Conan Doyle: Private Letters
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Conan Doyle:
Private Letters
Arthur Conan Doyle. Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters. Jon Lellenberg, Daniel Stashower, and Charles Foley, eds. New York: Penguin Press, 2007. 706 pp. $37.95

Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters makes available for the first time Conan Doyle's private letters covering the whole of his eventful life, the majority addressed to his mother and occasionally to other family members, friends and literary figures. These letters have long been the subject of family dispute but were finally bequeathed to the British Library by his youngest daughter in 1997. Conan Doyle's correspondence was voluminous and the editors were faced with the difficult task of organising these mainly undated letters into chronological order based on the historical clues contained within them, a process that they humorously acknowledge "Sherlock Holmes might have found … a three pipe problem." Rather than presenting the letters as individual documents of mainly scholarly interest, they are connected by an editorial narrative and extracts from Conan Doyle's other writings contextualising them in the wider events of his life, following the model of Phillip Horne's Henry James: A Life in Letters. The result is a hybrid text that sits somewhere between biography and autobiography, these private documents revealing more of the author's life and thoughts than he chose to allow in Memories and Adventures (1924), sometimes uncovering new material, such as a speech on literature and medicine given before the Prince of Wales, at other times simply documenting the everyday life of his household.

While Conan Doyle's sporting interests and valorisation of masculinity are much in evidence, the letters also reveal a softer, more sentimental side to his character in his relationship with his mother, Mary Doyle, addressing her as "dear Mammie" and frequently writing to offer little more than "only a line of love." Very few letters from his mother have survived, so the reader is often surprised by the sudden shifts of topic and must infer from Conan Doyle's responses the criticisms she has made. We learn of his mother's annoyance at his initial unease over accepting a knighthood, Conan Doyle arguing that "I could never do your wish in this personal matter about titles," dismissing it [End Page 226] as "the badge of a provincial mayor." His well-known anxieties about the popular literary market also inform this defence, as he argues that Kipling would never do such a thing. One of the few letters to have been included from his mother reveals her lively and combative nature, imploring him not to volunteer for the Boer War with appeals to sentimental duty and literary talent, arguing that "there are hundreds of thousands who can fight for one who can make a Sherlock Holmes" and that his real duty was "to raise the tone of popular taste and feeling."

Yet she was no overbearing matriarch despite these entreaties, Conan Doyle being equally happy to defend his own position, replying to her "that was a sweet letter of yours, dearie" and that "I was honour bound … to volunteer. I learned patriotism from my mother—so you must not blame me." Ever aware of financial concerns, he reassures her that if he were killed in the conflict "there is ample to keep you all going if I were not here." In fact financial anxiety is a recurring topic, frustratingly eclipsing discussion of literary perspectives, since many letters repeatedly detail the income he has received from his business investments and literary work, telling her in 1897 that the money he would receive for writing a Sherlock Holmes play "would be a lucrative if a humble piece of work" that would "pay for the whole house at one stroke." Doyle's financial motives for reviving Sherlock Holmes and his unease at the stories' popular success have already been well documented, and Holmes is an inevitable presence in these letters. One reference should entail a minor revision of Joyce scholarship; he writes to his mother in 1893: "you've been Sherlock-Holmesing me," a term whose first use the Oxford English Dictionary attributes to Ulysses. The term appears to have spread through the family, Kingsley writing...