“Well, I am afraid I can’t help you, Lestrade,” said Holmes. “The fact is that I knew this fellow Milverton, that I considered him one of the most dangerous men in London, and that I think there are certain crimes which the law cannot touch, and which therefore, to some extent, justify private revenge. No, it’s no use arguing. I have made up my mind. My sympathies are with the criminals rather than with the victim, and I will not handle this case.” — The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton
Like many another successful author, this one was ambivalent about his relationship with his greatest creation. He found Holmes distracting and annoying, and frequently talked of “slaying” him and “winding him up for good and all.” (His one attempt to do so was, obviously not all that successful. It appeared that publishers would pay any amount for more of the great detective, and the fellow with a difficult, not very well-off life, who hadn’t succeeded at almost anything else he tried, was yoked to Sherlock Holmes for the remainder of his.)
That he seemed unable to ‘make a go’ of his life certainly can’t be laid at the door of a lack of either intelligence or sense of adventure. Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle was born in Edinburgh, Scotland on May 22, 1859. His father was a devout alcoholic, and the family separated a few times in Doyle’s early youth, but always came back together, living in what were in those days politely called “reduced circumstances” in Edinburgh and its environs. As with many promising young boys of the time, wealthier family members intervened, and young Arthur was sent to schools in England and Austria, winding up back in Edinburgh where he studied medicine, before becoming a doctor and launching several unsuccessful practices throughout the UK. (One wonders as to the nature of his bedside manner because retaining patients seems to have been a huge problem.) During this time he studied Botany and began writing in an effort to keep the wolf from the door, and was moderately successful at it, even then.
Doyle’s next endeavor was as the ship’s doctor on a whaler off the shores of Greenland, and in 1881, aboard the SS Mayumba as it traveled the coast of West Africa. (He remained a keen explorer for the rest of his life, and his major voyages and expeditions, many taken with his wife, are recorded here.)
Back in Edinburgh in 1885, Doyle completed his medical studies, earning the highest degree possible at the time with a treatise on syphilitic myelopathy, notable not only for its clinical findings (many of which hold up today), but also for its literary style:
“The sufferer is commonly a man of between five and twenty and fifty. In many cases he is of that swarthy neurotic type which furnishes the world with an undue proportion of poets, musicians and madmen. In nine cases out of ten he has had syphilis, possibly a year ago, more probably four, eight, twelve or even twenty years before.”
Lord knows, I might have been a doctor myself if more of my scientific textbooks had been written like that.
Having achieved his final medical degree, Doyle assayed a few more unsuccessful forays into private practice, before moving to Vienna to study ophthalmology. He spoke German poorly, making that difficult, so he toured Europe, ending up with a notable physician in France, studying disorders of the eye. When he returned to London, he again hung up, and then quickly took down, his shingle at 2 Upper Wimpole Street. With the exception of his stint as a volunteer field doctor during the Boer War, thus ended our hero’s illustrious medical career.
Although it’s widely understood that Doyle was a physician, (and also that he became a bit of crackpot spiritualist) other aspects of his life are not so well known. He excelled at sports, particularly football (“proper” football, as Auntie Pat would say), cricket and golf. He made several forays into politics, standing for Parliament twice, and becoming involved in the anti-colonialist movement as a result of publicity surrounding atrocities in the Belgian Congo. (He broke with that group when one of its leaders embraced pacifism after the outbreak of World War I.) In his “down time,” Doyle toyed with architecture, designing a couple of hotels and restaurants in England, and a hotel and golf course in Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada.
He also did his own turn as an amateur detective, led there by his determination to see justice done in the case of two men he believed had been wrongly convicted of their crimes. As a result of Doyle’s work, both men were exonerated.
Arthur Conan Doyle was married twice, happily both times, it appears. He died of a heart attack in Crowborough, East Sussex, on July 7, 1930. His last words were spoken to his wife. They were, “You are wonderful.”
Doyle himself credited the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes to a university teacher, Dr. Joseph Bell, and wrote in a letter to him in 1892, “It is most certainly to you that I owe Sherlock Holmes . . . round the centre of deduction and inference and observation which I have heard you inculcate I have tried to build up a man.” But it seems likely that Doyle drew on others, as well, for his portrait of the man who sometimes so distracted and infuriated him, and that underlying the distraction and fury was recognition that, in Holmes, there was a great deal of Doyle himself.
And so (at last!) to the quote at the start of this post, which is taken from The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton, and which shows Holmes coloring outside the lines of regular justice and allowing events to take their course with a criminal he despises perhaps more than any other in the canon, a vicious blackmailer of helpless women.
When the perp is about to be shot to death, and then his face stomped on by one of his victims, Watson, who is having his own Polonius moment behind the arras, starts to rush out to prevent the new crime. Holmes restrains him, and Watson writes
I understood the whole argument of that firm, restraining grip — that it was no affair of ours, that justice had overtaken a villain, that we had our own duties and our own objects, which were not to be lost sight of.
And as soon as the woman exits stage left (or whichever side of the room the door was on), Holmes locks that very door, and burns all of Milverton’s incriminating blackmail correspondence so as to protect the victims, before he and Watson depart over the garden wall, one step ahead of the police, and not before the slower Watson is almost apprehended by an under-gardener.
On the following day, Lestrade (unsurprisingly, for the sake of the plot) turns up to ask for Holmes’ help in apprehending the criminals and solving “a most dramatic and remarkable murder.”
“Criminals?” said Holmes. “Plural?”
“Yes, there were two of them. They were as nearly as possible captured red-handed. We have their footmarks, we have their description, it’s ten to one that we trace them. The first fellow was a bit too active, but the second was caught by the under-gardener, and only got away after a struggle. He was a middle-sized, strongly built man — square jaw, thick neck, mustache, a mask over his eyes.”
“That’s rather vague,” said Sherlock Holmes. “My, it might be a description of Watson!”
“It’s true,” said the inspector, with amusement. “It might be a description of Watson.”
And Holmes delivers himself of his dictum, speaks of the sometime need for “private revenge” and refuses to take the case. It’s an unusual moment, perhaps unique in all the Holmes stories.
Was he right? Should Holmes have taken the case and brought the woman to “justice?” Or was the “private revenge” meted out here the best course?