The Adventures of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

speckled bandIt’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.

conan doyle bioSir 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.

scotland vhsBorn 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. deerstalker hatConan 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.

the reigate squiresSherlock 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.

columboThe 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: body of proofHercule 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, bonesand 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.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.

social-class-and-values-in-the-victorian-era-1-728Teaching 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, we are not amusedI 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.

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Obsession: Calvin Klein Has Nothing on Me

Obsession: ob·ses·sion (əbˈseSHən) noun; plural noun: obsessions; (1) the state of being obsessed with someone or something. Ex: “she cared for him with a devotion bordering on obsession”; (2) an idea or thought that continually preoccupies or intrudes on a person’s mind. Ex: “he was in the grip of an obsession he was powerless to resist”. Synonyms: fixation, ruling/consuming passion, passion, mania, idée-fixe, compulsion, preoccupation, infatuation, addiction, fetish, craze, hobbyhorse.

I have a long history of becoming obsessed with a topic and holding onto it until I have sated my appetite by reading every single thing I can about it. This “condition” sometimes comes at the expense of attending a social obligation, having clean underwear, putting food in the refrigerator, taking even a modicum of exercise, and of course, engaging in real conversations with real people.

An analysis of my book bag after a trip to my public library would reflect one of two extremes: (1) 15-20 books, about half being non-fiction with each on a different topic or subject, and the other half being a mixture of classics, contemporary fiction, and young adult fiction; or (2) 15-20 books all on the exact same topic or subject. A quick glance at the bookshelves in several rooms of our house will also verify this.

When under the spell of one of my obsessions, it is all I want to talk about over dinner with my family, while in the car with one of my daughters, or while out with my husband walking the dog. It matters not at all that no one else in my family shares the obsession du jour or is in the least bit interested. Because they love me (or because I am very persuasive in wanting to talk about it), they listen and ask questions as though they cared. I love them for that.

Sir Arthur Conan DoyleWhile taking undergraduate and graduate courses to become certified to teach English (as my second career), I was taking an undergraduate class on world literature. My advisor for the certification program suggested I take it at my local community college, for convenience and cost savings. So, I was, by far, the oldest student in the room, and older than the professor as well. After reading a plethora of short stories and two novellas, all by foreign authors, we were given our final assignment: choose any international author and do a presentation on them. My husband strongly suggested I choose an author I was already covering in my middle school classroom to cut down on the research involved in the project. So, I did. I chose Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the inventor of the great Sherlock Holmes. I was already quite familiar with Conan Doyle as a writer but I felt to do the project justice I should do a “bit” of research to round out his life story. Twelve books later I had my story: born in Edinburgh, went to medical school, worked as a ship’s doctor on a cargo ship, served as a medic during the Second Anglo Boer War, vehemently opposed to the atrocities committed by King Leopold in the Belgian Congo, became very interested in the occult and faeries, and yes, after being bored by his mediocre practice as an ophthalmologist, was the inventor of the great Sherlock Holmes. (My PowerPoint was well-received, and the afternoon tea of scones, cucumber sandwiches, and piping hot tea made to order in a college classroom didn’t hurt.)

Russian_Imperial_Family_1911When I first learned of the fate of the Romanov family, I spent months reading everything I could find at the public library. I was absolutely horrified at the thought of an entire family being executed en masse in 1918. The long-standing rumor that daughter Anastasia (Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia) had survived the brutal execution of the family kept the story alive for decades until finally, in 2007, her body was found and identified using DNA from England’s Prince Philip, who was a great-nephew of the last Tsarina. This did not stop me, however, from reading books written by the two famous Romanov imposters, Anna Anderson and Eugenia Smith, both of whom were confirmed to be unrelated to the Romanovs using the aforementioned DNA tests.

"The British royal family on the balcony of Buckingham Palace" by Carfax2 - Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“The British royal family on the balcony of Buckingham Palace” by Carfax2 – Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons”

As for the British royal family, well, that obsession is long-standing and shows no sign of slackening. With Prince William and his wife, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, and their now two beautiful children, the monarchy, and my obsession, is safe and secure. Within the boundaries of my obsession with the British royal family lies a specialized “sub-obsession” with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the “love story” that nearly brought down the monarchy but in doing so paved the way for the current monarch, Elizabeth II. An earlier essay also documented this obsession, How We Changed the World.

Since obsessions for me frequently spin-off these sub-obsessions, the Romanovs also “hatched” a sub-obsession with Fabergé eggs, the beautiful and intricately decorated and bejeweled “eggs” the Russian Imperial Family gave and received as presents at Easter time. I’ve read extensively on the eggs, jewelry, and other priceless art pieces created by PeHouse_of_Fabergé_-_Rose_Trellis_Eggter Carl Fabergé and his company. Only forty-eight eggs were made and of those forty-three remain. One year for my birthday I requested a jaunt to Richmond to visit the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts to see their collection of twelve. A documentary on the eggs and their creator, Faberge: A Life of Its Own, is currently touring movie theatres across the country, and I hope to have the opportunity to see that soon.

Along with millions of others, I am currently obsessed with Downton Abbey, the glorious creation of Julian Fellowes, whiDownton Abbey costume exhibitch dramatizes the upstairs and downstairs of life on an exquisite country estate in England. The series, with its sixth and final season (insert quiet sobbing here), will air in the US this fall. Since I also have an obsession with the Victorian Era, which gave me reason to study British country homes and the lives of the nobility, I was enthralled with this costume drama from the first five minutes of the very first episode, where Lord Grantham learns of the sinking of the Titanic and the loss of the future heir to his estate. For Christmas this past year, I asked for a trip to Wilmington, Delaware, to see an exhibit of costumes from the television show. Thank goodness my husband is tolerant of these road trips to feed these obsessions.

Books on Kennedy familyLest you think all of my obsessions emanate from across the pond, I have also been obsessed with the Kennedy family for most of my life. Aside from the political dynasty, there’s something about the highs and lows of that family, replete with its glorious successes and grave tragedies, which has always intrigued me. My collection of books about the Kennedy family takes up its very own shelf. I’ve traced Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy’s family history and that of the patriarch of the family, Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. While President John F. Kennedy and his dazzling wife Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis would garner enough material for a lifetime of reading, I’m equally as interested in JFK’s eight siblings. I’ve studied Rosemary Kennedy’s life story, including the tragic lobotomy which was supposed to have cured her of her mental disability when instead it institutionalized her for the remainder of her life. There’s the sad love story of Kathleen Kennedy Cavendish, widowed at the age of 28 when her husband, of the British nobility, died at the hands of a German sniper in 1944. She herself then perished in an airplane crash in France in 1948. With nine children and many, many grandchildren, the Kennedys have entered into many different arenas of public life. Their stories are fascinating to me.

In preparing for this essay I made a list of things that I have I’ve been obsessed with and read extensively on in search of knowledge and mastery of a subject: gardening; many, many different authors; cooking in general with jam-making being my current obsession; luxury yachts with Aristotle Onassis’s Christina O, in particular; tennis “grand slam” tournaments and some of that sport’s superstar players; Persian cats; famous gems and precious stones; royal families of Scandinavian countries, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and others; and many other things that I researched and devoured and moved on. I don’t necessarily have a shelf-full of books on all of these topics but I’ve read so much on them I am a dangerous opponent in several categories of the board game Trivial Pursuit. And don’t get me started on Jeopardy. That’s another essay entirely.