Mary Josephine Foley Doyle
Born in 1837, the girl who would one day become
the mother of Arthur Conan Doyle had a childhood which taught her that, regardless of her circumstances, a woman must be able to function independently in a society which idealized the secure domesticity of home and hearth. Mary was three and her sister Elizabeth not much older when their father died. To support her family, Catherine Pack Foley, who had run a boarding school before her marriage, returned to teaching, first in Ireland and later in Edinburgh, where she used her knowledge and business acumen to open a governess’ placement service. She supplemented the family income by taking in boarders, one of whom, seventeen year-old Charles Doyle, would prove quite important to her youngest daughter’s future.
It is not known what, if anything, Mary Foley
thought of the quirky, artistic teenager, newly
arrived from London to work as a draughtsman. He did not stay long at the Foley’s house, and she soon went off to attend a Catholic boarding school in France. By the time she returned, she was a young woman, and when she met Charles Doyle again, he was smitten. Presumably both were, as they were married on July 31, 1855.
Their family soon began growing, with daughter,
Annette, born nearly a year later. Eventually, the
couple would have nine children, seven of whom
survived to adulthood. Arthur was their third child, and first son.
Unfortunately, when he was still very young,
Charles Doyle began to develop a drinking problem, possibly to cope with an underlying mental condition which would become more evident later.
Undeniably talented but not always able to
summon the traits needed to survive in the world, he became more and more unstable, eventually leading his wife no choice but to send him to a home for alcoholics, and eventually to commit him to a mental institution.
In the meantime, she was forced to build a life for herself and her children, regardless of her
husband’s ability to participate. An intellectual
woman with a love of French culture, she joined
Edinburgh’s Philosophical Institution, and built a
network of supportive friendships. Like her mother, she began taking in boarders for income, one of whom, physician Bryan Waller, would prove her friend, benefactor, and possibly more until (nearly) the end of her life.
As her children grew and left the house, they
worked to send money home to the family. Arthur was no exception, although in his case it was also balanced out by family support for his endeavors, particularly in medical school. Afterward, he would always be keenly aware of his position as de facto head of the family, supporting them accordingly.
Still, his adult relationship with his mother was not solely one of obligation. His frequent letters to her reveal that he enjoyed talking with her and trusted her judgment and, for the scholar, of course, they provide a valuable, uncurtained glimpse into his personal life.
Mary Doyle would eventually leave Edinburgh,
following Bryan Waller to his estate in Yorkshire
(where she lived in a cottage on the grounds), and then to a house near Arthur’s home, Windlesham.
Her health gradually failed, and she lost her
eyesight- undoubtedly a painful experience for
one with such a love of books. She died on
December 30, 1920, at the age of 83.