The British author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) is best remembered as the creator of the famous detective Sherlock Holmes.
Arthur Conan Doyle was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on May 22, 1859, into an Irish Roman Catholic family of noted artistic achievement. After attending Stonyhurst College, he entered Edinburgh University as a medical student in 1876. He received a doctor of medicine degree in 1885. In his spare time, however, he began to write stories, which were published anonymously in various magazines from 1878 to 1880.
After two long sea voyages as a ship's doctor, Doyle practiced medicine at Southsea, England, from 1882 to 1890. In 1885 he married Louise Hawkins and in March 1891 moved his young family to London, where he began to specialize in ophthalmology. His practice remained small, however, and since one of his anonymous stories, "Habakuk Jephson's Statement," had enjoyed considerable success when it appeared in the Cornhill Magazine in 1884, he began to devote himself seriously to writing. The result was his first novel, A Study in Scarlet, which introduced Sherlock Holmes, the detective, to the reading public in Beeton's Christmas Annual for 1887. This was followed by two historical novels in the tradition of Sir Walter Scott, Micah Clarke in 1889 and The White Company in 1891. The immediate and prolonged success of these works led Doyle to abandon medicine and launch his career as a man of letters.
The second Sherlock Holmes novel, The Sign of the Four (1890), was followed by the first Holmes short story, "A Scandal in Bohemia" (1891). The instant popularity of these tales made others like them a regular monthly feature of the Strand Magazine, and the famous Adventures of Sherlock Holmes series was begun. In subsequent stories Doyle developed Holmes into a highly individualized and eccentric character, together with his companion, Doctor Watson, the ostensible narrator of the stories, and the pair came to be readily accepted as living persons by readers in England and America. But Doyle seems to have considered these stories a distraction from his more serious writing, eventually grew tired of them, and in "The Final Problem," published in December 1893, plunged Holmes and his archenemy, Moriarty, to their apparent deaths in the falls of Reichenbach. Nine years later, however, he published a third Sherlock Holmes novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles, but dated the action before Holmes's "death." Then, in October 1903, Holmes effected his mysterious resurrection in "The Empty House" and thereafter appeared intermittently until 1927, 3 years before Doyle's own death. All told, Doyle wrote 56 Sherlock Holmes stories and 4 novels (The Valley of Fear, 1914, was the last).
Among the other works published early in his career, which Doyle felt were more representative of his true artistry, were Beyond the City (1892), a short novel of contemporary urban life; The Great Shadow (1892), a historical novel of the Napoleonic period; The Refugees (1893), a historical novel about French Huguenots; and The Stark Munro Letters (1894), an autobiographical novel. In 1896 he issued one of his best-known historical novels, Rodney Stone, which was followed by another historical novel, Uncle Bernac (1897); a collection of poems, Songs of Action (1898); and two less popular novels, The Tragedy of Korosko (1898) and A Duet (1899).
After the outbreak of the Boer War, Doyle's energy and patriotic zeal led him to serve as chief surgeon of a field hospital at Bloemfontein, South Africa, in 1900. His The Great Boer War (1900) was widely read and praised for its fairness to both sides. In 1902 he wrote a long pamphlet, The War in South Africa: Its Cause and Conduct, to defend the British action in South Africa against widespread criticism by pacifist groups. In August 1902 Doyle was knighted for his service to England.
After being twice defeated, in 1900 and 1906, in a bid for a seat in Parliament, Sir Arthur published Sir Nigel (1906), a popular historical novel of the Middle Ages. The following year he married his second wife, Jean Leckie. The two first met in 1897 but apparently resisted the growing attraction between them successfully until after the death of his wife, in 1906, of tuberculosis. Doyle now took up a number of political and humanitarian causes. In 1909 he wrote Divorce Law Reform, championing equal rights for women in British law, and The Crime of the Congo, attacking the exploitation of that colony by Belgium. In 1911 he published a second collection of poems, Songs of the Road, and in 1912 began a series of science fiction stories with the novel The Lost World, featuring another of his famous characters, Professor Challenger.
After the outbreak of World War I, Doyle organized the Civilian National Reserve against the threat of German invasion. In 1916 he published A Visit to Three Fronts and in 1918 again toured the front lines. These tours, plus extensive correspondence with a number of high-ranking officers, enabled him to write his famous account The British Campaigns in France and Flanders, published in six volumes (1916-1919).
Doyle had been interested in spiritualism since he rejected his Roman Catholic faith in 1880. In 1915 he apparently experienced a "conversion" to "psychic religion," so that after the war he devoted the rest of his life and career to propagating his new faith in a series of works: The New Revelation (1918), The Vital Message (1919), The Wanderings of a Spiritualist (1921), and History of Spiritualism (1926). From 1917 to 1925 he lectured on spiritualism throughout Europe, Australia, the United States, and Canada. The same cause led him to South Africa in 1928 and brought him home exhausted, from Sweden, in 1929. He died on July 6, 1930, of a heart attack, at his home in Crowborough, Sussex.
Further Reading on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
An intimate view of Doyle emerges from his autobiography, Memories and Adventures (1924), and from his autobiographical novel, The Stark Munro Letters (1894). The best biographical and critical study of Doyle is Pierre Nordon, Conan Doyle: A Biography, translated by Frances Partridge (1966), although Nordon is sometimes careless about dates and bibliographical data. John Dickson Carr's "novelized" biography, The Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1949), is entertaining but incomplete. Two useful shorter biographies are Hesketh Pearson, Conan Doyle: His Life and Art (1943), and Michael and Mollie Hardwick, The Man Who Was Sherlock Holmes (1964). A. E. Murch, The Development of the Detective Novel (1958; rev. ed. 1968), gives important insight into the literary significance of the Sherlock Holmes stories.