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Arthur Conan Doyle

I have lately (for perfectly valid work reasons) been reading a collection of the letters of Arthur Conan Doyle. Now, as I said, this is important study stuff, not at all due to the endorsement by Stephen Fry, who wrote that

Personally, I would walk a mile in tight boots to read his letters to the milkman.

Now, I tend to agree; although my propensity for close footwear may be less than his, and I don't know any milkmen. You will have to do. They are an amusing and interesting read, not only because of the valuable insight into his literary creations and suchlike, but also for his at times odd focus and weird wordings. The majority of the letters in this collection are those from Arthur Conan Doyle to his mother, Mary Doyle. They had a very close relationship (I'll get back to that) and corresponded regularly throughout his life. The editors have, however, also included letters both to other important people in his life, as well as some from his mother and others that provide a context for his own.

I have read my share of letters by men of letters (sorry), and there is something appealing about it which I cannot put my finger on. Perhaps it is just my version of Big Brother. You get a foot inside what is really a private world. What struck me about the early letters, however, was how odd it was to come across an Arthur Conan Doyle who was not yet the author of Sherlock Holmes (or anything at all).

He writes, for example, that,

I have pinned my Xmas and did not starve. (33)

According to the editors, "pinned" is slang specific to the school he was at (Stonyhurst, a Jesuit school), and meant "enjoyed" or "liked". I vote we adopt it. This is Arthur Conan Doyle the teenager who absorbs the language that surrounds him. I have also found some other examples of other oddly turned phrases. One states that

Miss Fullerton is an awful brick (98)

which appears to mean that she is reluctant to take much money from him (I don't know whether it refers to her being stubborn, or whether it is a slang term denoting someone's being a good character. My favourite slang in his letters, though, must be the word spondulick, which means "money" (114). I am going to start employing it. As soon as I find out how it is pronounced.

At the end of 1872, directing his mother as to what should be put in his Christmas Box (as he spent the holiday at the school), he asked for a Bottle of Claret (not to be diluted, as that would be one at the school) -- he was 14 at the time. (50)

But you don't read letters for intermittent odd words. At least not for long. In October 1873 there is action.

We have had a great commotion here lately, from the fact that our third prefect has gone stark raving mad. I expected it all along, he always seemed to have the most singular antipathy to me ...
I was near him & saw, just as the Laudate Dominum began, pull out his handkerchief and begin waving it over his head. Two of the community took him and at once led him out. They say that in his delirium he mentioned my name several times. A story is going about that before entering the society he fell in love with a maiden, but the maiden absconded with an individual named Doyle, and Mr Chrea in his despair entered the society, and the name of Doyle has ever since had an irritating effect on him. I can't however answer for the truth of this. We are having the most detestable weather possible over here. Rain, rain, rain and nothing but rain. I shall soon at this rate die of ennui ....

Crazy Jesuits and a pretentious teenager with ennui; what more can you want? At some time in 1875, a trick I am slightly miffed nobody taught me in school:

Its such fun -- whenever I am hard up for a quotation I invent a few lines of doggerel, and prefix it by 'as the poet sings', or something of that sort. (69)

I want it noted that the errors are not mine. Arthur Conan Doyle had terrible orthography. Punctuation, spelling, it all seems to have been of no importance to the man. Maybe that was why he went somewhat off the rails later on? It is also fun to look for other early indications of what was to come later. When about to enter the University of Edinburgh as a student of medicine, he wrote to a family friend that

It is indeed, as you say, a very great consolation to know that I will never more need mathematics. Classics I like, and I shall always try to keep up my knowledge of them, but mathematics of every sort I detest and abhor. (93)

and the editors found it pertinent to remark that Conan Doyle's abhorrence of mathematics may have gone some way towards contributing to Professor Moriarty being a noted mathematician.

I also enjoyed his description of a character named Bourchier, who apparently

is a fool, an inane simpering fool. One of those haw-haw demme my soul idiots. He wants a kicking, which I should be happy to accommodate him with the shortest notice. He is a great and glorious LKAQCI; about 30 years old, affects a languid fashionable air, and lisps about the havoc he has made among the sex. An objectionable fellow. (115)

I am inclined to share Conan Doyle's opinion on the need for a kicking. I'll get back to these wonderful descriptions of people he is not too fond of, but first let me note that I also share his pain at the frustration on the lack of letters (I nodded a lot):

Don't send any more postcards, they are most foul inventions for depriving an honest man of his letters. (116)

and later,

Two letters and a Xmas card all go unanswered and unnoticed. It's enough to make a fellow cynical. (121)

(Incidentally, if anyone were to feel hit by these latest quotes, don't let me stop you.)

