The Arthur Conan Doyle EncyclopediaThe Arthur Conan Doyle EncyclopediaThe Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
22 May 1859, Edinburgh M.D., Kt, KStJ, D.L., LL.D., Sportsman, Writer, Poet, Politician, Justicer, Spiritualist Crowborough, 7 July 1930

A. Conan Doyle at Home

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

A. Conan Doyle at Home is an article about Conan Doyle published in the US Associated Press on 6-7 october 1894.



Conan Doyle at Home (The Salt Lake Herald)

The Salt Lake Herald (7 october 1894)

(Copyright, 1894, by S. S. McClure, Limited.)

Dr. A. Conan Doyle, who arrived in this country a week ago, has come ostensibly to deliver a series of lectures, but the real object of his visit is to travel through the United States. If the well known novelist is curious to see America, he may rest assured that the public here is equally eager to wake his acquaintance.

Of that brilliant group of vigorous Scotchmen who are just now delighting the literary world, no single one possesses a more interesting personality than Dr. Doyle. Although but 33 years of age, his historical romances and thrilling detective stories have earned him a phenomenal reputation. To the average reader he is best known perhaps through the exploits of that wizard in unravelling criminal mysteries, Sherlock Holmes. And since the author has announced that Holmes is definitely dead, never more to be revived in fiction, a vivid interest centers about the creation of the very prince of detectives.


Dr. Doyle himself frankly acknowledges that his unique character was inspired by Dr. Joseph Bell, of Edinburgh, one of his professors at the Scotch university. While he could scarcely be called the original Sherlock Holmes, yet Dr. Bell's singular genius for noting details and from them forming a chain of circumstantial evidence, certainly gave Doyle the clue to his now famous hero. A theory which Dr. Bell constantly advanced was that any really good doctor ought to tell before a patient has fairly sat down just about what is the matter with him or her. With a woman especially this observant physician can often tell by noticing her, exactly what part of her body she is going to talk about. He persistently impressed upon his students — Conan Doyle among them — the vast importance of little distinctions, the endless significance of trifles.

Dr. Bell says: "The great majority of people, of incidents, and of cases resemble each other in the main and larger features. For instance, most men have apiece a head, two arms, a nose, a mouth, and a certain number of teeth. It is the little differences, in themselves trifles, such as the droop of an eyelid, or what not, which differentiate men."

The doctor illustrates his mode of procedure by giving one or two instances to prove the successful application of his theory, and both of them ere strongly suggestive of Sherlock Holmes' methods. "Once," he said, "a man walked into the room where I was instructing the students, and his case seemed to be a very simple one. I was talking about what was wrong with him. 'Of course, gentlemen,' I happened to say, 'he has been a soldier in a Highland regiment and probably a bandsman.' I pointed out the swagger in his walk suggestive of the piper; while his shortness told me if he had been a soldier, it was probably as a bandsman. In fact, he had the whole appearance of a man in one of the Highland regiments. The man turned out to be nothing but a shoemaker, and had never been in the army in his life. This was rather a floorer, but, being absolutely certain I was right, seeing something was up, I did a pretty cool thing. I told two of the strongest clerks of dressers to remove the man to a side room and detain him till I came. I next. had him stripped, and under the left breast I instantly detected a little blue 'D' branded on his skin. He was a deserter. That was how they used to mark them in the Crimean days, and later, although it is not now permitted. Of course, the reason of his evasion was at once clear.

"Conan Doyle," the doctor continued, "was one of the best students I ever had. He was exceedingly interested always in anything connected with diagnosis, and was never tired of trying to discover all those little details one looks for. I recollect he was much amused once when a patient walked in and sat down. 'Good morning, Pat,' I said, for it was impossible not to see that he was an Irishman. 'Good morning, your honor,' replied the patient. 'Did you like your walk over the links today as you come in from the south side of the town?' I asked. 'Yes,' said Pat. 'Did our honor see me?' Well, Conan Doyle could not see how I knew that, assuredly simple as it was. On a showery day, such as that had been, the reddish clay at bare parts of the links adheres to the boot, and a tiny part is bound to remain. There is no such clay anywhere else around the town for miles. That and one or two similar instances excited Doyle's keenest interest, and set him experimenting himself, with very brilliant results, as you know."

In Conan Dole's study, which is workshop, smoking room, and snuggery in one, there stands on the bookcase bust of a man with a keen, shrewd face. At first glance one is apt to fancy it the portrait of some great British statesman, which is quite a mistake. It is a clever bit of imaginative work done by a young Birmingham sculptor, Wilkins by name. He cast it in plaster, and sent it to Dr. Doyle as his ideal of Sherlock Holmes. The lean, well-modeled head, close-shut lips, inscrutable eyes, and iron jaw make an admirable conception of the now famous detective.

