Swimming with Sharks
taylor, dj, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
Meet Arthur Conan Doyle: adventurer, physician, paranormalist, Bohemian and... oh yes, writer
The Man Who Created Sherlock HolmesBy Andrew LycettWeidenfeld Pounds 20
Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letterseds Jon Lellenberg, Daniel Stashower & Charles FoleyHarper Press Pounds 25
In an era of intellectual balancing acts, Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) was one of the most dazzling tightrope-walkers of them all. Politically he was one of those sturdy late-Victorian patriots for whom the label "Liberal Unionist" might have been expressly invented. Spiritually he was a lapsed, Stonyhurst-educated Catholic whose obsession with the cult of psychic phenomena took in everything from table-rapping to disembodied voices.
The materialism of the age nagged at him constantly: Carlyle was always on his desk to remind him of its corroding influence. Even the Sherlock Holmes stories are a half-way house between an instinctive Romanticism and the super-realism of Holmes's forensic techniques. Significantly, Conan Doyle thought that the adventures of the Baker Street detective belonged to "the fairy kingdom of Romance" - not a phrase that would have meant much to the amateur criminologists who made up most of his fan base.
None of these compromises, taken on their own, would have made him exceptional. Literary London in the 1880s probably contained 50 Conan Doyles: clever young men, keenly aware of the rise of Darwin, TH Huxley and Herbert Spencer, whose sense of intellectual certainty was dissolving before their eyes. What gave the Edinburgh civil servant's son his edge was his sheer energy. To read even a page of his letters, attractively assembled by a trio of Baker Street irregulars, is to be struck by their indefatigability, and the boisterous, devil-may-care side to his character that expressed itself in whaling trips to the Arctic and swimming excursions in shark-infested African harbours.
Literature, when he came to it - and his first published work dated from his days as a medical student - was approached in the same all-or-nothing spirit: furious bouts of writing against impossible deadlines, in which the romantic view he took of his subject matter was always balanced by the shrewdest of professional touches.
Still, though, he might have been simply representative. As Andrew Lycett shows, in his sympathetic new biography, it took Holmes to drag him out of the ruck of historical fictioneers in which the late-Victorian age abounded. The question of upbringing, too, loomed large. The Doyles were Irish and artistic: Arthur's uncle Richard, the famous "Dicky" Doyle, was responsible for the enduring original Punch cover. There was also a rackety and faintly licentious strain - Doyle Snr ended up in an inebriates' home - which Conan Doyle was concerned to keep in check while acknowledging its animating force. "I've got a strong Bohemian element in me, I'm afraid," he wrote home from the whaling trip, "and the life seems to suit me."
He was serious about medicine, contributed to The Lancet and had ambitions to be an eye surgeon, but literature always seemed the safer bet. James Payn of the Cornhill magazine and Herbert Greenhough Smith of the Strand offered encouragement and, by the early 1890s, with the Holmes stories firmly established in the public imagination, he was earning nearly 3,000 a year - a small fortune by Victorian standards. …