The Further Madness of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I have always loved The Hound of the Baskervilles. I can take or leave most of Sherlock Holmes, but to me The Hound of the Baskervilles is one of the most perfect mystery stories ever told. The ghostly bogs and quicksands of bleakly beautiful Dartmoor are used to great dramatic effect. There are escaped prisoners and hatchet faced housekeepers and an old, old house, complete with family curse. The ghost story tone here is flawless, worthy of Henry James, and the shudders are well provided in the shape of a vicious, glowing spectral dog, feeding into folkish fears of padfoots and barghests.

And it’s all a red herring. All of it. The whole carefully constructed spooky atmosphere is a smokescreen for the real evil at the heart of the story. There are no ghosts, just a cleverly plotted supernatural scam, the reveal of which is as lip-biting as a well judged striptease.

It’s a great story. Read it if you haven’t. Read it if you have. It’s one of those ones you can read again and again, best enjoyed on long winter nights with a reading lamp and all the curtains drawn, the better to shit yourself up good and proper. The Hound of the Baskervilles is far more scary than it has any right to be, especially since it doesn’t (spoiler!) contain any actual ghosts. It’s an astonishing illustration of how fear, legend, atmosphere and the desire to believe can feed into our delusions and cause us to ascribe paranormal explanations to mundane events.

Even more astonishing is that Sir Arthur fell for his own trick. And not just the once. 

We last left Sir Arthur (Or ‘Arthur’, as he was back then.) in 1897. He was thirty eight years old and enjoying the sweet, sweet smell of success. Five years after Holmes’ debut in A Study In Scarlet Doyle was sufficiently well off to give up medicine, which he had never really enjoyed. Life as a successful writer also gave him the time dabble in some characteristically larger-than-life side projects, such as snowshoeing across the Alps, attempting to stand for parliament and chatting up the occasional ghost.

He did a great deal of travelling, mostly in search of a climate to suit his wife. Doyle had married Louisa Hawkins in 1885, back in Southsea where he’d filled his evenings with the unlikely combination of séances and football. Louisa – more commonly known by her pet name ‘Touie’ – had given birth to two children with relatively little difficulty (Doyle delivered their daughter himself.) but by the early 1890s she was suffering from the early stages of TB. By the latter half of the decade it was becoming clear that poor Touie was doomed – the clear mountain air of Switzerland and Colorado had done nothing to ease her symptoms.

It was at this point that her husband, with astounding tact and timing, fell madly in love with another woman.

Jean Elizabeth Leckie was fourteen years younger than Doyle. She was a graceful, oval-faced beauty in the Princess Alexandra mould, witty, athletic and ‘accomplished’ in the drawing room arts that passed for the nineteenth century education of young women. She was extremely fond of horseriding and a trained singer, skilled in the arts of projection and exploiting acoustics to her best advantage.

lady jean

Jean Leckie at around the time she met Doyle.

So began a deeply uncomfortable compromise. Touie, a sensible soul by all accounts, told her husband that she wanted him to remarry after she was gone. However, it’s hard to imagine she had in mind being confronted with her successor while she was still on this side of the clouds, especially since Doyle was about as discreet as Lord Nelson.

Doyle insisted that his love affair with Jean was entirely platonic. To his mind this made the whole thing completely acceptable. When his sister Connie complained about him bringing his mistress along to watch the cricket at Lords, a huge family row ensued, but Doyle was undaunted.

“I refused to speak further on such a sacred matter,” he wrote to his mother. His love for Jean was “a fateful, heavensent thing and inspirational.” It’s probably safe to say that fame had done a bit of a number on him by this point. Doyle was always strong-willed to the point of stubbornness but by the time the Boer War broke out he’d pretty much gone full-blown diva, determined that other people’s rules did not apply to him.

For his services as a war correspondent in the Boer War, Doyle was offered a knighthood, prompting further Kanye antics on his part. He didn’t want a knighthood, he insisted. Even if the three people who he loved best in the world – his mother, his sister and Jean – went on bended knee and begged him to take it, he wouldn’t take it.

Poor forgotten Touie, of course, was still very much alive.

It’s hard to see Doyle in a sympathetic light at this point in his life. The bizarre Doyle-Leckie love triangle went on for nine whole years, and it seems that all of the women around him, including his mother and Touie herself, resigned themselves to his behaviour. Mary Doyle eventually began treating Jean as one of the family and Touie herself instructed her daughter Marie Louise to give her father’s second marriage her blessing.

Or perhaps it was simply a sign of the times. Sir Arthur, after all, was the proud possessor of a penis, and back in Victorian England that gave you all kinds of dominion over huge swathes of the human species. Men did more or less what the hell they liked and women dealt with it as best they could, which seems to be the case with the Doyles. Sister Connie, after all, had received short shrift for attempting to remonstrate with her brother, and Doyle’s letters show a man inclined to turn sulky even with his beloved mother when his and Jean’s relationship was called into question.

Sir Arthur took the knighthood he’d sworn he’d never take and Touie got to answer to ‘Lady Doyle’ for the last four years of her life, although it probably gave her scant comfort. In 1906, paralysed and near comatose, she died.