And if you will allow me a couple of longer quotes again, I love how this one, concerning exploits upon a visit to Ireland (more specifically Ballygally, which is a name I did not make up, ends:

I had a bit of an escape last night. I had been dining with another cousin 4 miles off, (I find I am related to half the country) and we sat rather late over our wine. By the time I got back the place was shut up and everybody had gone to bed, thinking I had been put up for the night. I slouched around the building not liking to knock them up, and at last -- you know the habits of the beast -- I shinnied up a waterpipe, found a window unfastened, and after some fumbling opened it, and tumbled in. I received a rapturous reception from Dick, whose room it was -- rather too rapturous for he sprang at me with a double barreled gun in is hand, and would have put a charge of No. 12 through my head in another moment if I hadn't mildly pointed out the inhospitality of such an action. (137-8)

In the same letter there is also a heartfelt sigh related to the strides of feminism in his time (which brings me back to his descriptions of characters he encounters; his pen is quite sharp, as they say):

We have a young lady visitor with us -- oh, mam, I wish you could be with us to see what the higher education of women leads to -- she is 19 --- a bursar of Trinity College, first of her year in the hardest exam open to women -- and such an addle-headed womanly fool, to put it mildly, I never saw, so help me Bob. She knows the dates of all the Egyptian kings but she hasn't a word to say at the dinner-table. (138)

In another letter, he has the following to say about a parson:

His mind is a hothouse plant, however, and I think very little frost would change his opinions. (144)

And of another passenger on the same journey, that

he is an unmitigated cad though, fancy pressing a lady to take a toothpick after dinner. (144)

I also laughed rather a lot when I came across this self-description after he had received the final details of clothing for a dinner:

I have a crutch stick of ebony and silver which I won as a prize and with the collar I am more than a masher -- I am a dude -- which is an Americanism for the masherest of mortals. (211)

The following (and here I quote almost the whole letter, as it is quite delightful in its oddness -- especially the end) is the letter to his mother upon the occasion of the birth of his first child:

Toodles produced this morning at 6.15 a remarkably fine specimen of the Toodles minor, who is now howling her head off in the back bedroom. I must say that I am surprised at the conduct of the young woman, seeing that both her parents are modest sort of people. She came evidently for a long visit, and yet she has made no apology for the suddenness of her arrival. She had no luggage with her, nor any possessions of any kind, barring a slight cough, and a voice like a coalman. I regret to say that she had not even any clothes, and we have had for decency's sake to rig her out with a wardrobe. Now one would not mind doing all this for the sake of a visitor, but when the said visitor does nothing but snuffle in reply it becomes monotonous. She has frank and engaging manners, but she s bald, which will prevent her from going out into society for some little time.

Forgive me for not telling you, dear. I knew how trying the suspense of waiting would be, and thought that on the whole it would be best that you should learn when it was too late to worry yourself.

There are of course things that are more of interest to the Sherlock Holmes fan (Me!), such as when Conan Doyle already in 1891, after having finished five of the six stories in the second series communicates to his mother that

I think of slaying Holmes in the sixth & winding him up for good & all. (300)

It is believed, however, that Mary Doyle (who liked Holmes) objected forcefully, thereby ensuring that her son would continue the stories past Adventures. It is also interesting to see the other ploys he uses to avoid having to write more Holmes stories (he was convinced they took his energy and the readers' attention from his better work), such as when he asks for outrageous sums for more stories:

They have been bothering me for more Sherlock Holmes tales. Under pressure I offered to do a dozen for a thousand pounds, but I sincerely hope that they won't accept it now. (310)

They did, of course. And in 1893 there is another letter to his mother, stating that

I am in the middle of the last Holmes story, after which the gentleman vanishes, never never to reappear. I am weary of his name. (319)

Thankfully that wasn't quite how things would spin out, either. But I'll get back to that.

