Doyle, Arthur Conan (1859–1930)
Arthur Conan Doyle was born on May 22, 1859, in Edinburgh,
Scotland, into a very strict Roman Catholic family. He
was educated in Jesuit schools in the United Kingdom (Stoneyhurst)
and in Austria (Stella Matutina) until he was 17. Although
he was apparently attracted by the mystical, sacramental,
and eucharistic aspects of Catholicism, he began to doubt
his faith during his years at the Jesuit schools.
When Doyle entered the University of Edinburgh at age 17,
he was, by his own account, a nonbeliever. ‘‘I found that the
foundations not only of Roman Catholicism but of the whole
Christian faith, as presented to me in nineteenth century theology,
were so weak that my mind could not build upon them.’’
These conditions had, according to Doyle, ‘‘driven me to agnosticism.’’
It was during his university years that he came
under the influence of materialists such as Joseph Bell, his selfproclaimed
prototype for Sherlock Holmes, who taught his students
the process of deductive reasoning through the observation
of material phenomena.
As a result of this training, Doyle became convinced that
every mystery of life could be solved through observation and
deductive reasoning. Yet despite this training, his previous rejection
of Catholicism, and his self-professed agnosticism, he
continued to investigate religions, because without a religious
foundation he felt a void in his life.
In 1881 Doyle received his medical degree and in 1882 set
up a medical practice in Southsea (a suburb of Portsmouth),
where he remained until 1890. Even while attending medical
school, Doyle had actively investigated ‘‘new religions’’ in an effort
to fill the void created when he left the Roman Catholic
Church. He attended his first séance in 1880, and many of his
short stories published in the 1880s reflect his interest in Spiritualism
and his growing acceptance of it. Before the turn of the
century Doyle had become interested in Theosophy, the Rosicrucians,
the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and Mormonism.
In 1887 Doyle published A Study in Scarlet, which was the
first of 60 Sherlock Holmes stories he eventually wrote. Holmes
proved to be his most popular fictional character. That same
year he wrote two letters to the weekly Spiritualist periodical
Light, in which he recounted his conversion to Spiritualism. In
these letters Doyle wrote that he became convinced that Spiritualism
was true after reading books on the subject by John W.
Edmonds, Alfred Russel Wallace, and Alfred Drayson.
To put their writings to a test, he formed a circle of six that
met at a Southsea residence on nine or ten occasions. This
group received messages through table turning and automatic
writing, but the significance of these events was inconclusive
until an experienced medium with ‘‘considerable mediumistic
power’’ was invited to sit with the circle. This medium, writing
under control, told Doyle not to read a book by Leigh Hunt
that he found convincing because neither the medium nor any
of his group knew he was debating whether he should read the
book.
Because of this experience, Doyle became convinced that
Spiritualism taught the truth
‘‘[T]he incident which, after many months of inquiry,
showed me at last that it was absolutely certain that intelligence
could exist apart from the body. . . . After weighing the evidence,
I could no more doubt the existence of the phenomena
than I could doubt the existence of lions in Africa, though I
have been to that continent and have never chanced to see
one. . . . Let me conclude by exhorting any other searcher
never to despair of receiving personal testimony but to persevere
through any number of failures until at last conviction
comes to him, as, it will.’’
Several weeks later he wrote another letter to Light, which
he wrote ‘‘[a]s a Spiritualist’’ and in which he opined that ‘‘Spiritualism
in the abstract has no ‘weak points’ ’’ but admitted that
‘‘respectable Spiritualists persist in supporting and employing
men who have been proved, as far as anything mundane is capable
of proof, to be swindlers of the lowest order.’’ Although
he was ready to accept that ‘‘they have real but intermittent psychical
powers,’’ he was also convinced that such charlatans were
‘‘noxious parasites’’ who were the ‘‘greatest bane’’ of Spiritualism.
Doyle had received his ‘‘definite demonstration,’’ which he
believed was necessary before he could embrace any new religion.
Spiritualism provided the evidence that life continues
after death and that a form of religion exists that is consistent
with primitive Christianity and all its attendant miracles.
From 1887 to 1916 Doyle continued to participate in the
Spiritualist movement. He wrote letters concerning religious issues,
joined the Society for Psychical Research, and contributed
thousands of pounds to the Spiritualist periodical Light.
