Grâce aux centaines de lettres personnelles de Conan Doyle découvertes récemment, Andrew Lycett a écrit une nouvelle biographie de l'auteur qui, selon les experts anglo-saxons, est d'une très bonne qualité.
Le livre est sorti début septembre 2007 en Angleterre. On pourra juste regretter le titre un peu trop marketing et qui colle encore à Conan Doyle l'étiquette « Sherlock Holmes » au détriment du reste de son oeuvre. Mais c'est compensé par le contenu qui nous éclaire sur l'auteur avec de nouvelles données.
The Man who created Sherlock Holmes
par Andrew Lycett
Editeur : Weidenfeld & Nicolson
ISBN : 0297848526
Article paru dans The Guardian (23 octobre 2007) de Andrew Lycett qui précise la relation extra-conjugale entre Conan Doyle et Jean Leckie pendant les années qui précédent la mort de sa première femme, Louise Hawkins (Touie) :
Adultery, my dear Watson
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle betrayed his dying wife for a younger woman. Now his letters have finally been made available after more than seven decades, his biographer Andrew Lycett pieces together the affair
Sherlock Holmes was never the marrying kind. Despite fond memories of Irene Adler, the New Jersey-born adventuress who got the better of him in "A Scandal in Bohemia", he left romantic attachments to his sidekick Dr Watson ("the fair sex is your department", he pronounced), while he shot up cocaine or scraped on his violin, before settling alone to solve one of his three pipe problems.
However, for the best part of a decade, around the turn of the 20th century, his creator Arthur Conan Doyle struggled with a marital dilemma that pitched passion against duty against fate. Conan Doyle found himself in a classic threesome. In 1897 his meek and amiable wife Louise (known as Touie) was dying of tuberculosis when he fell deeply in love with another woman, Jean, who was younger, more attractive and altogether better equipped for the demands of life with a bestselling author who prided himself on his fitness and energy.
This was not merely sexual infatuation. He introduced his girlfriend to his family and tried to incorporate her into his life. But while his doting mother was prepared to countenance this ménage, other relations (notably his brother-in-law EW Hornung, the creator of Raffles) were outraged.
The author of Sherlock Holmes was not expected to behave like this. For while Conan Doyle was never a stern moralist, he guarded his reputation, having forced his way into English society from a standing start in Edinburgh. When he met Jean he was living in some style in Hindhead, Surrey, where, four years later, following his work promoting the Boer war, he would be knighted and made deputy lieutenant of the county.
So his affair had to be discreet and any mention of it expunged from the record with the ruthlessness of Holmes's arch enemy, Professor Moriarty. There are no references to his trysts with Jean in his diaries. The couple's love letters were solemnly burnt by their son Adrian after she died in 1940.
In the past three years, however, a new biographical resource has become available. For more than seven decades after his death in 1930 Conan Doyle's papers were kept under wraps as family members squabbled over ownership. Then suddenly, in May 2004, they were put up for sale at Christie's. Not everyone was happy: Richard Lancelyn Green, the leading Sherlockian scholar, was adamant that Conan Doyle's daughter, also called Jean, had wanted this treasure trove preserved at the British Library. He became so upset by his campaign to stop the auction that he almost certainly took his own life.
With grim inevitability, the sale went ahead. Luckily, much of the best material was bought by the British Library where, within months, I, as Conan Doyle's putative biographer, was able to read most of the items that had escaped the family cull, including around 600 letters from Conan Doyle to his mother. I chased up additional papers that had been acquired by collectors elsewhere, mainly in the United States. As a late bonus, I gained access to Lancelyn Green's own archive of work, which he had bequeathed to Portsmouth, the city where Conan Doyle wrote his first Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, while working as a general practitioner in 1886.
By piecing together information and reading between the lines, I have managed to flesh out the story of Conan Doyle's affair. There are three stages. The first centred on Edinburgh, where Conan Doyle was born in 1859. He did not have an easy childhood as his father, Charles, a clerk in the Office of Works, was an alcoholic who had to be institutionalised. His mother, Mary, coped as best she could, imbuing Arthur with a keen sense of literature and history.
With financial help from his wider family, he went to Stonyhurst, the leading Roman Catholic public school, where he often found himself forced to stay over holidays such as Christmas, so tense was the situation at home. His mother later revealed how her husband used to steal from his family, drink furniture varnish and crawl around the house like an idiot.
The second stage of the story took place in Portsmouth, where Conan Doyle settled after qualifying as a doctor. It was a struggle and, as he was also trying to forge a subsidiary career as a writer, he was often lonely. He frequently wrote to his mother about his longing for a woman round the house.
In March 1885, one emerged in the petite form of Louise Hawkins. He had taken in her brother Jack as a live-in patient. When Jack died from cerebral meningitis, Conan Doyle alighted on the emotionally distraught Louise, whom he married in Yorkshire five months later.
There is no evidence of great passion. I am not convinced she even accompanied him on his so-called honeymoon (a cricket tour to Ireland), as he managed to write a poem about the holiday without mentioning her. But he did have an easy-going wife, who ran his house while he developed his practice, extended his contacts and wrote more stories.