Arthur Conan Doyle was, at one point or another, in contact with quite a number of the Greats of Literature of the British Isles. He sat on Thackeray's knee as a kid; when Lippincott invited him for dinner in order to request The Sign of Four, Oscar Wilde was also there; he celebrated Thanksgiving with Kipling and his American wife on his visit to the US; there is a delightful picture of him with H.G. Wells, who also wrote to Conan Doyle congratulate those who had honoured themselves by honouring now Sir Arthur by giving him a knighthood (I know, I know, it may sound a little convoluted put like that, but that is Wells' fault); he exchanged letters and praise with Stevenson for many years; ... there are many others (George Meredith, for one; Arthur Quiller-Couch for another) that I really should mention, but I want to get to my point. He was also friendly with J.M. Barrie, and went up to visit him at Kirriemuir, wrom which place he wrote to tell his mother that

The good simple folk here think that Barrie's fame is due to the excellence of his handwriting. Others think that he prints the books himself and hawks them round London. When he walks they stalk him and watch him from behind trees to find out how he does it. (314)

He was less friendly with George Bernhard Shaw, who (according to the editors of the collection of letters) called a musical Conan Doyle and Barrie had cooperated on,

the most unblushing outburst of tomfoolery that two responsible citizens could conceivably indulge in publicly. (318)

It is not so much in Conan Doyle's letters, however, that you find funny comments on Shaw, but in the editors', in which they do not shrink from describing him as Conan Doyle's

contrarian neighbour (and notorious vegetarian) (413)

in which, no doubt, they are quite right.

It is also amusing to find his judgements on what the female mind can take. Having gone to see a performance of Zola's Therése Raquin, he told his mother

I go alone, as it is hardly a lady's piece. (298)

and on discussing W.H. Smith's boycott of a realist novel (presumably because they thought it immoral, he again wrote to his mother (incidentally from the Reform Club, which I find hilarious),

But it is not too much that English authors should demand as much liberty as Tolstoi in 'Anna Karenina' or Hawthorne in 'The Scarlet Letter' or Flaubert in 'Madame Bovary'. That is a very moderate demand and though none of these are books which you could read aloud before young ladies that cannot be made the final test. (333)

I must also quote this wonderful description of English imperialism:

There is no doubt that the English have done more for the country than ever the Pharaos did -- it is wonderful to see what a handful of men has effected in 13 years. It is such good work that one has not the heart to wish them away, and yet from a wide point of view our presence is both a breach of faith and a political blunder. We are doing good undoubtedly, but England's virtues seem to cause more trouble than any other country's vices. She's a good fussy old granny who is always spanking someone into good behaviour. (365-6)

Speaking of fussy grannies... Conan Doyle's relationship with his mother is interesting. And it rises quite vividly from this collection of letters (as it consists mainly of letters from the son to the mother, and also some few of her responses). Mary Doyle was a very strong-willed woman, I think we can safely say, and her influence with her son is a delight to trace. Quite frequently she is the voice of reason. Most of his letters defer to some comment of hers or another, and on the rare occasions where he disagrees with her (and there were a few), he is clearly uncomfortable with the situation. Most wonderful of them all (with some competition, and please forgive me for the convoluted sentence that follows, from the argument over whether he should volunteer for the Boer War, which he did, after which she started a letter with the hilarious

My own Dearest and very Naughty Son
How dare you -- what do you mean by it?

and wrote another stating that,

There are hundreds of thousands who can fight for one who can make a Sherlock Holmes or a Waterloo! (433)

--you know your mother believes in you when she compares you to the Duke of Wellington (also, I said she was a fan of Holmes) --in that case he solved the problem by presenting her with a fait accompli) is their discussion (visible from his replies to her letters) of the rumours that he would be offered a knighthood, and what he should do if the occasion were to arise (which it did):

I fear, dearest, that with all love and respect, I could never do your wish in this personal matter about titles. Surely you don't really mean that I should take a knighthood -- the badge of the provincial mayor. ... All my work for the State would seem tainted if I took a so-called reward. It may be foolish pride but I just could not do it. (494)


