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BACKGROUND INFORMATION - BIOGRAPHY
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was born Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle on May 22, 1859 in Edinburgh, Scotland. Though Conan was originally a middle name, he later began using it as part of his last name. He was educated at Stonyhurst, a Jesuit preparatory school, but he soon afterwards became an agnostic. He then attended Edinburgh University, studying medicine, and it was there that he met the man he would base the Sherlock Holmes character on-a professor named Joseph Bell.
His medicine work took
him to the West African coast as a ship’s doctor, before returning to set up a
practice. He spent his time waiting for patients in writing stories. His first
major work was A Study in Scarlet (1887), which included his character
Sherlock Holmes. Then, while he was working as an oculist (an eye doctor), he
killed off the character in “The Final Problem” (1893), in order to have more
time to work on his other writings, including historical novels. The death did
not last though, thanks to public protesting that included cancellations of subscriptions
to The Strand (a magazine that carried many of the stories) and mourning
In 1901, The Hound of the Baskervilles ran in The Strand as a serial, but it preceded the detective’s supposed death. The Adventure of the Empty House covered his reappearance. There were several other stories covering landmark events in Holmes’s career: The ‘Gloria Scott, in which he solves his first mystery; The Sign of Four, which discusses his drug problem; and The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton, where he commits a felony. Altogether, Holmes appears in 56 short stories and four novels by Doyle, a good number of which do not deal with murder, and several which do not even involve a crime.
Conan Doyle received his knighthood in 1902 after writing a pamphlet defending British conduct in the Boer War, in which he himself been a volunteer physician. He furthered his political activism by running twice for Parliament (though he never won election), and his involvement in reform in the Congo. He also investigated two cases, helping to get both men released, and contributed to the establishment of the Court of Criminal Appeal.
In his personal life, Conan Doyle believed in Spiritualism and mediums, which lead to a major dispute with his friend at the time, Harry Houdini, who argued that it was a matter of trickery. Conan Doyle had two wives, remarrying after his first wife died, and five children. He died on July 7, 1930, and is buried in Hampshire, England.
LITERARY / HISTORICAL INFORMATION
The major historical force behind Conan Doyle’s beliefs and the novel is the Spiritualism movement. Throughout the case, everyone, except for Holmes, comes to think, at least for some time, that the hound is supernatural. The closest Holmes himself comes is when he says at the start of the case that while he has previously dealt with evil, taking it on like this, might prove to be more than he can handle. It is not a supernatural force in the end though, interesting since the scientific Conan Doyle (like Dr. Mortimer) believed in Spiritualism.
Several other historical aspects of the novel include the emphasis on lineage, the emphasis on money and power, the contrast between rural and urban life, and the increasingly important role of science. While many of these were not new features of life at the time, the Industrial Revolution had done much to bring them out, especially the feelings of dehumanization associated with the pursuit of money.