Conference Report: Conan Doyle in Edinburgh (24-25 September 2020)

The Crowborough Edition (1930)

One of the most significant Conan Doyle projects underway is the Edinburgh University Press edition of the works of Arthur Conan Doyle. A multi-volume decade-long endeavour, the project aims to produce definitive versions of the author’s major works, with scholarly introductions and annotations. Back in November 2019, the project team hosted the ‘Conan Doyle and London’ symposium at Senate House, which delved into the author’s relationship with the city, mostly through his fiction. The team’s second conference took place on 24-25 September 2020 on the theme of ‘Conan Doyle in Edinburgh,’ again touching on the many varied aspects of Conan Doyle’s professional and personal life, this time with a bent towards his formative years. This time a virtual conference, the event attracted an international audience, and we are fortunate that all the sessions were recorded so can now review them at your leisure.

The first panel looked at ‘Conan Doyle, Disease and Medicine’ and was chaired by Christine Ferguson, who gave an enlightening talk on The Land of Mist at the 2019 conference. Andrew Glazzard, talking on ‘Strange Pathological Possibilities: Conan Doyle’s Diseased Imagination,’ explored disease as a metaphorical agent of change, both morally and scientifically, in The Adventure of the Dying Detective (1913), The Poison Belt (1913), Sir Nigel (1906) and The Land of Mist (1926) in which we discover Challenger’s wife has died of influenza. Minna Vuohelainen discussed the medico-gothic stories in Round the Red Lamp (1894) and how, by using tropes from gothic fiction to heighten the moment, Conan Doyle presents a reality that is more horrific than the supernatural. Both speakers demonstrated the permeable boundary between Conan Doyle’s lives as medic and author.

The gothic featured heavily in the second panel which addressed ‘Conan Doyle in the Empire and Around the World.’ Jessica R. Valdez’s ‘Conan Doyle and the American West’ explored the author’s use of Eastern tropes in his depiction of the American West, suggesting that he harboured an anxiety around the USA and its diffused power. Paul M. Chapman (yes, that one!) spoke on ‘Anglo-Indian Gothic in Uncle Jeremy’s Household,’ in which he dissected the sources and influences on the story, particularly the Thuggee cult, and the inheritance owed by both The Mystery of Cloomber (1888) and The Sign of Four (1890) to this often overlooked classic. The panel concluded with the series editor, Douglas Kerr, talking on ‘Conan Doyle’s Desert Drama – the Fires of Fate,’ the play adaptation of The Tragedy of the Korosko (1898), which was first performed in 1909. Kerr noted the significant variances from the original tale, notably the greater focus on the inner and moral life of the protagonist, as the role of providence shifted from the guiding force behind Empire to the guiding force behind private lives. The post-panel discussion on Conan Doyle’s attitudes to Eastern religions and Imperial Gothic is also worth seeing.

Panel three, ‘Spirits and Monsters,’ took in two very engaging papers from early career researchers. Zeki Salah’s ‘A Study in Spirits: ACD’s Linkage of Mormonism, Spiritualism, and the Pursuit of Primitive Christianity during his Second Spiritualist Tour of America’ tested the notion that Conan Doyle’s spiritualism was an empirical scientific solution to disenchantment with the modern age. Salah showed how Conan Doyle drew a parallel between religious revelation and mediumship, while maintaining a strongly anti-clerical view of religions more broadly. Josh Dodd’s ‘”Seeing that which is visible to others”: Doyle, Fairies and Hellish Hounds’ played with the apparent conflict between Conan Doyle as the creator of the ultimate rationalist detective and as believer in fairies. Dodd’s argued that Conan Doyle’s interest in fairies was deeply rooted and offered a reading of the Sherlock Holmes stories that suggested the detective could be more accepting of the supernatural. The wide-ranging discussion, facilitated by Douglas Kerr, touched on the association between fairies and Celtic sensitivities, spiritualist belief in public and private, and Conan Doyle’s work as both supernatural and realist in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902).

The fourth panel explored the ‘Challenges for Science’ and was chaired by Catherine Wynne. Gordon Bates’s ‘Fascinating Fictions of ACD – Edinburgh and Gothic Mesmerism in John Barrington Cowles’ showed how, coupling materialism with the Scottish school of philosophy, Edinburgh professors explored medical hypnotism, mesmerism and somnambulism as emerging scientific and pseudo-scientific fields. Kyle DeDecker argued that Conan Doyle’s gothic tales show how his spiritualist beliefs evolved and tracked spiritualism as a cultural force in ‘ACD’s spiritualism and the gothic.’ DeDecker’s reading of The Silver Mirror (1908) as Conan Doyle playing with the idea of reliable witnesses to further his case for spiritualism was particularly interesting. Finally, Christine D. Myers, speaking on ‘The Study of Footprints – Medical Jurisprudence in 19thC Scotland,’ used lecture notes to show that the diagnostic techniques attributed to Joseph Bell were present more widely in the 1850s and 1860s, and that Edinburgh University was ahead of others in forensic investigations by Conan Doyle’s time as a student.