The title that I value most, dear, is that `Dr.' which was conferred by your sacrifice & determination. I shall never descend from it to another. I sincerely hope I shall never be asked to. (496)

and again,

I am sorry, my dear old Mammie, that you should have set your heart on that which is impossible. I assure you that if Jean* & Lottie &you -- the three whom I love most in the world -- were all on their knees before me I could not do this thing. It is a matter of principle with me, I have never approved of titles, I have always said so, and no power on earth could make me take one. (497)

and then,

I had a note from Lord Middleton, Lord Lieutenant of Surrey yesterday, asking me whether I would like to be one of the Deputy Lord Lieutenants of the County as a sign of recognition &c &c. I thought of my mothers sinful pride and said that I would. I dont even know what it means but it sounds rather proud. I must get a new hat. (498)


I have sunk my own instincts & prejudices in this matter of the titles. I see now how exceedingly difficult it is to get out of it. It may solve itself by none being offered. (501)

and finally,

Knighthood offered. (502)

Sir Arthur got his way in fiction, though. As his biographers never tire of pointing out, he had Sherlock Holmes refuse a knighthood on the very date on which he himself had been dubbed. (see ´The Adventure of the Three Garridebs')

*Jean is Jean Leckie. She was the great love of Arthur Conan Doyle's life, but at this time not yet his wife. He was still married to Touie', who had been sick with tuberculosis for many years. All indications are that their relationship, though ardent, was entirely `platonic' until after Touie died, as neither would consent to betraying his sick wife. Meanwhile, Touie's illness meant that a sexual relationship with her was also out of the question, so all indications are that he was celibate for a number of years. His mother and the rest of his family were aware of the situation, and helped them to be together, although (again, as the story has it) always chaperoned. Several of the letters to his mother deal with this situation. One such section is the following:

Letters from you and J reached me together this morning -- a conjunction which I love. I enclose hers -- which please burn, or tear up and scatter among the flowers. Only in those ways would I ever have any note of hers disposed of. (503)

They married little over a year after Touie's death and had rather a number of children.

In other news, Arthur Conan Doyle was also one of the first to argue the merits of the Channel Tunnel. He realised already in 1908 (possibly earlier) what the German submarines meant for England in the event of war, and considered the tunnel the solution. This was not the only insight the War Office ignored. To his mother, regarding the First World War, he wrote that it was

Too bad that your quiet years should be disturbed by a mad German. (609).

I have rather more doubt about his assertion that his son Kingsley,

is very happy in a trench of his own in front of the first line. (618)

More disturbing to those of us whose appreciation for Conan Doyle sprang from his creation of the rational mind that scoffed at the notion of a ghost dog or vampires, however, is the following excerpt, again from a letter to his mother:

I do not fear death for the boy, for since I became a convinced Spiritualist death became rather an unnecessary thing ... . (625)

And to his sister, concerning Sir Oliver Lodge's Raymond, or Life and Death, with Examples of the Evidence for Survival of the Memory and Affection After Death (yes, the physicist):

You see every ignoramus ... seems to think himself at liberty to make hoity toity, de haut en bas criticisms of this great man who has worked for 25 years at this subject with all his power of scientific analysis. (629)

Conan Doyle had actually met Sir Oliver the day Sir Oliver became a Sir, as it was the same day Sir Arthur became Sir Arthur. According to the latter they had discussed spiritualism while waiting for the Queen. Apparently there is a whisky reference in that book which caused a great deal of laughter, but I haven't quite been able to figure out what it is.

Spiritualism was another instance where Conan Doyle found himself disagreeing with his mother. Since his later years were very much taken up with the subject -- he considered it his duty to bring the good news to the doubting world -- and since he really did not like disagreeing with her, there is a lot lacking from these letters. The editors note the absence of Harry Houdini (whose connection to Conan Doyle and spiritualism I have already noted elsewhere: Houdini made a point of countering spiritualism (much like Derren Brown does today), and Conan Doyle was convinced that this was only a cover and that Houdini was a very powerful medium) and the Cottingley fairies. Our author wrote a book about the latter, called The Coming of the Fairies (by no means doubting them). He also made Professor Challenger into a believer in one of his books, but thankfully never betrayed Sherlock Holmes whose rationalism remained untouched.

His mother died while he was away in Australia and New Zealand spreading his message, and he survived her only nine years. When he died, the memorial service was held as a massive spiritualist seance. I find it fascinating and somewhat disturbing that a man who had such rationalist credentials could be so convinced of something like that (I won't even go into the problem of the Fairies). Perhaps he went mad.

