The Return of Arthur Conan Doyle – A Spiritual Journey Part 1

The Return of Arthur Conan Doyle – A Spiritual Journey Part 1

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is best known as the creator of master consulting detective Sherlock Holmes. However, although the name Sherlock Holmes has entered into wide public awareness over the last century and more, the same cannot be said for Conan Doyle himself; or his direct connection with his renowned fictional character Holmes (and his trusted aide, Dr Watson) and the fact that he wrote a total of 56 Sherlock Holmes short stories and novels beginning with A Study in Scarlet, first published in Beeton’s Christmas Annual of 1887. All these stories appeared in the Strand magazine in serialised form from 1891 to 1927, many illustrated by Sidney Paget’s famous drawings.

The name of Sherlock Holmes has recently been boosted in the public psyche, particularly within the younger generation, with the two Guy Ritchie-directed films, Sherlock Holmes (2009) and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011), with Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law in the rule roles of Holmes and Watson. There has also been a modern interpretation of the investigative duo with the BBC Television series Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. Series 1 was televised in 2010 and the second series in 2012, with filming of a third currently under way.

So what of the great man himself, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle? There have been several excellent biographies written about him, and there are sure to be more to follow now that his personal archive of harmonies, diaries and original manuscripts has been released by his Estate. The first biography to use this newly obtainable material was The Man Who produced Sherlock Holmes – The Life and Times of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (2007) by Andrew Lycett.

Other meaningful developments in recent years, helping to promote the Conan Doyle legacy, have included the sale of 3,000 Conan Doyle papers and other memorabilia at a Christies auction sale in London in 2004, one item purchased by psychic medium Patrick McNamara leading to the publication of his book, Conan Doyle’s Wallet – The Secrets Within, in 2008. The year 2011 saw the publication of Conan Doyle’s before unpublished first novel, The Narrative of John Smith, from an untitled manuscript acquired by the British Library at the same sale.

First and foremost Conan Doyle was a polymath, a qualified medical doctor, with one of the sharpest, basic thinking minds of his or any other era, a mind scientifically honed by his medical training at Edinburgh University – in the city where he was born on 22 May 1859 – under the watchful guidance and tutelage of his mentor Dr Joseph Bell. The clinical methodologies used by Bell were to become the major inspiration in the formation of the Sherlock Holmes character, and Bell’s angular facial features, his “eagle confront”, influenced the development of Holmes’s outward turn up as drawn by Sidney Paget and others.

The area of Conan Doyle’s life which has been most markedly misunderstood and misinterpreted, was his advocacy of Spiritualism and what he called “the psychic question”. traditional wisdom almost without exception appears to state that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle resorted to Spiritualism as a direct consequence of losing his son Kingsley and brother Innes during the First World War, the implication being that they were both killed in action. On closer examination we find that this consensus is fundamentally flawed on a number of counts.

Although Kingsley had been wounded in the war on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1 1916, he was not severely hurt, and after hospital treatment to a neck wound was able to return to his unit a associate of months later. His death occurred unexpectedly on October 28 1918, just as the war was drawing to a close, from pneumonia brought on by the Spanish flu pandemic raging at the time. He was just twenty five.

Similarly, his brother Innes also succumbed to the deadly Spanish Flu epidemic, on February 19 1919, while helping to restore food supplies and other sets in Belgium. Innes also died at a comparatively young age, being only forty five at the time of his passing.

Those two devastating blows within a period of only a few short months would be a shock to anyone’s system, and it is perhaps unsurprising that these events are widely assumed to be the cause points for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s immersion into Spiritualism, to provide solace as he grieved their loss. It sounds thoroughly plausible that this would be the case. There is only one problem. It simply isn’t true.

Conan Doyle’s eventual advocacy of Spiritualism took place in the form of an article in Light magazine on November 4 1916, fully two years prior to his son Kingsley’s death. This explicit proclamation of his acceptance of the reality of Spiritualism came after three decades of painstaking, dedicated research into “the psychic question” as he referred to it, having initially been a skeptic. The start of his scientific investigation into Spiritualism began in the mid-1880’s, around the time that the character of Sherlock Holmes was taking shape in his impressive mind.

A major influence in his commitment to get to the truth was his friendship with eminent scientist of the day, Sir Oliver Lodge, whose son Raymond was killed in action in Flanders in 1915. A confirmed Spiritualist in his own right, Lodge had written a book, Raymond or Life and Death, published in 1916, describing his communications with his dead son.

The inclusion of his narrative in Light magazine in 1916 was followed by two books, The New Revelation (1918) and The Vital Message (1919), the publication of which marked his commitment to take on a mission for the remainder of his life to become an advocate for Spiritualism and to get the message out to as many people as possible. He travelled extensively, both in the UK and overseas, talking to packed audiences.

He published his two-quantity History of Spiritualism in 1926, and the following year was filmed in a Fox newsreel interview in his garden at his home, Windlesham, Crowborough in East Sussex. The first half of the talk focuses on how his character Sherlock Holmes came about, before he moves on to his work on Spiritualism, much more important in his view.

The continued strain of travelling, writing and giving lectures ultimately took its toll on his health, and he passed away at his East Sussex home on 7 July 1930, aged only 71. The man who had achieved so much during his lifetime was now dead – or was he?

Part 2 to follow…

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