Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Arthur Conan Doyle

 

Birth: May 22, 1859 in Edinburgh, Scotland

Death: 1930 in Crowborough, Sussex, England

BIOGRAPHICAL ESSAY

Arthur Conan Doyle was born on May 22, 1859, in Edinburgh, Scotland, into a very strict Roman Catholic family. He was educated in Jesuit schools in the United Kingdom (Stoneyhurst) and in Austria (Stella Matutina) until he was 17. Although he was apparently attracted by the mystical, sacramental, and eucharistic aspects of Catholicism, he began to doubt his faith during his years at the Jesuit schools.

When Doyle entered the University of Edinburgh at age 17, he was, by his own account, a nonbeliever. "I found that the foundations not only of Roman Catholicism but of the whole Christian faith, as presented to me in nineteenth century theology, were so weak that my mind could not build upon them." These conditions had, according to Doyle, "driven me to agnosticism." It was during his university years that he came under the influence of materialists such as Joseph Bell, his self-proclaimed prototype for Sherlock Holmes, who taught his students the process of deductive reasoning through the observation of material phenomena.

As a result of this training, Doyle became convinced that every mystery of life could be solved through observation and deductive reasoning. Yet despite this training, his previous rejection of Catholicism, and his self-professed agnosticism, he continued to investigate religions, because without a religious foundation he felt a void in his life.

In 1881 Doyle received his medical degree and in 1882 set up a medical practice in Southsea (a suburb of Portsmouth), where he remained until 1890. Even while attending medical school, Doyle had actively investigated "new religions" in an effort to fill the void created when he left the Roman Catholic Church. He attended his first s‚ance in 1880, and many of his short stories published in the 1880s reflect his interest in Spiritualism and his growing acceptance of it. Before the turn of the century Doyle had become interested in Theosophy, the Rosicrucians, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and Mormonism.

In 1887 Doyle published A Study in Scarlet, which was the first of 60 Sherlock Holmes stories he eventually wrote. Holmes proved to be his most popular fictional character. That same year he wrote two letters to the weekly Spiritualist periodical Light, in which he recounted his conversion to Spiritualism. In these letters Doyle wrote that he became convinced that Spiritualism was true after reading books on the subject by John W. Edmonds, Alfred Russel Wallace, and Alfred Drayson.

To put their writings to a test, he formed a circle of six that met at a Southsea residence on nine or ten occasions. This group received messages through table turning and automatic writing, but the significance of these events was inconclusive until an experienced medium with "considerable mediumistic power" was invited to sit with the circle. This medium, writing under control, told Doyle not to read a book by Leigh Hunt that he found convincing because neither the medium nor any of his group knew he was debating whether he should read the book.

Because of this experience, Doyle became convinced that Spiritualism taught the truth:

"[T]he incident which, after many months of inquiry, showed me at last that it was absolutely certain that intelligence could exist apart from the body. . . . After weighing the evidence, I could no more doubt the existence of the phenomena than I could doubt the existence of lions in Africa, though I have been to that continent and have never chanced to see one. . . . Let me conclude by exhorting any other searcher never to despair of receiving personal testimony but to persevere through any number of failures until at last conviction comes to him, as, it will."

Several weeks later he wrote another letter to Light, which he wrote "[a]s a Spiritualist" and in which he opined that "Spiritualism in the abstract has no `weak points"' but admitted that "respectable Spiritualists persist in supporting and employing men who have been proved, as far as anything mundane is capable of proof, to be swindlers of the lowest order." Although he was ready to accept that "they have real but intermittent psychical powers," he was also convinced that such charlatans were "noxious parasites" who were the "greatest bane" of Spiritualism. Doyle had received his "definite demonstration," which he believed was necessary before he could embrace any new religion. Spiritualism provided the evidence that life continues after death and that a form of religion exists that is consistent with primitive Christianity and all its attendant miracles.

