Tag Archives: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

“It is better to learn wisdom late, than to never learn it at all” The Life of the Great Creator of Sherlock Holmes

By Margueritte Peterson

On the 7th of July, 1930, Arthur Conan Doyle died at age 71 from a heart attack. On this the 86th anniversary of his death, we’d like to look at this famous author, spiritualist & physician and his lifetime contribution to so many different fields!

Screen Shot 2016-06-21 at 12.49.00 PMConan Doyle (as he is often called, though Conan Doyle is a combination of his middle and last names, as Conan is not a surname, as people often think!) was not born under auspicious circumstances. His father, Charles Altamont Doyle, was an alcoholic and when Arthur was only 5 years old he and his siblings were dispersed to live with family and friends across Edinburgh. A few years later the family moved back together and for numerous years lived in near-poverty. Luckily, Doyle had wealthy family to support him and to send him to Jesuit boarding school in England for seven years beginning when he was nine years old. Despite a difficult home life and upbringing, Doyle apparently struggled leaving home for school – as he was incredibly close with his mother (and would remain so throughout his life) and cherished the stories she would tell him during his childhood. It is even said that his favorite part of school was writing letters home to his mother, and telling stories to his schoolmates that she had once told him!

After leaving school as a young man, Doyle’s first act as an adult was to co-sign the committal papers for his father, who by that time was a long-sufferer of mental illness related to his drinking problem. After such, Doyle devoted his further studies, surprisingly, to a medical career (I say surprisingly as his family was one of artists) after being influenced by a boarder his mother took in for some extra cash. While at medical school, Doyle met two fellow students who would prove to become life-long friends, as well as literary stars – James Barrie (author of Peter Pan) and Robert Louis Stevenson. Another influential persona on the young Doyle was one of his Professors – a Dr. Joseph Bell. Dr. Bell, with his particular observations, attention and significant powers of logic and deduction would end up being Doyle’s inspiration for the character of Sherlock Holmes!

Screen Shot 2016-06-21 at 12.35.00 PMIt was during his medical studies that Doyle first began to write short stories – the first few of which were published in both a smaller journal in Edinburgh and the London Society. It is said that with his publication in the larger UK magazine Doyle first realized that he could, possibly, make a living with his pen. He took off of his studies during his third year of medical school to act as a doctor on board an Arctic whaling boat – an experience that he loved (and kept detailed journals of) and sparked his wish for adventure. After returning to his studies and graduating, Doyle’s first job was to take another surgeon position on board a ship bound for Africa. He was less impressed by this position, however, and upon returning to England eventually opened up his own small practice in Portsmouth. During his time practicing, Doyle wrote short stories on the side and married a sister of one of his patients. He lived a relatively calm and normal life until March of 1886 when he began working on the novel that would propel him into fame and success as an author.

Screen Shot 2016-06-21 at 12.34.14 PMA Study in Scarlet was published in 1888 and immediately became a great success (though, surprisingly, Doyle was received more widely in America at first, than in the UK). Though this first work is well-remembered (as it introduced the world to the immortal characters of Dr. Watson & Sherlock Holmes), and Doyle continued writing other stories and novels. Sherlock became a household name and his stories began to be published in The Strand Magazine on a regular basis. In fact, after only five years of Sherlock titles, Doyle planned the death of this fictional hero and after The Final Problem was published in 1893 (where Sherlock and Moriarty plunged to their deaths at The Reichenbach Falls), over twenty thousand readers cancelled their subscriptions to the magazine!

Doyle’s next few years were troubled times for the author, as he struggled to maintain a readership with other stories and characters, took care of his wife recently diagnosed with tuberculosis, and dealt with the death of his (at this point) severely demented father. In the early 1900s, Doyle decided (more for the happiness of his bank account than his own literary merits) to bring back the character of Sherlock – first in The Hound of the Baskervilles (written as just a previously untold adventure of the famous Detective), and then with The Return of Sherlock Holmes in 1903 – once again serialized in The Strand Magazine. Sherlock Holmes was back, and as popular as ever.

Sherlock Holmes was kept alive despite many obstacles in Doyle’s life. He took care of his wife throughout her illness, raised their two children, wrote, tried (twice, in fact) to throw himself into politics, and began seeing a young woman he felt a deep connection with on the side (though it is thought he remained true to Louisa until her death in 1906). Doyle was also a very active person, participating in many sports and body building throughout his life. Doyle did not only write Sherlock Holmes periodicals, but also in this time wrote several plays and novels – though some popular (some not quite so popular) in contemporary circles are not what he is well-remembered for today.

