Happy birthday to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle!


Happy birthday to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle! The creator of Sherlock Holmes was born on this day (22 May) in 1859 in Edinburgh, Scotland into a family with a strong creative bent.  

Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle was born to Mary Foley Doyle and Charles Altamont Doyle. 

His father’s side of the family were accomplished in the visual arts and his mother, who was unusually educated for her era, had a great interest in literature and was a gifted storyteller.  

He was born and brought up as Arthur Doyle – he added his middle name Conan to his surname when he was 17 – and experienced significant hardship growing up, even though his extended family had money. 

Arthur Conan Doyle’s paternal grandfather, John Doyle, was a political cartoonist, caricaturist, painter and lithographer who enjoyed great success.   Two generations before his grandson became the creator of Sherlock Holmes and one of the most popular writers of his time, John moved in the same circles as Walter Scott, Charles Dickens and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 

Born in Dublin, John moved to London and published his political cartoons under the pen name of HB.  His true identity was only revealed when he made it known in a letter to Prime Minister of the time, Sir Robert Peel. 

John’s youngest son was Charles Altamont Doyle. He was an artist, watercolourist and illustrator alongside two of his brothers, James and Richard Doyle.  Charles did not have the same success as his father, a source of frustration and disappointment to him. 

His father may have been visually creative but Conan Doyle inherited his ability to tell a good yarn from his mother, Mary Foley Doyle. 

At the time of her marriage in 1855, Mary was a well-educated young woman of 17 who had been born in Waterford, Ireland.  She met her future husband, who was five years her senior, in Edinburgh when he took a room at her mother’s boarding house.  

Charles worked as a civil servant, though he had hopes of giving that up to earn a living from his art. But success eluded him and he began to drink heavily, which inevitably led to conflict at home and at work as well as significant financial problems. 

In 1864 the family dispersed because of Charles's growing alcoholism and the children were temporarily housed across Edinburgh, only coming back together three years later. 

Mary had a keen interest in stories and shared them with her children as a means of entertainment and escape from the difficulties they faced as a family.  Her tales had a great impact on Arthur Conan Doyle. In his autobiography, he describes how her vivid storytelling would obscure the difficulties of day-to-day life, belying the close lifelong relationship he had with his mother. 

When Arthur turned nine, wealthy members of his father’s family offered to pay for his schooling and he was sent to boarding school in England.  He hated it. However, the experience was formative in that Arthur discovered that he too was a gifted storyteller and would employ the same coping strategy as his mother, making up stories for other pupils.  And his writing would become more important as he wrote frequent letters home, a way to escape the grim reality of boarding school as well as a means of staying close to his beloved mother.  

It was, of course, the beginning of a lifetime of expert storytelling and an entire career in writing.

Tania Henzell