Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote historical romance. Did you know that?
Now, let me reassure you manly guys, in Doyle’s time, adventure fiction was considered romantic because the story consisted of idealized, adventurous or heroic characters—larger than life. Since there was no genre designation for science fiction, stories he wrote such as The Lost World, were also under the term romance. Yes, some of his stories had some romantic interest between characters, but the thrust of the story was always the adventure.
My husband and I were talking about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, this weekend, and the things in his life that affected his writing and his perspective of that writing and how he defined success. We're both fans of his writing and have read his biography. His mother was a storyteller. She told him heroic stories from babyhood. Doyle's going to college (where he entertained many with his oral stories) changed his outlook on life. He got another point of view from going adventuring, getting married, juggling his work as a practicing physician and father with his ambition to be an author. How life experiences can change a writer’s perspective of what they write. The difference between critical acclaimed work and commercial success—especially in the writer's mind.
For instance, everyone knows about Sherlock Homes. It’s probably the most famous and financially successful series that Sir Arthur wrote. He met the inspiration for Sherlock while attending medical school in Edinburgh, Scotland. Dr. Joseph Bell, who was known as "a master at observation, logic, deduction, and diagnosis." Sound familiar?
When Sir Arthur was 27, he wrote, A Study in Scarlet, introducing us to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson (although that wasn't their names in the original manuscript). Watson was loosely based on Doyle's own adventures as a medical officer serving on board a whaling ship sailing the arctic waters (which he loved) and again as a doctor on board another ship sailing between England and the west coast of Africa (which he hated). Sherlock Holmes was born from a young man's sense of adventure and the respect and admiration of a mentor.
Even though Sherlock Holmes stories skyrocketed him to the bestselling lists of his time, Doyle didn’t particularly like his character. You see, Doyle wanted to be known as a serious author, in other words, he wanted critical acclaim. He attempted to kill Sherlock off when he was thirty-four in The Final Problem.
Why would Doyle do that? The Sherlock Holmes Series was a moneymaking success and made him famous. Doyle, at the ripe age of thirty-two, felt Sherlock Holmes was too commercial and eclipsed his more serious work. What many don’t know is Doyle’s first love was the historical novel. The White Company was one of those novels written from his heart. It’s set during the Hundred Year Wars with brave Knight, Alleyne Edrickson, the squire hero; Sir Nigel Loring, the knight errant; Samkin Aylward, the master archer; and Hordle John.
“Thirty years later, he told a journalist, "I was young and full of the first joy of life and action, and I think I got some of it into my pages. When I wrote the last line, I remember that I cried: 'Well, I'll never beat that' and threw the inky pen at the opposite wall." “
Doyle wrote other tales of Sir Nigel and the White Company. They’re great stories, actually, and if you like Doyle’s writing and haven’t read them, you should check them out (you can find many of them on Amazon, BTW).
Not long after this, his life took a downswing. He got influenza, which which almost killed him, it took him some time to recover from it. He killed off Sherlock (although he didn’t hesitate to resurrect him, later, when he needed the money), his father died, and not long after that, first wife, Louisa, contracted tuberculosis. It was a dark time for him, he suffered from depression, and his writing reflected that. He delved into the “Spiritualism” of the time and became fascinated with life beyond the veil. Remember, this is Victorian times and many were interested in things of that nature. He wrote about these things in papers and some later became part of non-fiction books on the subject of the occult.
After nine years of being sick his wife died. A year later he married the love of his life, Jean Locke (allegedly related to Rob Roy which delighted Doyle). He loved his life, his wife, and their children. A couple years later he wrote his next commercially successful series, The Lost World, with the outrageous and larger than life hero, Professor Challenger. He wrote four more novels with Professor Challenger. I think he had a lot of fun with the humorous professor and his adventures. Plus, like with Sherlock, they were wildly popular with his fans and brought in a good amount of money.
Isn’t it funny, Doyle wanted to be thought of as a serious author? I’d say he achieved that. He wanted critical acclaim and didn’t feel his popular series gave him that. Boy, was he wrong. If he could only see what’s been done with these two famous and long-lived characters. His body of work is quite substantial. King Edward VII, a huge Sherlock Holmes fan, Knighted Doyle (at the age of forty-three) for his service to the crown and work during the Boer Wars (including a non-fiction book written about his findings as a doctor).
Life changes us. We grow, our priorities change, as does our perception of life, but our desire to write, either as form of making sense of life or to tell stories, remain.
When you read Doyle’s body of work, you see reflections of those types of changes The stories of a young man’s sense of adventure, historical novels from the heart, various short stories and novels that were born in depression, books highlighting Doyle’s intellectual pursuits whether as a doctor or as a man fascinated by the unseen world of the occult, happy fun adventures written during a very happy time in his life.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, if he were here today, might debate over the terminology of being called a successful author, but in my opinion he was certainly a successful author and he continued to write regardless of what life threw him.
- What do you think? Do you feel he achieved critical acclaim or merely success?
- How would you define success for your writing?