The Quest for Sherlock Holmes by Owen Dudley Edwards
(Mainstream Publishing, 1983; Penguin Books, 1984)
Revisited by Paul M. Chapman
The book's title, and something of its methodology, was inspired by that classic 'experiment in biography', The Quest for Corvo (1934) by A.J.A. Symons (the older brother of crime writer and detective fiction doyen, Julian Symons) which uncovered the strange and obscure history of minor fin de siecle writer, Frederick Rolfe, the self-styled Baron Corvo. Symons' biography shone a light on a forgotten author and spearheaded a revival of his works. Edwards took the opposite path and set out to shed new light on an enormously famous author whose accepted biography had become a compound of uncomplicated 'boy's own' legendry and the sneering of the post-imperial cultural elites, and, in the process, to encourage a fresh reading of familiar texts which have come to form part of the bedrock of modern popular culture.
Symons' unorthodox approach was to a certain extent dictated by the difficulty of following his subject's documentary trail using conventional research methods. Edwards, like so many Doylean scholars before and since, was similarly hampered by his inability to access the Conan Doyle archive, which had been closed to researchers for years, initially by the obstructive and petulant attitude of Conan Doyle's youngest son, Adrian, and then, after his death in 1970, by the internal legal wranglings of the various remaining heirs. (When discussing Arthur Conan Doyle's troublesome and incendiary friend and medical partner, George Turnavine Budd - the son of the esteemed Dr William Budd - Edwards comments: 'To be the son of a great man … is neither conducive to mental self-assurance nor eminence of reputation.' The same could easily be applied to Denis and Adrian Conan Doyle.)
Edwards therefore took a more tangential view, approaching co-operative members of the family, including Sir Arthur's daughter, Dame Jean Conan Doyle, and his nephew, Brigadier John Doyle; whilst also examining publishers' files, census returns, property rolls and the holdings of various public and institutional libraries. His discoveries were revelatory (that, for example, his subject's full name, unknown outside the family circle, was Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle), and certainly justified his claim to be 'presenting a new story, and a new character.'
Employing a narrative at once both thematic and linear, Edwards places and interprets Conan Doyle's fiction within a contextual biographical perspective. He uses such framing devices as the pivotal directional role of Doyle's mother, Mary ('The Hero as Woman'); the influence and effect of his schooling at Stonyhurst College ('The Hero as Jesuit'); his medical training at Edinburgh University, with its faculty roster of eminent and eccentric tutors ('Athens or Sparta'); and his character-forming voyages as a ship's surgeon to the Arctic ('The Long Voyage Home') and West Africa - which latter, as Edwards discovered, involved a seminal and inspirational meeting with the American Minister to Liberia, Henry Highland Garnet ('Blue Water, Black Man').
This accumulation of life experience is set alongside Conan Doyle's growing appreciation of literature, and Edwards knowledgeably and deftly assesses the influence and importance to Doyle of writers as diverse as Bret Harte, Charles Reade, Thomas Babington Macaulay, Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson and Edgar Allan Poe, all of whom left their mark on his own work.
One of Edwards' overarching concerns in this book is the alcoholism of Conan Doyle's father, Charles Altamont Doyle, a visionary artist unhappily employed at the Scottish Office of Works in Edinburgh, and the effect that his alcohol dependency and subsequent mental decline had on his son, both circumstantially and artistically. For understandable reasons Arthur Conan Doyle never made any overt public declaration about his father's condition. His early biographers were similarly reticent. Even the gossipy Hesketh Pearson, who was given access to the Conan Doyle archive for his 1943 biography, Conan Doyle: His Life & Art, is coy (and slightly disingenuous), stating that, 'it is permissible to guess that the many paintings that he [Charles] gave away were exchanged for the sort of hospitality that engenders benevolence.' In 1976 Charles Higham was more forthright in The Adventures of Conan Doyle: 'Gradually, Charles Doyle became an alcoholic; his condition deteriorated so drastically that he was finally committed to the Crichton Royal Institution, a mental hospital near Dumfries.' Further detail was provided in 1978 with the publication of The Doyle Diary, a facsimile of Charles Doyle's illustrated journal for March to June 1889 (when he was an inmate of the Montrose Royal Lunatic Asylum), edited and introduced by Michael Baker.