From 1887 to 1916 Doyle continued to participate in the Spiritualist movement. He wrote letters concerning religious issues, joined the Society for Psychical Research, and contributed thousands of pounds to the Spiritualist periodical Light. Although he did not proselytize the cause of Spiritualism, as he later would, Doyle did attend s‚ances and studied psychic phenomena as part of his continuing search for truth. Many of his short stories published before 1916 also portray Spiritualist ideas and concepts in a favorable light.

Doyle also wrote three books during this period that his biographers have described as autobiographical: Beyond the City (1893), The Stark Munro Letters (1895), and A Duet With an Occasional Chorus (1899). In the most important of these works, The Stark Munro Letters, Doyle's hero, Stark Munro, reveals that he has only the "vaguest idea as to whence I have come from, whither I am going, or what I am here for. It is not for want of inquiry, or from indifference. I have mastered the principles of several religions. They have all shocked me by the violence which I should have to do to my reason to accept the dogmas of any one of them. . . . I see so clearly that faith is not a virtue, but a vice. It is a goat which has been headed with the sheep." And yet Doyle, through Munro, also admits that his loss of faith was traumatic: "When first I came out of the faith in which I had been reared, I certainly did feel for a time as if my life-belt had burst. I won't exaggerate and say that I was miserable and plunged in utter spiritual darkness." Munro also reflects Doyle's optimism for the future of religions: "The forms of religion will be abandoned, but the essence will be maintained; so that one universal creed will embrace the whole civilized earth. . . ."

Doyle's most productive period for writing fiction occurred after his conversion to Spiritualism. His best-known Sherlock Holmes stories were The Sign of Four (1890); The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892); The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1894); and The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902). Doyle also "killed off" Sherlock Holmes--to concentrate on more serious literary efforts and his studies of Spiritualism--by drowning him in Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland. Ironically, Holmes was resurrected, or at least "born again," from the waters of Reichenbach in 1905 in The Return of Sherlock Holmes to help supplement Doyle's income. Later books on Holmes--The Valley of Fear (1915), His Last Bow (1917), and The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (1927)--helped enable Doyle to actively pursue his missionary efforts on behalf of Spiritualism.

Even though Doyle was a believer in Spiritualism beginning in the late 1880s, in 1916 he wrote an article in Light in which he enthusiastically proclaimed a new dedication to it. Subsequently he began to actively proselytize for the Spiritualist cause. World War I had finally convinced him to more fully embrace the movement: "I might have drifted on for my whole life as a psychical Researcher . . . [b]ut the War came, and . . . it brought earnestness into all our souls and made us look more closely at our own beliefs and reassess our values."

As a result of this "earnestness," he finally recognized that "this subject with which I had so long dallied was not merely a study of a force outside the rules of science, but that it was really something tremendous, a breaking down of the walls between two worlds, a direct undeniable message from beyond, a call of hope and of guidance to the human race at the time of its deepest affliction." Doyle also realized, apparently for the first time, that "the physical phenomena . . . are really of no account, and that their real value consists in the fact that they . . . make religion a very real thing, no longer a matter of faith, but a matter of actual experience and fact." As such, he turned with great zeal from the objective study of Spiritualism to proselytism.

Shortly after his second "conversion" he wrote two books, The New Revelation and The Vital Message, in which he proclaimed his personal belief in the movement. In addition, he wrote numerous letters to the press on the subject of Spiritualism in which he summarized the beliefs and practices of Spiritualists and claimed that he could not "recall any miracle in the New Testament which has not been claimed, upon good authority, as having occurred in the experience of spiritualists"; that Spiritualism is nothing more than what one would find "if he goes back nineteen hundred years and studies the Christianity of Christ"; that the date Spiritualism was organized in upstate New York in 1848 "is in truth the greatest date in human history since the great revelation of two thousand years ago"; and that no faith is necessary to realize that Spiritualism is true.

During the last decade of his life Doyle began spending great sums of money and traveled many thousands of miles to proselytize for the Spiritualist cause in Australia and New Zealand (1920-21), the United States and Canada (1922-23), France (1925), South Africa, Rhodesia, Uganda, Tanganyika and Kenya (1928-29), Scandinavia and Holland (1929), and, of course, England (1916-30). He also recorded a famous Movietone interview in 1927 that has never before been published in its entirety.

