Thursday, May 7, 2009

Russell Miller's "The Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle": Book Review

I've read a bit of Sherlock Holmes, knew vaguely of Conan Doyle's spiritualism, and heard he was a doctor. This lively account, the first drawn from CD's letters, tells much more, engagingly and efficiently. Anyone, Sherlockian or not, will find this an enjoyable and instructive narrative.

The early years open on mystery. CD's father's tragic alcoholism and insanity, his mother's strangely intimate longtime boarder half her age, and CD's own struggles as a poor medical graduate vividly evoke people's quirks and lapses behind the stern facade of later Victorian England and Scotland. While London, so well portrayed in the Holmes stories, surprisingly had been little lived in by CD, Miller's book conjures up the milieu effectively. He also does so in the wider world CD explored.

CD had an adventerous life even prior to his authorial success: whaling in the Arctic, sailing to Africa, golf at the pyramids, camel rides in Egypt gain in his letters as much verve and wit as the birth of his first child or the loss of his vacation home. Miller quotes from the correspondence to set off the anodyne autobiography, the mundane diary, and the assumptions of earlier biographers who lacked the letters as a crucial resource. From the letters, CD emerges as a hearty figure who in person was much more bluff and outgoing than readers of Holmes expected. Jingoistic, stubborn, and productive, CD after a rough start as an author found success with Sherlock, quit his practice, and wrote an amazing amount of work the rest of his life, albeit of diminishing quality.

Miller points out how shoddy and inconsistent even CD at his best could be in his fiction; basing Holmes on his extraordinarily perceptive Edinburgh professor Charles Bell, it's a conundrum many of his readers share with Miller: how a logical character like Sherlock could make so many mistakes, and how his author could fall from the celebration of rationality in his most famous creation into the credulity most supposed prevented CD from seeing through the faker of fairies on film and apparitions at seances.

Miller explains about CD's Holmesian contradictions: "In truth, he never bothered to keep track of what he had written, first, because he didn't see Holmes as an immortal, iconic character, and secondly, because although he earned large sums of money, he cared little for the work that did little, he believed, to enhance his literary status." (147)

Clearly, CD quickly tired of Holmes. In 1928, he told a newsreel crew how Holmes was a "monstrous growth from a comparatively small mustard seed." (465) Instead, his frustrated creator longed to gain recognition for his well-researched but more plodding historical novels, hefty war histories, and voluminous spiritualist propaganda. Sherlockian issues are dealt with almost in a perfunctory way by Miller; you will learn very little about the actual stories, and few of these are even summarized. However, given the immense scholarship already committed to Holmesiana, this biography redresses the balance in favor of CD as a prolific globetrotting traveller, war correspondent, military doctor, and indefatigable lecturer first on the Cottingley Fairies and then on spiritualism.

CD's unlikely friendships with the charlatan Charles Budd, Oscar Wilde, and then Harry Houdini, who sought to unmask the spirits CD venerated, also gain substantial coverage. His two marriages and the rather modern way he remained vowed to his first wife as she lingered with fatal tuberculosis while he set up an arrangement with his second wife long before his first wife's demise shows in a balanced way CD's very human predicament. Earlier, his refusal to gain a much-needed sinecure if he had capitulated to the Catholicism he rejected as a student shows CD's own iconoclasm and his staunch values that he rarely wavered from. (One error: thrice Miller labels the Jesuits who taught CD at Stonyhurst as "monks.") Miller in these situations mines the letters to great effect, correcting distorted views based only on the diaries or biographies rather than the much more revealing correspondence.

While CD's warlust blinded him in South Africa and WWI France to the suffering of the enemy, CD did do his best to minister to the British soldiers he treated. He was of his time, as Miller reminds us fairly, a defender of the Empire and a staunch patriot. He "chose not to see" what he did not want to as he travelled in trenches and hospitals, jungles and barracks, into seances and across colonies.

Miller eschews editorializing or sensationalism. He treats CD even-handedly: after making "up his mind he was unstoppable, impervious to argument, blind to contradictory evidence, untroubled by self-doubt." (371) His "artless credulity" confused many, but "sceptics failed to understand" a crucial self-fulfilling prophecy in CD's willingness, especially after the death of his son after WWI, to believe in spiritual communiques from the ectoplasmic realm. He could not be shaken "because he was constantly encouraged by numerous messages from the other world praising his commitment." (377)

This turns into a poignant last third of his life. Conrad and Dickens appeared to him, he reported, asking CD to finish their last novels that had been left incomplete at their departures from this life. CD wore himself to death by his lecture tours defending spiritualism. His literary output turned entirely to asserting his beliefs, and his money was poured into promoting his "Psychic Press." Blind to pain, he was eager to see in seances what he wanted, as he in wartime chose to view the carnage as fulfilling the destiny of the Crown and loyal, eager, and self-sacrificing servants such as himself. He died serving a cause that by the end fewer believed in than the Empire, and outside of the reason Holmes epitomized and his medical training inculcated, CD sought comfort in mediums and disembodied messages praising his own missionary efforts and lauding his faith in the ethereal.

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