Margie Deck – Doting on Doyle


Illustration by William H. Hyde in Harper’s Weekly (15 April 1893)

‘”It is simplicity itself,” said I. ‘When you bared your arm to draw that fish into the boat, I saw that J. A. had been tattooed in the bend of the elbow. The letters were still legible, but it was perfectly clear from their blurred appearance, and from the staining of the skin round them, that efforts had been made to obliterate them. It was obvious, then, that those initials had once been very familiar to you, and that you had afterwards wished to forget them.”‘”What an eye you have!” he cried, with a sigh of relief. “It is just as you say. But we won’t talk of it. Of all ghosts, the ghosts of our old loves are the worst.

 When Old Trevor attempts to laugh off his fear of Sherlock Holmes’s deductions in the opening of “The Adventure of the Gloria Scott”, he tells Holmes “Of all ghosts, the ghosts of our old loves are the worst.” The line has always stayed with me from the first time I read it more than twenty years ago.

Perhaps the statement was simply a clever turn of phrase from Doyle but the romantic in me wondered about Doyle’s lost loves. Having recently read Teller of Tales, and now having spent this last week reading the opening chapters of Arthur Conan Doyle A Life in Letters, this line has taken on new meaning for me. More than likely it is a meaning Doyle never intended but I wonder if he might have been thinking of his “papa”, Charles Altamont Doyle. Certainly “our old loves” does not have to mean romantic attachments.

“The Adventure of the Gloria Scott” first published in April 1893. Charles Doyle died not long afterwards on October 10 at the Crighton Royal Institution, a mental hospital. His father’s alcoholism and mental illness certainly had an effect on Doyle as evidenced in his letters, his activities on behalf of his father’s reputation, and his adult writings about his father. As an adult child of an alcoholic myself, I can understand his ambivalence toward his father. However, I have no doubt he loved his father and he must have carried a great deal of sadness inside him for the father he loved and lost; certainly his father was lost to him long before October 1893. 

As reported in Teller of Tales, “In truth, Charles Doyle gradually lost his struggle with alcohol, and as his behavior grew more and more erratic, the income from his surveyor’s post could no longer be relied upon. The Doyle family changed addresses at least seven times by the time Arthur was ten, and on at least one occasion, it appears, the boy was sent to live with friends, possibly to shield him from his father’s deterioration.”

 This idea of an alcoholic father as a lost love coupled with ambivalence of feeling is brilliantly explored in the essay “The Memory of Clay” by Bruce Ballenger in the May 2022 issue of The Sun.  As I read the essay, I thought of Doyle several times, especially when reading these lines:

“…my father’s death at fifty-seven came as both a surprise and a relief. But it created a vacancy in my heart that I didn’t know how to fill, and in seeped anger, which colored my memory of the man of the man in ways I’ve found difficult to undo. The anger was warranted but it was also reductive. It erased his complexity and turned him into a cardboard cutout, a prop that I barely noticed because its meaning seemed settled. Until something unsettled it. What I did with the wreckage of my father’s life was anchor it to an old theme: the story of the wronged son. It’s a narrative designed to assign blame, and I thought my father deserved it. For years this allowed me to keep the memories of him at a safe distance. The problem is that he wouldn’t stay in exile. I should have known this would happen, but I’ve always had a writer’s naive faith in the power of story to find a proper place for things.”

Arthur Conan Doyle must have shared the writer’s naive faith in the power of story to find a proper place for things as he wrote so many stories.   I think I will see more of  his old loves as I work my way through his stories.

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