It’s halfway through the second quarter of the school year and I’ve finally reached my favorite part of 8th grade literature, the beginning of an extended unit on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. First we read his short story, “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”, which serves as a warm-up to third quarter when we take on one of his four full-length novels featuring his glorious masterpiece of a character, Sherlock Holmes. The Hound of the Baskervilles never fails to intrigue the students, from the moment we find out the true identity of Miss Beryl Stapleton, to Sir Henry Baskerville’s tension-filled “solitary” walk across the moor, Sherlock Holmes’ plan to set a trap with human bait to ensnare the killer.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has fascinated me since my first year of teaching when I found “Speckled Band” in the 8th grade literature anthology textbook. I strongly feel that to study a piece of literature one must study the author first. So much can be gleaned from the author’s background, the time period in which he or she lived and wrote, who his or her influences were, and who he or she influenced in return. The two-paragraph bio of Conan Doyle in the textbook wasn’t sufficient for me to use for class so I did some research on him and learned more about his fascinating life, of which Sherlock Holmes was merely a chapter.
Born and raised in Scotland, like my maternal grandparents, he studied medicine. After finishing medical school, he traveled to Africa in 1885 serving as a ship’s doctor, where he learned firsthand of the atrocities taking place in the Belgian Congo. Upon his return to England, he wrote what he called a long pamphlet on the situation to bring to the public view what he himself had seen there. He dabbled in political writings for a while, as well as writing for medical journals.
He later traveled to Vienna for additional medical training and became an eye doctor. After setting up shop with another doctor, and later a private practice, he found himself bored while waiting in between appointments for patients. He had written some fiction before, but with the extra time on his hands he began to write more and more. One idea he had for a protagonist was based on a professor he had in medical school, Dr. Joseph Bell, whose uncanny powers of deductive reasoning gave him the ability to sometimes diagnose patients from a cursory glance rather than an extended physical examination. Conan Doyle transferred these nearly-super powers to his character Sherlock Holmes, making him a private detective, albeit a slovenly and disorganized one, which brought to Conan Doyle more fame and fortune than his floundering medical practice ever would.
Conan Doyle later wrote to Dr. Joseph Bell and thanked him for serving as inspiration for Sherlock Holmes; however, scholars have long thought that Conan Doyle may have also been influenced by Edgar Allen Poe’s character C. Auguste Dupin, a detective who appeared in three of Poe’s short stories. The first appearance, in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in 1841, is considered by many to be the first example of the sub-genre of detective fiction, one of my favorite for my own leisure reading.
Sherlock Holmes’ first appearance in published work was the novel, A Study in Scarlet in 1887, and Holmes’ career as a private detective continued until 1927, just three years before Conan Doyle’s death at the age of 71. In total, Conan Doyle wrote 56 short stories and four full-length novels featuring the great detective and his side-kick, Dr. Watson. Writing story after story about Sherlock Holmes, however, became boring to him, so in 1893 he chose to end it with Holmes plunging to his death in the story “The Final Problem”. Public outcry stormed down upon him until he relented and brought him back to life in his grand novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles.
The creation of Sherlock Holmes sparked the captivation of many, a captivation that grips audiences to this day. Conan Doyle also managed to influence many creative minds with the conception of characters bearing Holmes’ extraordinary powers of deduction, many of whom grace the small screen on a daily basis: Hercule Poirot (created by another literary genius, Agatha Christie), Perry Mason, Lieutenant Columbo, Adrian Monk, Sean Spencer from Psych, Dr. House, Patrick Jane from The Mentalist, and many others. While not as apparent as the others, both medical and police dramas offer glimmers of Sherlock Holmes: Rizzoli and Isles, The Mysteries of Laura, Criminal Minds, Castle, Bones, Law & Order, and Body of Proof, to mention only a few. Even the great Walt Disney chose to honor Sherlock Holmes with his 1986 film The Great Mouse Detective.
In 2010 while taking an undergraduate summer course on world literature that I needed to complete course work for my certification as an English teacher, the assignment for the final project was a presentation on any piece of literature or author studied during the course. One of the things we had been assigned to read was Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. I was not a fan, to say the least, but it did make me revisit the research I had once done on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his time spent as ship’s doctor traveling to Africa. I chose to do a presentation on the similarities between the two authors based upon this small connection. After my power point and presentation about the two authors and the subject of the Belgian Congo, I served my professor and classmates a traditional British cream tea, complete with freshly made scones, strawberry jam, and clotted cream, as well as piping hot tea made from my electric kettle right there in the classroom. It was a success, and while I don’t think I passed on to any of those community college students (all of whom were young enough to be my very own children) my love of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s works, it did make my reading and study of Heart of Darkness much more enjoyable.
Teaching Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s works to my 8th graders is something I look forward to each year. It gives me a chance to introduce them to the Victorian Era and the many ways in which Queen Victoria’s reign impacted the entire world. During the third quarter, they research and write a paper on a topic of their choice, from anything having to do with the Victorian Era. Over the years I have assigned this project, I’ve had many interesting papers on very creative topics from that period: Victorian mourning clothing, prisons and jails during the Victorian Era, child labor, Victorian entertainment, and of course, Victorian literature.
In a day and time when etiquette, social graces, and standards of proper attire have all but vanished from society, it is important for these teenagers to realize that, with all the advancements in science, medicine, technology, education, women’s rights, equal rights, civil rights, and so much more, we seemed to have lost much in the process. While I am not advocating for the rigid social class system or the many limitations placed on women and minorities of the Victorian Era, I would be in favor of a return of some modicum of manners and social graces in today’s society, including the recognition that clothing choices for the day should be based upon the activity of the day, not just whatever pair of sweatpants or leggings (which are not technically pants, see The Harsh Reality of Truth for my thoughts on this) are clean enough to wear. Until that happens, I will escape the trials and tribulations of 21st century life by reading a Sherlock Holmes’ story and having a nice cup of tea.