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Conan Doyle and the Mysterious World of Light: 1887-1920, by Matt Wingett

Publication Details: 
Life is Amazing. ISBN-13: 978-0957241381
Publish date: 
March, 2016

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fascination with Spiritualism is often considered to have been a sign of eccentricity and embarrassing mental decline, and it tends to be less scrutinised than other aspects of his life.  Matt Wingett has found a novel way to investigate it: by examining the Spiritualist periodical Light and extracting Conan Doyle’s contributions, from the first in 1887 up to 1920.  He has reprinted them in full, plus those parts of articles Conan Doyle placed elsewhere which were quoted in Light; responses to his Light articles and letters; and a selection of the general coverage it gave to Conan Doyle’s efforts in the furtherance of the movement.  The periodical is an important source for a full understanding of Conan Doyle’s views on Spiritualism because it was assiduous in reporting his activities, and in turn he was a loyal supporter of its mission.

In compiling his book, Wingett drew on the substantial Conan Doyle collection which was donated to Portsmouth city council by Richard Lancelyn Green.  The foreword by Michael Gunton, Senior Archivist at the Portsmouth library and archives, notes the breadth of Conan Doyle’s interests, and how the reputation (not to mention the money) he achieved as a result of the fame accruing from his Sherlock Holmes output enabled him to become a high-profile advocate for Spiritualism.  A preface by Leslie Price, archivist at the College of Psychic Studies, gives the background to Light (which began publication in 1881) and its close association with the London Spiritualist Alliance (formed in 1884), the organisation which eventually became the College of Psychic Studies.

The opening section describes Conan Doyle’s time in Southsea in the years 1882-90, a period that saw both his emergence as a writer and the development of his interest in Spiritualism and psychical research.  There is a common misconception that he turned to Spiritualism as a result of family deaths during the First World War, but Wingett demonstrates that his interest had deeper roots, extending even earlier than joining the Society for Psychical Research, which he did in 1893.  As was the case with many others, he was profoundly affected by the losses in the First World War and this sharpened his dedication to the Spiritualist cause and his determination to use his fame in its service, but its seeds had been sown much earlier.

Conan Doyle’s interest in the paranormal ran alongside the Holmes output; indeed 1887, the year of his initial letters to Light, was also the year of Holme’s first appearance, in A Study in Scarlet.  The first letter, dated 2 July 1887, described a séance experience and was followed by another the next month, after which there was a hiatus until 1916 when, rather better known than he had been in the 1880s, he declared his Spiritualist beliefs in Light's pages.  After that the contributions came thick and fast as he enthusiastically adopted the role of champion of the movement.  For him Spiritualism addressed the same questions as, but represented a more humane alternative to, the rigid priest-led Roman Catholicism he had disavowed in his youth. While his logic in pursuing his goal may sometimes have been flawed, there was no doubting his conviction, which expressed itself in a combative but always generous manner.

Wingett’s real service is not just in reprinting articles and letters, valuable though that is, but locating them within the debates between those who saw Spiritualism as a new religion, those who saw it as a return to a more authentic Christianity, those who saw it as an enemy of Christianity, and those critics who saw it as an enemy of reason.  There was an intense intellectual ferment, and by including material by other writers Wingett shows how Spiritualism tapped into a wider discussion about the place of religion in a world which could contain so much suffering and loss.  The various threads are tied together by his impartial commentary.

In addition a number of appendices help to contextualise Conan Doyle’s contributions.  The first reprints a selection of articles which appeared in Light in 1916.  In their liveliness and range (ghost stories, prophecies, the Angel of Mons, mummy curse) they show that the magazine was not the dry didactic organ one might assume, and as Wingett indicates they meshed with Conan Doyle’s fiction, which frequently exhibits a taste for the mysterious.  The second appendix contains short biographies of some of the individuals who appear in the book, as well as descriptions of organisations.  Appendix C is a glossary of terms found in Spiritualism, and Appendix D is a bibliography.  The final appendix lists the titles of articles and letters by Conan Doyle in Light, or in which he is prominent, and there is a comprehensive index.  This is an attractive package which will enable anyone with an interest in Conan Doyle to study the growth of his activities in the field.

There is some overlap with Alistair Duncan’s recent book No Better Place: Arthur Conan Doyle, Windlesham and Communication with the Other side (1907-1930), including uncannily similar covers featuring Conan Doyle with a spirit extra in an Ada Deane photograph, but Duncan looks at his broader career and uses a range of sources.  However, Wingett has been more successful in getting to grips with Conan Doyle’s Spiritualism and is the more satisfying read.  Of course 1920 does not represent the end and the decade to his death holds much of interest, fresh adventures and further controversy, and this volume will be followed by two more.

These letters and articles from Light made me think that while the Sherlock Holmes stories are endlessly reprinted, and some of his other novels can be obtained if one looks for them, the bulk of his extensive output is not easily located, or if it is can be very expensive.  There is a case for a uniform edition of his novels, stories, non-fiction and journalism, to show that there was far more to him than his immortal detective.  The centenary of his death falls in 2030, which gives ample opportunity for such a project, one that would be a fitting tribute to this complex man.