Dame Jean Conan Doyle: Her Father in Her Own Words

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Dame Jean Conan Doyle at her father's desk in 1988

Dame Jean Conan Doyle at her father’s desk. Photo credit John Tibbetts (1988).

The following was written by Dame Jean Conan Doyle and is the foreword to the original edition of The Quest for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: Thirteen Biographers in Search of a Life (1987) edited by Jon Lellenberg, Arthur Conan Doyle biographer and Conan Doyle Estate’s US literary agent.

This book is about books about my father, Arthur Conan Doyle. It is remarkable that so many books should have been written already about him since his death in 1930.

Although always aware that our father was by profession an author, it seemed quite as important to my brothers and myself that he was such a good all-round sportsman, and that he fought for justice for others and for any cause about which he felt strongly. He seemed to us to be the very personification of the chivalry of the stories of King Arthur’s Round Table. We had a very healthy respect for him, knowing him to be tolerant of high-spirited mischief but capable of anger if we broke his code of honorable behavior. Perhaps too much has been made by some biographers of the incident when he clouted my brother Adrian for referring to a woman as “ugly” and told Adrian that “no woman is ugly”—but to disparage anyone’s looks, male or female, would have been considered poor taste in our family. Character, yes, physical defects, no.

An asset of having an author for a father is that he works at home. You see more of him and he is able to play an active part in your life. In our nursery days he used his imagination to invent splendid games for my brothers, cousins, and myself. I realize now how much time our large genial father must have given up to inventing these games, but I am sure he enjoyed them as much as we did. He always retained the boyish streak that inspired him to write the verse that is a prelude to The Lost World:

I have wrought my simple plan,
If I give an hour of joy
To the boy who’s half a man,
Or the man who’s half a boy.

It made him a perfect companion for his children. Even in the last years of his life, my brothers said he seemed like an elder brother to them, someone with whom they could discuss all their problems.

I wish I had been older than seventeen when my father died. There would have been so much to talk about—such as Women’s Suffrage, one of the many public issues mentioned in this volume. I only heard him discuss this in the context of the possible effect within a marriage and his criticism of some of the actions of suffragettes. However, he had an open mind, admitting past misjudgments, such as telling the then Sir Robert Baden-Powell that his new Scout movement would prove too idealistic to last. He remembered this when he took me, age seven, to join the village Brownie pack, a first step leading to years in the Girl Guide movement. He certainly did not underestimate women’s intelligence. He encouraged my older half sister Mary to become a journalist and often discussed possible careers for me.

Of course my father’s belief in Spiritualism had a considerable effect on us as children, but that is too big a subject to embark upon here. I have found accusations of “gullibility” from those who never knew him hard to accept. He impressed upon us so often the need to guard against fraud—never to accept as genuine, messages from the departed that were not backed up by positive proof of the identity of the communicator, preferably with cross-corroboration. I have not been to a seance for many years, but those “messages from him” that well-meaning people have sent me in recent years have sadly failed to fulfill my father’s criteria. It was not always so.

I saw a lot of my father during his last years. As my older brothers were following their own pursuits, when I was home for the holidays we spent most evenings together. He was such a peaceful person to be with and so sensitive toward the feelings of others; at the same time, he was such fun, not only because of his sense of humor but also because of his alert mind, always interested in new things and interesting us in them. He approved of the modern generation, getting enjoyment from hearing of my brothers’ activities, and being driven at 100mph in their racing car (a significant speed in the late 1920s). He was amused and interested also by their love for “hot jazz.”

One penalty of being an offspring of a famous person is the emotion one is bound to feel when reading some biographies written by people who never knew their subject personally. One does not expect to share all the opinions of the writer, but one hopes that they will get the facts right. Alas, one so often hopes in vain. Hesketh Pearson’s Conan Doyle, His Life and Art was the first that I read. I thought it a poor biography when it came out, as the author failed to capture the personality of his subject. It was so obvious that he had never known him and couldn’t imagine what he was like.

In response to it, my brother Adrian wrote his own little biographical sketch of our father. His motivation in writing The True Conan Doyle was splendid—filial affection and loyalty, and a wish to correct certain remarks of Pearson’s which he knew to be wrong. Adrian’s main objection (and mine) to Pearson’s book was to his claim that our father had been “the man in the street.” To say that my father’s tastes and reactions were often those of the average man would be correct, but those who knew him realized that he was very out of the ordinary. The average man tends to follow the herd, the last thing my father would have done. Being “out on a limb” never worried him. “The man in the street” was an inappropriate description and gave the reader a false picture .

Arthur Conan Doyle with children Adrian, Denis and Jean at Lulworth Cove, Weymouth, UK, in 1923.

