Conan Doyle’s Wide World: Sherlock Holmes and Beyond
By Andrew Lycett Bloomsbury, 336pp, £18
Part of the magic of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s immortal Sherlock Holmes stories derives from the author’s sense of atmosphere and place. Now Andrew Lycett, the author of a definitive biography on Conan Doyle, has gathered together the crime writer’s travelogues.
Lycett sees a “split” between Conan Doyle’s “scientifically trained doctor’s quest for knowledge” and the “innate sense of something deeper, more elemental and more spiritual” that led him, later in life, to become an evangelist of the Spiritualism that had always interested him. Conan Doyle was raised a Catholic, but his faith lapsed while reading medicine at Edinburgh University under Dr Joseph Bell, a model for Sherlock Holmes.
Conan Doyle wrote little of Edinburgh but he did paint a description of its “rugged piles of grim old houses and the massive grandeur of the great hill” in an early novel, The Firm of Girdlestone (1890), and gave readers a glimpse of Arthur’s Seat and its “crouching lions” in an 1885 article for the British Journal of Photography. In the same number of the magazine – the first to publish Conan Doyle’s work – he wrote of the isle of Arran, which seemed to him “the epitome of … Scotland just as the Isle of Wight is England in miniature … with every variety of scenery.”
As a doctor on a whaling ship, Conan Doyle saw the Arctic and wrote of it in early stories and in such articles as “The Glamour of the Arctic” in The Idler in 1892. “Glamour and mystery”, together with the “atmosphere of forgotten nations” captured Sherlock Holmes’s imagination, as Watson tells us in “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot”.
Closer to home, Lycett argues that the third great character in the Holmes-and-Watson stories is London itself, which Watson saw as “that great cesspool into which the loungers and idlers of the Empire are … drawn”.
“The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans” featured the London Underground but Holmes travelled more often by mainline train, and many of the stories have him and Watson setting out from Paddington. Lycett points out that Conan Doyle “penned … deft descriptions of the English countryside”: who can forget the Devon moors in The Hound of the Baskervilles, Conan Doyle’s masterpiece (even if his historical novels were dearer to his heart).
Sherlock Holmes’s mother, significantly, was French. In 1894, Conan Doyle wrote of the “gulf” between the English and the French, the latter retaining “the old Roman civilisation with its ripe mellow traits that have never touched the Anglo-Saxon.” The French, “a clean and more tidy people” than the English, struck him as being temperate with regard to drink, sensible and realistic about love, attentive to designing streets and careful with architecture and public buildings. He found less to praise in the French tendency to exult soldiers “over her savants and saints”; and he found the English were more humane to animals.
An ardent patriot, Conan Doyle longed to fight in the First World War but was deemed too old. Instead, he became a propagandist for the Allied cause and travelled to New York in 1915 for that reason. He was impressed by the city’s vigour and the “vitality” of its people. Eleven close relations died in the war, prompting Conan Doyle’s interest in Spiritualism. Whatever else can be said about this part of his life, the lecture tours he gave on the subject did allow him to visit Salt Lake City, which he had portrayed in A Study in Scarlet, and San Francisco – the latter “one of my dream-cities” and possibly the most beautiful town he had seen, full “of the glamour of literature” thanks to Bret Harte and Jack London. Australia, which he saw in 1920-21, impressed him with its promise, the Australians “more English than the English”.
Andrew Lycett’s book is a perfect guide to this “wide world”, and every Holmes fan should have a copy.