- The Unknown Conan Doyle: Letters to the Press by John Michael Gibson and Richard Lancelyn Green
Secker, 377 pp, £15.00, March 1986, ISBN 0 436 13303 2
When in December 1926 the creator of Hercule Poirot disappeared the creator of Sherlock Holmes somehow possessed himself of one of her gloves, and at once took it to a Mr Horace Leaf with a result which he describes in a letter to the Morning Post, written on 16 December (ten days, that is, after Agatha Christie had vanished), and now reprinted in the present volume of selections from Conan Doyle’s letters to the press. Mr Leaf, this letter declares, is ‘an excellent psychometrist’ who ‘at once got the name of Agatha’ and then said: ‘There is trouble connected with this article. The person who owns it is half dazed and half purposeful. She is not dead as many think. She is alive. You will hear of her, I think, next Wednesday.’ Mrs Christie was found on the Tuesday night, but – sure enough – it was Wednesday when the news reached Doyle, who at once communicated so striking a psychic manifestation to Colonel Christie – from whose appalling behaviour as a husband it is now generally held that Mrs Christie (in whatever condition of mind) had taken flight.
Mr Leaf would appear to have said rather more than Doyle judged the Morning Post might have space for, since we are told briefly that ‘the only error was that he had an impression of water, though whether the idea of a Hydro was at the bottom of this feeling is at least arguable.’ It is true that Mrs Christie was found in a hydropathic hotel. But her car, overturned and abandoned, had been discovered in sufficient proximity to water for a considerable amount of dredging and diving to have been declared as taking place. So there is something ‘arguable’ here as well. And Mr Leaf’s coming so quickly upon the name Agatha is scarcely a surprise. Half England was talking about Agatha Christie when Doyle brought that glove to him.
The Christie affair happened within the last four years of Doyle’s life, and six years after the publication of his The Coming of the Fairies, a book taking its occasion from his acceptance as genuine of absurd photographs faked by two enterprising small girls, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths. This final phase of eccentricity and sheer gullibility had succeeded upon a long lifetime’s interest in spiritualism and psychical research. In his later twenties Doyle was beginning to organise séances, and the first of these to be here recorded (in a letter printed in the journal Light in 1887) reveals him as already a believer, and as a stern moralist as well. He had been wondering whether or not to obtain a copy of Leigh Hunt’s Comic Dramatists of the Restoration – ‘the question being whether the mental pollution arising from Messrs Congreve, Wycherley and Co would be compensated for by the picture of the manners and customs of those days to be gathered from their pages’. And through the medium employed he received the message: ‘This gentleman is a healer. Tell him from me not to read Leigh Hunt’s book.’ As the letter to Light is signed ‘A. Conan Doyle, MD’ it is conceivable that the medium knew in what sense Doyle was a ‘healer’. But the message itself Doyle declares ‘absolutely inexplicable on any hypothesis except that held by Spiritualists’, since the medium could not possibly have had any knowledge of Doyle’s private debate with himself over the admissibility of securing Leigh Hunt’s depraving book. Then comes Doyle’s own message to the readers of Light: ‘Let every inquirer bear in mind that phenomena are only a means to an end, of no value at all of themselves, and simply useful as giving us an assurance of an after existence for which we are to prepare by refining away our grosser animal feelings and cultivating our higher, nobler impulses ... Let a man realise that the human soul, as it emerges from its bodily cocoon, shapes its destiny in exact accordance with its condition ... This, I take it, is the lesson which Spiritualism enforces, and all phenomena are only witness to the truth of this central all-important fact.’
Early in his career, then, Doyle is already well on that road to En-Dor which his contemporary, Rudyard Kipling, refused to take. But, equally early, he is aware of a perplexing incongruity between the trifling and frequently grotesque deliverances of mediumship and the tremendous issue of the possible survival of human personality after bodily death. Thirty years after being warned off Leigh Hunt, he is sticking to his main point. ‘Personally,’ he tells the editor of the Daily Mail, ‘I know of no valid argument for life beyond the grave – the whole analogy of nature seems against it – save only in the experiences attained by psychical study.’ But this study has been tending to widen for him from the séance-room of ectoplasm and jingling tambourines to experiences of his own in common life. Thus his younger son Adrian has shown an apparently inexplicable awareness of something his elder son Denis has done in another room. Is it possible that the soul – particularly, perhaps, during sleep or some similar form of unconsciousness – can drift away from the body, and then transmit, or return with, information gained during its foray? Perhaps the soul ‘drifts out like a captive balloon, attached always by some filament which draws it back in an instant to its body’. And ‘if the balloon can really drift forth upon a filament and retain its own individuality, then it is no great further step to say that when the filament snaps the balloon is still self-sufficient.’ A couple of months after offering these speculations at the prompting of his sons’ experience, Doyle declares in Light that they have resulted in his receiving ‘a mass of definite testimony’ of a confirmatory character. ‘The instances are so numerous, so well attested, and so utterly beyond the reach of coincidence that one marvels that any man calling himself a scientist could dismiss them as unworthy of scientific consideration.’
