The original man of mystery: Sherlock Holmes author returns to popular literature
by Robert Fulford

( The National Post, 18 October 2005)

It's not hard to see why the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, has appeared this season as the major character in two novels: The Man from Beyond (Norton), by Gabriel Brownstein, and Arthur & George (Jonathan Cape), by Julian Barnes. His personality contained enough secret corners and twisted corridors to place him among the most interesting of eminent Edwardians.

Consider his situation in 1906, when he was 47. His cherished wife had been a tubercular invalid for 13 years, and for nearly a decade he had been in love with another woman. In some buried part of himself he wanted the mother of his children dead, but when she died the weight of his Jesuit-trained conscience fell on him, condemned him as heartless, and crushed his spirit. The energy that had fuelled his career suddenly departed, replaced by insomnia.

He was a doctor, a genial clubman, a fine cricketer and England's most successful and talked-about writer. His experiments in spiritualism were still at the hobby stage, not yet an obsession. Everything was fine except that he couldn't escape his leaden feeling that he was somehow to blame. He could hardly turn to the woman who had been waiting for years, sharing with him the secret of their chaste love and their implied future; her presence only deepened his remorse.

But after six months he found a cure. He turned his fury outward, toward the government and its shamefully unfair treatment of one George Edalji, a young Staffordshire solicitor. Edalji had served three years in prison for the bizarre crime of mutilating livestock, having apparently attracted the hostile attention of police by being brown-skinned, the son of an Anglican clergyman from India and his Scottish wife. To right this wrong, Conan Doyle turned himself into a passable version of Holmes. And in saving Edalji, he saved himself.

He made so much noise that the Home Office could not continue to ignore the case. He poured out newspaper articles and an 18,000-word pamphlet called The Story of George Edalji. He never won compensation for Edalji's time in jail, but he got an official pardon that gave him back his dignity and the right to resume his profession. Conan Doyle recovered, and in 1907 married his patient lady friend.

A century later, these events have provided Julian Barnes with the material for Arthur & George, a historical novel that brilliantly evokes an era of distorted justice and casual bigotry. Some readers will assume that Barnes invented Edalji as a plot device but those who glance into a biography, such as Daniel Stashower's Teller of Tales: The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle, will discover that Barnes narrates the story as it happened. He accurately reports letters and official documents while inventing the private lives of the characters.

In his hands, Conan Doyle becomes surprisingly sympathetic. The old myth-maker has always seemed a bit of a stick, sometimes as icy and condescending as the insufferable Sherlock Holmes, who would have been rejected by his fellow humans if he had actually lived. Some of us long ago grew tired of reading that Conan Doyle considered the Holmes stories beneath him and yearned for a more serious reputation.

It wasn't enough for him to invent the most popular character since Dickens. He believed his historical novels, mainly unread today, were far superior. For that and other reasons he's always seemed to me a prig, in the sense George Eliot means in Middlemarch when she defines a prig as someone "who is always making you a present of his opinions."

Nevertheless, Barnes makes us like Conan Doyle, and even forgive him his 49 years as a hectoring, card-carrying spiritualist. This apparently requires ignoring his most embarrassing exploit. In 1917, two English girls clipped drawings of fairies from a magazine, worked them into a photograph, and convinced many that they were photos of actual fairies. Conan Doyle fell so hard that he wrote a book, The Coming of the Fairies (1922). Why was he so gullible? He believed fairies would enrich the modern imagination. Recognizing their existence "will jolt the material 20th-century mind out of its heavy ruts in the mud, and will make it admit that there is a glamour and mystery to life." This incident inspired two feature films that appeared in 1997 -- Photographing Fairies and Fairy Tale: A True Story, the latter with Peter O'Toole as Conan Doyle and Harvey Keitel as his friend Harry Houdini.

Houdini appears alongside Conan Doyle in Brownstein's The Man from Beyond. Brownstein has the two of them meet in New York in 1922 and argue over spiritualism. As in life, Houdini calls psychic phenomena fraudulent and promises to reproduce every trick of the psychics with his worldly magic. Conan Doyle argues that Houdini unknowingly possesses psychic powers.

Brownstein's light-hearted story includes some comic variations on the relationship, but nothing could be funnier than the truth about how it ended. As Stashower tells the story, Houdini and Conan Doyle were vacationing with their wives in Atlantic City. A seance was arranged and the second Lady Conan Doyle, who had by now learned to receive messages from the beyond through automatic writing, made contact with Houdini's mother, Cecilia Weiss.

Taking dictation from the dead, Lady Conan Doyle wrote 15 pages, beginning with the sign of the cross. Houdini tried to be polite but doubted that his mother, the wife of an Orthodox rabbi, would have begun that way. He noted that his mother, a Yiddish speaker with limited English, couldn't have dictated such eloquent English letters. Moreover, there was no mention of the fact that it was Cecilia's birthday, which would have mattered to her.

When Conan Doyle realized that Houdini was unconvinced, he explained that the sign of the cross was simply his wife's standard way of starting such a communication, that of course it was in English because all psychic communications went through the "translating effect," and that birthdays no longer mattered in the spirit realm. Their differences soon became widely known, and Conan Doyle took Houdini's response as a personal affront to himself and his wife. The newspapers, naturally delighted, seized on this celebrity feud. From then on, except for disputes in the letters columns of newspapers, the two men were never again in touch, in this life at least.

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