Arthur Conan Doyle, (1859-1930)
A novelist and short story writer, Doyle was practicing medicine at Southsea, Portsmouth, when he published his first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet (1887). He first met Wilde on 30 August 1889 at a dinner party in the Langham Hotel given by Joseph M. Stoddart (1845-1921), managing editor of Lippincott's Magazine (Philadelphia), who was planning to inaugurate an English edition of the periodical with an English editor and English contributors, the London publisher to be Ward, Lock. In his memoirs, Doyle recalls that "golden evening" when Wilde was enthusiastic about Micah Clarke (1889), which Doyle had recently published. Wilde's conversation left an "indelible impression" on him:
He towered above us all, and yet had the art of seeming to be interested in all that we could say. He had delicacy of feeling and tact, for the monologue man, however clever. can never really be a gentleman at heart. He took as well as gave, but what he gave was unique.... I should add that never in Wilde's conversation did I observe one trace of coarseness of thought, nor could one at that time associate him with such an idea.
As a result of that evening, Doyle and Wilde each promised to write stories for Lippincott's, eventually published as The Sign of Four, the second Holmes story, and The Picture of Dorian Gray. Doyle's novel, which appeared in February 1890, features Thaddeus Sholto, who, Samuel Rosenberg suggests, is
a superaesthete who talks like Oscar Wilde and who even has several physical features which clearly identify him as the man whom Conan Doyle called "the champion of aestheticism." The obviously effeminate and effete Sholto reveals himself as a caricature of Wilde with his opening remarks: "Pray step into my sanctum. A small place ... but furnished to my liking, an oasis of art in the howling desert of London."
The description of Thaddeus Sholto also closely approximates that of Wilde, according to his contemporaries: "Nature had given him a pendulous lip, and a too visible line of yellow and irregular teeth, which he strove feebly to conceal by constantly passing his hand over the lower part of his face."
The impression that Wilde made on Doyle, Rosenberg suggests, found expression in various characters, including Holmes himself, who became progressively more epigrammatic in some of Doyle's other Sherlock Holmes stories. In "The Red-Headed League," for example, an effeminate Duncan Ross (Robert Ross?) and John Clay (John Gray?) appear - echoing the names of two of Wilde's close friends. Complicating the associations is the fact that "Duncan Ross" is the alias of a character named William Morris! Roden contends that Doyle "profited from study of Wilde's dialogues such as 'The Decay of Lying' and 'The Critic as Artist' whose views are at various times adopted or refuted by Holmes, notably in the opening of 'A Case of Identity.' Wilde's hand beckons Sherlock Holmes into the 'nineties" (xxv). When Dorian Gray appeared, Doyle wrote to give Wilde his impressions of the novel. In his reply - only a portion of which has survived Wilde wrote: "I throw probability out of the window for the sake of a phrase, and the chance of an epigram makes me desert truth. Still I do aim at making a work of art, and I am really delighted that you think my treatment subtle and artistically good". Years later, Doyle saw Wilde on only one other occasion:
... he gave me the impression of being mad. He asked me, I remember, if I had seen some play of his which was running. I answered that I had not. He said, "Ah, you must go. It is wonderful. It is genius!" All this with the gravest face. Nothing could have been more different from his early gentlemanly instincts. I thought at the time, and still think, that the monstrous development which ruined him was pathological, and that a hospital rather than a police court was the place for its consideration.
After Wilde's death, Doyle published "The Adventure in the Empty House" (1903), which depicts an attempt by Holmes to foil his own murder by having a wax image of himself - a second self like Dorian Gray and his painting - sculpted by Oscar Meunier. Rosenberg - too ingenious for words - includes, in his many parallels, tile projected murderer who is the Irish "wild beast," an outcast whose name is Sebastian Moran, the initials "S.M." evoking Wilde's pseudonym, Sebastian Melmoth," adopted after his release from prison.
In the 1920s, Doyle, who had an abiding interest in psychic phenomena - he had attended seances as early as 1879 and was an investigator for the Society for Psychical Research in 1894 - was convinced that Wilde's alleged communication with a medium in 1923 and 1924 was geniuine and that Wilde had written an entire play through her. Some scripts published by the medium, Mrs. Hester Travers Smith (later Dowden), contain Wilde's alleged remarks, sometimes reminiscent of those in his writings. For example: "Being dead is the most boring experience in life. That is, if one excepts being married or dining with a schoolmaster." Doyle wrote to Mrs. Smith to congratulate her on her success: "I think that the Wilde messages are the most final evidence of continued personality that we have.... If you are in contact you might mention me to him - I knew him - and tell him that if he would honor me by coming through my wife who is an excellent automatic writer, there are some things which I should wish to say". Apparently, Wilde declined to communicate with him through Mrs. Doyle.
In her Psychic Messages from Oscar Wilde (1924), Mrs. Smith published all of her communications with the ghostly Wilde, the most striking of which is his alleged comment on Joyce's Ulysses: "It is a singular matter that a countryman of mine should have produced this bulk of filth". Doyle, whose review of the book appeared in the London Daily News (16 April 1924), wrote to her: "Wilde is in purgatory - to reduce his condition to popular terms - & will stay there until he gets over the frame of mind he shows in his script. By the way he shocked me once by saying to me that his play [The Importance of Being Earnest] was 'a perfect thing' which he repeats, I see, in his script". Doyle never doubted that Mrs. Smith had actually communicated with Wilde's spirit.
References: Arthur Conan Doyle, Memories and Adventures (1924); Samuel Rosenberg, Naked is the Best Disguise: The Death and Resurrection of Sherlock Holmes (1975); Karl Beckson, "Psychic Messages from Oscar Wilde: Some New A. Conan Doyle Letters," English Language Notes (Sept. 1979); Jon Lellenberg, The Quest for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1987); Christopher Roden, intro. to Doyle's The Sign of Four (1993).