And, by the way, it would be hard to find a more workmanlike room- than this cosy study where "The Refugees," "The Slapping Sal," and many another brilliant bit of fiction was written. The work-bench proper stands in the corner — one of those flat-topped desks so prevalent in England. The English author does not seem to take kindly to the haughty roller-top American desk, covered with transparent varnish and twenty-three patents.

There is a bookcase, filled with solid historical volumes for the most part. The most remarkable feature of the room is a series of water-color drawings done by Conan Doyle's father. The Doyle family has always been a family of artists, and the celebrated cover of Punch is, as everybody knows, the work of Richard Doyle. The drawings by Mr. Doyle's father are most weird and imaginative, being in art something like Edgar Allan Poe's stories are in fiction.

There are harpoons on the wall, for Doyle his been a whale fisher in his time, and has the skull of a polar bear and the stuffed body of an Iceland falcon to show that his aim was accurate. There are but two other Iceland falcons in England. The novelist came nearer to the North Pole than New York is to Chicago.


No part of this author's varied life was richer in experiences to him than the months he spent aboard a Peterhead whaler. He roughed it along with the sturdy Scotch crew, but his receptive artist's nature received a thousand sharp impressions of which his companions remained ignorant. No one has described the sightings and hunt of a whale so vividly as Dr. Doyle, who says:

"It is not that the present generation is less persistent and skillful than its predecessors, nor is it that the Greenland whale is in danger of becoming extinct; but the true reason appears to be that nature, while depriving this unwieldy mass of blubber of any weapons, has given it in compensation a highly intelligent brain. That the whale entirely understands the mechanism of his own capture is beyond dispute. To swim backward and forward beneath a floe, in the hope of cutting the rope against the sharp edge of the ice, is a common device of the creature after being struck. By degrees, however, it has realized the fact that there are limits to the powers of its adversaries, and that by keeping far in among the icefields it may shake off the most intrepid of pursuers. Gradually the creature has deserted the open sea and bored deeper and deeper among the ice barriers, until now, at last, it really appears to have reached inaccessible feeding grounds; and it is seldom, indeed, that the watcher in the crow's nest sees the plume of spray and the black tail in the air which set his heart a-thumping.

"But if a man have the good fortune to be present at a 'fall,' and, above all, if he be, as I have been, in the harpooning and the lancing boat, he has a tasts of sport which it would be ill to match. To play a salmon is a royal game, but when your fish weighs more than a suburban villa, and is worth a clear two thousand pounds; when, too your line is a thumb's thickness of manila rope with fifty strands, every strand tested for thirty-six pounds, it dwarfs all other experiences. And the lancing, too, when the creature is spent, and your boat pulls in to give it the coup de grace with cold steel, that is also exciting! A hundred tons of despair are churning the waters up into a red roam; two great black fins are rising and falling like the sails of a windmill, casting the boat into a shadow as they droop over it, but, still the harpooner clings to the head, where, no harm can come, and, with the wooden butt of a twelve-foot lance against his stomach, he presses it home until the long struggle is finished, and the black back rolls over to expose the livid, whitish surface beneath. Yet amid all the excitement — and no one who has not held, in oar in such a scene can tell how exciting it is — one's sympathies lie with the poor hunted creature. The whale has a small eye, little larger than that of a bullock; but I cannot easily forget the mute expostulation which I read in one as it is dimmed over in death within hand's touch of me. What could it guess, poor creature, of the laws of supply and demand; or how could it imagine, that when nature placed an elastic filter inside of its mouth, and when man discovered that the plates of which it was composed were the most pliable and yet durable things in creation. its death warrant was signed?"


Conan Doyle is not a man who goes to extremes, but it seems that he did in the matter of his voyaging. He came home from the Arctic circle, took his degree at Edinburgh, and at once shipped for the west coast of Africa.

Here is a tragedy of the sea which occurred when Doyle was a boy. He read an account of it at the time, and it made a powerful impression on his young mind. An American ship called the Marie Celeste was found abandoned off the west coast. Nothing on her was disturbed and there were no signs of a struggle. Her cargo was untouched, and there was no evidence that she had come through a storm. On the cabin table was screwed a sewing machine, and on the arm of the sewing machine was a spool of silk thread, which would have fallen off if there had been any motion of the vessel. She was loaded with clocks, and her papers showed that she had left Baltimore for Lisbon. She was taken to Gibraltar, but to this day no one knows what became of the captain and crew of the Marie Celeste.

This mystery of the sea set the future Sherlock Holmes at work trying to find a solution for it. There was no clue to go on, except an old Spanish sword, found in the forecastle, which showed signs of haying been recently cleaned. Doyle's solution of the problem appeared in the form of a story for the Cornhill Magazine, entitled, "J. Habbakuk Jephson's Statement." Jephson was supposed to be an American doctor who had taken passage on the ship for his health. Shortly after the story appeared the following telegram was printed in the London papers:

"Solly Flood, her majesty's advocate-general at Gibraltar, telegraphs that the statement of J. Habbakuk Jephson is nothing less than a fabrication."

