Friday, 9 December 2011

On the Trail of Arthur Conan Doyle

I seem of late to be haphazardly falling in the footsteps of Arthur Conan Doyle, happening upon memorials marking various moments of greater or lesser import in his life. A couple of weekends ago, making our way back from the Royal William Yard in the Stonehouse area of Plymouth, we started to notice small lengths of coppery metal embedded in the paving stones of Durnford Street, a late 18th century road lined with smart Georgian terraces. They bore inscriptions which, upon closer peering inspection, revealed themselves to be select sayings of Sherlock Holmes. These fragmented quotations passing by beneath our feet revealed various facets of his complex character: his rationalism and empirical scientific methodology; his fear of or indifference towards women; his need of excitement and danger to stimulate a mind too easily clouded by melancholia; his sense of drama and love of rhetorical flourish; and his underlying sense of moral order. The rationale behind this seemingly random street decoration became apparent as we reached number 96, where a plaque informed us that Durnford Street was where Conan Doyle had first set up in medical practice. In fact, this practice was at number 1 Durnford Street, but since that building no longer exists in its original state, number 96’s well-preserved façade serves to give us an idea as to what it would have looked like.

Conan Doyle had studied medicine at Edinburgh University, from which he had graduated in 1881. He signed up for a brief and unhappy stint as a ship’s medical officer aboard the Magumba, part of the African Steam Navigation Company’s fleet bound for the west coast of the continent. After this uncertain start to his career, he was only too happy to receive an invitation from George Tournavine Budd, a flamboyant senior student at Edinburgh whom Doyle had become friends with, to join him in a new practice he was setting up in Plymouth. This was opened in Durnford Street in April 1882, and Doyle stayed with Budd and his wife in a grand residence in Elliot Terrace, an imposing mid-nineteenth century block of white-washed housing on the north west side of the Hoe commanding a sweeping view over the Sound. The luxurious appointment of this dwelling is indicative of the extravagant standards of living which Budd, the scion of a wealthy medical dynasty whose profession he inherited as a birthright, was accustomed to enjoying. He was, by all accounts (including Doyle’s), something of a rogue, albeit a periodically charming and frequently brilliant one. He prescribed medicines which, thanks to lucrative deals with pharmaceutical companies, were his major source of income, with carefree abandon. Doyle disapproved of such flagrant profiteering and their partnership, and friendship, soon hit the rocks. Doyle took a steamer from Millbay Docks sailing to Portsmouth in June, and set up in a practice of his own in neighbouring Southsea. It was here that he began writing in earnest, producing what would become A Study In Scarlet, published in 1888 and marking the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. So did the highly colourful George Budd have any influence on the creation of the great detective? It’s usually said that the primary figure who inspired Holmes’ character was Dr Joseph Bell, whose lectures Doyle attended at the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh, and under whom he worked as an intern. But perhaps some of Budd’s self-assurance and wayward methods of diagnosis, his offhand manner with his patients, also coloured his creation. The divergence in personality between his eccentricity, noisy flashes of inspiration and ostentatious display and Doyle’s quiet and methodical manner may certainly have informed the odd couple equilibrium of the Holmes and Watson partnership, even if that proved more successful and longer lasting. It might seem a trifle opportunistic to memorialise such a brief stay in such an expansive way (not just one house, but a whole street). But we are talking about the creator of possibly the most famous fictional character in the world. The impulse to draw attention to any connection, no matter how tenuous, is nigh on irresistible.

