Every new book about Arthur Conan Doyle makes it clearer how close to the beginning we still are in the study of his life and work. The same impression comes from this valuable collection, even though none of its contents are, strictly speaking, new.
It is the work of Harold Orel, an English professor at the University of Kansas who has not hitherto been known as a Doylean (let alone a Sherlockian). He has assembled material about ACD from a variety of sources, chiefly the words of contemporary interviewers and colleagues in the literary and Spiritualist worlds. The earliest material in the collection comes from an 1892 interview in The Bookman; the latest, from memoirs written in 1960.
Few of these items have completely escaped scholarly attention; only three of them are not mentioned in the standard Green and Gibson Bibliography. At the same time, only a few, such as the autobiography of S. S. McClure and the 1894 interview by Robert Barr for McClure's Magazine, are really well known. Their obscurity is perhaps not surprising in the case of the material about Spiritualism, which many Doyleans (and, a fortiori, Sherlockians) have neglected, but there are welcome additions here to the devotee's knowledge of ACD as author, public figure and family man.
Frederic Whyte in A Bachelor's London (1931), for example, tells of a conflict over whether or not the Queen's health was going to be drunk at an 1897 dinner which ACD was chairing, a revealing incident not apparently mentioned in any of the biographies or recent scholarship. To Whyte also we are indebted for a magnificent new description of ACD: "Though he looked like two stolid policemen rolled into one, he was really a man of very highly-strung temperament." By comparison, how pale is the standard description of him (repeated two or three times in this volume) as "big in body and heart"!
Here and there we are reminded of things we already knew, or should have known: that ACD s eyes were blue (Bram Stoker and the French littérateur Jean Dorsenne both say so), and that in his youth ACD did translations from the German for the Gas and Water Gazette (actually Review, the fine print in Green and Gibson reveals). Perhaps, however, we did not know that his Spiritualist colleagues believed he had predicted the date of World War II as early as 1927.
We may be forgiven for not having known that ACD camped in the Canadian Rockies in 1894, as the New York Times claimed as part of a 1914 interview; in fact, on his 1894 trip he got no further west in Canada than Toronto. Orel, though generous with biographical notes on literary and political figures, is apparently weaker on ACDŐs own life, and does not point out that blunder. He also does not debunk Bram Stoker's version (well established as mythology) of ACD's meeting with H. H. Kohlsaat in the same year of 1894, shortly after Kohlsaat had seen the première of ACD's "Waterloo" in Bristol. Sober research has revealed that Kohlsaat had a leisurely month between that premire and the Chicago dinner at which he caught up with ACD, making the encounter rather less than dramatic, but that research is buried in an endnote to my own study of the 1894 trip (Welcome to America, Mr. Sherlock Holmes) and Orel may be forgiven for not having repeated the investigation.
In a category of its own is a passage from Frank Frankfort Moore in the 1930 memoir A Mixed Grill. (Who, the reader may well ask? Orel obligingly defines him as "a prolific novelist and dramatist, as well as a biographer". How many of ACD's contemporaries, friends and adherents are quite unknown to us!) Moore recalls a day when ACD was playing cricket with the ragtag team of authors that has come to be known as the Allahakbarries. A stranger did not know ACD and came up to him:
"I really didn't catch your name," said the stranger. . . .There we have, from the great man's lips, a suggestive, if not definitive, answer to the question of his true surname.
"Oh, Doyle's my name -- Conan Doyle."
In this volume we have the full story of ACD's break with Houdini -- full from Houdini's point of view, at any rate; he wrote it in A Magician among the Spirits seventy years ago, and it has been both reprinted and retold, yet it may not have been easily accessible until now. Such is the real value of Orel's book, to collect the moderately obscure and the truly unknown and put them into a single handy volume. That accessibility is sufficient justification for reprinting the 1894 Barr interview. Still, one wishes for a scrupulous bibliographer's attention to it. Orel does not even note that the essay appeared in two versions, the original in The Idler and a significantly longer one in McClure's a few weeks later. Unpublished research by Janice McNabb has explored the relationship between this interview and other biographical material that was appearing at the same period; she concluded that the additional material, which certainly varies in tone from what Barr wrote in The Idler, was not by him at all, but was added by Sam McClure. Orel also says nothing about the rather interesting collection of pictures that appeared with Barr's interview. This book is entirely without illustrations.
Sherlockians will particularly welcome a chapter from Harold Morris's 1960 book A Back View, which provides a detailed and plausible explanation for ACD's choice of "221B Baker Street" as Sherlock Holmes's address. This chapter is listed in the De Waal World Bibliography, but seems to have had no influence whatever on the endless discussion of "the real 221B" -- or even, more surprisingly, on the periodic discussions of whether ACD "really" knew what he was doing when he chose Baker Street.
Almost without exception, the material Orel provides is valuable. One might, however, wonder why he occupies some thirty pages with excerpts from ACD's own autobiography, Memories and Adventures, which is not unavailable to interested readers. For that matter, one might wonder why, if excerpts from the autobiography were deemed necessary, these thirty pages were the ones chosen. (More reasonable is the ACD essay "My First Book", rescued from the microfilm on which McClure's for 1894 now languishes.)
There is not as much of Edinburgh as one might wish, nor are there enough family recollections. The material on "public issues" is patchy, an omission fortunately made less serious by the availability of Green and Gibson's Letters to the Press reprinting ACD's own words on many such subjects. Orel gives generous acknowledgement to those who helped him assemble the material he does offer, and to the copyright owners, but does not grumble over the difficulties he must have faced in tracking down these items; perhaps any larger collection was simply impossible.
The reader will regret, and sometimes be annoyed by, typographical errors and unreliability of detail (two different dates are given for ACD's own death) but will nevertheless offer hearty thanks to Harold Orel for assembling this collection. As such material becomes available to the ACD enthusiast, and still more to the scholar, one begins to wish for a comprehensive index to the biographies, reminiscences, scholarly works and other Doyleana which make our grateful shelves ever more crowded.
Copyright © Chris Redmond 2000