They say behind every great man is a great woman. But behind the legendary Arthur Conan Doyle stood an entire great family. Great, not in the sense of prominent, though his lineage did include a number of prominent people in artistic fields. No, when I say “great,” I mean significant to Conan Doyle’s development as a writer. And though his mother, Mary Foley Doyle, was neither a prominent artist nor a person of great social influence, her influence on the life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is inarguable.
Mary Foley Doyle, depicted above in a sketch by her brother-in-law Dicky Doyle, married Charles Altamont Doyle in Edinburgh in 1855, when she was just seventeen. The couple had seven children who survived to adulthood.
Mary was well-educated, and herself a gifted storyteller. Arthur would describe her as “the quaintest mixture of the housewife and the woman of letters, with the high-bred spirited lady as a basis for either character.” She was partial to dramatic stories of chivalry, knights, and bravery, and had a knack for oral storytelling.
“In my early childhood,” Conan Doyle would later note, “as far as I can remember anything at all, the vivid stories she would tell me stand out so clearly that they obscure the real facts of my life.” He would also say, “Looking back…it was in attempting to emulate these stories of my childhood that I began weaving dreams myself.”
The stories would eventually serve an important purpose for the family — not just as entertainment, but as distraction from the uncertainty and tragedy of their everyday lives. Charles Altamont Doyle was not a well man. Though an accomplished artist from an artistic family, Charles was forced to neglect his art in order to support his large family. He would later develop an alcohol addiction, and would spend much of his life in and out of asylums, leaving the family’s day-to-day support and management to his young wife.
Mary’s strength and steadfastness in the face of the family’s adversity would leave a lasting impression on both her husband and Arthur. Throughout his life, Arthur would remain close to his mother, seeking her advice in all things. It was a sentiment shared by his father.
When their extended family chipped in to send Arthur to boarding school in England — by all accounts a gruelling and unpleasant experience — Mary’s stories helped Arthur to endure. There, Arthur discovered that he, too, had a talent for weaving spellbinding tales, which he would often do for the amusement of the younger students.
When Arthur’s boarding school education finished, it was Mary who insisted he enter medical school at the University of Edinburgh. There he met not only other writers, including James Barrie (Peter Pan) and Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), but also Dr. James Bell, whose deductive method of diagnosis would inspire the creation of Sherlock Holmes.
This period would see Arthur Conan Doyle’s first published works, short stories that included The Surgeon of Gaster Fell (inspired by the events surrounding Charles Doyle’s commitment to an asylum), The Mystery of Sasassa Valley (written during his early studies), and Captain of the Pole-Star, which arose from his experiences as a ship’s doctor in the Arctic.
Was it any wonder that Dr. Watson’s beloved, long-suffering wife would take her name from the heroine of Arthur Conan Doyle’s early life? Or that he would pass that name on to his own daughter?
A lot has been made of the professional influences on Conan Doyle’s life and writing. But one can’t forget that it was Mary who started him down the path — boarding school, medical school, and his subsequent medical career — where he encountered those influences.
It’s clear, also, from the words of Conan Doyle himself, that it was Mary who taught him the importance of stories — as well as how to create them. And for that we owe her a great debt of recognition.
And I think Arthur Conan Doyle would agree.
Featured Image: Public Domain by Dicky Doyle