Visionary Victorian: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle by Joseph Burbridge
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Arthur Conan Doyle was born on 22 May l859 in Picardy Place, near Leith Walk, in Edinburgh. His parents, Charles and Mary Doyle, were both of Irish extraction. The Doyles settled in London and followed the arts. His Uncle Richard was a successful illustrator for Punch, and Uncle Henry was a respected authority on old paintings.
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Charles Doyle, however, was not particularly successful as an artist. In painting, his imagination had turned from the comic and the elvish to the grotesque and even the terrible. As this transformation in his art was occurring, Charles Doyle's mind was turning inward for refuge. To his family he was becoming a dreamy, long-bearded stranger, with exquisite manners and unbrushed top hat. In contrast to the dreamy Charles, Mary Doyle adored Arthur, who in turn adored her. She impressed young Arthur at an early age with tales of chivalry and his noble heritage. The young boy must have become inextricably involved with ancestors such as Sir Denis Pack, leading a brigade of Picton's division at Waterloo, or Admiral Foley at the battle of the Nile.
The attitudes which Mary Doyle tried to impress on her son are exemplified by an excerpt from a letter she sent Arthur while he was still a young man.
"Above all, I should avoid the 'gentle art of making enemies.' I do not see that it does any good. We cannot supply brains, sense of beauty and fitness to others, and we should be sorry for them. The Conan arm is strong and his lance keen. He should be careful and reserve his powers for those (and they are but few now-a-days) worthy of his steel."
At the age of nine Arthur went to school at Stoneyhurst in Lancashire. There he edited a school magazine and wrote the poetry. At seventeen Arthur went to Edinburgh and began to study medicine. While there he sent his first real attempt at writing, a story entitled: "The Mystery of the Sassassa Valley," to Chamber's Journal, for which he received three guineas. It was in l882 that Dr. Doyle started practicing in Southsea, where he would continue to practice for eight years. By degrees, literature took his attention from the preparation of prescriptions. In his spare time he wrote some fifty or sixty stories. The requests for stories started to come in increasing numbers until finally Arthur Conan Doyle decided to forsake medicine completely.
His greatest literary triumph was the creation of the character, Sherlock Holmes. The success and universal appeal of the Sherlock Holmes tales was well known. Hesketh Pearson made this claim:
"At the present time there are only three other creations in English literature to compare with Holmes in the mind and mouth of the man in the street. Any coal-heaver, docker, charwoman, or publican would recognize what was meant on hearing someone described as 'a reg'lar Romeo' or 'a blasted Shylock' or 'a blinkin' Robinson Crusoe' or a bleedin' Sherlock Holmes.' Other characters, such as Quixote, Bill Sikes, Mrs. Grundy, Micawber, Hamlet, Mrs. Gamp, Scrooge, the Artful Dodger, and so on, are known to over ninety per cent of the population..."
Sherlock Holmes and the methods he employed were also an aid to the field of Criminology. This fact was attested to by H. Ashton-Wolfe, Surete investigator and criminologist.
"Many of the methods invented by Conan Doyle are today in use in the scientific laboratories. Sherlock Holmes made the study of tobacco-ashes his hobby. It was a new idea, but the police at one realized the importance of such specialized knowledge, and now every laboratory has a complete set of tables giving the appearance and composition of the various ashes, which every detective must be able to recognize. Mud and soil from various districts are also classified much after the manner that Holmes describes... Conan Doyle made Holmes a complex personality; not only a tracker, but a logician and an analyst, and thus evolved and disseminated successfully the constructive method in use today in all Criminal Investigation Departments. Poisons, Handwriting, stains, dust, footprints, traces of wheels, the shape and position of wounds, and therefore the probable shape of the weapon which caused them; the theory of cryptograms; all these and many other excellent methods which germinated in Conan Doyle's fertile imagination are now part and parcel of every detective's scientific equipment."
Arthur Conan Doyle was not limited in any way and was in fact well respected in many areas of literature.
"Dr. Conan Doyle has won laurels in many departments of literature—with historical romances like 'Micah Clark' and 'The White Company'; with marvelous detective stories like the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes; with most powerful if repulsive hypnotic and surgical stories; with books of deep psychological import like 'The Stark Munro Letters'; but with his new book 'Rodney Stone' he is likely to reach a more far-reaching popularity than ever. It is really an astonishing book."
Dr. Doyle did then command great respect in the realm of literature as is further exemplified by H.J.W. Dam, noted critic of the day.
"Literature was Conan Doyle's instinct. He could not help it. Strange to say, Sherlock Holmes, his famous creation, had made his introduction a year prior to 'Micah Clarke' without arousing any exceptional interest. But never will the·detective of any set of stories oust Sherlock Holmes from his pedastal in the popular mind. In 1890, appeared 'The White Company.' The powerful realism, the capacity for detail, the virile sympathy, the heroic pattern, the oneness with nature, the unfettered imagination, that were strikingly evident in this book revealed undoubtedly the soul and hand of a master. The book passed through twenty-five editions in eight years. Study was Conan Doyle's gift and delight and, despite success, his study was incessant. He became the leading member of the Criminal Club of London and read essays on crime in all its aspects, pathological and social."