Although he did not proselytize the cause of Spiritualism, as he
later would, Doyle did attend séances and studied psychic phenomena
as part of his continuing search for truth. Many of his
short stories published before 1916 also portray Spiritualist
ideas and concepts in a favorable light.
Doyle also wrote three books during this period that his biographers
have described as autobiographical Beyond the City
(1893), The Stark Munro Letters (1895), and A Duet With an Occasional
Chorus (1899). In the most important of these works, The
Stark Munro Letters, Doyle’s hero, Stark Munro, reveals that he
has only the ‘‘vaguest idea as to whence I have come from,
whither I am going, or what I am here for. It is not for want of
inquiry, or from indifference. I have mastered the principles of
several religions. They have all shocked me by the violence
which I should have to do to my reason to accept the dogmas
of any one of them. . . . I see so clearly that faith is not a virtue,
but a vice. It is a goat which has been headed with the sheep.’’
And yet Doyle, through Munro, also admits that his loss of faith
was traumatic ‘‘When first I came out of the faith in which I had
been reared, I certainly did feel for a time as if my life-belt had
burst. I won’t exaggerate and say that I was miserable and
plunged in utter spiritual darkness.’’ Munro also reflects
Doyle’s optimism for the future of religions ‘‘The forms of religion
will be abandoned, but the essence will be maintained; so
that one universal creed will embrace the whole civilized
earth. . . .’’
Doyle’s most productive period for writing fiction occurred
after his conversion to Spiritualism. His best-known Sherlock
Holmes stories were The Sign of Four (1890); The Adventures of
Sherlock Holmes (1892); The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1894);
and The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902). Doyle also ‘‘killed off’’
Sherlock Holmes—to concentrate on more serious literary efforts
and his studies of Spiritualism—by drowning him in Reichenbach
Falls in Switzerland. Ironically, Holmes was resurrected,
or at least ‘‘born again,’’ from the waters of Reichenbach in
1905 in The Return of Sherlock Holmes to help supplement
Doyle’s income. Later books on Holmes—The Valley of Fear
(1915), His Last Bow (1917), and The Case-Book of Sherlock
Holmes (1927)—helped enable Doyle to actively pursue his missionary
efforts on behalf of Spiritualism.
Even though Doyle was a believer in Spiritualism beginning
in the late 1880s, in 1916 he wrote an article in Light in which
he enthusiastically proclaimed a new dedication to it. Subsequently
he began to actively proselytize for the Spiritualist
cause. World War I had finally convinced him to more fully embrace
the movement ‘‘I might have drifted on for my whole life
as a psychical Researcher . . . [b]ut the War came, and . . . it
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brought earnestness into all our souls and made us look more
closely at our own beliefs and reassess our values.’’
As a result of this ‘‘earnestness,’’ he finally recognized that
‘‘this subject with which I had so long dallied was not merely
a study of a force outside the rules of science, but that it was
really something tremendous, a breaking down of the walls between
two worlds, a direct undeniable message from beyond,
a call of hope and of guidance to the human race at the time
of its deepest affliction.’’ Doyle also realized, apparently for the
first time, that ‘‘the physical phenomena . . . are really of no account,
and that their real value consists in the fact that they . . .
make religion a very real thing, no longer a matter of faith, but
a matter of actual experience and fact.’’ As such, he turned with
great zeal from the objective study of Spiritualism to proselytism.
Shortly after his second ‘‘conversion’’ he wrote two books,
The New Revelation and The Vital Message, in which he proclaimed
his personal belief in the movement. In addition, he
wrote numerous letters to the press on the subject of Spiritualism
in which he summarized the beliefs and practices of Spiritualists
and claimed that he could not ‘‘recall any miracle in the
New Testament which has not been claimed, upon good authority,
as having occurred in the experience of spiritualists’’;
that Spiritualism is nothing more than what one would find ‘‘if
he goes back nineteen hundred years and studies the Christianity
of Christ’’; that the date Spiritualism was organized in upstate
New York in 1848 ‘‘is in truth the greatest date in human
history since the great revelation of two thousand years ago;’’
and that no faith is necessary to realize that Spiritualism is true.
During the last decade of his life Doyle began spending
great sums of money and traveled many thousands of miles to
proselytize for the Spiritualist cause in Australia and New Zealand
(1920–21), the United States and Canada (1922–23),
France (1925), South Africa, Rhodesia, Uganda, Tanganyika
and Kenya (1928–29), Scandinavia and Holland (1929), and, of
course, England (1916–30). He also recorded a famous Movietone
interview in 1927 that has never before been published in
its entirety.