Durnford Street, Plymouth
Exploring the rather more grandiose Georgian streets of Marylebone in London a few months earlier, we came across Conan Doyle’s old consulting room at 2 Upper Wimpole Street. This was marked by a plaque in green rather than the more commonly seen blue, put up by Westminster City Council and the Arthur Conan Doyle Society. Doyle had left his Southsea practice to set up as an opthalmologist in London in March of 1891, having had a brief period of study in Vienna. He’d had to swiftly concede that his grasp of German was woefully inadequate to the task of comprehending the lectures he was attending. Nevertheless, he felt he had sufficient knowledge, combined with practical experience from his work in Southsea, to establish a practice. He installed himself and his family in apartments in Montague Street, opposite the British Library, and set out to his Wimpole Street rooms across the divide of Tottenham Court Road each morning. He was later to claim that he had virtually no patients, with a waiting room in which no-one waited, and whilst this was undoubtedly an exaggeration, he did find himself with plenty of time to write. The literary endeavour to which he was most committed at this time was his novel The White Company, a lengthy historical romance of noble derring do set during the Hundred Years War in the reign of Edward III. It was a great success during his lifetime, a bestseller for a good while, but has not lasted well, now appearing turgid and overburdened with descriptive period detail.

2 Wimpole Street, London
He had already published two Sherlock Holmes novels by this time, A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four, which had found a degree of success. In 1891, whilst working as an opthalmologist in his Wimpole Street consulting room, he submitted two short stories featuring Holmes and Watson, A Scandal In Bohemia and The Red-Headed League, to the newly launched Strand Magazine. The Strand was first published in December 1890 and combined journalistic articles, profiles of well-known figures and copious illustrations. But at its heart was fiction, and its literary editor, Herbert Greenhough Smith, immediately recognised that he was onto a good thing with Doyle’s Holmes stories and commissioned him, with a handsome financial incentive, to write four more. The first two stories, published in July and August, were a huge success. The mass popularity which the Sherlock Holmes short stories so swiftly achieved was intimately bound up with their regular publication in The Strand, and it was from this point that the worldwide Holmes phenomenon blossomed. It could have been tragically short-lived, however. Doyle caught a bout of influenza, epidemic throughout London, and a disease which could claim a high mortality rate in Victorian times. He recovered, however, and whilst recuperating made the decision to abandon his career as a medical practitioner to concentrate on his writing. By June, he and his family had moved south of the river to a sizeable villa in South Norwood. His opthalmological endeavours in Wimpole Street had lasted barely 3 months, but these rooms can make a good claim to be the birthplace of Sherlock Holmes as a literary phenomenon and iconic fictional character.

The College of Psychic Studies, Queensberry Place, Kensington
The College of Psychic Studies was one of the buildings open to the public during this year’s London Open House weekend, and as it fell on our route between two other destinations, we stopped off to explore. What lover of supernatural fiction, of psychic detective stories featuring Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence or William Hope Hodgson’s Thomas Carnacki, could resist such an enticing open invitation. We were shown around by the amiable president, who pointed out the spirit trumpets, ouija boards and planchettes, relics of old methods consigned to historical display the cabinets. We passed many a portrait of former august members, a well as framed examples of automatic writing, channelled drawing and painting, and photographs supposedly capturing ectoplasmic manifestations in full spew. The College was originally known as the London Spiritualist Alliance, and was founded in 1883 at the behest of the wonderfully named Rev. Stainton Moses. It changed its name to the College of Psychic Science in 1955, finally becoming the College of Psychic Studies in 1970. Conan Doyle had long been fascinated by Spiritualism and the occult, although he initially maintained a position of determined scepticism. He had rejected the Catholic faith of his parents, but was evidently searching for a belief system to replace it with. He took a brief interest in Madam Blavatsky’s theosophical movement, which seemed to hold an attraction for many writers and artists, but concluded that her ideas were too vague and ill-formed. He needed something which offered more certainty. In 1887, he attended a séance with a medium who he felt revealed personal information, in the form of automatic writing, which no-one else could have known about. From this point onward, he began to adopt a more open attitude towards Spiritualism and its claims to offer channels of communication with the spirits of the dead.

