In the latest in his series on eminent Camden Victorians, Neil Titley turns his attention to author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
17 April, 2020 — By Neil Titley
Arthur Conan Doyle in 1893 by Herbert Rose Barraud
PERHAPS there is only one fictional character who could have been impersonated by such disparate actors as Christopher Lee, Charlton Heston, Peter Cook, Michael Caine and Roger Moore. Having been portrayed on stage and screen over 250 times, Sherlock Holmes has become an icon of British culture.
His creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) had no intention of becoming a professional writer, choosing medicine as his preferred career. After graduating from Edinburgh University in 1881, he served as a ship’s surgeon on an expedition to explore the Arctic islands known as Franz Josef Land, followed by voyages along the West African coastline.
Coming ashore in Plymouth he set up a private medical partnership with a Dr George Budd. It was not a success, mostly due to the latter’s behaviour. Budd insisted that all his patients took an oath not to drink tea.
Whenever the pair did make some money, Budd would grab the takings and stride through the streets of Plymouth waving the money in the faces of rival doctors. Doyle soon quarrelled with Budd, stormed out of the surgery and, being a man of considerable strength, pulled his brass plate off the door with one wrench.
Moving on to Southsea, he opened his own practice, which proved even less profitable. After the first year, he returned his income tax form after entering “no taxable income”. The tax inspector returned the form with a scribbled comment in the margin: “Most unsatisfactory.” Doyle sent back a note: “I entirely agree.”
Renting rooms in Camden at 23 Montague Street, near the British Museum, he opened for business at 2 Devonshire Place. This also failed with Doyle commenting that: “Every morning I walked from the lodgings, reached my consulting rooms at 10 and sat there until three or four, with never a ring to disturb my serenity.”
However, the time was not wasted. While at a loose end he began to write fiction and composed the first five Holmes stories while he waited in vain for custom.
His 1890 novel The Sign of Four had Sherlock living in Montague Street (preceding the better known address of 221b Baker Street).
After the enormous and lasting success of the Sherlock Holmes stories, Doyle became a full-time author.
However, rather in the same way that Gilbert and Sullivan underestimated the longevity of their light operas, so Doyle underestimated Holmes.
He also wrote historical novels such as The White Company and regarded them as greatly superior to his detective fiction.
In 1891 declaring that because “Holmes takes my mind from better things” he determined to kill off his hero.
Public opinion forced a reincarnation and when Doyle asked for outrageously large advances in order to discourage publishers’ blandishments, he found that they would pay whatever he asked. He was stuck with the sleuth for life.
Doyle was a man of many interests, not least sports. He was an amateur boxer, played cricket for the MCC (once bowling out WG Grace), and played goalkeeper for Portsmouth FC under a pseudonym.
His advice often displayed uncommonly good sense. During the Boer War of 1900, he volunteered as a field hospital doctor and at its conclusion advocated mercy for the defeated Boer leaders: “The making of martyrs is the last insanity of statesmanship.”
Even before the First World War, he predicted the possible risks of submarine warfare but was ignored. In 1915, the German Naval Secretary announced: “The German people can thank the British Admiralty for disregarding the warning on U-boat warfare given by Arthur Conan Doyle.”
He also threw himself into many humanitarian causes, not least his 1909 denunciation of the Belgian Congo holocaust during which an estimated 10 million Africans were killed.
His major interest during his later years was Spiritualism and he began a series of psychic investigations.
These included attending around 20 séances, experiments in telepathy and sittings with mediums.
In 1926, having paid most of the construction costs, Doyle laid the foundation stone of the Rochester Square Spiritualist Centre, just off Camden Square.
On one occasion when he said that he would visit a seriously ill friend the next day, he was told that the friend might not survive the night. Conan Doyle replied: “In that case, I’ll have a word with him next week.”
In spite of the lack of credible evidence, Doyle was unshakeable in his belief. He became convinced that his friend the escapologist Harry Houdini had supernatural powers. Houdini (a devout sceptic) tried to disabuse him of this delusion by performing an elaborate trick, and then showing Doyle how the trick worked. Doyle still refused to believe it was a trick.
Some of his stories were turned into stage plays. During the rehearsal for one of these shows, a young and impecunious actor joked with the (by now Sir) Arthur Conan Doyle that the two should pool their incomes and share out their lifetime incomes half and half. Although amused by the youngster’s presumption, Sir Arthur turned him down. The actor later became famous as Charlie Chaplin.
• Adapted from Neil Titley’s book The Oscar Wilde World of Gossip. For details go to www.wildetheatre.co.uk