In 1924 Doyle also translated a book, Jeanne D’Arc Medium
(Paris Librairie des Sciences Psychiques, 1910), written by
Leon Denis. Denis, like Doyle, was an adherent of Spiritualism.
In his introduction to the translation Doyle extols Joan of Arc’s
virtues
‘‘[M]y personal conviction [is] that, next to the Christ, the
highest spiritual being of whom we have an exact record upon
the earth is the girl Joan. . . . Apart from the question of
Christ’s divinity, and comparing the two characters upon a
purely human plane, there was much analogy between them.
Each was sprung from the laboring class. Each proclaimed an
inspired commission. Each was martyred while still young.
Each was acclaimed by the common people and betrayed or
disregarded by the great. Each excited the bitter hatred of the
church of their time, the high priests of which in each case conspired
for their death.’’
But Doyle does not stop there. He notes that Denis was a student
of psychic matters and that his work is valuable since it
gives us ‘‘some intelligible reason for the obvious miracle that
a girl of nineteen, who could neither read nor write, and knew
nothing of military affairs, was able in a few months to turn the
tide of a hundred years’ war and to save France from becoming
a vassal of England.’’
In 1926, two years after publishing Jeanne D’Arc, Doyle published
a two-volume work on the history of Spiritualism in
which he attempted to present Spiritualism in a historical and
topical perspective. Perhaps the most ironic development in
Doyle’s quest for a new religion occurred when he began to see
himself increasingly as ‘‘a prophet of the future of the whole
world. . . .’’ The Doyles were now put in personal contact with
the guide to this uncertain future, an Arabian spirit called
Pheneas, who communicated through Jean Doyle’s [Arthur’s
wife] automatic writing.
Doyle’s belief in the hereafter became increasingly premised
on very specific communications from Pheneas through his
wife, Jean. Receiving such messages caused him to state his absolute
belief in the hereafter ‘‘I have not only received . . .
prophecies [concerning the end of the world] in a very consistent
and detailed form, but also so large a number of independent
corroborations that it is difficult for me to doubt that there
lies some solid truth at the back of these.’’
Although Doyle remained committed to Spiritualism, he apparently
became discouraged when the prophecies and revelations
concerning the end of the world that had been communicated
through Pheneas were not fulfilled, and he speculated
that he and his wife may have become ‘‘victims of some extraordinary
prank played upon the human race from the other
side.’’
Doyle was still a dedicated Spiritualist at the time of his
death in 1930. Until his death Doyle remained convinced that
life continued after death, because of ongoing communications
from deceased family members who assured him that they lived
in the spirit world. These communications remained the ‘‘definite
demonstration’’ that he had sought since his days at the
University of Edinburgh. He believed that these apparitions
and other evidence of Spiritualism provided a factual basis
from which he could deduce, in the same manner that Sherlock
Holmes would have deduced, that life continues after death.
Given his acceptance of these apparitions, it is hardly surprising
that Doyle was also convinced that his acceptance of Spiritualism
was completely consistent with the deductive reasoning
of Sherlock Holmes and Holmes’s observation that ‘‘there is
nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion. . . .
It can be built up as an exact science by the reasoner.’’
Doyle died in 1930 in Crowborough, Sussex, England.
Sources
Carr, John Dickson. The Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. London
John Murray, 1949.
Doyle, Arthur Conan. Letters to the Press. Edited by John M.
Gibson and Richard L. Green. Iowa City University of Iowa
Press, 1986.
Edwards, Owen Dudley. The Quest for Sherlock Holmes, A Biographical
Study of Arthur Conan Doyle. Edinburgh Mainstream
Publishing, 1983.
Jones, Kelvin I. Conan Doyle and the Spirits The Spiritualist Career
of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Wellingborough, England Aquarian
Press, 1989.
Lellenberg, Jon L. The Quest for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Carbondale
Southern Illinois University Press, 1987.
McCearney, James. Arthur Conan Doyle. Paris La Table
Ronde, 1988.
Nordon, Pierre. Conan Doyle. London John Murray, 1966.
Pearson, Hesketh. Conan Doyle, His Life and Art. London
Methuen, 1943.
Stavert, Geoffrey. A Study in Southsea. Portsmouth, England
Milestone Publications, 1987.