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Arthur Conan Doyle: spirits in the material world

Sherlock Holmes is literature’s greatest rationalist; his faith in material reality is absolute. In his certainty, he resembles his creator; but not in his materialism. From the beginning of his writing career, Doyle was fascinated by the spirit world. One of his favourite literary modes, the Gothic, allowed him to explore the world of spirits and the supernatural, of vengeful mummies and predatory vampires, of ghosts and necromancers. This was territory forbidden to Holmes on principle. Doyle, a consummate genre professional, knew what his audience wanted in Holmes: brilliant readings of urban reality from the one man able to comprehend the complexities of the sprawling metropolis of London. ‘No ghosts need apply,’ as Holmes himself says in The Sussex Vampire (which is not a vampire story at all, but a tale of domestic poisoning). As Doyle himself became drawn ever more closely into the world of the paranormal, he became increasingly frustrated with Holmes. He tried to kill him off, of course, in The Final Problem, as early as 1893. But Doyle, of all people, should have known that death is not the end. ‘I believe that if I had never touched Holmes, who has tended to obscure my higher work, my position in literature would at present be a more commanding one’, he wrote in frustration in his 1924 autobiography.

Arthur Conan Doyle by Walter Benington, 1914. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

As a medic, Conan Doyle specialized in two distinct areas. After graduating from Edinburgh University in 1881, he returned to take an MD degree in 1885, writing a thesis on syphilis. In 1891, he went to study ophthalmology in Vienna, and briefly set up a practice in London as an ophthalmic surgeon. Both of these specialisms have resonances for his fiction. His sense of the body politic as diseased and corrupt – articulated in Dr. Watson’s vision of London as ‘that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of empire are irresistibly drained’ – is in part a product of his professional knowledge. In one of his most disturbing medical tales, The Third Generation, an aristocrat on the eve of his wedding discovers that he suffers from hereditary syphilis, initially contracted by his dissolute grandfather, which he will inevitably pass on to his wife and his children. He throws himself under a carriage.

Doyle’s interest in ophthalmology feeds into Holmes’s genius for observation, but also into a lifelong interest in photography. As a young man in the 1880s, he wrote a series of articles for the British Journal of Photography, largely recounting photographic expeditions in Africa and in Ireland. He was convinced of the absolute reality of the photograph. This was to cause him serious problems in the early 1920s, when he attracted derision in some quarters for his uncompromising belief in the veracity of the ‘Cottingley Fairies’ photographs. These were photographs, Doyle seemed to think; they simply had to be real.

Even more than this, of course, Doyle wanted to believe that they were real. Although he had been interested for years – had been attending seances, writing supernatural tales, and joined the Society for Psychical Research – in 1918 he finally came out publicly as a spiritualist, with the publication of The New Revelation. He flung himself into this cause as he had into all others, and spiritualism became the governing idea of the last decade of his life: he wrote The Vital Message (1919), The Coming of the Fairies (1921), the monumental two-volume History of Spiritualism (1926), the spiritualist adventure The Land of Mist (1926), the extraordinary account of his own relationship with his personal spirit guide Pheneas Speaks (1927), and several others. For many, these were a library of credulity: Arthur Conan Doyle was a crank.

My own sense of this is more nuanced, and much more sympathetic to Doyle. Like very many others, he suffered agonizing losses during the First World War. When the War broke out, Doyle did what he always did: he propagandized like mad in the name of the British Empire. His history of The British Campaign in France and Flanders (1916-20) runs to six thick volumes. But their stolid dark blue covers conceal what was for Doyle an unbearable personal tragedy. His son Kingsley died from pneumonia after being wounded in action in 1918. His beloved younger brother Innes died in the influenza pandemic that followed the War. Spiritualism taught the belief in the survival of the human personality after death. It taught that the dead were still with us, unchanged in their essence, still caring about us. Love survived the grave, and even survived the War. ‘The body,’ he wrote in 1919, ‘is a perfect thing. This is a matter of consequence when many of our heroes have been mutilated in wars. One cannot mutilate the etheric body, and it always remains intact.’ The next world, Doyle believed, ‘is a place of joy and laughter’. Our world, the world of secular materialism, which Holmes inhabits and interprets, is a horrifying place, an inexorable parade of grief and mutilation. Who would want to live here?

Featured image credit: Spooky tree by Jason Bowler. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

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  1. […] Though he’s known for creating one of the most logical characters in the history of fiction, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle could be oddly illogical when it came to one of his favorite topics: the supernatural. […]

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