In 1924 Doyle also translated a book, Jeanne D'Arc Medium (Paris: Librairie des Sciences Psychiques, 1910), written by Leon Denis. Denis, like Doyle, was an adherent of Spiritualism. In his introduction to the translation Doyle extols Joan of Arc's virtues:

"[M]y personal conviction [is] that, next to the Christ, the highest spiritual being of whom we have an exact record upon the earth is the girl Joan. . . . Apart from the question of Christ's divinity, and comparing the two characters upon a purely human plane, there was much analogy between them. Each was sprung from the laboring class. Each proclaimed an inspired commission. Each was martyred while still young. Each was acclaimed by the common people and betrayed or disregarded by the great. Each excited the bitter hatred of the church of their time, the high priests of which in each case conspired for their death."

But Doyle does not stop there. He notes that Denis was a student of psychic matters and that his work is valuable since it gives us "some intelligible reason for the obvious miracle that a girl of nineteen, who could neither read nor write, and knew nothing of military affairs, was able in a few months to turn the tide of a hundred years' war and to save France from becoming a vassal of England."

In 1926, two years after publishing Jeanne D'Arc, Doyle published a two-volume work on the history of Spiritualism in which he attempted to present Spiritualism in a historical and topical perspective. Perhaps the most ironic development in Doyle's quest for a new religion occurred when he began to see himself increasingly as "a prophet of the future of the whole world. . . ." The Doyles were now put in personal contact with the guide to this uncertain future, an Arabian spirit called Pheneas, who communicated through Jean Doyle's [Arthur's wife] automatic writing.

Doyle's belief in the hereafter became increasingly premised on very specific communications from Pheneas through his wife, Jean. Receiving such messages caused him to state his absolute belief in the hereafter: "I have not only received . . . prophecies [concerning the end of the world] in a very consistent and detailed form, but also so large a number of independent corroborations that it is difficult for me to doubt that there lies some solid truth at the back of these."

Although Doyle remained committed to Spiritualism, he apparently became discouraged when the prophecies and revelations concerning the end of the world that had been communicated through Pheneas were not fulfilled, and he speculated that he and his wife may have become "victims of some extraordinary prank played upon the human race from the other side."

Doyle was still a dedicated Spiritualist at the time of his death in 1930. Until his death Doyle remained convinced that life continued after death, because of ongoing communications from deceased family members who assured him that they lived in the spirit world. These communications remained the "definite demonstration" that he had sought since his days at the University of Edinburgh. He believed that these apparitions and other evidence of Spiritualism provided a factual basis from which he could deduce, in the same manner that Sherlock Holmes would have deduced, that life continues after death. Given his acceptance of these apparitions, it is hardly surprising that Doyle was also convinced that his acceptance of Spiritualism was completely consistent with the deductive reasoning of Sherlock Holmes and Holmes's observation that "there is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion. . . . It can be built up as an exact science by the reasoner."

Doyle died in 1930 in Crowborough, Sussex, England.

Update:

October 17, 2003: A collection of Doyle's manuscripts, held in the family for nearly a century, will be auctioned by Christie's in London, with the proceeds going to charity. Items to be auctioned include the manuscript for his 1889 novel A Duet with an Occasional Chorus, poems, his reports from the Boer War, and his last manuscript, The Maracot Deep. Source: Guardian, http://books.guardian.co.uk, October 17, 2003.

Sources:

Carr, John Dickson. The Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. London: John Murray, 1949.
Doyle, Arthur Conan. Letters to the Press. Edited by John M. Gibson and Richard L. Green. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1986.
Edwards, Owen Dudley. The Quest for Sherlock Holmes, A Biographical Study of Arthur Conan Doyle. Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing, 1983.
Jones, Kelvin I. Conan Doyle and the Spirits: The Spiritualist Career of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Wellingborough, England: Aquarian Press, 1989.
Lellenberg, Jon L. The Quest for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987.
McCearney, James. Arthur Conan Doyle. Paris: La Table Ronde, 1988.
Nordon, Pierre. Conan Doyle. London: John Murray, 1966.
Pearson, Hesketh. Conan Doyle, His Life and Art. London: Methuen, 1943.
Stavert, Geoffrey. A Study in Southsea. Portsmouth, England: Milestone Publications, 1987.

