I managed to catch a nasty little bug from my wife and I’ve spent the last week suffering coughs and the like. As I recuperated I took the opportunity to watch much of the Granada Sherlock Holmes featuring Jeremy Brett as the famous sleuth. I knew offhand that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle more than dabbled in Spiritualism and was infamous in his later years for his article on the Cottingley Fairies. It struck me as it has struck many others before, how interesting these contradictory elements of his life remain.
Doyle was raised a Catholic, become an agnostic, and later professed his belief in Spiritualism. He attended seances, lectured and published works on Spiritualism, and authenticated the now famous forgeries known as the Cottingley Fairies. Doyle had been trained as a doctor and served as a ship’s surgeon and he published the majority of his Sherlock Holmes stories between 1887 (A Study in Scarlet) and 1904 (The Return of Sherlock Holmes). He went on to write The Lost World in 1912, which would become a fabulous campy television series, and it was only during the first World War that Doyle began to write about Spiritualism.
Spiritualism is often credited with giving birth to both hyper-materialist (Mormon) and hyper-immaterial (Christian Science) religious traditions. Declaring the material persistence of dead persons, Spiritualism seemed precariously balanced between two worlds. The gap between the majority of Doyle’s detective cases (1187-1904) and the final collection (1927) coincides precisely with two major events: the majority of Doyle’s published works on Spiritualism and the Great War.
Valuing sound and perceptive reasoning about all instruments of detection, Holmes’ motto has always been “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” As others who have commented on the strange combination of Doyle’s Spiritualism and Holmes’ rationalism have suggested, “it was the intellectual journey of an inquisitive man, dissatisfied with Victorian materialism but intent on using its tools to examine alternative forms of consciousness.” Holmes was a way for Doyle to push rationalism to its (logical) extreme; Spiritualism was Doyle finding comfort in that which confounded logic and analysis. It may not be too much to say that this was natural given the climate of crisis in Europe at that time.
I look forward to a future time when I can explore the spiritual crisis of the World War (as in Mark Noll’s The Civil War as a Theological Crisis), but Doyle certainly seems to have been spurred by his personal losses in the conflict. His earliest forays, for instance, were concerned with contacting his dead relatives. Separating author and character was during those years much easier since Doyle had quit writing about his most famous character. Yet the full measure of Holmes had already been established and could not be substantially changed:
For all his commitment to spiritualism, Conan Doyle, who would have been 150 on May 22nd, was canny enough not to compromise Sherlock Holmes’s credibility with it. Presented with evidence of the supernatural in “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire”, the great detective says, “This agency stands flat-footed upon the ground, and there it must remain. The world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply.”
The Sussex Vampire is unfortunately the poorest of all the Jeremy Brett adaptations. The writers took great liberty with the script, greatly expanding and altering the role of the supernatural in the case. We could turn to that work for some sense of the influence of Doyle’s spiritual growth during the war years, but given its alterations I am hesitant to use it to make any suggestions.
However, that story’s presence does suggests a shift in tone and style for the detective’s cases. The Sussex Vampire is one of the tales from The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, which was the final volume of Holmes stories, written several years after he began writing about Spiritualism and fairies. It is this material that surely must inform any inquiry about the effect of his religious beliefs on that most logical and reasoned detective.
Perhaps one day I’ll find the time to look carefully at the annotated version of this final collection of mysteries and add to my suspicion that there will be more than a little influence in the style of the cases (what the mystery is) but practically no influence on the manner in which they are solved. Holmes is Holmes for a reason, after all, and I think it might have taken more than a change in Doyle’s personal beliefs for him to begin a character assault on the resident of 221B Baker Street. The poor adaptation of the Sussex Vampire hints that the threads are there to be pulled and teased out of the fabric of the whole, but, as so many reviewers of that episode have noted, doing so detracts substantially from the tale. Doyle knew he couldn’t push his audience too far along with him on his own spiritual journey. Not if he wanted to sell any books in the 1920s, that is.