Screen Shot 2016-06-21 at 12.49.23 PMEver an active participant in politics and wartime (he served as a surgeon in the Boer War some years earlier), Conan Doyle never ceased to look for ways to be of service to his country and his people. Fun Fact: After an attack on the British Navy at the outbreak of WWI where the military lost over a thousand lives in one day, Doyle wrote to the war office and recommended that they invent inflatable belts and inflatable “life boats” in order to save more lives of those at sea. Though many in the offices thought Doyle a nuisance (always interfering), at one point Winston Churchill himself wrote him to thank him for his ideas! As far as I’m concerned, being the one to come up with the idea for inflatable life jackets and life rafts absolutely earns you respect.

One part of Doyle’s history that many like to focus on is his interest in the paranormal and the occult sciences. Having always been interested in certain types of phenomena (even his second published work was a strange occult work of fiction about the afterlife of three Buddhist monks), he became even more so after witnessing the death of his son in the war. His interest in spiritualism (which his wife eventually also shared), led him to believe in anything paranormal – such as the Cottingley fairies (the two girls who posed with fairy cutouts and accidentally started a nationwide interest in the belief of fairies). Though when the need for money rose once again Doyle was able to pen out more Sherlock Holmes tales, most of his writing in his later life focused on spiritualism and psychic pursuits.

Our first appearance of this classic science fiction novel by Doyle "The First Men in the Moon" illustrated by Claude Shepperson, many plates of which are only available in this periodical issue. See more here>

A Collection of Strand Magazine from 1900 to 1901 with Arhur Conan Doyle articles “A Glimpse of the Army” and “Strange Studies from Life” as well as an interview with Doyle – “A British Commando.” See more here>

Doyle passed away from angina and heart-related difficulties in July of 1930. His last words were whispered to his second wife, “You are wonderful.” This great man created one of the most well-known literary characters to this day and lived a full-life, constantly chasing his passions, whether they be literary, political, or spiritual.

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Charles Dickens, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Victorian Spiritualism

On April 1, 1848, modern Spiritualism was born in Hydesville, New York. That day, teenage sisters Margaret and Kate Fox announced that they had communicated with the spirit of a man who had been murdered in their house years before. A report of the incident first appeared in the New York Tribune, and it was reprinted soon after in both American and European newspapers.

Spiritualism Takes Hold in England

Fox_Sisters

The Fox Sisters

The roots of Spiritualism stretch back to the eighteenth-century works of Emmanuel Swedenborg. But the incident with the Fox sisters ignited unprecedented interest in the phenomenon of communicating with the dead. Spiritualism would enrapture leading thinkers of the day, along with celebrated authors like Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Meanwhile, Charles Dickens came out as a staunch opponent–despite his own interest in the also-questionable practice of mesmerism.

Spiritualism in its modern form emerged in Britain in 1852. That year, Maria Hayden traveled to London and offered her services as a medium. She conducted seances, complete with table rappings and automatic writing. But Spiritualism was far from new in England; Queen Victoria herself had subscribed to the belief as early as 1846. By the 1860′s Spiritualism had exploded into a full-fledged counterculture; it had its own newspapers, societies, treatises, and pamphlets. Seances–complete with table tapping, table tipping, automatic writing and levitation–were conducted in even the most genteel social circles.

Victorian England was ripe for just such a movement. Though it was an era of great scientific discovery, it was also an era of turning away from organized religion and confronting uncertainty. To fill the void, many Victorians turned to the supernatural, mesmerism, electro-biology, Spiritualism, and other relatively new pursuits. These new practices thoroughly blurred the lines between religion and science, and even proponents of Spiritualism were divided about how to characterize it.

From Fiction Writer to Leading Spiritualist

Doyle_McCabePublic_Debate_SpiritualismElizabeth Barrett Browning famously subscribed to Spiritualism, much to the chagrin of her skeptical husband, Robert Browning, who was dragged to seances with her on multiple occasions. But the Brownings were far from the only authors at the seance tables; Christina Rosetti, John Ruskin, William Makepeace Thackeray, and Rudyard Kipling participated in seances. But it was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who would delve so deeply into Spiritualism, he would turn away from fiction almost altogether.

Conan Doyle encountered Spiritualism as early as 1866, thanks to a book by US High Courts Judge John Worth Edmonds. The judge, who claimed he’d communicated with his wife after she died, was one of the most influential Spiritualists in America. Conan Doyle was by now already famous as the creator of Sherlock Holmes. But he hoped to be remembered for something entirely different, so he turned away from his famous protagonist to study Spiritualism. Conan Doyle presented his first public lecture on Spiritualism in 1917, and he would eventually travel throughout Great Britain, Europe, and America educating audiences about the practice. He even trekked to Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa in the name of Spiritualism.

