by Richard Pooley
“Is it original?” the member of the film crew asked me.
“Yes. It’s a letter he wrote to his mother. One of about a thousand that still exist. He wrote to her from his schooldays until her death. As you can see, he called her ‘Mam’. This one is unusual; he’s written the date: ‘Nov 11 /91’. Very few of his letters to her have a date. Must be a nightmare for his biographers. And the punctuation is almost all correct. That’s unusual too; for a writer he was pretty cavalier with his punctuation. And his spelling.”
“Beautiful handwriting. And so easy to read.”
“Yes, and no crossing-outs. In all the letters he wrote … thousands to all sorts of people...you’ll hardly find any crossing-outs. He had a very ordered mind."
She wasn’t listening to my wittering. “Can I pick it up?”
She slid her hand under the little letter and lifted it off the table. She placed a finger against the top of the brown-yellowed paper, presumably so as not to touch any ink, and deftly turned over the first page to look at the next two. The content of the first page had not seemed to interest her, even though it contained a line which still shocks me however many times I read it. It was the same with the other pages. She scanned them swiftly, whispered a quiet “Wow!” and let the letter slip off her palm on to the table. Her reverence for this piece of paper was palpable.
We were in a Victorian-era country house hotel on the edge of the New Forest in England. I was about to be interviewed by historian Lucy Worsley for a three-hour, three-episode BBC television documentary on Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes.* The producer wanted me to talk about Doyle’s relationship with his mother, Mary, focusing on the letters about his Sherlock Holmes stories that he wrote to her between October 1891 and April 1893. Even though “A Scandal in Bohemia”, the first of these stories, had, unlike two previous Holmes novels, brought him instant fame and much-needed fortune in July 1891, he was telling her just three months later that: “I think of slaying Holmes...& winding him up for good & all. He takes my mind from better things.” On 6 January 1892 he wrote: “So now a long farewell to Sherlock...He still lives however, thanks to your entreaties.” Clearly, she had kept begging him not to kill off Holmes. She must have seen what her son could not: that he had created someone and something totally new and fascinating. So much more enthralling to Victorian readers than his painstakingly-researched historical novels. We don’t know exactly what her arguments were (though we can be sure that one was financial); whilst she kept all his letters to her, he only kept a few from her to him. It is largely thanks to her “entreaties” that it took almost another two years and twelve more Holmes stories before Doyle sent Holmes and his nemesis, Professor Moriarty, plummeting to their (apparent) deaths at the Reichenbach Falls in “The Final Problem.”
But none of that seemed to have been of great interest to the member of the film crew. I am sure she appreciated that the letter’s contents made it both financially and historically valuable. But her reverential “Wow!” came from somewhere else.
Why do we so value, worship even, the original? The BBC producer had insisted that Worsley and I have Doyle’s original letters in front of us; that I read from the originals or handed them over for her to read. You don’t need to have the original in your hands to make the same observations I made to Worsley and to the member of her film crew. A good copy would have sufficed. It’s true that it makes a difference when you can see how someone writes. You don’t need to be a graphologist to make a few shrewd guesses about the writer’s personality. But you don’t have to see the original to make those guesses.
You can find these letters or extracts from them in the excellent “Arthur Conan Doyle - A Life in Letters”**. The editors give the context in which each letter was written, making the book more illuminating than most biographies of Doyle that I have read. In the book the letters are typewritten, not facsimiles of the original letters, all but a few of which were hand-written.
Toronto-based psychologist George Newman has conducted a number of experiments to find out why we value the original over the copy or the forgery. He used paintings and sculpture but he reckons that his findings are relevant to any object which can be shown to be connected to a famous person. We seem to believe that the object, however mundane, is imbued with a special quality simply because it has been touched by that person.
I also had that Wow! feeling when I first handled (very carefully) Doyle’s original letters. But the Wow! was louder when I saw and touched the blotting paper which had been on his desk the day he died in 1930. Ostensibly, it has little financial value. But to touch something which he must have used time and again to dry the ink on his letters and manuscripts (you can still see many signatures of his in mirror form) still gives me goose bumps.
There is a twist to this tale of handwritten letters. From 1901 to 1930 Doyle employed Major Alfred Wood as his secretary. Wood had been a cricketing and football friend of Doyle’s when the young doctor lived and practised in Southsea. He came to be part of the Doyle family, living and travelling with them (and playing golf and cricket with Doyle). Doyle became very dependant on him. In a 1919 letter to his mother Doyle wrote “I had a hard time in London, but got back last night and am all fit again – about 60 letters awaited me. I don’t know what I should do without Wood.” Many of Doyle’s letters were dictated to Wood for him to type but Wood would also write many of them by hand, especially those which were impersonal – e.g. responses to invitations – or which required standard answers – e.g. letters to Doyle imploring him, or more often Sherlock Holmes, to solve some problem. He soon was able to imitate Doyle’s handwriting perfectly, although I understand that the signature was usually done by Doyle.
I have occasionally come across publicity for the sale of some of Doyle’s letters. I wonder if auctioneers know about Wood and, if they do, whether they warn any prospective buyer that the handwriting may not be Doyle’s. What do you think? Once I watched an episode of the BBC’s Flog It! during which a few of his handwritten letters were auctioned. Their content was of such little interest that we were not told what it was. They appeared to have been written during the time when Wood was Doyle’s secretary. I fear the buyer of those letters thinks they are ‘original’, meaning that the hand that wrote them was Doyle’s. Does it matter if Wood wrote them? Probably not. I’m sure their new owner would have muttered “Wow!” on first handling them, thinking “this was written by the man who created Sherlock Holmes.”***
*It was commissioned by the BBC (and PBS of the USA) after the success of Worsley’s three-part documentary on Agatha Christie, broadcast last year. I am Doyle’s step-great grandson and run the Conan Doyle Estate.
If you are wondering why I have not called Doyle ‘Sir’, it’s because he himself seldom wrote it and insisted that his publishers did not use it either. As three letters to his mother, written in April-June 1902, show, he really did not want to be knighted. She thought otherwise. She had commissioned a “Pedigree” from “Sir Arthur Vicars, Ulster King-at-Arms at Dublin Castle” which showed that he, via her Irish mother’s family, was descended from English nobility (the Percys of Northumberland) and royalty (King Henry III and John of Gaunt). So, she must have thought, it would be right for him to accept a knighthood from King Edward VII. She won; as she nearly always did when arguing with her son.
**The Penguin Press, published in 2007.
***Though not all believe he did. See my article - https://www.only-connect.co.uk/post/did-sherlock-holmes-really-exist