Arthur Conan Doyle - A Study in Accuracy

When it comes to biographical accounts of the life of Arthur Conan Doyle there has always been a problem with accuracy.

This began with Doyle's own autobiography Memories and Adventures where there were numerous errors and omissions. His own life story naturally became a primary source for later biographers so many of his errors found their way into numerous biographies. Details such as when he moved to South Norwood and where he opened his brief ophthalmic practice were reported in error in countless books even into the present century.
The original source material

So why were there so many errors? Aside from ACD's own autobiography there were misconceptions that were created by the actions (or lack thereof) of Conan Doyle's direct descendants. They controlled the copyrights and access to family papers so biographers had to toe the line in respect of what they said. This had the result that for years Doyle's first family were not presented in the best light because his second family wanted the accounts of Doyle's domestic life to revolve largely around them. So while we learnt lots about Doyle's second family his first started to almost drift into legend.

I had the great privilege of seeing a copy of a certain author's biography of Doyle with hand annotations by Brigadier John Doyle - Arthur Conan Doyle's nephew. In this book there were numerous assertions made about Doyle's first family (especially his first wife Louise). These assertions were made either because they had been made in other works or because the author had speculated and presented those speculations as more or less fact. I leafed through page after page of this book where John Doyle had written in the margins. Often whole pages would be dismissed with the word "NO" in large letters or "rubbish" or "nonsense" - you get the picture.

Now there is no excuse for presenting speculation as fact. I have always gone out of my way to flag up speculations in my books (if I missed any I apologise now). But when it comes to repeating errors from other works we have to be a little more tolerant.

The plaque at the correct address
No matter how much we (biographers) found things questionable it was not easy, historically, to investigate. Up until quite recently most of the Doyle family papers that held the answers to these questions were figuratively and literally locked up thanks to legal disputes. Every so often a piece of information about Conan Doyle would be found through other means and discovered to contradict the known "facts". In the (I think) 1990s, Richard Lancelyn Green unearthed paperwork that proved that Conan Doyle's ophthalmic practice had been at 2 Upper Wimpole Street and not 2 Devonshire Place which Doyle had given as the address in his autobiography and which had been repeated in countless biographies that had followed. This was of paramount importance to fans of Doyle himself and his Sherlock Holmes stories as it was the site at which the first short stories (A Scandal in Bohemia, The Red-Headed League etc.) were written. The information was uncovered just in time to prevent a plaque being erected at the wrong address.

Since the 2004 auction at Christie's, a good deal of significant paperwork has found its way into the public domain. The British Library has been a significant beneficiary of this having secured papers at the auction and having been left some by Dame Jean Conan Doyle (Doyle's youngest daughter). Consequently some excellent and far more reliable biographical accounts have emerged. Books such as those by Andrew Lycett and, dare I say it, myself have been produced and have got the facts right thanks to access to the original paperwork. We definitely had the advantage over the earlier biographers.

Items sold at the Christie's auction
This does not prevent mistakes however. In my book The Norwood Author I got the history of Arthur Conan Doyle's solicitor slightly wrong when I said it was not clear how he became the family solicitor. In fact it was known and I simply had not looked in the right places. I corrected this as best I could in my next book and hold my hands up to my error.

Despite what I have said, you should not ignore the early biographies. Many are extremely good and should not be dismissed. The authors Hesketh Pearson and Pierre Nordon are two good examples of this. Also good is the John Dickson-Carr biography which, despite its narrative style and rigid adherence to the wishes of the Doyle family, gives a lot of useful information.

Written by Alistair Duncan
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