Famous First Words: A Study in Scarlet
“Well, my man, you’ve served in the army.” This pronouncement is made with complete confidence and without the benefit of any prior knowledge of the subject’s personal history. A response comes back quickly.
“Not long discharged?” The slight inflection of inquiry here is a procedural formality.
“A Highland regiment?”
Muted astonishment and another easy answer: “Aye, sir.”
“A non-com officer?”
“Aye, sir.” Of course.
“Stationed at Barbados?”
“Aye, sir.” Clearly.
The examiner turns to his now-stupefied gallery to offer an explanation, and his conclusions are revealed to be fundamentally uncomplicated. “You see, gentlemen, the man was a respectful man but did not remove his hat. They do not in the army, but he would have learned civilian ways had he been long discharged. He has an air of authority and he is obviously Scottish. As to Barbados, his complaint is elephantiasis, which is West Indian and not British, and the Scottish regiments are at present in that particular island.”
All perfectly logical, and if the preceding episode seems to have played out with Sherlock Holmes (rather transparently) occupying the starring role, that’s because it did. The examiner’s name was Joseph Bell.
In 1876, long before he established 221B Baker Street as the epicenter of investigative theory and the appellation “Sir” was applied indelibly to his name on book jackets, Arthur Conan Doyle was a fresh-faced and frequently overwhelmed new student at the University of Edinburgh. His years at the university are notable for having coincided with those of two other literary celebrities in the making, James Barrie and Robert Louis Stevenson, but Conan Doyle could claim neither of them as cohorts. He was there to study medicine, occupied as a clerk under the tutelage of his mentor, Dr. Bell, who emphasized the importance of observation in constructing an accurate and effective diagnosis. Though Conan Doyle was, by his own account, rarely successful in the endeavor, he had plenty of motivation to improve, having resolved at the time to squeeze each year of his studies into six-month increments so that he could spend the rest of the time working as a medical assistant.
The fact that he was far from convinced of the demand for his own services did not discourage him. Even if the position demanded that he work without compensation, it would still likely add up to a net savings, coming with the possibility of room and board or perhaps a meager stipend for expenses that a doctor might be willing to offer. Any way he calculated it, the situation would be an upgrade, given that the financial strain on his parents back home had reached a breaking point by the time he landed at the University of Edinburgh.
Conan Doyle’s education was the result of sacrifice by his family from the start. His father, Charles, was a surveyor by trade and an alcoholic whose addiction prevented any real measure of professional advancement. His mother, Mary, did what she could to act as a stabilizing force for her son and became the primary narrative influence on him as a storyteller during his childhood. When he was nine, as his father’s condition worsened and the Doyles moved around to several different homes, the wealthy, London-based contingent of the Doyle side of the family volunteered to pay for his education. He was shipped off by himself to a Jesuit boarding school in England, enduring the severity of Catholic instruction and corporal punishment for the next seven years at Hodder and its senior school, Stonyhurst. Raised Catholic by his parents, Conan Doyle came out of Stonyhurst having renounced the practice, adopting first an agnostic philosophy and then, ultimately, a high-profile commitment to Spiritualism.
He graduated at the age of sixteen, and, being too young to begin coursework for a career, spent one more year in a Jesuit school in Austria before making his way back to Scotland. Around the time Conan Doyle was accepted into the University of Edinburgh, his father was admitted to a nursing facility to begin treatment and was diagnosed as an epileptic. In keeping with the institutional and social stigma that this affliction carried at the time, Charles was transferred to an asylum, and Mary resorted to taking in lodgers to make ends meet. Conan Doyle continued on through medical school and, after taking a break in his third year to accept a post as a ship surgeon on a whaling vessel to the Arctic Circle, he completed his degree in 1881.
His trajectory had already started to shift in 1879, however, with the printing of his first short story, “The Mystery of Sassasa Valley,” in Chambers’s Journal, followed later that year by “The American Tale” in London Society—a run of early successes that made him realize the prospect of extra money that could be earned through publication. He wrote several more stories over the next few years (including “The Captain of the Polestar,” inspired by his experiences at sea), but his first steady wages after graduating from the University of Edinburgh came through a job as a medical officer on another ship, this time a steamer bound for Africa. Finding nothing redeeming in the adventures of his second voyage—a decrepit craft, rough waters and unpredictable weather, a slate of tropical illnesses to contend with—Conan Doyle disembarked when the ship docked in England. There he worked briefly in a disastrous venture with another doctor in Plymouth (recounted later in “The Stark Munro Letters”), moved on to Portsmouth when his money ran out, and set up his own medical practice. All the while, he wrote.
With business finally beginning to come in at the practice in 1885, he married his first wife, Louisa Hawkins, and finished his first novel the next year, chronicling the crime-solving exploits of Sheridan Hope and Ormond Sacker, which he shopped around under the title A Tangled Skein. When it was published by Beeton’s Christmas Annual at the end of 1887, the book had a new name—A Study in Scarlet—and introduced the public to the intensely gifted, utterly exhausting Sherlock Holmes and his sagaciously unshakable collaborator, Dr. John Watson. Conan Doyle would eventually try to extricate himself from an association with the duo—killing off Holmes in 1893 before bringing him back as the only suitable protagonist for a novel eight years later, and then officially resurrecting him in 1903, partly in response to public pressure, by explaining how he hadn’t actually died the first time—in an attempt to attract readers to what he though of as his more substantial work, including plays, poetry collections, extensive Spiritualism dissertations, and historical novels.
And, in a way, he did accomplish that goal: officially, Conan Doyle’s knighthood in 1902 was granted for a pamphlet he wrote examining the Boer War. Sometimes, though, the facts can be deceiving, and the persistent reports identifying King Edward VII as a devoted follower of the Baker Street saga now seems to be an equally important detail to consider.