Fairy_PicturesWhile Conan Doyle was respected in Spiritualist circles, his blind devotion led him headlong into ridicule on more than one occasion. He was taken in by Frances Griffith and Elsie Wright’s forged photographs of fairies. Conan Doyle, accepting the photographs as authentic, wrote a few pamphlets and The Coming of Fairies (1922), which made him a bit of a laughingstock. Later, Conan Doyle invited his friend Harry Houdini to attend a seance,with his wife Jean, acting as medium. Jean claimed to have contacted Houdini’s mother and “automatically” wrote a long letter in English. Unfortunately Houdini’s mother had known little English. Consequently the famous magician publicly declared Conan Doyle a fraud.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Conan Doyle persisted, remaining an avid Spiritualist until his death. Once he passed away, claims surfaced that he and his wife had arranged for communication from beyond the grave. On July 7, 1930, five days after Conan Doyle’s death, a seance was held at Royal Albert Hall. The presiding medium, Estelle Roberts, claimed that she’d relayed a message from Conan Doyle to his wife…but was drowned out by the overzealous organ player.

Dickens Ridicules Spiritualists

Although Conan Doyle was devoted to Spiritualism, he was careful not to sully Sherlock Holmes with such a controversial ideology. Thus whenever Holmes encounters potentially supernatural phenomena, he remains nonplussed and seeks a rational explanation. After all, as the famed detective says in “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire,” “This agency stands flat-footed upon the ground, and there it must remain. The world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply.” Charles Dickens would surely have agreed.

Dickens grew up reading penny weeklies like The Terrific Register, which he said “frightened the very wits out of [his] head.” The register’s pages brimmed with tales of ghosts, murder, incest, and cannibalism. Meanwhile, the English tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas–coupled with Dickens’ own (lucrative) habit of publishing new stories at Christmas resulted in Dickens’ publishing plenty of ghost stories of his own.

 

Dickens_Mesmerism

Dickens called Eliotson “one of my most intimate and valuable friends” in this letter to ‘The Boston Morning Post.’

That didn’t stop the Inimitable from openly dismissing Spiritualism as unmitigated quackery. He frequently attacked Spiritualists in both Household Words and All the Year Round. In “Well Authenticated Rappings,” (Household Words, 1858), Dickens questions why spirits would return to communicate with the living, only to make idiots of themselves by tapping out banal messages rife with orthographical mistakes.

Yet even Dickens got pulled into a movement of highly questionable validity: mesmerism. Named for its creator, Anton Mesmer, mesmerism was the belief that the universe was full of an invisible magnetic fluid, which influenced all life and could be manipulated more easily with magnets. Prominent doctor John Eliotson was one of the leading proponents of mesmerism (also known as magnetism and animal magnetism). Eliotson was eventually shunned from the medical establishment as a result.

Dickens actually became a practicing mesmeric doctor, successfully putting both his wife and sister-in-law into a trance. During his family’s trip to Italy in 1844, Dickens also mesmerized the alluring Augusta de la Rue, who suffered from, as she called it, a “burning and raging” in her head. The attention he lavished on M. de la Rue was sufficient to evoke jealousy from Dickens’ wife, Catherine. Meanwhile, Dickens was less successful in his attempt to mesmerize his friend Charles Macready.

Dickens_Edwin_DroodDickens and his fellow mesmerists believed, as Eliotson did, that the practice represented a genuine improvement in the field of medicine–unlike Spiritualism, which served no such therapeutic function. Thus he felt perfectly justified in lambasting Spiritualism while simultaneously espousing a practice that, as modern readers, we might find laughable. 

Ironically enough, Dickens was a frequent target of mediums. His final, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood has inspired many an author to attempt its end. But in 1873, printer Thomas James penned an ending for the book. He claimed that Dickens had dictated the ending from beyond the grave, calling the book The Mystery of Edwin Drood (Complete). Part second of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. By the spirit-pen of Charles Dickens, through a medium.

Ultimately both Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Dickens illustrate the Victorian predilection for the supernatural and strange. 

Related Posts:
Why Did Charles Dickens Write Ghost Stories for Christmas?
The Six Hoaxes of Edgar Allan Poe
All Posts-Charles Dickens

 

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Edgar Allan Poe: Creator of Enduring Terror and Literary Masterpieces

Edgar-Allan-Poe

Edgar Allan Poe was the first American writer to earn a living completely by his pen–though that living wasn’t always enough to live on. The legendary author redefined the genre of horror and is rightly called the father of the modern detective novel. But these legacies are the result of a more visceral one: Poe’s ability to evoke an all-encompassing terror that springs not from without, but from within.

