Like the elusive Sherlock Holmes, his most famous creation, Sir Arthur
Conan Doyle was a man of many contradictions. Scientifically educated,
he believed in s?ances and fairies. An advocate for more equitable
divorce laws, he believed that women should be denied the vote. A
humanist who identified with oppressed peoples, he staunchly defended
English colonialism at its most aggressive. He dreamed of being a
serious historical novelist, yet he is best remembered for stories
that he considered pot-boilers. The product of a pragmatic, fiercely
protective mother and a detached dreamer of a father, Conan Doyle
became a man with astonishing self-confidence, a tireless self-promoter
who also retained some measure of childish innocence throughout his
Arthur Conan Doyle
at 4 years old
Arthur Conan Doyle's humble beginnings
did not predict his future success. Born on May 22, 1859, to a middle-class,
Catholic family, he grew up on Edinburgh's rough-and-tumble streets,
far from his successful grandfather and uncles, who hobnobbed with
London's intellectual elite. His celebrated grandfather, John Doyle,
had reinvented the art of political caricature. John Doyle's eldest
son, also named John, became a well-known caricaturist himself,
and the second son, Richard, began his career as a successful cartoonist
for Punch (an early magazine devoted to political satire)
and ended it as a famous book illustrator. Two other sons were also
successful in different fields.
Arthur's parents, Mary Foley Doyle
and Charles Altamont Doyle, had moved to Scotland from London, hoping
that Charles could advance his career in architecture. Having inherited
some measure of his family's artistic talent, Charles began with
every hope of success, but never realized his dreams. Plagued by
depression and alcoholism, Charles was a distant father and husband,
becoming so detached from reality that he ended life in an asylum.
With considerable charity, his son Arthur later said of him, "My
father's life was full of the tragedy of unfulfilled powers and
of underdeveloped gifts."
As the only active parent, Mary
Doyle had a strong influence on Arthur, the eldest surviving son
of seven children, instilling in him a love of chivalric romances
and a firm belief in the English code of honor. She made the boy
memorize and recite his family's genealogy, ancestor by ancestor.
When left to himself, Arthur loved to read American "wild west"
adventure stories, especially those of Bret Harte and Thomas Mayne
Reid, an Irish immigrant to the U.S. who wrote The Scalp Hunters
(1851), young Arthur's favorite book. As an adult, Conan Doyle felt
that the highest vocation he could pursue as a writer was to create
well-researched historical romances idealizing British history.
The Doyles sent Arthur to an austere Jesuit school for his early
education. Despite the Spartan fare and harsh discipline, Arthur
excelled. When Arthur left the Jesuits, Mary Doyle persuaded him
to pursue a medical degree at the University of Edinburgh. Arthur
agreed, more out of a practical desire for a reliable profession
than out of passion for the subject.