The first day closed with a presentation from Ann Treherne, author of ‘Arthur and Me,’ who described how her own psychic experience led to establish the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Centre in the centre of Edinburgh. While a departure from the content of the two-day programme, Treherne’s talk reminded us of the influence that Conan Doyle continues to have in the spiritualist movement to this day.

The Edinburgh Works took centre stage at the start of day two for panel five on ‘Editing the New Critical Editions’ with contributing editors Andrew Glazzard (The Case of Sherlock Holmes), Darryl Jones (Conan Doyle - Gothic Tales), Jonathan Cranfield (Twentieth Century Victorian – Conan Doyle and the Strand Magazine) and series editor, Douglas Kerr (Conan Doyle: Writing, Profession and Practice). Kerr opened the session by noting that no other modern writer can rival Conan Doyle for breadth of work, and his writings now appear in university curricula within literary, cultural and imperial discourses. The Edinburgh Works project is a mammoth one, with twenty volumes anticipated. In creating the definitive texts, the editors have reviewed multiple editions, noting significant changes in the closing sections of Memories and Adventures (1924), contradictions in UK and US versions of The Noble Batchelor, and wrestling with where to include The Adventure of the Cardboard Box (1893). Darryl Jones spoke on the challenges of wrestling with the Imperial rhetoric of The Green Flag (1900) and extending imaginative sympathy to the author.

‘Conan Doyle and Cities’ was the focus of the sixth panel, chaired by Jonathan Cranfield. Clare Clarke talked about a new project, ‘Situating Sherlock: Mapping Sherlock Holmes’s London in the Strand Magazine,’ which aims to produce a visualisation of locations mentioned in the stories. The audience were able to advise of several existing initiatives, such as the Sherlock Holmes Society of London Gazetteer, which could inform Clarke’s work. Sara Hackenberg spoke on ‘Sherlock Holmes Asmodeus’s Kaleidoscope,’ and the notion that, like de Guevera’s interpretation of the mythical Asmodeus, Holmes could peer into hidden realities, drawing on the famous line from the opening of A Case of Identity (1891): “If we could fly out of that window hand in hand, hover over this great city, gently remove the roofs, and peep in at the queer things which are going on, the strange coincidences, the plannings, the cross-purposes, the wonderful chains of events, working through generations, and leading to the most outré results, it would make all fiction with its conventionalities and foreseen conclusions most stale and unprofitable.” Both presentations explored Holmes’s near-omniscience in the capital.

Darryl Jones chaired the final panel on ‘Sherlock Holmes in Time and Space.’ Catherine Wynne gave a fascinating, wide-ranging paper on Conan Doyle’s work during the First World War including His Last Bow (1917) and A Visit to Three Fronts (1916) and touching on his relationship with Casement in ‘Un Un Soldat dans l’armee Anglaise” – Sherlock Holmes on the Home Front.’ Ashlee Simon’s ‘Speed and Stasis: Stimulants, Paralytics, and Narrative Velocity in The Sign of Four,’ provided a novel take on Sherlock Holmes’s drug use in that Holmes’s drug use is driven by rationality and not emotion, and contrasting this with other stimulants in the canon such as curare. Finally, Annette Wren touched on many of the themes raised in the ‘Conan Doyle and Cities’ panel in her exploration of the Charlotte Holmes novels in ‘Re-Visioning the Detective Flaneur: Sherlock Holmes to Charlotte Holmes.’

The programme ended with a discussion of two pre-recorded keynotes which were issued to attendees in advance. Nick Daly’s ‘Love and Mormonism: The Origins of A Study in Scarlet,’ despite traversing well-trodden ground, introduced several new perspectives on the influences on Conan Doyle, notably from the works by E. M. Murdoch and A. K. Green, also published by Ward, Lock and Co. Daly’s survey also took in Fanny Stenhouse’s A Lady’s Life Among the Mormons (1872), the dime novels of the 1870s and 1880s, plus several early films and plays that reflected the moral panic including The Danites which played in Portsmouth in 1882.  

In the second keynote, Owen Dudley Edwards explored Conan Doyle’s close association with Edinburgh. A lecture of astonishing breadth and erudition, Edwards took as his central theme Conan Doyle as scholar, beginning with the author’s decision to go beyond the ordinary medical degree to obtain an MD and how his scholarly training and outlook influenced his life and work. Edwards noted the debt owed to many people – Scott and Macaulay, but also John Hill Burton, William Burton, and a cast of characters from his youth – and how these exerted often competing pressures on Conan Doyle’s identity as illustrated within the poem, ‘The Inner Room’ (1897). Perhaps more than any other speaker, Edwards’ firmly located Conan Doyle in Edinburgh, as the symposium intended.

Those who were unable to attend will find all the recordings available at the project website. They are all well worth your time, with special mention for Edwards’ keynote which displays a mastery of Conan Doyle’s life and work that has yet to be surpassed. It should be noted that one of the great joys of these conferences is the chat, frequently enlightening and often amusing, which demonstrated ably how well-versed and engaged were the delegates. With the range of topics, insights and scholarship on display at the conference – from speakers and delegates - one can feel confident that Conan Doyle’s star is once more on the ascendance and that something special will come from these new Critical Editions of Conan Doyle’s major works.

Mark Jones


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