nthposition online magazine

The adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle

by Tom Ruffles

[ bookreviews ]

Another year, another biography of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. This one starts off feeling like a sequel to Andrew Lycett's 2007 Conan Doyle: The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes, as it begins with the story with which Lycett ends, that of the fate suffered by Conan Doyle's archives after his death, their mismanagement and crass exploitation by his heirs. But Lycett's is the more interesting version, and he proves to be the more engaging biographer. Given the length of time it takes to produce a book this size, Miller was presumably well advanced in his research when Lycett's appeared, which must have been galling for him. He is not well served by his title either; in a crowded market it is surprising that it is nearly identical to Charles Higham's 1976 effort The Adventures of Conan Doyle, which does not help product differentiation.

The advantage Miller has had over previous biographers is generous access to Doyle's correspondence, much of which has only recently become publicly available, though, he makes too much of this. He is incorrect in saying that he was the first biographer to be able to use the Richard Lancelyn Green Collection, a significant holding of Conan Doyle papers, now housed at Portsmouth. Lycett is clear in his Afterword that he had access to the Lancelyn Green papers both before their move, when they were still with the family in Cheshire, and after they had arrived at their new home.

More critically, Miller had the cooperation of Charles Foley, Conan Doyle's great-nephew and executor of his literary estate, which, along with the material now available to him, Miller claims, "make this book possible." The difference between Miller's and Lycett's books is that one appeared before and the other after the mammoth Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters (2007), edited by, among others, Charles Foley. Lycett, a victim of unfortunate timing, was obliged to paraphrase a large number of quotations as the Conan Doyle Estate refused to allow their reproduction at that time. Miller was under no such constraint, but his treatment is not noticeably superior as a result of his ability to quote verbatim.

Still, Miller's book is enjoyable and has new things to say. He goes further than other biographers in his clear dislike of Conan Doyle's second wife, Jean. Despite referring a number of times to Conan Doyle as a "man of honour", it is clear that Conan Doyle did not behave honourably towards his first wife, conducting a clandestine relationship with Jean (covered with a fig leaf of propriety by having his mother accompany him on his assignations) while his wife Louise (Touie) was seriously ill with tuberculosis. His family, and even Touie's mother, accepted Jean while Louise was still alive. As Miller notes, it would have been remarkable had Touie not known what was going on, to the extent that towards the end of her life she told her daughter Mary that she should not be surprised if her father remarried, and to Jean. But this was a family that had effectively abandoned Conan Doyle's father after he had been consigned to an asylum, while his mother had had in an ambiguous relationship with her lodger for many years.

Jean herself does not come out of it well either, marginalising her step-children and manipulating her husband to do the same, and always managing to be the centre of attention. She even discovered that she had mediumistic abilities which chimed nicely with her husband's obsession with Spiritualism. There is a telling moment when she is engaged in automatic writing and her 'spirit control' Pheneas comes through. Conan Doyle asks Pheneas if he should return to the United States to carry on his crusade for Spiritualism, and he is told he should. And should the children go too? "You could not leave them," Pheneas answers. "They, too, in their own way work well for the cause." Miller remarks: "This was good news, since Lady Conan Doyle always wanted to travel with her husband and had a marked aversion to leaving the children behind." Tellingly, despite Conan Doyle having been married to Touie for 21 years, she never once communicated via her successor's automatic writing, nor did Conan Doyle's father.

Conan Doyle's rather touching infatuation with Jean extended to a disastrous indulgence of their two sons, Denis and Adrian. Like Lycett, Miller finds them feckless and lazy, but he mentions them attending séances with their parents from a young age, which must have been a bizarre experience for them. The frontispiece to Pheneas Speaks is a photograph of Arthur, Jean and their children taken in 1920, when Denis was 11, Adrian nine or10 and daughter Jean just seven or eight. The caption is 'The Pheneas Circle', and the subtitle of the book is 'Direct Spirit Communications in the Family Circle'. Perhaps the boys felt they were owed for all the hours they had spent attending séances and being obliged to butter their father up, and also having to put up with his embarrassingly sickly family portrait Three of Them: A Reminiscence. The surprise is less that they became worthless playboys than that young Jean (usually known as Billy to avoid confusion, though Miller does not mention this and curiously misspells another of her names as 'Lina' rather than the correct 'Lena') turned out well, spending 30 years in the WRAF and leaving with the rank of Air Commandant.

Unfortunately, Conan Doyle, being a big man in so many ways, requires big biographies. Although they complement each other well, and bring out differing emphases, on balance I would have to say that if you only have time to read one, best make it Andrew Lycett's. Anyway, Miller thanks someone who was generous with his time despite planning his own Conan Doyle book, so no doubt there will be another biography along shortly.