humanity to bear upon his exploration of life and matters thereafter.

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