Conan Doyle and the other world

Two of the most controversial areas of Arthur Conan Doyle's life were spiritualism and fairies. He is praised for his literary work (especially Sherlock Holmes) but he is mocked in greater measure for his belief in mediums and fairies.
The Cottingley Fairies

Now I don't believe in either of these things but, at the same time, I think the tendency to mock Conan Doyle is unfair.

In the aftermath of the slaughter of the First World War there were hundreds (or thousands) of people who sought comfort in the idea that the loved ones who had been taken from them had endured in another world. This was a perfectly human reaction and, in some respects, a belief in the ability to contact the dead is no stranger than some of the beliefs of any widely accepted religion today. It is true that these people were preyed upon by mediums (some who knew they were fakes and others who genuinely believed themselves to have powers) but it still gave them an outlet for their grief and hope for the future (albeit a false hope).

Conan Doyle's interest in the subject had started a lot earlier of course during his time in Portsmouth but it was not until after the Great War that he started to make it the main purpose of his life. This may well have been driven, to a certain extent, by the loss of his son Kingsley.

ACD with the "spirit" of his son Kingsley
It was a belief that was to cost him dear. He was mocked and publicly taken to task, often through the pages of the press. It was a belief that ultimately destroyed the friendship between him and Harry Houdini.

Conan Doyle and Houdini
Houdini was as strong a sceptic as Conan Doyle was a believer. Amusingly, in his efforts to show Conan Doyle how mediums were simply tricking people, Houdini convinced Conan Doyle that he (Houdini) was also a medium and Houdini consistently failed to persuade Conan Doyle otherwise which escalated the breakdown of their friendship.

The biggest problem when looking at this area is the lack of an objective third-party view. All of Conan Doyle's biographers have either been pro or anti. If pro they have been as accepting of spiritualism as Conan Doyle and if negative they have been as sceptical as Houdini.

As I remarked in an article ("A Case of Biographical Identity"*), we need a biographer who can treat the subject with a truly even hand. One of the reasons I have shied away from biographing Conan Doyle's Crowborough years is that I know I could not be even-handed in this area and it is too big a part of his life during these years to skim.

* This article can be found in the Sherlock Holmes Society of London's Diamond Anniversary Journal Supplement.

For more information on Arthur Conan Doyle and his time at Undershaw please refer to my book, An Entirely New Country which is available through all good bookstores including Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Classic Specialities, and in all electronic formats including iTunes, Kobo, Nook and Kindle .

The Norwood Author is available from all good bookstores, in many formats worldwide including Waterstones UK, Amazon UK,  Amazon USA, Barnes and Noble, Amazon Kindle, iBooks for the iPad/iPhone, Kobo Books, Nook.

Close to Holmes is available from all good bookstores, in many formats worldwide including Amazon USABarnes and NobleAmazon UKWaterstones UKAmazon KindleKoboNook  and iBooks for the iPad/iPhone.

Eliminate the Impossible is available from all good bookstores, in many formats worldwide including Amazon USA, Barnes and Noble, Amazon UK, Waterstones UK, Amazon Kindle, Kobo, Nook and iBooks for the iPad/iPhone.

1 comment:

  1. An interesting article. You brought up a good point. Sometimes we do lose track of respecting others for their beliefs because we do not know what battles they fought to get to those beliefs.