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Arthur Conan Doyle - Biography

Arthur Conan Doyle
by Karen Bernardo

Arthur Conan Doyle wrote himself into history as the creator of the eccentric and brilliant detective Sherlock Holmes. Both Doyle and his fictional Holmes are products of the late Victorian era: a wonderful time to be alive if one had money and social standing; a terrible time to be alive if one did not. England during the reign of Queen Victoria was a nation of complacency, smugly self-assured in her position as leader of the world. This was still true in Conan Doyle's day; although The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was written at the very end of the Victorian era, it is very much imbued with the Victorian mindset.

When we think of England during the Victorian era, this is the England we picture. And yet we know there is another England as well. There is the England of Jack the Ripper, who raped and disemboweled young prostitutes in London. There was the England of the desperately poor, who lived and died in mildewed tenements off filthy streets. This is the England of the working classes, but its like could be found all over Europe; England had no monopoly on squalor.

Yet we do not see much of this England in the works of Conan Doyle, for Sherlock Holmes' mission is to return all that is dark and squalid into light and propriety. The intent of the 'Holmes' stories, transparently, is to depict the restoration of order to a world whose frayed edges keep showing. The possibility that those frayed edges could possibly mean that the entire fabric of society is about to dissolve would be incomprehensible to either Holmes, Conan Doyle, or his readership.

Observe that Holmes, in his apartments at Baker Street, drinks his morning coffee over a breakfast table where the cheery gas-light 'shone on the white cloth and glimmer of china and metal.' The Sidney Paget illustrations accompanying the original publication of the stories in the Strand Magazine show Holmes to be a thin, angular but very proper gentleman in a gleaming top-hat and a swallow-tail coat. Because Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes has come down to us as the literary ideal of the perfect detective, many readers fail to realize that he is an amateur rather than a professional sleuth. We never learn, in fact, how Holmes makes his money, but this is not unusual for the time, when gentlemen were presumed to have independent incomes.

An eccentric, somewhat imperious man of odd habits, Holmes performs chemistry experiments and writes monographs on esoteric subjects; his uncanny success rests on his possession of powers of observation and analysis far beyond the abilities of the average person. Yet in every case, Sherlock Holmes' powers of deduction are proven not to be so uncanny at all, but rather to rest on a rigorously-applied logic which is a direct reflection of the pragmatism of the nineteenth-century Victorian mind.

Conan Doyle, writing in the midst of hearty Victorianism, thinks the scientific method can regulate the world -- a world in which the 'good guys' are well-spoken, well-educated, clean, neat, and properly situated. Violet Hunter of 'The Adventure of the Copper Beeches' is a governess (a position well above a regular servant in status, as it requires an education); Colonel Ross of 'Silver Blaze' and Colonel Hayton of 'The Reigate Squires' are retired military men; most of the rest of Holmes' clients are members of the landed gentry. On the rare occasions where the person seeking Holmes' aide is a tradesman (such as Jabez Wilson in 'The Red-Headed League') Conan Doyle makes fun of him before letting the reader come to the conclusion that he isn't a bad fellow, only foolish.

The absolute propriety of the principal characters -- Holmes, Watson, and in most cases the people who consult him -- contrasts markedly with the brutality of many of the villains. And yet, Conan Doyle seems to point out, it is impossible to lump the villains into one basket, for they are of different classes. Abe Slaney of 'The Dancing Men' is both an American (horrors!) and a commoner, so one cannot expect much from him in the way of proper English morals. Dr. Roylott of 'The Adventures of the Speckled Band' is obviously a black sheep -- every family has one. But it is gentlemen-villains such as Alec Cunningham of 'The Reigate Squires' that Holmes finds the greatest challenge. Conan Doyle finds upper-class villains the most dangerous because their villainy is accentuated by intelligence, cunning and strategy -- something of which his lower-class villains would be incapable. What separates Holmes from villains such as these is not his class, but his moral sense.

Conan Doyle's society as depicted in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes reflects a utopian England which never existed -- a nation of order, propriety, and dignity. For him, the classes are distinctly segregated and everyone is happy in the class into which he was born. Immorality does surface in this society, however, and Conan Doyle seems to feel that it must be dealt with quickly and responsibly. Through the decisive action of such heroic native sons as Sherlock Holmes, the civilized world can rest easy again.

Read Storybites' analysis of...

The Adventure of the Copper Beeches

The Red-Headed League

The Mystery of the Speckled Band 

All three stories are available in "The Complete Sherlock Holmes."

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and as a Nook download in "A Study in Scarlet and the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes," available here:

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