Sir Oliver Lodge - tuning in to the voices in the Aether
He remained circumspect about his developing beliefs for many years, aware of the potential damage it might do to his reputation, but ‘came out’ as a Spiritualist at a meeting of the London Spiritualist Alliance in the autumn of 1917, chaired by his friend Sir Oliver Lodge, a fellow member of The Ghost Club, another organisation dedicated to the investigation of paranormal phenomena. Lodge is a fascinating character himself, a proponent of the theory of the all embracing medium of the Aether and pioneer of radio wave generation and transmission. These new phenomena, of disembodied voices floating in an invisible and apparently dimensionless space, were themselves suggestive of spirit worlds, a conjunction of the worlds of science and the occult. The period of the First World War saw such an overwhelming loss of life, both in the trenches and as a result of the pandemic of Spanish flu which swept the country, that many sought solace in the belief held out by Spiritualists and other mystics that those who had been so suddenly and savagely taken away could be contacted, and final goodbyes properly exchanged. Lodge lost his son Raymond in the war in 1915, and wrote several heartbreaking books claiming to detail his communications with him in the afterlife. Doyle, who had lost his sister Annette to influenza in 1890, saw his son Kingsley die from the flu in 1918, followed shortly afterwards by his brother Innes. The emotional impulse to find evidence for a continuation of life beyond death was clearly very strong. He had maintained a patriotic view of the war as a noble enterprise right up until the end, all evidence to the contrary, and wrote a six volume military history, whose final instalment was published in 1920, and which has been largely forgotten, so uncritical is its approach. This bullish outlook is reflected in his stance on Spiritualism, too. Once he had set his mind on something and determined his views to his own satisfaction, nothing was likely to divert him from his dogmatic path.

Conan Doyle became an energetic evangelist for Spiritualism, travelling the world to spread the word, engaging in lively debates which, as a highly accomplished speaker, he invariably won. He wrote regular articles for Light, the journal of the London Spiritualist Alliance, and was its president for much of the 1920s. The Association became more firmly established geographically when it found a permanent base in 1925 in a four storey Victorian terraced house (in the Second Empire style, we were informed by the president, himself and architect) in Queensberry Place, Kensington. A year later, Conan Doyle, then in the midst of his presidency, published his compendious 684 page History of Spiritualism, which no doubt graces the shelves of the College’s extensive library, alongside such occult volumes as the Malleus Maleficarum, Madame Blavatsky’s and the output, fictional and (purportedly) otherwise, of adherents of the Order of the Golden Dawn such as WB Yeats, Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood. All this in addition to works by less esoteric and more homely modern mediums in the Doris Stokes line, more intent on bringing a little comfort into people’s lives than penetrating the great mysteries.

The Cottingley Fairies
Conan Doyle’s wholehearted embrace of Spiritualism made him a tireless and forceful advocate. But his single-minded absorption in the belief system he’d chosen to adopt, and his refusal to countenance dissenting voices led him to fall frequently into injudicious credulity. He seemed at times to be setting out to embody GK Chesterton’s dictum that ‘when people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing – they believe in anything’. This could prove embarrassing to those he was vocally supporting, the publicity which he inevitably attracted subjecting them to more ridicule than they already received. His best remembered stumble into foolishness and absurd gullibility involved his validation, in the December 1920 edition of The Strand, of the photographs taken by two girls, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, of fairies capering at the bottom of their Yorkshire garden in the village of Cottingley. Certain as ever of his rightness in the matter, he later elaborated on his position, developing fanciful notions of the nature of fairy realms as if they were real insights, empirically arrived at. His 1922 book The Coming of the Fairies was tersely described by Russell Miller in his biography The Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle as ‘undoubtedly the nadir of his non-fictional work’, sounding embarrassed on his behalf. But Arthur Conan Doyle’s tenure as president of the London Spiritualist Association and his support of its work in the face of ridicule and even legal action (he appeared as a supporting witness at the trial of two mediums, Claire Cantlon and Mercy Phillimore, accused of vagrancy under an obscure law defining fortune tellers as beggars) means that he is still a presiding presence at Queensberry Place. There is a dedicated Arthur Conan Doyle Room in which a signed photographic portrait prominently hangs alongside other memorabilia.

