Reviewed by Tom Ruffles
Alistair Duncan has established himself as an active author and blogger about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, as well as a champion of the Undershaw Preservation Trust which is fighting to preserve one of Conan Doyle’s houses as it stands empty and decaying. No Better Placecompletes a trilogy tracing the last forty years of Conan Doyle’s life and career using the houses he owned as a peg., following The Norwood Author: Arthur Conan Doyle and the Norwood Years (1891-1894) and An Entirely New Country: Arthur Conan Doyle, Undershaw and the Resurrection of Sherlock Holmes (1897-1907). The third volume examines the years when he lived at Windlesham, near Crowborough, East Sussex, starting rather abruptly in November 1907 with Conan Doyle and his second wife Jean in France, about to reach England at the conclusion of their honeymoon and move into their new house. The ‘No better place’ of the title is Conan Doyle’s verdict on Windlesham, given in a letter to his mother.
No Better Place draws primarily on contemporary newspapers, particularly the Daily Express and Daily Mirror, plus a scattering of foreign papers, mainly the New York Times. Duncan also had assistance from Georgina Doyle, the third wife of John Doyle, the son of Conan Doyle’s younger brother Innes, and has used her book Out of the Shadows: The Untold Story of Arthur Conan Doyle’s First Family. Of other published sources, Brian W Pugh’s A Chronology of the Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is a mainstay, but biographies are used sparingly. The result is a straightforward year-by-year account of the final third of Conan Doyle’s life.
As the book’s cover image and subtitle indicate, the main activity during this period was the promotion of Spiritualism, but Conan Doyle was still writing Sherlock Holmes stories as well as plays and other fiction, notably the Professor Challenger stories. At the same time he was campaigning against miscarriages of justice and on social issue such as euthanasia and divorce law reform. He agitated for a channel tunnel, worked to expose Belgian cruelties in the Congo, and visited the front in the First World War. He broke into film, with both Holmes and Challenger depicted on screen.
As well as these varied activities he campaigned tirelessly on behalf of Spiritualism, defending it against all comers and touring the United States and Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and Africa. He threw his weight behind the Cottingley fairies and spirit photography. The book covers as well the friendship and falling out with Harry Houdini, the births of his three children with Jean, the loss of loved ones in war and peace, but also his leisure interests – boxing, cricket, billiards and motoring. He had a huge amount of energy and packed an enormous amount in, and Duncan traces the winding down as overexertion and ill health tell, the pages devoted to each year becoming fewer as 1930 approaches.
Duncan treats Conan Doyle’s first family sympathetically, and acknowledges that Conan Doyle did not always treat Mary and Kingsley well after their mother’s death, influenced by Jean’s determination to be the centre of his world. On the other hand he is more generous to Jean than some commentators have been, arguing that she was not a gold-digger as she sincerely loved Conan Doyle and was prepared to wait for him to be free to marry her without knowing when that might be. The children though remain shadowy, especially the three youngest.
The strongest aspect of the book is the use of newspaper articles charting Conan Doyle’s activities, particularly the overseas ones that tracked and commented on his extensive tours. The weakest unfortunately is the coverage of Spiritualism, a real problem in a book in which it is so prominent. Duncan’s introduction acknowledges that he is not familiar with the subject and that his lack of knowledge was initially an inhibiting factor in deciding whether to follow his Undershaw book with a further volume on the Windlesham period. It is therefore surprising to find that Kelvin I. Jones’s Conan Doyle and the Spirits: The Spiritualistic Career of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was not used at all as it would have provided valuable background.
There are a number of points at which this lack of familiarity shows, some more significant than others. For example the Rev. Charles Drayton Thomas is called Brayton Thomas (Pugh’s book has the correct spelling of Thomas’s name but Duncan cites the Daily Mirror). In covering Conan Doyle’s resignation from the Society for Psychical Research, Duncan prints an extract from the ‘Reply by the President and Hon. Secretaries’, attributing this to the President. Lawrence J Jones (whom he calls the chairman) alone, whereas it was signed by Jones along with Eleanor Sidgwick and W H Salter, the two Hon. Secretaries. He adds ‘[sic]’ in a reference to physical mediumship in quoting their reply as if the word physical is incorrect, whereas it is being used to distinguish physical from mental mediumship (the same sentence refers to ‘physical phenomena’).
The well-known psychical researcher and SPR Research Officer Eric J Dingwall makes a brief appearance as just an SPR representative ‘named Dingwall’, no first name supplied, in connection with a poltergeist case near Wisbech. The Scientific American competition to find genuine mediumistic phenomena is mentioned but not Mina Crandon (‘Margery’), whom Conan Doyle recommended to the committee. The description of the court case involving psychical researcher Frederick Bligh Bond, medium Geraldine Cummins, and the Cleophas scripts is misleading because Duncan relies for his information about Cummins v. Bond on a single article in the Daily Mirror, and does not tell us how it was resolved (Cummins won, costs were awarded against Bond), instead simply saying ‘the case was adjourned’. And so on. Some slips and omissions can be rectified in a subsequent printing, but other topics are too vaguely presented to be particularly informative. The problem with newspapers is that as a first rough draft of history they can be very rough indeed, and often fail to tell us a story’s ending.