CONAN DOYLE: Portrait of an Artist by Julian Symons

CONAN DOYLE: Portrait of an Artist

By
Email this review

KIRKUS REVIEW

Originally published in Britain in 1979, this brief essay-portrait--144 pp. altogether, with illustrations (a dandy assortment) and appendices--arrives here in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Sherlock Holmes' first appearance, in 1888's A Study in Scarlet. And though, as crime-writer and genre historian (Mortal Consequences), Symons is a natural choice for Doyle biography, his political orientation--as part of England's literary left--adds a nice touch of tension to this study of Doyle the super-conservative and super-patriot. Symons tackles and dispenses with the Holmes phenomenon in a brisk opening section: he notes the appeal of a non-conformist hero who nonetheless appeared, reasurringly, as the ""great protector of bourgeois society""; he sees Holmes and Watson as two sides (romantic vs. respectable) of Doyle himself. Chapters of neatly compressed biography follow, stressing the dualities throughout Doyle's life: a dreamy, alcoholic artist-father vs. a doting, capable mother; a medical career vs. writing ambitions; the unabashed defender of the Boer War vs. the altruistic crusader for victims of injustice (two cases are detailed with crisp irony); the burly, practical fellow vs. the fervent believer in spiritualism. (Symons suggests that previous biographers have too delicately downplayed the latter inclination.) In all, ""the military jingo and the man of sensibility were strangely blended"" in this ""ideal representative of the Victorian era."" And Symons' own clear anti-Victorian sympathies make his conclusion--that Doyle was ""a man of integrity rare in his own or any time""--all the more persuasive. A splendid, small-scale alternative to the full-length, somewhat old-fashioned biographies by Hesketh Pearson and John Dickson Carr--while readers interested in Doyle's non-Holmes writings will find a helpful, critical mini-survey here too, with warnings about The White Company and infectious endorsements of Rodney Stone and The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard.

Pub Date: Nov. 18th, 1987
Publisher: Mysterious Press--dist. by Ballantine