By early 1890, he was feeling restless. He took Louise on mercilessly long bicycle rides, once covering 100 miles on a tandem. He began visiting other women, writing knowingly about marital jealousy (in the joint novel The Fate of Fenella), and in one remarkable poem, "Blue Eyes", bewailing the attractions of a beguiling mistress over the woman (his wife?) always at his side. (His largely unknown verse, published in three volumes, provides the most direct insight into his personality.)
Then, in October 1893, he was devastated to learn that Louise had contracted tuberculosis. Somehow, he had been expecting this. The disease ran in her family (her brother Jack's meningitis was almost certainly tubercular) and, as a Victorian doctor and son of an alcoholic, he had a morbid fear of inherited characteristics. Despite the disruptions, he did his best to accompany Louise to healthy winter resorts in Switzerland and Egypt.
The third act opened suddenly when he met Jean, the striking, rather vapid daughter of a well-off City trader, who was training to be a singer. He later would say their relationship began on March 15 1897 - a date he commemorated each year with the gift of a single snowdrop. The first evidence of the affair appears in the diary of Conan Doyle's soldier brother Innes, who recorded Jean's frequent appearances at the family home in Hindhead starting that November. She was on hand one evening when Conan Doyle read from his new play version of Sherlock Holmes
Conan Doyle's emotional turmoil is clear from "The Confession", one of his non-Sherlockian stories. Written that autumn, it told of an abbess who confesses her warm memories of a love affair. A priest absolves her: "My sister, our thoughts are not always ours to command. When they are such as our conscience disapproves, we can but regret them and endeavour to put them away."
It emerges that this priest had once been her lover. He had taken the cloth after being tricked into believing she had rejected him. When she tries to comfort him with thoughts about the good they have both subsequently done, he is inconsolable. "What about our lives!" he wails. "What about our wasted lives!" This sacrilegious cry perhaps hinted at the anguish Conan Doyle knew he would have felt if he had repressed his love for Jean.
Bar the tangled matrimonial relationships in The Hound of the Baskervilles and "consumption of the most virulent kind" in "The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter", one struggles to find any reflection in the Holmes canon.
Conan Doyle's dilemma is clearer in A Duet, with an Occasional Chorus, his "social" novel about a married couple in the suburbs, published in 1899. His equivocation about sex is there in a scene in which newly married Frank meets a liberated former love (perhaps a prostitute) in Soho. Conan Doyle later became so worried about his suggestion of sexual infidelity - "She put out two hands and took hold of his. That well-remembered sweet, subtle scent of hers rose to his nostrils. There is nothing more insidious than a scent which carries suggestions and associations. 'Frankie, you have not kissed me yet'" - that he withdrew the book from serialisation, declaring it depended more "upon feeling and atmosphere rather than upon incident". But there was no mistaking his action when he had the completed manuscript bound for Jean.
Correspondence confirms that, although both Conan Doyle's mother and his sister Lottie liked Jean, others in his family were less sure. When Innes broached his extramarital interest in 1899, he replied defensively that there was no need to worry as he would never cause Louise any pain. "She is as dear to me as ever, but, as I said, there is a large side of my life which was unoccupied which is no longer so." This was as near as he came to admitting his sexual passion for the younger woman.
As Louise was generally at home, Conan Doyle took advantage of frequent trips to London to meet his mistress. The following year, he made the mistake of taking her to Lord's when Hornung (husband of his sister Connie) was there. Hornung was astonished at this flaunting of an unmarried young woman in public. Conan Doyle pleaded that his relationship with Jean was platonic and this made all the difference between guilt and innocence.
Despite his protestations, when he went away on, say, a cricket tour, Jean would sometimes be found nearby. Hotel registers are difficult to track down, but the evidence of the 1901 census is incontrovertible. It shows that Conan Doyle was staying at the Ashdown Forest Hotel in Sussex. Officially, he was en retraite with his mother. But it also records that another guest at the same time was Jean, whose parents had a country house in nearby Crowborough. Conan Doyle was not always as Sherlockian as he would have wished in covering his tracks.
This explains why he took up the cause of divorce law reform. He is known for his campaigning, notably on behalf of George Edalji, a half-Indian solicitor wrongly accused of animal molestation (the subject of Julian Barnes's novel Arthur & George). But he had great sympathy with people trapped in loveless marriages, saying that an unmarried woman, with her freedom, was much happier than a woman hitched to the wrong man, the worst of it being that "the poor things can never tell till they have married the chap!"
Within weeks of Louise's death in July 1906, Conan Doyle was looking for a new house around Crowborough, where he went to live after his wedding to Jean in September the following year. Mary and Kingsley, his children by Louise, were unceremoniously cut out of his life while he indulged his uxoriousness and fathered a second family. "I can't think why my father is so hard," Mary complained to her brother. "I have not had one gentle word, or sign of love from him during the whole two years since Mother died."
Conan Doyle's coldness to Mary and Kingsley shows his less attractive side, putting his affair with Jean into relief. On the one hand, a great love had triumphed, but he had shown some of Holmes's steely calculation as he counted the days until Louise died and he was able to start a new life.