13th August, No Comments
By John Watson
It is with great satisfaction but with a tinge of sadness that I can report on Alistair Duncan’s final book in his trilogy on the life of my literary agent, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whom I will always refer to as ‘Dear Arthur’.
I will also take this opportunity to thank the man who saw such promise in the jottings of a fellow medical men and encouraged me to continue in my attempts to bring knowledge of Holmes great gifts to the world.
Nevertheless it is to Alistair Duncan that we must now give our most grateful thanks for the many hours of painstaking research he has undertaken to produce these three books covering nearly forty years of Dear Arthur’s life.
His latest, and the last in this trilogy, cover the final years of Doyle’s life from 1907 to 1930 during which I saw very little of Doyle, save when it was necessary to discuss the publication of my latest stories concerning my friend and colleague, Holmes. The very busy schedule that Doyle undertook, travelling here, there and everywhere, is meticulously detailed by Duncan and goes a long way to explain why I often had trouble contacting him, not least to correct some of the errors that crept into my manuscripts, for which I accept all the blame.
Nevertheless, I am sure it is Duncan’s book that you really want to know about . . .
Alistair Duncan has written and published three books covering the life of Arthur Conan Doyle.
The first of these was The Norwood Author, covering just the three years (1891 to 1894) during which Doyle lived in Norwood, South London.
The second was An Entirely New Country, covering the period between 1897 and 1907 when Doyle was living at Undershaw in Hindhead.
This third and, by definition, final volume, No Better Place, covers 1907 to 1930. So it begins with Doyle and his new wife, Jean Leckie, on their way back to England from their honeymoon to their new home, Windelesham, on the outskirts of Crowborough in East Sussex. By the way, it is now a home for the elderly so I may find myself there someday!
Doyle was still battling to obtain a pardon for George Edalji and arranging the publication of the penultimate series of Holmes stories, His Last Bow, beginning with the two-part serialisation of The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge in The Strand in September and October 1908. Early in that year, Sidney Paget, who had illustrated Holmes stories from A Scandal in Bohemia onwards, died in 1908, and a new illustrator was need for the stories that would form part of His Last Bow.
In 1910, Doyle mounted a stage play version of The Speckled Band with H. A. Sainstbury as Holmes and Claude King as me. In that same year, George Newnes passed away, to whom Doyle and I had reason to be grateful for providing the platform on which Holmes stories were published (The Strand).
The following year brought the death of Dr. Joseph Bell, whom many considered (but not Bell himself) to have been the inspiration behind many of my stories (but not myself!).
On August 4th, 1914 Britain declared war on Germany and the following month the serialisation of The Valley of Fear started in The Strand and did not appear in book form until the following year.
1916 was the year in which Doyle went public about his belief in spiritualism. From then on to the end of his life, it became his main campaign and seems, in the latter years to have been his only campaign.
In 1917, the story of His Last Bow was published in The Strand, chronologically the last adventure of Holmes and I that I intended to publish.
It is notable that in Duncan’s book, the war years of 1914 to 1918 have the least detail due, in no doubt to the people (and the newspapers) being preoccupied with the war itself.
It has been noted elsewhere that the overwhelming loss of life that the nation suffered was one of the factors in the rise of Spiritualism during this period and it does seem that Conan Doyle’s promotion of his beliefs continued to gather pace throughout the rest of his life and seemed, by Duncan’s account, to consume almost all of his time and energy. He travelled extensively abroad following the war talking about these strongly held beliefs.
During the 1920s, the Cottingley Fairies story broke, and although of minor significance to Conan Doyle, seems to be held by many to indicate that he was not the intelligent, reasoned man whom many had admired.
The individual Holmes stories that comprised The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes were published in the 1920s leading up to the Casebook publication in 1927. The films with Eille Norwood as Holmes were also released early in this decade.
Although taken ill in 1909, Conan Doyle seems to have remained in good health until 1929 but ignored advice to slow down and collapsed when due to talk at the Home Office early in July 1930 and suffered a heart attack and died on July 7th, 1930.
As I mentioned at the beginning, Duncan has made a tremendous job of piecing together Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s last years from newspaper articles, letters and other evidence, in such a way that one feels one is reading Doyle’s personal diary. One gets a feel for a man of great determination, pursuing his beliefs until the very end.
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