So it was; but the telegram was a compliment to the realism of the story, to say the least.


Dr. Conan Doyle is a methodical worker, and a hard worker. He pastes up over his mantel shelf a list of the things he intends to do in the coming six months, and he sticks to his task until it is done. He must be a great disappointment to his old teacher. When he had finished school, the teacher called the boy up before him and said solemnly:

"Doyle, I have known you now for seven years, and I know you thoroughly. I am going to ' say something to you that you will remember in after life. Doyle, you will never come to any good!"

The making of an historical novel involves much hard reading. The result of this hard reading Doyle sets down in a note book. Sometimes all he gets out of several volumes is represented by a couple of pages in book. For sometime past he has been. greatly interested in the Napoleonic revival, and has recently written some marvelously good short stories set in the stormy period of the first empire. When asked by a friend for his opinion of the great Corsican, Dr. Doyle replied:

"He was a wonderful man — perhaps the most wonderful man who ever lived. What strikes me is the lack of finality in his character. When you make up your mind that he is a complete villain, you come on some. noble trait, and then.your admiration of this is lost in some act of incredible meanness. But just think of it! Here was a young fellow of 30, a man who had no social advantages and but slight educational training. a member of a poverty-stricken family, entering a room with a troop of kings at his heels, and all the rest of them jealous if he spoke a moment longer 'to one than to the others. Then there must have been a great personal charm about the man, for some of those intimate with him loved him."


Conan Doyle takes a very optimistic view of the future of romantic literature. He says: "I think there never was a time when there was a better promise. There are at least a dozen men and women who have made a. deep mark, and who are still young. No one can say how far they may go. Some of them are sure to develop, for the past shows us that fiction is an art which improves up to the age of fifty or so. With fuller knowledge of life comes greater power in describing it. For example, there are more than a dozen — Barrier. Kipling, Oliver Schreiner, Sarah Grand, Miss Harraden. Gilbert Parker, Quiller-Couch„ Hall Caine, Stevenson, Stanley Weyman, Anthony Hope, Crockett, Rider Haggard, Jerome, Zingwill, Clark Russell, George Moore, many of them under thirty and few of them much over it. Then if a man keeps out of grooves and refuses to do his work in a mechanical way 'he steadily advances. Why, many of the greatest writers in our fiction did not begin until after forty. Thackeray was about forty. Scott was past forty. Charles Reade and George Eliot were as much. Richardson was fifty. To draw life one must know it. My experience is that when a man is fifty he knows he will improve until he is sixty, and when he is sixty he feels that improvement will keep right on until he is seventy; where-as, when he is twenty he thinks that perhaps he will know more when he is thirty, but is not sure. Man is ten amusing animal.

"Then although I did not read as much American fiction as I should like, what I have read has, I hope, been fairly representative. I know Cable's work, and Eugene Field's, and Hamlin Garland's and Edgar Fawcett's, and Richard Harding Davis's. I think Harold Frederic's 'In the Valley' is one of the best of recent historical romances. The danger for American fiction is, I think, that it should run in many brooks instead of one broad stream. There is a tendency to over accentuate all peculiarities; differences, after all, are very superficial things, and good old human nature is always there under a coat of varnish. When one hears of a literature of the West or of the South it sounds aggressively sectional. Barrie and Hardy might, I know, have the same charge brought ,against them, unless one reads close enough to appreciate that they have gained success by showing how the Scotch or Wessex peasant shares our common human That are not by accentuating 'the points in which they differ from us."


The author of Sherlock Holmes expressed himself strongly concerning William Dean Howells's strictures upon art in romance writing. He said: "We talk so much about art that we end to forget what this art was ever invented for. It was to amuse mankind — to help the sick and the dull and the weary. If Scott and Dickens have done this for millions, they have done well by their art. Where would Gulliver and Don Quixote and Dante and Goethe be if our sole object was to draw life exactly as it exists. No; the object of fiction is to interest, and the best fiction is that which interests most. If you can interest by drawing life as it is, do so. But there is no reason why you should object to your neighbor using other means.

"I think the age of fiction is coming — the age when religious and social and political changes will all be affected by means of the novelist. Look, within recent years, how much has been done by such books as 'Looking Backward' or 'Robert Elsmore.' Everybody is educated now, but comparatively few are very educated. To get an idea to penetrate to the masses of the people you must put fiction round it, like sugar round a pill. No statesman and and no ecclesiastic will have the influence on public opinion which the novelist of the future will have. If he has strong convictions, he will have wonderful facilities for impressing them on others. If he can't get his sugar right, people will refuse his pill."