Although spiritualism and the supernatural in general constituted Doyle’s principal interest throughout his active life, he was nothing if not catholic in the fields in which he made known his views through the medium of journals and newspapers. Thus at the turn of the century, when much concerned with the issues of the South African War, he despatched two letters in as many months to the Grocers’ Assistant, expressing his ‘deepest interest’ in promoting shorter working hours in shops, declaring that these and frequent holidays are particularly important ‘in a country which has no compulsory military service’ if the physique of young shop assistants is to be safeguarded. And preferably such young men and others – ‘cabmen, carters and peasants’, for example – ought to be formed, under the superintendence of the gentry, into corps of civilian riflemen which could effectively resist foreign invasion at least until the Regular Army should be returned from its proper normal task of defending the Empire overseas. Here, indeed, is one of his master-themes for years. Such auxiliaries could be provided with bicycles virtually by the million at trifling cost, and would be susceptible of mass deployment much more rapidly than any cavalry. For their problems of commissariat, moreover, they could rely on the patriotism of private motorists by the thousand.
He has also brooded in some detail over actual fighting. He thinks of all those Boers lurking invisible in the shelter of their kopjes. What is needed to cope with that sort of thing is accurate high-angle fire. Get at them from above, and they are done for! He therefore himself invents ‘a small, simple, and economical apparatus’ which, affixed to a rifle, will tell the marksman at what angle to hold his weapon in order to drop a bullet perpendicularly down at any given range. The apparatus would cost about a shilling, and inflict enormous casualties upon a hitherto inviolate enemy. But what happens when he offers the idea to the War Office? He receives an ‘offensively curt’ communication telling him (as a later idiom would express it) to get lost. Undeterred by this snub in 1900, he returns to such matters fifteen years later. Armour, if too heavy to be borne on the body, ‘must be pushed in front upon wheels’.
I picture a great number of plates, held together like the shields of the Roman tortoise, and pushed by the men who crouch behind them ... There is not one tortoise, which would attract a concentrated fire of artillery, but each company or platoon forms its own. These numerous armour-plated bodies rush with small loss over the space which has already been cleared as far as possible of obstacles ... Such apparatus would not necessitate a great addition to the impedimenta of an army.
This idea, too, was no doubt judged impracticable by the authorities. But it was, after all, thinking of a similar order which, only a year later, was to produce the tank. Basically, Doyle’s instinct for the application of new technologies to the battlefield was entirely sound.
Perhaps less likely to elicit our sympathies was his advocacy, as the Kaiser’s War wore on, of the necessity of ‘reprisals’ and the uses of a righteous ‘hate’. The Germans, whom he had celebrated a few years back as a people friendly and hospitable to a notable degree, are now the ‘Huns’. They commit atrocities, murdering babies and kicking captured English officers and gentlemen in the behind. So let pictures of such actions be prepared by artists and hung up in every munitions factory. ‘When Miss Cavell was shot we should at once have shot our three leading prisoners. When Captain Fryatt was murdered we should have executed two submarine captains.’ There is much of this; and on the Home Front, too, severities are recommended. ‘Shirkers’ must be rounded up and publicly humiliated. When the war is over, come the ‘profiteers’. There is a letter to the Times inquiring closely into the price of rhubarb and cabbages. ‘A few clean-run British officers with plenary powers would very soon set things right’ in that quarter. And when either middlemen or retailers are discovered to be making more than a fair profit we should ‘clap the offenders in gaol’.
From all this Doyle emerges as eminently a trenchant writer, and one in whom the habit of firing off letters to newspapers frequently conduces to incautious hyperbole which even the faithful find it difficult to accept. The affair of the Hydeville raps affords an instance.
At Hydeville, an obscure hamlet apparently near one of the Rochesters in the United States, there occurred on 31 March 1848 what Doyle describes as ‘the most wonderful thing that our age has known’, which ‘has modified and glorified the lives of many’, so that the occasion ‘is in truth the greatest date in human history since the great revelation of two thousand years ago’. Surely, Doyle goes on, whether at Hydeville itself or at Washington there ought to be a monument commemorating this first recorded instance of spiritualism’s achieving direct communication with the dead? And to Doyle, as the instigator of the project, is presently entrusted the task of collecting subscriptions to this end from spiritualists in the United Kingdom. He makes his appeal – and later has to report that he has received 22s 6d ‘from our British community’. The letters themselves tell us nothing of what actually occurred at Hydeville – except, indeed, for an admission that ‘many of the manifestations seem puerile.’ Apart from resounding generalities, the subscribers solicited learn no more than they do about Darkey of Christchurch, a terrier ‘which barks out the answer to questions’, and about which, in the previous year, Doyle had addressed a letter to the editor of the Times Literary Supplement. The reluctance of the British spiritualists to stump up can be understood.
As a controversialist – and in public utterance he was seldom anything else – Doyle’s manner was invariably robust, and he was in particular the master of a strong opening salvo. Thus when he addressed himself to the condition of the Belgian Congo in 1909 he began his first letter to the Times thus: ‘Sir, We live in the presence of the greatest crime which has ever been committed in the history of the world, and yet we who not only could stop it but who are bound by our sworn oath to stop it do nothing. The thing has been going on for 20 years. What are we waiting for?’ There is nothing factitious either in this or in the long series of denunciations which followed it. The spectacle of cruelty or injustice infuriated Arthur Conan Doyle and kept on infuriating him, for he was a very obstinate man. It was this quality of sheer doggedness that made him so formidable a defender of men like George Edalji and Oscar Slater, whom he saw as languishing in prison (or even, as in Slater’s case, under threat of the gallows) as a consequence of judicial error compounded by bureaucratic intransigence. Over all this ground great honour has to be accorded him.
Letters to the press are far from easy to edit since, even when they deal with public affairs, there must be much in them which is no longer readily understood. John Michael Gibson and Richard Lancelyn Green have prudently decided against annotation, preferring to provide 13 notes on selected topics. They provide, also, a ‘Categorical Index’, excellent alike in conception and execution.