Poe’s Incredible Influence

It’s well known that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin as a model for his own detective, Sherlock Holmes, and that Doyle’s short stories (“Hound of the Baskervilles” in particular) owe a tremendous debt to Poe. Indeed, Doyle once rhetorically asked, “Where was the detective story until Poe breathed life into it?” But Poe’s influence reached beyond the worlds of horror and mystery. He has long been a beloved figure in literature, one whose power has not waned with the passage of many generations.

Poe and Washington Irving exchanged admiration for one another via correspondence. Irving noted that “the graphic effect [of "Fall of the House of Usher"] is powerful.” Poe responded by sending Irving a copy of “William Wilson,” which he considered his best work. Poe admitted that the story had been inspired by Irving himself, particularly Irving’s “An Unwritten Drama of Lord Byron.”

Robert Louis Stevenson said of Poe, “He who could write ‘King Pest’ has ceased to be a human being.” Stevenson found Poe’s stories absolutely gripping, and was undoubtedly flattered when critic Andrew Lang said that Stevenson was “like Poe with the addition of moral sense.”

Meanwhile Oscar Wilde ranked Poe’s poetry as more important than that of Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Wilde emulated elements of Poe’s style in The Picture of Dorian Gray–which wasn’t lost on Walter Pater, who ardently praised Wilde’s efforts to evoke Poe’s style in the novel. Wilde’s colleague and defender George Bernard Shaw, often an unforgiving critic, was downright effusive about Poe, saying that the American author “constantly and inevitably produced magic where his greatest contemporaries produced only beauty. [His tales are] a world record for the English language: perhaps for all languages.”

Allen Ginsberg argued that “everything leads to Poe….Burroughs, Baudelaire, Genet, Dylan,” and Jorge Luis Borges contended that “contemporary literature would not be what it is” without Whitman and Poe. TS Eliot, however, was not initially convinced of Poe’s genius. He excluded Poe from both American and European literary traditions, calling Poe a “displaced European.” Eliot later acknowledged that he’d underestimated Poe’s talent.

Vladimir Nabokov included multiple allusions to “Annabel Lee” in his masterpiece, Lolita. It appears that Nabokov was indeed deeply interested in Poe; he meticulously mapped the area around Poe’s home and sketched the manifestations of soul in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (which he taught within the context of Poe). Both documents are currently on view at the Morgan Library’s excellent exhibit, Edgar Allan Poe: Terror of the Soul.

Later on, novelist and screenwriter Terry Southern, author of Dr. Strangelove, was deeply influenced by Poe, especially The Narrative of A Gordon Pym. Southern wrote an appreciation of Poe, called “King Weirdo,” which was published posthumously. And Stephen King has frequently borrowed archetypal themes from Poe’s works for his own horror novels. The Shining reminds us of both “Masque of the Red Death” and “Fall of the House of Usher.”

Collecting Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe makes a fascinating focus for a single-author collection and also fits wonderfully into nineteenth-century American literature and horror literature libraries. Poe’s works weren’t actually that popular during his lifetime, so they were issued in relatively small print runs. The first edition of Tamerlane and Other Poems (1827) is famously scarce; only twelve copies are known to exist. (Three are currently on display together at the Morgan Library!)

Even if Tamerlane is out of reach, there are countless other desirable editions and volumes. For example the Poetical Works of Edgar Allan Poe, published by George Robertson in 1868, was the first edition of Poe’s works to appear in Australia. It differs significantly from the British and American editions.

No illustrated editions of Poe’s works were published during his lifetime. The first, Tales of Mystery, Imagination and Humor; and Poems (1852) was illustrated by artists unknown, as they were not given credit for their work. Famous illustrators Edouard Manet, Aubrey Beardsley, Harry Clarke, Edmund Dulac, and Arthur Rackham; first editions of Poe’s works illustrated by these artists are highly desirable.

Poe’s works often showed up in serially issued collections. One of these is The Gift, A Christmas and New Year’s Present for 1842. This compilation includes Poe’s “Eleonora,” along with items from Howard Huntley, Catherine Beecher, and Park Benjamin. The volume also includes an uncollected piece by Lydia Sigourney, “The Village Church.”

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The Irving Offering for 1851

When Elizabeth Gaskell first published “Lizzie Leigh,” the story was initially ascribed to Charles Dickens–whose byline meant big bucks for publishers. “Lizzie Leigh” appears under Dickens’ name in The Irving Offering: A Token of Affection for 1851, which also include’s Poe’s “A Descent into the Maelstrom.” The edition is fairly scarce: OCLC records none west of the Mississippi.

Though Edgar Allan Poe enjoys special attention around Halloween, collectors of rare books appreciate his works year round. If you’re looking for a specific item for your Poe collection, please don’t hesitate to contact us! We’re happy to help.

 

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