To many that knew Conan Doyle his literary accomplishments were overshadowed by a long list of lesser known, but nobler accomplishments by which he served his country.
He was the first to warn the public against Koch's treatment, thus saving thousands from swarming to Berlin.
His public writings on military affairs covered the formation of the Imperial Yeomanry; the conversion of cavalry into rifleman; the increase of artillery calibre; the need for reticulated guns. He was attacked on all these points by military 'experts.'
He wrote the History of the Boer War.
He wrote England's defence, 'The Boer War. Its Cause and Conduct.'
He was the first to publicly advocate the change in the Coronation Oath, deleting the insult to catholics.
He was the first to warn England of the shape of u-Boat war.
He was prominent in advocating the Channel Tunnel.
It was owing to his work that the steel helmet and inflatable life-jacket were introduced in the army and navy.
He invented the wound stripe.
He founded the Volunteers, forerunner of the Home Guard.
He was a leader in the agitation which resulted in world opinion forcing a halt to the Congo atrocities.
He was a founder of the Pilgrims to promote Anglo-American friendship.
His work on the Edalji case resulted in the Home Office introducing the Court of Criminal Appeal.
He wrote the reply on Bernardi.
He wrote the six volume History of the Great War.
He wrote the British Campaigns in Europe.
He wrote seventy-one books including some of the finest historical novels in our language.
In reward for his loyal and noble service to his country, Arthur Conan Doyle was dubbed a Knight on 9 August 1902.
Besides all of his other accomplishments, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was indeed an ardent amateur photographer.
Sir Arthur, in a series of articles to The British Journal of Photography, clearly demonstrated he was definitely not a novice in camera use and photographic processes. In an article entitled,
"Trial of Burton's Emulsion Process" Sir Arthur explains his own experience with the wet plate process and draws a conclusion concerning one of the characteristics of the process.
"I have read with considerable interest a communication upon superficial fog in The British Journal of Photography, by the originator of this process. In it he remarks that it only makes its appearance in the case of emulsions which are very rapid, and which are capable of giving dense images with clear shadows. My experience entirely corroborates Mr. Burton's researches in this matter. I have formed my own conclusions, however, as to the cause of the phenomenon. I believe it to be due to alkalinity of the emulsion, combined with the predisposing nature of the silver bromide."
In several articles to the same publication, Sir Arthur chronicled for readers various excursions, always with camera ready. From these we can clearly see his appreciation for and involvement with the photographic medium. In one of these articles entitled, "Up An African River With The Camera", he wrote:
"I sprang to my feet and saw "my chance" bearing down upon me in the shape of the King of Duketown's great war canoe. It came sweeping along with its seventy canoe men, a group of warriors in the stern, a fetish man waving a brush in front clearing the evil spirits out of the way, and his gracious majesty in a kind of pagoda in the centre, with a white top hat, pea jacket, and all the other insignia of royalty. I clutch desperately at drop shutter and lens, while "happy and glorious" takes off his hat in answer to a half-derisive cheer from my two companions. I make a last gallant attempt to secure him, but miss by a hair's breadth as the great canoe goes swishing round a curve under the combined influences of paddle and current. This is a disappointment, and I "gird up my loins" with a mental vow not to be caught napping again. It is gall and wormweed to me to think that the chief mate aboard the "Syria" will have the war canoe safe and snug in his plate-carrier before my return, while I have missed it."
Perhaps one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's most controversial volumes was a book entitled The Case For Spirit Photography. Sir Arthur was interested in and studied spiritualism for most of his adult
life. It was natural then that a man with Sir Arthur's facility for investigation, photographic capabilities, and knowledge of spiritualism would become involved with reports of "spirits" appearing on normally exposed photographic plates. His first personal experience was in the summer of 1919. To assure the integrity of the forthcoming proceedings he purchased his own plates in Manchester before journeying to Crewe where he was to meet the photographer-medium, Mr. Hope. Concerning the experience he wrote:
"Mr. Hope and Mrs. Buxton were waiting for us, and, after a short religious service, Mr. Hope and I went into the dark room. There I opened the packet of plates, put two into the carrier and marked them then and there. The carrier was then taken into the room and Mr. Hope inserted it into the camera. We three spiritulists sat in front with a rug, or blanket, as a background. The exposure having been made, the carrier was taken back into the dark room where with my own hands, I took out the plates, developed them and fixed them. So far as I could judge, there was at no stage any possibility of changing the plates. But this question does not really arise. No changing of plates would account for the effect actually produced. This effect I have shown in figure 1. There is a hazy cloud covering us of what I will describe as ectoplasm, though my critics are very welcome to call it cottonwool if it eases their feelings to do so. In one corner appears a partial materialisation of what seems to be the hair and forehead of a young man. Across the plate is scrawled, "Well done, Friend Doyle, I welcome you to Crewe. Greetings to all. T. Colley."
Archdeacon Colley was of course the deceased founder of the famous Crewe Circle of spiritualists.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle exhibited total commitment to his involvement with photography and later to spirit photography as he did to all his life pursuits. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle died on 11 July 1930. On his headstone was inscribed, besides his name and birth-date, only four words: Steel true, blade straight.
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