After the requisite year of mourning, Sir Arthur finally married Jean. The new Lady Doyle was now in her mid-thirties, and it’s interesting to speculate what might have been going through her head at this point. Did she worry that she might suffer the fate of her predecessor, traded in for a younger, more sexually appealling model? She was no innocent bride – she knew her new husband well enough to know that he was a restless man and that very few things could hold his interest for long. Holmes, for example, had brought him fame and fortune, but Doyle couldn’t wait to chuck him over the ReichenbachFalls so that he could move onto a career as a ‘serious’ writer and an MP.

Whatever her worries might have been, it seems that Lady Jean was home and dry. The couple had three children, two boys and a lively little girl they named Jean, but who preferred to be known as ‘Billie’.

Then came World War I, bringing with it the loss of two nephews, two brothers in law and most perhaps most painfully, Sir Arthur’s eldest son Kingsley.

The war changed Sir Arthur, although he never admitted it. For the rest of his life Sir Arthur would become defensive, sometimes even angry, when anyone suggested that his renewed interest in spiritualism was down to nothing more than simple grief.

Despite all his bluster and belligerance, Sir Arthur had a deep sentimental streak – he was a tender father and a devoted husband, to Lady Jean, at least – and perhaps it was too much for his sensitive nature to contemplate the possibility of fraud in this most sacred of matters.

To those of a more cynical frame of mind it was no surprise when, after the end of the First World War, Lady Jean Doyle became a medium. It was even less surprising to anyone who knew the couple that Sir Arthur was completely convinced.

In his introduction to Pheneas Speaks, (1926) Doyle claims that the gift of ‘inspired writing’ came to his wife some five years previously. The family photograph in the frontispiece shows ‘The Pheneas Circle’ in 1920, before the beginning of the communications, which suggests two things – Lady Jean probably took up mediumship around 1921 and that the Doyle kids spent some rather strange evenings with their parents.

pheneas front

Frontispiece for Pheneas Speaks

We know for sure that Lady Jean was on more than nodding terms with the afterlife when the Doyles met up with the Houdinis in Atlantic City in 1922, a meeting which set the tone for the last four years of Harry Houdini’s life and for his lasting legacy as a debunker and a sceptic.

The Atlantic City séance was a farce for numerous reasons, the main one being that Lady Jean simply wasn’t a very good medium. The ‘spirit communications’ she delivers in Pheneas Speaks are largely non-specific guff. She begins with relatively bland, comforting messages from Sir Arthur’s late mother and the unfortunate Kingsley and then ‘Pheneas’ moves onto making prophecies.

This is where it gets really weird – if Dolly Postlethwaite’s trip to Mars wasn’t quite weird enough for you. Lady Jean’s messages shifted tone, from vague, boilerplate messages from dead relatives to prophecies of the apocalypse, a sort of spiritualist rapture in which only the believers would be saved.

It is more or less impossible to attempt to understand Pheneas Speaks without at least some knowledge of the relationship between Sir Arthur and his wife, particularly if you’re a sceptic and don’t for one second believe that there was a Mesopotamian Arab from Ur apparently using Lady Jean Doyle as a mouthpiece.

If you go along with this interpretation then a lot of things about ‘Pheneas’ begin to make sense – that he didn’t like Sir Arthur going travelling without ‘the medium’ (Lady Jean), that he was very fond of the colour mauve, liked pets and was extremely interested in the Doyles property decisions.

Pheneas continually harries Sir Arthur about a house that he likes, situated in the New Forest, is pleased when Sir Arthur buys it and amusingly suggests decorating tips for the séance room – he says they should paint it mauve.

I don’t know for sure if Lady Jean was fond of the colour mauve, but it seems that she was very fond of animals and loved living in the New Forest. Again, it comes down to the great, swinging patriarchal dick of Victorian society – it was easier for a woman to pretend to have ghosts in her head than to assert herself even on matters of decorating.

Interestingly, the spirit communications begin to taper off after Jean’s vague prophesy (“Houdini is doomed, doomed, doomed.”) came true in October 1926, when Doyle’s old friend and adversary Harry Houdini died of complications from a burst appendix. New spirits keep coming along to chat when Pheneas doesn’t, and when Pheneas does arrive he makes pointed references to the book Sir Arthur is writing about the Doyle’s home circle. (“You were the pen – I was the writer.”)

Pheneas reappears in the afterword, this time coming through a medium named Mrs. Barkel, but it seems he never once spoke again through Lady Jean. The end times as prophecied by Lady Jean never came, although the end came soon enough for her husband. He died in 1930, aged seventy, following a massive heart attack.

His last words were for Jean – “You are wonderful.”

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3 responses to “The Further Madness of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

  1. “You are wonderful” Who was there at the time who could vouch impartially for this statement?

  2. Great article. Thanks for writing it up. I just finished a book about Houdini called The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero. Probably the most interesting part of a very interesting story was the last section dealing with Sir Arthur and the spiritualists. It was a serious war between Houdini and the folks of that movement.

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