I feel very strongly, however, that that should not be where this article ends. I should mention his work on the Edalji case, perhaps. But you can find a much better source for that in Julian Barnes' Arthur & George, which I also think you will find a more amusing read than anything I can write on the matter. I think I'll just your attention back to his literary output.

I have told you to read Sherlock Holmes. If you have not taken my suggestion, that is very much your loss (which can of course, be remedied at any time). If you have, though, you might be interested in his other writings. The Professor Challenger stories, especially The Lost World are quite famous, I think (though I will never put them en par with Holmes, personally). Conan Doyle himself preferred his historical novels. I have every intention of reading The White Company and Sir Nigel as soon as I have time to spare (that might take a while). I will let you know what I think if you don't beat me to it. In the meantime I recommend his letters. Don't for a moment think I have exhausted the material in the (granted, quite frequent) quoting in this article. There are almost 700 pages of really very interesting material.

One interesting fact I came across, for example, was that the University of Edinburgh had its own seat in the House of Commons (at least up to the First World War). The rest is there for you if you read the book.

All quotes from
Jon Lellenberg, Daniel Stashower & Charles Foley (eds.). Arthur Conan Doyle. A Life in Letters. London; New York; Toronto; Sydney; New Delhi: Harper Perennial, 2007.


Tor,  04.08.09 23:33

Excellent stuff. Maybe I will read this one. I enjoy it when it turns out great people were also once students who did ordinary things and wrote funny letters about it to their friends and family. Sort of like Surely you are joking, Mr. Feynman.

However, I doubt Stephen Fry meant that he would suffer blisters to his feet in order to be allowed to read Conan Doyle's letters aloud to his personal friend, the milkman. I rather believe he would subject himself to this torture if it would allow him to read even the most insignificant of Conan Doyle's letters, here exemplified by his letters to the milkman.

Camilla,  04.08.09 23:37

Now that you mention it, your interpretation seems more likely; but I still prefer mine. Provided Mr Fry, like me, feels this urge to read excerpts aloud to whoever is at hand, it is perfectly natural to here again use the milkman as the insignificant random person (also, what did they poor milkman do to attain this position?).

Ole Petter,  04.08.09 23:46

Fin artikkel Camilla!

Tor, jeg vil også anbefale "Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track: The Letters of Richard P. Feynman". Svært så lesbar.

Mary,  06.08.09 16:50

Despite the fact that this is a terribly long article, I felt compelled to read it and comment on it because it is written in English.

Incidentally, when cleaning this weekend, I found a collection of Sherlock Holmes novels. I am not, however, allowed to bring them to Edinburgh. So I shall have to borrow your copies in order to read Holmes. Hopefully you will not mind.

Camilla,  06.08.09 17:38

My evil plan succeeded, I see.
And you are welcome to borrow mine. You will have to fight Tor over them, but somehow I don't foresee casualties.

Tim,  10.08.09 18:50

The significance (or rather insignificance) of letters to the milkman is that one will leave notes outside the front door requesting a certain number of pints of milk. Thus, when the jolly old milkman comes round with his milk-cart at five in the morning, he will see your note saying "two pints please" and leave them on the doorstep for you. So Stephen Fry is saying he would walk a mile in tight boots just to read Arthur Conan Doyle's notes to the milkman saying "two pints please". He might as well have said he wanted to read Doyle's shopping lists, but at least the milkman notes are to someone.

On the subject of milkmen, I give you Ernie, the fastest milkman in the West.

Also, I think there are still a lot of people at Trinity College who know the dates of all the Egyptian kings but haven't a word to say at the dinner-table.

Yours, Tim.

Camilla,  11.08.09 00:09

Hey. No supporting Tor against me. Hasn't your wife taught you anything?

Also, I like people who know all about Egyptian kings. They make for excellent dinner conversation.

Tim,  11.08.09 09:45

I wasn't supporting Tor – I was going to tell you the same thing he did, but then saw I'd been beaten to it.

I too like people who know all about Egyptian kings. In fact, I had an Egyptologist friend in Cambridge. But I bet they get really annoyed with people who keep asking them questions which make it obvious their only knowledge has come from The Mummy.
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