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Happy Birthday, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Party like a researcher and explore the life, works, and legacy of the creator of Sherlock Holmes
Yes, we celebrate by doing research. It’s what we love! And when we decided to do a story honoring the birthday of British writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (creator of the beloved Sherlock Holmes), we had the worst time choosing a single path to explore. There are so many possibilities!
So, instead of picking just one, we’re sharing three compelling topics – and some suggested resources to get started so you can celebrate with us.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the spiritualist
Doyle is best known for authoring one of fiction’s most intelligent and rational detectives of all time, but some of his own beliefs were a bit more…colorful.
Are you familiar with the Cottingley fairies? Well, in 1922, Doyle wrote a book about them, Coming of the Fairies, complete with photographic “evidence” of two little girls picturesquely frolicking with tiny magical creatures.
One of the most beautiful passages in the book reads like a wistful meditation on the pains of growing up. Doyle tells of how over the years, the fairies’ appearance started to fade in the girls’ eyes, compared to how vividly they first appeared. “’You see, we were young then,’” one of the children explained.
The girl’s remark that the shapes were getting more diaphanous was a very suggestive one, for it is with childhood that that certain forms of mediumship are associated, and there is always a tendency that, as the child becomes the woman, and as the mind becomes more sophisticated and commonplace, the phase will pass. We fear that it has now completed itself, and that we shall have no more demonstrations of fairy tale life from this particular source.
“Mediumship” and the “whole spiritual movement,” which Doyle argued in The New York Times2 was “infinitely nearer positive proof than any other religious development,” were also great passions of the author.
“Clairvoyance, clairaudience, the direct voice, automatic writing, spirit control,” he wrote, “are confirmatory as to all those moral laws which are common to most human systems and which are so sanctioned by reason that where there is reason developed, they need no further support.”
Hmm. It’s an interesting case he makes, but I don’t think it falls under “evidence-based research.”
Silent film depictions of Sherlock Holmes
Long, long before Benedict Cumberbatch became the Sherlock we know and love, stage actor William Gillette brought Doyle’s world-famous detective from the page and into the flesh.
Even if you’ve never heard of Gillette, you know his work. He’s responsible for many of the signature characteristics that are associated with Sherlock Holmes, noted The Chicago Tribune3. Like that iconic profile silhouette of Holmes with the deerstalker hat and pipe that appears on all kinds of novelty gifts? That’s basically Gillette.
In Doyle’s original stories Holmes smoked a straight pipe, but when Gillette played the character on stage he used a curved pipe so he’d be able to talk while he smoked. And the signature phrase “Elementary, my dear fellow” isn’t actually in any of Doyle’s stories. That’s also Gillette’s invention.
Gillette’s image of Holmes caught on because he played the character approximately 1,300 times in front of live audiences before bringing the character to the silver screen in 1916, according to the notes accompanying the film in Academic Video Online4.
Being able to see this silent film online – let alone at all – is a pretty extraordinary opportunity, especially considering it was lost for nearly a century. In 2014, a negative was discovered in the archives at of La Cinémathèque française. Film restorer Robert Byrne said:
It’s an amazing privilege to work with these reels that have been lost for generations. William Gillette’s Sherlock Holmes has ranked among the holy grails of lost film and my first glimpse of the footage confirms Gillette’s magnetism. Audiences are going to be blown away when they see the original Sherlock Holmes on screen for the first time.
Compare Gillette’s Holmes with John Barrymore’s silent film depiction in 1922 – this version is also available from Academic Video Online. (Some purists have thought Barrymore was too smooth and handsome to play the eccentric sleuth.) More than 100 actors subsequently went on to portray Sherlock Holmes over the next 100 years, including Basil Rathbone, Roger Moore, Charlton Heston and Robert Downey, Jr.
Did we miss your favorite?
Exploring cultural context for Doyle’s short stories
Doyle wrote a lot more than the Sherlock Holmes stories (and a book about fairies). He was a prolific short story writer, novelist, poet, essayist and playwright. It would be intriguing to delve more deeply into any of these other, lesser known works – but it would be especially revealing to explore them in the context of where they were first published.
For example, Doyle’s tales chronicling the adventures of fictional Frenchman Brigadier Gerard appeared in Strand Magazine5 throughout 17 issues between December 1894 and September 1903. While these stories are available in multiple places now, reading them in their original format is a unique way to investigate the historical context for when they were written.
This is an illuminating way to conduct research for:
1) Because Strand published mostly short fiction and general interest stories, it’s a way to explore the evolution of literary conventions and cultural influences over the course of nearly a decade. This is especially interesting to observe as the culture shifted from late-Victorianism to early-Modernism. How did that impact literary aesthetics in general, judging by content of the magazine? How did that impact Doyle’s writing style in these particular stories?
2) Exploring these stories on the pages of Strand Magazine allows the researcher to get immersed in the era when the stories were written. Being able to take in the stylized illustrations, the fonts used, the texture of the paper – in addition to other content in each issue – creates a multisensory experience. With just a skosh of imagination, you can even smell the pages as you peruse them. It makes it possible to feel like you are seeing these works through eyes of readers from that time period.
3) Serendipitous discovery! What surprising discoveries might you make browsing through those old issues of Strand while you are following the tales of the Brigadier?
For further research
This is just the beginning. There is so much additional content to inspire your Sir Arthur Conan Doyle research journey. Here are more suggestions:
A search for “Arthur Conan Doyle” in this database turns up a whopping 1684 results, including poetry, drama, prose and essays by the author, as well as abundant critical articles and reference works about him and his work.
Here you’ll find an extensive collection of books written by and about the author, and some of these titles sounds especially enthralling:
Cranfield, J. (2016). Twentieth-century Victorian: Arthur Conan Doyle and the Strand Magazine, 1891-1930.
Doyle, A. (2005). Best Horror Stories of Arthur Conan Doyle.
Goldstein, J., & Reese, I. (2014). 101 Amazing Facts about Arthur Conan Doyle.
Meyers, J., & Meyers, V. (Eds.). (2002). The Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Reader: From Sherlock Holmes to Spiritualism.
Sandford, C. (2017). The Man Who Would Be Sherlock : The Real Life Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle.
It’s also fun and insightful to root around in some of the research that scholars have already done about the Doyle and his work – it seems to be a popular topic!
Beck, D. M. (2012). 'I See You Have Quite Gone Over to the Supernaturalists': The Spiritual and Scientific Arthur Conan Doyle (Order No. U621266).
Burton, J. C. (1992). A Panoply of Visions: Female Archetypes in the Life and Selected Early Fiction of Arthur Conan Doyle (Order No. 9232822).
Cooke, M. L. (2010). Fear of and Fascination with the Foreign in Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes Adventures (Order No. 1487698).
Favor, L. J. (1995). Interactions Between Texts, Illustrations, and Readers: The Empiricist, Imperialist Narratives and Polemics of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Order No. 9612604).
Towell, L. C. (2009). The Uncanny and Domesticity in the Stories of Arthur Conan Doyle, 1883–1903 (Order No. 3392885).
1. Doyle, A. C. (2016). The Coming of the Fairies. Available from Ebook Central.– ProQuest Periodicals Archive Online includes complete issues of this publication from Jan. 1891 to Dec. 1906, scanned page by page so you can browse through them, or precisely search for the articles and related content you are looking for.