Conan Doyle himself turned up in some footage shot at his Sussex home, playing with his dogs, in a short preface to the 1925 film of his novel The Lost World. This played in the Exeter Phoenix Arts Centre with an atmospheric synth score by John Garden. It’s chiefly memorable, Wallace Beery’s splendidly grumpy and pugnacious portrayal of Professor Challenger aside, for Willis O’Brien’s stop motion dinosaurs. Long before Spielberg’s Lost World, with its CGI herds of sauropods, O’Brien had massed hordes of triceratops and allosauruses stampeding across a plateau to escape the fires of an erupting volcano, the predators occasionally taking advantage of the panic and leaping onto the backs of the herbivores.

Alongside chance encounters with the geographical markers of Conan Doyle’s life, career and beliefs and glimpses of him on film, I’ve been enjoying Jeremy Brett’s wonderful portrayal of the great detective. It’s a wilfully eccentric performance which makes of Holmes a self-conscious actor at the centre of his own drama, full of manic gestures followed by lengthy funks. Edward Hardwicke’s Watson is the long-suffering friend who has to put up with his demanding and inconsiderate behaviour in the knowledge that it is the necessary condition for the continued functioning of his remarkable mind. In modern terms, Brett’s Holmes would be classified as having borderline behavioural difficulties and obsessive compulsive traits. In The Adventure of the Dying Detective, Holmes fakes a serious and potentially fatal fever, hiding the spurious nature of his illness from Watson in order to ensure the authenticity of the Doctor’s feelings when calling on the aid of a dangerous and sharp-witted adversary. His pitiful, whimpering requests for Watson’s ministrations, broadcast from the couch across which he has limply draped, says much about the relationship, however. Brett’s Holmes is a needy character, evincing an emotional dependence on Watson which he can never fully admit to. In The Golden Pince-Nez, Watson is absent (and here the TV adaptation differs significantly from Doyle’s story), his place taken by Charles Gray’s imperious Mycroft Holmes, very much the solicitous elder brother, naturally assuming a position of superiority. Holmes is all at sea, and relies on his brother’s prompts to prod him in the right direction and get to the bottom of the case (another featuring the settling of old scores incurred in far flung climes on English soil). I love the scene at the end of The Red Circle in which we see Holmes standing at the back of a theatre box, unobserved by any other, listening to a dramatic operatic aria. This is a momentary coda to the TV episode which draws from the final line of Conan Doyle’s story, in which Holmes says to Watson ‘by the way, it is not eight o’clock, and a Wagner night at Covent Garden! If we hurry, we might be in time for the second act’. Brett’s Holmes’ eyes are rhapsodically closed, his body overwhelmed by waves of painful emotion as he listens to the music. He suggests a character of great complexity, self-consciously concealing its troubled depths with a mask of cold, ascetic rationalism and analytical rigour.

The adventures of Holmes and Watson are as popular as ever, as demonstrated by their transportation into 21st century London in Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ BBC series and Anthony Horowitz’s new and warmly received Holmes novel The House of Silk. We’ve also been selling Holmes audiobooks online at the Exeter Oxfam Music shop on a regular basis recently, read by the Actorish likes of Roy Marsden and Christopher Lee (who told the Adventure of the Sussex Vampire, appropriately enough). We’ve still got a couple left at the moment, both read in the distinctive and commanding tones of Robert Hardy. The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes takes four stories from Conan Doyle’s second collection: The Adventures of the Yellow Face, The Stockbroker's Clerk, The 'Gloria Scott', and culminating in The Final Problem,Conan Doyle’s futile attempt to kill his creation off in a struggle to the death above the Reichenbach Falls. There are also four stories from The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, which really was the final collection of tales featuring the great detective, published in 1927: The Adventures Of The Three Gables, The Three Garridebs, The Lion's Mane, and The Retired Colourman. A further selection taken from various collections features The Adventures of the Three Students, The Sussex Vampire, The Greek Interpreter, and Charles Augustus Milverton. These are stories which really benefit from a characterful reading, just as the illustrations by Sidney Paget and others added an extra dimension to them in The Strand. Holmes and Watson are always just waiting for someone to conjure them from Doyle’s undemonstrative prose and bring them to life – so that once more, the game will be afoot.

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