Blog #203: Elementary My Dear Woolf: The Case for Seeing Arthur Conan Doyle in To the Lighthouse

In a very early Woolf blog, I fancifully suggested that Minta Doyle’s surname might be a tribute to Scottish born Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The statement was a rather wild one, given that other than the name itself I had no clues to lead me in that direction. There was seemingly no reason for an Arthur Conan Doyle reference in To the Lighthouse. Now, however, thanks to Meredith, I think I have the beginnings of a case.

My sleuthing went as follows. Because Minta connects to Meredith by way of Lord Ormont and his Aminta, I checked to see if there might not also be a connection between Meredith and Doyle. It turns out that the young Conan Doyle was a passionate Meredith fan. Meredith’s work was one of Doyle’s “youthful cults,” and he gave popular lectures on Meredith and wrote essays about him. In Memories and Adventures, Conan Doyle describes visiting Meredith and, after a rather testy initial encounter, being asked to drink a whole bottle of Burgundy, a request which Doyle was only too happy to satisfy. On this or on another visit Meredith also talked at length about Napoleon’s Marshals, and he brought The Memoirs of Baron de Marbot to Conan Doyle’s attention. Meredith’s comments and Marbot’s memoirs (which Clarissa is glimpsed reading in Mrs. Dalloway) supposedly inspired Doyle to write his Exploits of Brigadier Gerard.

The Doyle Meredith connection is also a Leslie Stephen one. According to Andrew Lycett (in his Conan Doyle: The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes), on one occasion when visiting Box Hill with J M Barrie and Arthur Quiller Couch, Doyle met Leslie Stephen at Meredith’s. Supposedly Doyle found Stephen “retiring and unprepossessing.” What Leslie Stephen thought is not recorded, but he may well have told his family about meeting the creator of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson; and Virginia, though she would later disparage Watson as “a sack stuffed with straw, a dummy, a figure of fun”, may have been sufficiently impressed to remember this connection between Doyle and her father when she came to write To the Lighthouse. Doyle’s Scottish heritage would have been an additional reason for referencing him. A touch of Conan Doyle ancestry in Minta Doyle, by way of Meredith, might also supply a reason for why Mr. Carmichael is so interested in acrostics and puzzles, and also in why To the Lighthouse offers so many sleuthing delights.

The biggest delight of my Conan Doyle sleuthing is almost certainly a false clue. False it may be, but the following story now forms a part of my To the Lighthouse fabric. In 1881, Conan Doyle published a signed article in The British Journal of Photography. Titled “After Cormorants with a Camera”, the essay is a colourful, boisterously hearty account of a trip Doyle made to the Isle of May with two friends. Doyle along with two friends hired two local sailors and their small boat to sail them over from the Burgh of Grail (Crail) to the Isle of May and its lighthouse. While his companions amused themselves by slaughtering great numbers of birds, Doyle spent his time developing his photographic skills and also catching several fish. In his story Doyle describes visiting and dining with the lighthouse keeper and his wife, whose eldest son has been accidentally shot in the leg by a “stout Frenchman who had come over for some shooting.” He also includes a punning reference to the charge of the Light Brigade.

A trip to a lighthouse in a small boat sailed by two local sailors, three passengers, the shooting of birds, artistic efforts to record the scene, a lighthouse keeper and his family, a lame son: uncannily strong as the parallels are between Doyle’s account and Woolf’s novel, it is highly unlikely that Woolf ever read Doyle’s essay. Her own biographical source material provided identical bones for her tale. All the same, because of the allusive and accretive method of her story telling, a method which invites the reader to look for subtle signs and to bring their own experience—experience both real and literary—to the story, for me To the Lighthouse now includes Arthur Conan Doyle’s little adventure. As a bonus, I also know a little more about pioneering Victorian photographers, of which, of course, Virginia’s aunt, Julia Margaret Cameron, was one.

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