18 May 2016
Each year begins with a summary of Arthur Conan Doyle’s life during that year. They’re a little more detailed than a Wikipedia entry, but shorter than a book-length biography. I tried to strike a balance between getting in the highlights, and also the anecdotes that help to shape our understanding of the man.
Last week, we covered the years 1915 and 1916. This week, you’ll get two essays from 1917 and 1918, followed by 1919. This will cover his support for the British Army during World War I, the deaths of family members, and his public conversion to Spiritualism that will define the rest of his life.
“Sherlock Holmes Great War Parodies and Pastiches II: 1914-1919” is available at all fine online book and ebook sellers, plus New York City’s Mysterious Bookshop (and soon at Midtown Scholar in Harrisburg).
Want to read more parodies and pastiches? The complete list can be found here.
The war remained very much on Conan Doyle’s mind, as it did for everyone who had sons, husbands, and fathers in the fight. He worked on his history of the war and promoted his ideas for fighting it with anyone in power who would listen. Over breakfast with the newly installed prime minister, Lloyd George, he advocated outfitting soldiers with body armor, reasoning that if Bibles and papers can stop a bullet, why not plate? He was pleased that the new leader was “very keen” on the idea, and thought that the nation had “a vigorous virile hand” at the helm.
Now that he had declared himself a Spiritualist, he was free to campaign on its behalf. He addressed the London Spiritualist Alliance and defended physicist Oliver Lodge’s beliefs in “The Strand.” His support alarmed his sister, Ida, and the two exchanged letters in which he described an afterlife where “we carry on our wisdom, our knowledge, our art, literature, music, architecture, but all with a far wider sweep … What is there so dreadfully depressing in all this?”
By summer, Conan Doyle was exhausted enough to alarm his doctor, who advised that he quit the volunteers. Instead, he cancelled his war lectures, but kept up his Spiritualist speeches.In September, “The Strand” declared that “Sherlock Holmes outwits a German spy.” Inside its pages was “His Last Bow: The War Service of Sherlock Holmes.” Through Holmes, Conan Doyle reassured Britain that although a bitter wind is blowing through England, “it’s God’s own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared.” It was so important to get the message out that “His Last Bow” would come out the next month in a collection with only seven other stories.
On Oct. 25, he gave what he thought was the most important lecture of his life. “The New Revelation” was intended to align Spiritualism with the church. “It is the first attempt to show what the real meaning is of the modern spiritual movement,” he wrote his mother, “and it puts into the hands of the clergy such a weapon against Materialism, which is their real enemy, as they never had.” He was pleased with the response and predicted that “I seem to see a second Reformation coming in this country. The folk await a message, and the message is there.”
The war had been going on for more than three years and there was a desperate need for trained surgeons. As a fourth-year medical student, his son Kingsley qualified to be sent home to finish his studies. Reluctant to leave his comrades at the front line, he nevertheless obeyed orders. As the year ended, Conan Doyle, Kingsley, and Innes, along with the rest of the family gathered to celebrate Christmas. It would be the last one Conan Doyle would spend with his son.
Publications: Holmes in “The Strand”: “His Last Bow” (Sept.). Holmes: “His Last Bow” (Oct.). Other: “The British Campaign in France and Flanders, Vol. 2” (July).
The new year began with Conan Doyle’s family still together from the holidays. Innes was on leave from the front, and Kingsley, detached from the army, was studying medicine in London. Conan Doyle helped celebrate the baptism of Innes’ second son with Kingsley standing as godfather. A few days later, Innes visited Buckingham Palace, where he was invested by the king as a Companion of St. Michael and St. George. At a celebration that evening, Conan Doyle watched as his brother wore for the first time his brigadier’s uniform. The next day, he would return to the front.
In the meantime, Conan Doyle continued work on his war history, finishing the 1917 volume by March. He also found the time to listen to the charming chatter of his young children—Denis was 9, Adrian 8 and Jean 6—to publish as sketches in “The Strand.” In late August, his Spiritualism lecture tour reached Southsea, where he had first set up as a practitioner all those years ago. He rested by swimming every day, including a time spent during a full gale “when I was the only bather, so I feel virtuous.”
There was also time for one last visit to the front. Invited by the Australian government to visit their troops, he spent four days among them and observed preparations for the attack on Germany’s Hindenburg line.
Back home, he received a couple of interesting letters from a stranger in Glasgow. During a séance, he was asked to tell Conan Doyle that “Oscar Honourin”—the ghost of his sister’s son with E.W. Hornung—would help him with his Spiritualism cause. While he wondered why the spirit would mispronounce his own last name, he added, “This is very remarkable, is it not?”
Throughout the war, Kingsley carried on in his father’s spirit. Again and again, his officers described his drive and cheerfulness under the most dangerous conditions. He survived numerous battles, and had returned safely to England. But in London, he and his sister Mary were struck down with the Spanish flu that was sweeping the world. While Conan Doyle prepared to lecture in Nottingham, he received a telegram: Kingsley was dying. He gave his lecture, and soon after heard that his son was dead. He was 25. Conan Doyle carried on with his scheduled talks. “Had I not been a Spiritualist,” he wrote later, “I could not have spoken that night. As it was, I was able to go straight on the platform and tell the meeting that I knew my son had survived the grave, and that there was no need to worry.”
For Mary, who recovered from her illness, losing her sole sibling “was the greatest sorrow of my life, for we were so close.” All she had left of her family was her father, who was occupied with his writing, the war, Spiritualism, his new wife, and growing family. After his son’s burial, he wrote his brother, Innes, that “I have every hope of speedily being in touch again.” Ten days later, on Nov. 11, the war ended. To Conan Doyle, the bitter wind had swept the land, and the victory meant “Britain had not weakened. She was still the Britain of old.”
Publications: “The New Revelation” (April); “The British Campaign in France and Flanders, Vol. 3” (April); “Danger! and Other Stories” (Dec.).