The recent BBC television adaptation/modernization of the Sherlock Holmes stories, ‘Sherlock’, is quite good. But even as I watched it, something didn’t seem right. I finally realized that what made me uncomfortable was something about the identification between the characters and the authors. Both Arthur Conan Doyle and the creators of the TV series framed their stories so that the readers/audience identify with the loyal but puzzled every-middle-class-educatedman, John Watson. That much is the same. But where Conan Doyle also seemed to identify himself with Watson, in the TV series the writers seem to think of themselves as the Holmes to the viewers’ Watson. This goes wrong when they purvey cheap tricks rather than true genius (which is, for all the intricacies of the plotting, most of the time). This is a shame, because the power of Conan Doyle’s imagination lay partly in his humility: in the stories, Holmes is all the more powerful a character because his ratiocinations have an almost mystical quality.
Famously, during the First World War Arthur Conan Doyle converted to Spiritualism, lending him a notoriety among fans of his Sherlock Holmes stories, who for a long time preferred to pretend that Doyle hadn’t really existed, even as they were the first fan culture to really embrace the fiction that their beloved characters was real. Doyle also famously killed off Sherlock Holmes because he didn’t enjoy writing the stories and wanted to indulge his passion for writing mediocre historical novels about heroic English knights instead. But he was forced to bring Holmes back, and for the rest of his life, for all his passion for spiritualism, his other novels, his histories of the Boer War and his own attempts at investigating injustice, Holmes was the dominant figure. And it is for Holmes that he is remembered.
Arthur Conan Doyle 1859-1930 is a fascinating figure because he was a man with strong sense of duty: he had a duty to be humble; to be faithful and loyal to his family and friends; to be a good citizen of his nation and Empire; to be a proper subject to his Queen (and later in his life, his King). He was an eminent (late) Victorian who was eminently Victorian. Duty consumed him, and at times tormented him. Two examples spring to mind:
During the Boer War Conan Doyle worked as a propagandist for the government, writing a history of the war. It was for this rather than for his novels (although they must have played a part, too) that he was offered a knighthood in 1902. Initially he planned to refuse this honour, but his elderly mother found out, and told him in no uncertain terms that to refuse the knighthood would be an insult to both the King and to herself. Conan Doyle did not want to insult either, and accepted the honour. It was pretty common for knights to claim that they would have declined their honour if it weren’t for the fact that to do so would make their mother (or, more often, wife) unhappy. But in Conan Doyle’s case I believe the story. It seems to resonate with his character in other ways.
In 1906, Conan Doyle’s first wife, Louisa ‘Touie’ Hawkins, died after suffering from Tuberculosis for many years. About a decade earlier, Conan Doyle had met Jean Leckie. They became friends; a friendship that tormented Conan Doyle, because they had fallen in love. He was plagued by guilt by this passion. His invalid wife was dying, yet he could not stop thinking about another woman. I have little doubt that he remained faithful to his wife, but the fact that he even felt lust for someone other than the woman he had married was agonizing. Even the relief of Touie’s death was in itself a cause for guilt.
Conan Doyle was a man from the Scottish middle class who tried his hardest to live as a gentleman, with all that that implied – the benefits and the costs. The problems he had should remind us of the dangers of embracing a gendered behavioral ideology. His more charming character traits, though, seem to show the happier side of duty, when earnestly performed.