 

The above writeup was reproduced by permission from "Arthur Conan Doyle." Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology, 5th ed. Edited by J. Gordon Melton, 2001.
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Works Regarding Spiritualism by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The New Revelation, Toronto, 1919
The Vital Message, London, 1919. (also here.)Our Reply to the Cleric, 1920
A Public Debate on the Truth of Spiritualism, 1920 (with Joseph McCabe)
The Gods Came Through, 1920
Spiritualism and Rationalism (short transcript of a debate), 1920
Fairies Photographed, 1921
The Evidence for Fairies, 1921
The Wanderings of a Spiritualist. New York: 1921
The Coming of the Fairies, 1922 (with others)
The Case for Spirit Photography. New York: 1922
Our American Adventure. London: 1923
Our Second American Adventure, 1923
The Spiritualists' Reader (sayings). Manchester: [UK] 1924
Memories and Adventures, 1924
Jeanne D'Arc Medium (Paris: Librairie des Sciences Psychiques, 1910), written by Leon Denis and translated into English by Arthur Conan Doyle in 1924
The Early Christian Church and Modern Spiritualism, 1925
The History of Spiritualism.Vol. 1 & Vol. 2, 1926. (Bibliography)
My Religion (with Arnold Bennett, Hugh Walpole and others) 1926
Pheneas Speaks: Direct Spirit Communications in the Family Circle. 1927
What does Spiritualism actually Teach and Stand For, 1929
The Roman Catholic Church, 1929
Our African Winter, 1929
An open letter to those of my generation, 1929
The Edge of the Unknown  1930.
Letters to the press : the unknown Conan Doyle, compiled with an introduction by John Michael Gibson and Richard Lancelyn Green 1986
Cooke, Ivan. The Return of Arthur Conan Doyle, 1956 (posthumous channeled work)
Cooke, Ivan. Arthur Conan Doyle's Book of the Beyond, 1975 (posthumous channeled work)

Related works of fiction: (See Arthur Conan Doyle Bibliography Summary for fiction list)

Beyond the City. 1893
The Stark Munro Letters. 1895
A Duet With an Occasional Chorus. 1899
The Great Keinplatz Experiment and Other Tales of Twilight and the Unseen. 1919
The Land of Mist, 1926 (or here as one long file)
 

Additional Biographies and Information:

Available Biographical Studies - Arthur Conan Doyle Society
Books about Arthur Conan Doyle - Sherlockian.net by Chris Redmond
Arthur Conan Doyle &endash; Available Biographical Studies - from Cecilia Herrero Vila's Doyle pages
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - an illustrated three-part biography from PrairieGhosts.com
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) - First Spiritual Temple, Brookline, MA
A Historic Profile of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and His Association with Spiritualism
Arthur Conan Doyle, Spiritualism, and Fairies - an illustrated account
Houdini and Conan Doyle: The Story of a Strange Friendship - Massimo Polidoro
A Brief Biography - Christopher Roden 1997
Official site of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Literary Estate - includes a 15 page biography
Biography of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - from mysherlockholmes.uni.cc
Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) - from www.kirjasto.sci.fi
Arthur Conan Doyle - a short bio from Wikipedia with empty links to his stories
The Sherlock Holmes Society in London - The official home page of the society, which publishes a biennial journal
Baker Street Connection - has the full text for almost all the Sherlock Holmes stories
List of Electronic Texts Available at LETRS: The Complete Sherlock Holmes
Sherlock Holmes Resources - nice link list for Sherlock Holmes aficianados
A Census of The Conan Doyle Collection - ownership Records and the Christie's 2004 Sale by Randall Stock
Arthur Conan Doyle Filmography - details on the many films based on his writings
 
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