Celebrities at Home: Mr. Arthur Conan Doyle in Tennison Road

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

Celebrities at Home: Mr. Arthur Conan Doyle in Tennison Road is an interview of Arthur Conan Doyle written by a journalist of the World (London) on 3 august 1892. As often, the interview is presented as an article.


Celebrities at Home: Mr. Arthur Conan Doyle in Tennison Road

The Sydney Morning Herald (27 december 1892, p. 2)

(Text published in the The Sydney Morning Herald)



An intimate connection between the practice of medicine and the writing of romance may almost be regarded (writes tho London World) as traditional in English literature. Tobias Smollett was apprenticed to a Glasgow surgeon before he accompanied the naval expedition to Carthagena, and Charles James Lever graduated at Göttingen before he took to doctoring British diplomatists at Brussels and Florence. Smollett expired in obscurity at Leghorn in 1771, and Lever died at Trieste exactly a century later, but neither the author of "Peregrine Pickle" nor the inventor of "Charles O'Malley" and the "Dodds" was as fortunate as the versatile creator of "Mr. Sherlock Holmes," who, at the age of 33, has been able to give up a promising practice as an eye-specialist in the street described as "long and unlovely," and settle down to the less fatiguing business of a successful novelist in the still rural locality, spoken of not so very long ago as a "village scattered round a large wild common," and "a principal haunt of the gipsies." In our own days the "Jews' Hospital" and the "Westmorland Society's Schools" have been built at Lower Norwood, while a great part of the hillside is now covered by the picturesque graveyard in which one may discover the tombs of Mr. Justice Talfourd, Angus Reach, Laman Blanchard, and Frederick Robson. But the roomy houses in the Tennison-Road retain their large-walled gardens, while their fortunate owners still enjoy an unimpaired view of a broad stretch of fertile open country, and the Surrey hills beyond it. There is something more than a soupcon of "Queen Anneism" in the red-black mansion, with a projecting balcony over the entrance, which you approach by a well-kept drive, and even Mr. Norman Shaw would not quarrel with the correctness of the door, which is oponed by a big, broad-shouldered man, attired in a suit of rough heather mixture, with merry laughing eyes and the frame and moustache of a Life Guardsman For a moment you believe that it is Harold Frederick, the author of "Seth's Brother's Wife," who has been paying a visit to his English colleague ; but you are speedily undeceived, and Mr. Conan Doyle - for it is he - tells you that he has often heard of the resemblance, although a sight of his double is still a pleasure to come. Your host comes of a family of artists. His father was "Dicky" Doyle of Punch fame, and his grand-father the "H.B.," whose strikingly fanciful sketches and clever political caricatures were celebrated in the early part of the Queen's reign and throughout that of her immediate predecessor. Arthur Conan Doyle helds the works of his grandfather John, who first migrated to London from Dublin, in deserved esteem, and loses no time in showing you his rough but lifelike portraits of Sir Robert Peel, Mr. Disraeli, the Duke of Wellington, and the Emperor Nicholas, as well as the original of that once popular satirical print, "Old Glory," in which Sir Francis Burdett, as a sober-minded Conservative, stands before a framed and glazed picture of the Tower of his Radical youth.

