by Richard Pooley
My thanks to the Doyle family for letting me photograph Arthur and Jean's card.
Some comments and context:
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle shows that he was ambivalent about the knighthood he received on October 24, 1902. "Sir" and "Lady" are on the front of the card, but absent from the names at the bottom of the poem inside. He was knighted not for creating Sherlock Holmes but for his services to King and Country during the Anglo-Boer War. He had volunteered as an army doctor to work in a hospital in Bloemfontein and had soon found himself dealing with a month-long epidemic of deadly typhoid. But it was his eloquent and energetic defence of the British conduct of the war in South Africa, written in long pamphlets (one longer than The Hound of the Baskervilles, published during this time) which probably earned him his knighthood. King Edward VII was certainly pleased; he was not a book-man but was known to have read and loved the Sherlock Holmes stories. So was Doyle's mother, known as Ma'am. Doyle had initially wanted to refuse the honour, telling Ma'am (they wrote to each other almost every day) that "All my work for the State would seem tainted if I took a so-called reward...Let us drop the subject." But she didn't and, as so often with his mother, he bowed to her wishes. It was she, more than anyone, who persuaded Doyle to bring Sherlock Holmes back to life in The Adventure of the Empty House.
Only one other person had as much power over Doyle as Ma'am and that was his second wife, Jean. Note that Arthur places himself underneath her at the end of the poem. He had met and immediately fallen passionately in love with her nine years before his first wife, Louisa (known by the family as 'Touie'), had died of tuberculosis in July 1906. Louisa's illness meant she and Doyle could not have sex. Yet Doyle's relationship with Jean Leckie, thirteen years younger than him, almost certainly remained platonic throughout those nine years. He did not hide his dilemma from his family. Indeed, he consulted Ma'am as to what he should do. They agreed that all the close family (and even Louisa's mother) should be told of the situation. Only Louisa herself remained unaware of it. Doyle spent as much time as he could with Jean during these years and it is evident from his letters to his mother how much influence she had over him. Doyle said, for example, that it was Jean who thought up the plot for The Adventure of the Empty House.
The Sherlock Holmes world is a very masculine one. Indeed in all of Doyle's other works of fiction - The Lost World, The Adventures of Brigadier Gerard, his historical novels - women are nearly always at the periphery or damsels in distress, whether in medieval England or Victorian London. Yet the two greatest influences in his life were both women. Perhaps this explains why the one person to have outmanoeuvred Sherlock Holmes was a woman: Irene Adler, in A Scandal in Bohemia. Holmes accepts a photograph of Adler in lieu of money for his services and from then on refers to her as The woman.
It's worth remembering in these days of Covid-19 that when this poem was written in late 1921, the misnamed 'Spanish flu' had only stopped being a killer influenza pandemic in the previous year. Doyle had lost his eldest son, Kingsley, to it in October 1918. His beloved and much younger brother, Innes, died the same way in early 1919.
*For those questioning the title of this piece, I refer you to an earlier article in Only Connect https://www.only-connect.co.uk/post/did-sherlock-holmes-really-exist