I have to declare an interest. My great-great-[I think]grandfather, Sam Aylward, worked for Dr Arthur Conan Doyle at his surgery in Southsea, and is immortalised as Samkin Aylward in The White Company. (I have another Aylward ancestor, James, who is not unknown in cricketing circles, but so far we have not published any books about cricket in CLC – suggestions please?) I believe these claims to kinship to be true not because I’ve done any genealogical research, but because they were believed to be true in my family at least eighty years before the world got all interested in who do you think you are. (And these were Hampshire Aylwards, from Droxford and Meonstoke, by the way, not from Ireland or Suffolk.)
It was, according to the ODNB, while he was in practice in Southsea that Conan Doyle acquired as a patient Major-General Alfred Wilks Drayson, who ‘exposed him to theosophy’. When we started out to seek advice on the series we now call ‘Spiritualism and Esoteric Knowledge’ (and there was quite a lot of discussion about the series title), we were a little taken aback at the number of serious nineteenth-century people who took the whole area of spiritualism seriously. After all, Mesmer and his animal magnetism may have taken eighteenth-century Europe by storm, but even during his lifetime Da Ponte and Mozart could expect their audience to laugh at the idea of two silly and flirtatious girls being convinced by a ‘mesmerist’ doctor. The joke would not work if ‘he’ was just a fake medical man: ‘he’ needed to be a complete fake, performing a con trick full of cod Latin which only a woman would fall for.
Shedloads of books and articles have been written about the Victorian loss of faith and the tendency of those who believe in nothing to believe in everything, but Conan Doyle, after all, was the creator of the ultimate, rational problem-solving machine, who refused to believe in the supernatural, and who didn’t have the slightest problem with ‘crossing the moor in those dark hours when the powers of evil are exalted’. Exposure to theosophy didn’t apparently lead very far at the time – Doyle became ‘suspicious of the Blavatsky cult’ – but Drayson, a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society was one of a large number of trained scientists who spent a lot of time trying to reconcile observed ‘psychic’ phenomena (or phenomena believed to have been observed) with the laws of biology and of physics.
This scientific approach culminated in the foundation (in 1882) of the Society for Psychical Research, by Henry Sidgwick (about whom a Newnham girl of course can think no wrong), F.W.H. Myers and Edmund Gurney, the archetypal brilliant but ultimately unfulfilled Victorian who could have excelled in so many fields (and was in part, allegedly, the inspiration for the character of Daniel Deronda). As the Society puts it, its purpose was to investigate a ‘large body of debatable phenomena . . . in the same spirit of exact and unimpassioned enquiry which has enabled Science to solve so many problems’, and among its past Presidents are Sir Oliver Lodge, Henri Bergson, Lord Rayleigh, Andrew Lang and Gilbert Murray.
As well as Sidgwick, Myers and Gurney, the physicist Sir William Fletcher Barrett, the physiologist William Carpenter, and the mathematicians Augustus de Morgan and Lord Rayleigh all attempted to bring contemporary science to bear on unexplained phenomena (incidentally, the Cambridge SPR members unmasked several fraudulent mediums in the process – the exotic, albeit unwashed, and (up till then) convincing Eusapia Palladino being one).
So how did Conan Doyle himself move from his early suspicion of Blavatsky and her circle, and his creation of the ultra-logical Sherlock Holmes, to become champion of spiritualism, author of The History of Spiritualism (1926) and (notoriously) dupe of the Cottingley Fairies hoax? Like Rudyard Kipling, he was a fervent supporter of British imperial expansion who had lost a son in the First World War: did a creed which denied the finality of death appeal? Houdini’s remorseless exposure of fake mediums and their tricks left Doyle grasping for explanations which would not destroy his own faith – he came up with the idea that Houdini was in fact himself a powerful medium who used his skill both to perform his own feats and also to ‘block’ the mediumistic abilities of others, so that they appeared to be frauds. The two – sadly – ceased to be friends.