There is no trace of luxury or aestheticism to be found in Mr. Doyle's study. From the open window he can inhale the invigorating breezes which come in straight from the Surrey Hills ; his solid mahogany writing-desk is more useful than ornamental, his well-filled bookshelves (where medicine and poetry fight for supremacy) are of the plainest and most serviceable type, the walls are hung with his father's drawings, all bearing the once familiar hieroglyphic in the corner ; and he will tell you by and by the story of the bear's skull and seal's paw which he brought back from his cruise amongst the icebergs. Some day or other Conan Doyle will organise an exhibition of the works of John Doyle and his son Richard, whose posthumous celebrity is much greater than that which they enjoyed when living. Although he is not an artist himself, "Sherlock Holmes" has a pronounced weakness for the family calling. He has hung his pleasant hall with a series of De Neuville's battle-pieces, and it is here that you also see a white marble bust of "H.B.," who died only in 1868, and an engraving of the first Great Exhibition, with the autograph dedication "From Joseph Paxton to Richard Doyle." Your host is devoted to every form of outdoor exercise, and, like the majority of his literary brethren, is a confirmed smoker. Lawn-tennis enters very largely into the domestic economy of Tennison-Road, and the crinolined ladies of "Dicky" Doyle's earlier efforts look down smilingly from then coign of vantage in the hall of an imposing array of bats and cycling gear. Sitting by his side on a rustic seat in the sunny garden at the end of the tennis-ground, you listen to the story of the novelist, who is Irish by descent, Scotch by the accident of birth, and pre-eminently English both in ideas and affections Conan Doyle was born in Edinburgh, where he returned in 1876, as a lad of 17, to study medicine, after passing his boyhood at Stonyhurst and in Germany. The next five years of his life were entirely given up to the drudgery of his future profession. But with the commendable object of increasing his allowance of pocket-money, he occasionally thought out and wrote short stones. The first of these was accepted at once by Chambers's Journal. A few months before he came of age he took service as doctor on board a whaler, but the robust health of the crew gave him little or no opportunity for displaying his skill. He had, nevertheless, the satisfaction of spending his twenty-first birthday in the 81st degree of north latitude, and shooting the seals, bears, and Arctic birds which now relieve so effectively the prosaic furniture of his workroom. On again reaching Edinburgh he took his full academic degree, and enlisted as a surgeon on a passenger-ship plying between England and the West Coast of Africa, where he passed the four most miserable mouths of his existence. He next moved to the south, and established himself as a general practitioner at Southsea. In the course of eight years he became fairly prosperous, and, although his practice increased considerably, he never entirely gave up his habit of contributing occasionally to the magazines. Among other articles he wrote "A Study in Scarlet," for Beeton's Annual. In this story he created his best friend in life, "Sherlock Holmes." "Sherlock" stood the Southsea doctor in good stead, for the "Study in Scarlet" was rapidly republished as a shilling volume, and has now attained the dignity of a three and sixpenny edition. Encouraged by this success he next wrote the "Firm of Girdlestone" and "Micah Clarke." The latter, now in its sixth edition, proved a real hit and he followed up his triumph by devoting two whole years to the elaboration of his magnum opus, "The White Company." During the interval his inclination wavered between the adoption of an exclusively literary career, and settling in town as a specialist. For the moment the last-mentioned design prevailed, and Conan Doyle put his ready pen aside to study under the best "eye" doctors in Vienna and London. Six months later he transferred his Arctic relics and "H.B." portraits to Wimpole-street, and commenced life afresh as an oculist. As a matter of course, he again began to write, and very soon found out the evident incompatability between the desk and the consulting-room. He was compelled to attend to his patients in the morning, and spend most of the afternoon at the hospital, so that no time remained for his writing but a portion of the night. For months he struggled to combine the two wholly dissimilar avocations, but in the end his health began to give way, and, after mature consideration, he resolved "to throw physic to the dogs," and to rely entirely on the profits of his books and articles.

Conan Doyle has no cause to regret his last move from Wimpole-street to Lower Norwood. He has found his medical reading and observations very useful in providing the technique of his sensational stories, and will doubtless draw some day more extensively on the stores of practical knowledge accumulated in the Arctic regions and on the West Coast of Africa. The "Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" have unquestionably proved one of the staple attractions of the Strand Magazine. They came to an end for a time last month ; but Mr. Newnes has succeeded in overcoming the scruples of the author, and a new series will commence in January next and run through the whole of 1893. As a sequel to the "Adventures" just ended, Mr. Doyle has sat to Mr. How for an "illustrated interview," but prefers writing to being written about. Mr. Henry Irving has purchased a short one-act piece by him, entitled "A Straggler of '15," and this, down to the present time, constitues his solitary attempt at theatrical composition, although the "situations" in his novels and stories disclose dramatic power of no ordinary character. Mr. Doyle has just completed Arrowsmith's next "Christmas Annual ;" but he confesses that he personally prefers the historical novel to any other kind of romantic writing, although the "Sherlock Holmes" style may be far more profitable. He has many plans for the future and plots to be worked out, but will not be tempted into the terrible error of over-writing himself. The warm reception accorded on all hands to "The White Company" encourages him to adopt Festina lente as a literary motto. In the dining-room, opening on the bright garden, he has arranged a series of his brother-in-law's pictures. He pleads guilty only to a general admiration of the art of his ancestors, and he regrets the lack of the artistic touch in himself but as there is art in the blood on both sides of the family, "H.B." and "Dicky" Doyle may some day have lineal descendants worthy of their well-merited reputation. Conan Doyle has got through his morning's "copy" before your arrival, and his last batch of corrected proofs is already on its way to London. He has told you the story of how the Southsea general practitioner and Wimpole-street "specialist" became almost imperceptibly one of the best paid and most popular writers belonging to the rising generation of British novelists. When you bid him good-bye a few hours later, the sun hag almost set over the rich Surrey landscape, but Conan Doyle is still playing lawn tennis with an amount of energy and determination worthy of any of the valiant knights whom he has depicted so glowingly in the pages of "The White Company".