Jean Conan Doyle with her father and brothers Adrian and Jean at Lulworth Cove, UK, in 1923.

Friends, curious about my father, ask me which biography they should read. If their knowledge of him is scant, his autobiography Memories and Adventures being out of print, I recommend John Dickson Carr’s Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, although that, too, can be hard to come by today. It is not an in-depth study of his life, and there are factual errors in it, but of all the books, it conveys most clearly the personality, the nature, of the man. It is the most accurate portrait in words.

If friends have already read one of the shorter biographies, I advise them to read Pierre Nordon’s Conan Doyle for the sake of reading the extracts from my father’s correspondence with his mother. No risk of the author’s guesswork there. I also suggest they read Owen Dudley Edwards’ The Quest for Sherlock Holmes. It is not a full biography, confined as it is to his early life, and it contains rather too many suppositions, but it is full of new, well-researched information —new even to me. And I suggest also that they read Compton Mackenzie’s splendid book of essays, Certain Aspects of Moral Courage which pays tribute to my father’s possession of that quality and to his quest for justice for others. He knew his man.

There are only two books I advise friends against spending their time reading: Charles Higham’s The Adventures of Conan Doyle and Ronald Pearsall’s Conan Doyle: A Biographical Solution. It is a pity about the first, because much of it is of interest, but its factual errors are so numerous, and at times so fanciful, that justifiably or not one is bound to query the validity of any statements Higham makes, unless verified by chapter and verse. Unfortunately the wording of the author’s acknowledgments may have led readers to think that my half-sister Mary and I gave him significant assistance. In fact he asked me about nine trivial questions concerning the family, one of which I referred to Mary. That was the extent of our help. As we both disagreed with much in Higham’s book, our ire at being “gratefully acknowledged” may be understood.

For all its faults, Higham’s is undoubtedly a more interesting read than Pearsall’s small volume, which is also marred by errors, less numerous than Higham’s, but in line with Pearsall’s feline approach. Observing the misinformation, I felt here was a writer whose own personality was so unlike that of my father’s that he would find it impossible to understand the man he was writing about.

One of the most important things in my father’s life was his great love of my mother, and hers for him. There is no doubt that that influenced him and his work greatly. Yet there is little about this in the biographies, and Pearsall even had the gall to say that my father wished my mother had played a more active part in his 1922 American lecture tour on Spiritualism, instead of “looking on the trip as an excuse for sightseeing.” What absolute nonsense! My mother was renowned for the dedicated support she gave my father on his tours. He was so proud of the help she gave concerning the bereaved, that he expressed the opinion that she could have lectured on the subject in his place. The remark would only have been a compliment, not a serious suggestion.

Arthur Conan Doyle with Jean, Adrian and Denis.

Arthur Conan Doyle with Jean, Adrian and Denis.

I won’t comment here on other biographies, as the essays in this book will tell readers all they need to know. Sufficient to say that it must be difficult for a writer who has never known his subject to present a completely accurate portrait. The author’s own personality so often colors the picture. Also (though I must except Pierre Nordon’s book as I have not read it in the original French), all the biographies contain some factual errors: too many inaccuracies that could have been avoided and too many fantasies of the authors’ imaginations—often trivial errors, perhaps, but I hate to think of them being perpetuated by later writers along with the genuine information contained in previous studies.

When would-be biographers approach me, I urge them to wait until our family papers are available to researchers. Then they will have new material to work with. Without this, the less responsible biographer may in the search for some new approach to his subject fantasize about it. Scandals sell books. Admiration, however justified, sets up a howl of “hagiography” from the critics. Until the conclusion of a family lawsuit, however, the papers are unavailable. Of course any serious biographer will need to see them. They were seen by Pierre Nordon and before him by Hesketh Pearson and John Dickson Carr, though the latter two may not have researched them very thoroughly, as their books were written fairly speedily, and the papers were in somewhat of a muddle at the time.

In conclusion, I must say how interested I was by the essays in this book. Of course I don’t agree with all the opinions expressed, but it was fascinating, I found, to read the writers’ personal reactions to what they had read about my father. Perhaps the essays in this book, by indicating the strengths and weaknesses of what has gone before, will stimulate scholars in new and interesting directions.

I look forward to the day when a definitive biography will be written about the man whom it was my great fortune to have for a father — a biography as entertaining as John Dickson Carr’s, but as serious as Pierre Nordon’s and as ground-breaking in neglected areas as Owen Dudley Edwards’. When that time comes, I hope the biographer will not allow any personal opinion to color the coverage of my father’s belief in Spiritualism, but will research that subject as objectively and deeply as other aspects of my father’s life and as his literary works. That would be welcome indeed.

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