Using this material, and the evidence of various bureaucratic records, Edwards argues that young Arthur's world and future were shaped by the experiences attendant upon his father's condition. Charles's alcoholism depleted the family finances, reduced his capacity for work and led to constant 'flittings' from home to home around Edinburgh. It was probably also behind the decision to send Arthur as a boarder to Stonyhurst College in Lancashire, which it was hoped would provide him with the order and stability lacking at home. Arthur later found an outlet for his feelings in fiction. As Edwards demonstrates, alcohol and its effects provide a constant motif throughout Conan Doyle's work. In his autobiography, Memories and Adventures (1924), Doyle says of his father; 'his thoughts were always in the clouds and he had no appreciation of the realities of life.' A somewhat less forgiving picture is to be found in his 1891 short story 'A Sordid Affair', and scattered throughout his entire fictional corpus. The Sherlock Holmes canon is particularly rich in alcohol-fuelled misfortune and violence.
Amongst Edwards' most significant and surprising discoveries was the revelation of the Doyle family's close relationship with the young English doctor, Bryan Charles Waller, a student and later lecturer at Edinburgh University. He had only made fleeting appearances (when mentioned at all) in previous biographies. Yet his guiding, perhaps even controlling, role in the youthful Arthur's life was crucial. From initially being the family lodger, Waller eventually became its rent payer. As Charles Doyle's fortunes sank, Waller's rose. He appears to have been central to Arthur's choice of a scientific career path – the Doyle heritage was, after all, artistic, not medical. And when Mary Doyle left Edinburgh in the early 1880s it was to live in a cottage on Waller's Yorkshire estate at Masongill, with her daughters Ida and Dodo (the latter of whom, rather strangely, had been named Bryan, after Waller).
Conan Doyle himself was instrumental in obscuring Waller's part in his life story. He does not mention him by name at all in Memories and Adventures. There is only one darkly oblique reference relating to the Edinburgh days: 'My mother had adopted the device of sharing a large house, which may have eased her in some ways, but was disastrous in others.' Waller aided his former protege's purpose by abandoning his earlier ambitions and withdrawing into the life of a country squire and doctor, perhaps nursing thoughts, Edwards speculates, of a lost love for Arthur's older sister, Annette, who died in 1890 at the age of thirty-three.
It is difficult to overstate the importance of The Quest for Sherlock Holmes. Just as A.J.A. Symons had encouraged a reappraisal of biography as a form in itself with The Quest for Corvo, Owen Dudley Edwards changed the landscape of Conan Doyle scholarship. He turned an apparent weakness – the inaccessibility of the central archive – into a strength by proving that an evidence-based biography which included major new discoveries was still possible, producing a work of scholarly integrity and insight which towers over the hackwork of some of his predecessors – and some of his successors, too. One of Edwards' crucial achievements was to extricate Conan Doyle's reputation and persona from the often petty impositions and restrictions through which Adrian Conan Doyle had attempted to control those writers who were granted access to the family papers; and particularly from Adrian's almost obsessive insistence that Sir Arthur was never anything less than the parfit gentil knyght, rather than a flawed and brilliant writer who had overcome the trials of a youth blighted by genteel poverty and an alcoholic father. Knowledge of Arthur Conan Doyle's conflicted feelings towards his father and the lodger-turned-rent payer who usurped both Charles' and Arthur's place as the dominant male within the family circle enhances rather than damages the portrait, and explains much about the underlying tensions to be found throughout his fiction, whether stories of History or Mystery, for both were drawn from the same imaginative well. 'The assumption that Holmes and the historical novels are somehow in conflict is at bottom false', as Edwards astutely observes.
The Quest for Sherlock Holmes is not always the easiest of reads, or a book for beginners. The breadth of information, observation and analysis, coupled with the sheer scope of Edwards' cultural and historical range, requires commitment from the reader. That said, it is never dull, nor is the commentary without humour. (In a wry aside on Horace and his “Dulce et decorum est ...”, for example, Edwards comments; 'that Horace himself ran away from the battle of Philippi is a side-issue and need not detain us, any more than it detained him.') This is an enormously rewarding book, whose riches become more evident with repeated reading. For the serious student of Conan Doyle's life and works it is indispensable. Perhaps – due in part to its own influence – it no longer represents such 'a new story and a new character', but The Quest for Sherlock Holmes still feels fresher than many of the biographies and studies which have followed in its trail-blazing wake.
Paul M. Chapman, August 2020