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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Saturday, 20 October 2018

"Conan Doyle" by Hesketh Pearson

This biography of the creator of Sherlock Holmes was first published in 1943 so it reflects its time. Despite this, or because of this, it is a well-told story of a man who was larger than life. It doesn't pretend that C-D was a great writer; it fully appreciates his flaws. Nevertheless, he was a hugely prolific author who created an immortal character. "Any coal-heaver, docker, charwoman, or publican would recognise what was meant on hearing someone described as 'a reg'lar Romeo' or 'a blasted Shylock' or 'a blinkin' Robinson Crusoe' or 'a bleedin' Sherlock Holmes'." (p 86)

Pearson is particularly good at making asides:

  • CD was very poor as a medical student so he sought part-time work as a medical assistant. "Knowing very little, and wishing to gain experience, he started by offering himself for nothing; but the first doctor who took him on valued his assistance at less than nothing" (p 14)
  • Of a book in which the hero, a soldier, kills a Buddhist holy man and "spends the rest of his life fleeing and hiding from the other holy men who are on his track ... The chronicler is not in a position to inform us whether the soldier's last regrets were that he failed to make a clean sweep of holy men while serving in the East." (p 82 - 83)
  • "An appalling outbreak of enteric among the troops was caused by the simple fact that Lord Roberts has failed to take the waterworks ... he felt that the troops required rest after their exertions; so they drank water from the old wells of Bloemfontein and rested there, some 5000 of them for ever." (p 128)

He makes interesting comments about how Doyle wrote and how good it was. For example, his historical books sometimes had too much detail. "To the end of his life it never occurred to him that the accumulation of detail, however accurate or picturesque, does not vivify ... but nullifies." (p 80) "He wrote history with the pen of Holmes, who preferred a scientific treatise to an exciting story; but he chronicled Holmes with the pen of Watson, who preferred an exciting story to a scientific treatise." (p 91). When he was writing the Holmes stories he was cavalier about details:

  • "Doyle himself was singularly unobservant: he gave the lodgings a bow-window; and the distinguishing feature of Baker Street is that there is not a bow-window from one end of it to the other."  (p 87)
  • "Doyle made dozens of ... slips ...Holmes disappears on May 4th, 1891, and returns on March 31st, 1894; yet the adventure of 'Wisteria Lodge' occurs in March 1892, when Holmes must have been travelling incognito in Tibet and was thought to be dead by Dr Watson." (p 87)

But he took his writing seriously:

  • "He never stopped reading because he thought it 'a great mistake to start putting out cargo when you have hardly stowed any on board'." (p 76)
  • "He worked from breakfast to lunch and from five to eight in the evening, averaging three thousand words a day." (p 95)

Pearson distinguishes between the imaginative (such as Shakespeare) and the fanciful (such as Doyle, Poe and Dickens): "Doyle ... mistook the fanciful for the imaginative, whereas the diagnostic of the truly imaginative man is a sense of reality. The imagination wrestles with life and is intuitive; the fancy plays around life and is inventive. ... The imaginative type ... deals with everyday life and only occasionally with the bizarre. The fanciful type ... revels in the weird and only touches reality in flashes." (p 152 - 153; page break comes after deals with)

But Doyle understood dialogue: "Why should we write a duet each saying the same thing?" (p 64)

Other great comments:

  • CD said of his youthful experiences of reading boys' adventure stories: "It was all more real than the reality" (p 3)
  • "Once he had to choose between compromising a woman or damaging himself. Without hesitating a second he chose the latter and hurled himself out of a third-floor window" (p 21)
  • "The return journey ... was enlivened by the ship catching fire. For the first two or three days they did not take it seriously, but when the smoke turned into a blaze they did." (p 26)
  • "Why the devil should we [doctors] do all the good? ... A butcher would do good to the race. would he not, if he served his chops out gratis through the window? ... Take the case of a doctor who devotes himself to sanitary science. He flushes out drains, and keeps down infection. You call himn a philanthropist! Well, I call him a traitor. ... Did you ever hear of a congress of lawyers for simplifying the law and discouraging litigation? ... If I had half the funds which the [Medical] Association has, I should spend part of them in drain-blocking, and the rest in the cultivation of disease germs, and the contamination of drinking water." (p 48)
  • "'Your rooms are quite clean? ... No vermin?' 'The officers of the garrision come sometimes'." (p 58)
  • His first novel was lost in the post. He commented later "my shock at its disappearance would be nothing to my horror if it were suddenly to appear again" (p 75)
  • "Their faces wearing that pained and anxious expression which the British countenance naturally assumes when dancing, giving the impression that the legs have suddenly burst forth in a festive mood, and have dragged the rest of the body into it very much against its will." (p 75)
  • CD had a chequered medical career. "As he was uninterrupted by the arrival of a single patient throughout the whole of his time as an eye specialist, he spent his days writing ... 'My rooms ... consisted of a waiting-room and a consulting-room, where I waited in the consulting-room and no one waited in the waited-room." (p 93)
  • "All unimaginative folk love the fanciful, the horrible, and the uncanny, which for them add a relish to life, just as people without sensitive palates love curry." (p 152)
  • "We have discovered that nothing sub-human, super-human, pre-human, or preter-human could possibly surpass in horror the primitive doings of ordinary humanity." (p 163)
  • "When a man searches desperately for a faith he is bound to find what he is looking for sooner or later, and what he is looking for will be, for him, the Truth." (p 172)
  • "The world of matter is the world we know by means of our five senses; the spirit-world cannot be so known. ... The phenomena observed at seances do not prove the existence of a spirit-world, which, if its existence could be proved by the five senses, would cease to be the world of the spirit." (p 173)
  • "No woman is ugly. Every woman is beautiful. But some are more beautiful than others." (p 183)
  • "The business of every legislative body in history has been to practise a succession of complicated frauds on the community." (p 188)


A very enjoyable and page-turning biography. October 2018; 188 pages

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