When Your Research Makes You Cry

As you know, I’m currently working on a chapter about Richard Doyle for my PhD project (it’s crahhhhhhhhhhwling along at a snail’s pace). When Doyle was nineteen, he began to work for PUNCH. He mainly drew initial letters and text fillers, but also some of the larger cartoons and, most importantly, in he designed the famous Mr-Punch-and-his-doggie-Toby-surrounded-by-fairies cover for the magazine that would last until the 1950s. In the 1840s he also got his first commissions for book illustrations — he provided drawings for a new edition of the Grimms’ fairy tales, THE FAIRY RING (which you can buy on abebooks for 900 Euros …), for Montalba’s FAIRY TALES, and contributed illustrations for Dickens’s Christmas books. Later, after his break with PUNCH over the magazine’s attacks on the pope, he also illustrated several of Thackeray’s works and the second book of the new literary wunderkind, Thomas Hughes (whose first published novel, TOM BROWN’S SCHOOLDAYS, was a big hit — unfortunately, his second book wasn’t quite that good).

One of Doyle’s brothers was Charles Altamont Doyle, the father of Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes. Charles was several years younger than Richard, but apparently they were very close, and when Charles tried to become an artist in his own right, Dicky sent him letters full of advice.

So I was quite intrigued when I found out that one of Charles’s diaries was published a few years ago under the title of THE DOYLE DIARY: THE LAST GREAT CONAN DOYLE MYSTERY and that he also mentions the weekly shows which the Doyle children organized for their father and which frequently appear in Richard’s journal of 1840. So yes, I was intrigued and curious and quite excited about my find. And yesterday THE DOYLE DIARY finally arrived.

But it’s not quite what I thought it to be.

For one thing, Charles primarily used the book as a sketchbook. And for another, he composed it in 1889 when he was living in Sunnyside House, a part of the Montrose Royal Lunatic Asylum. Indeed, Charles spent the last few years of his life in at least three of such instutions, where he was treated for alcoholism and epilepsy. Most of the watercolours in the book are of fairies, reminiscent of Richard’s fairy paintings, but whereas Richard’s small creatures are naughty and impisch, Charles’s are large-eyed and shy and most of them look rather sad. Some of the black and white sketches are quite funny, for example, the Lion and the Unicorn taking a stroll behind Herald’s College in London. Yet others are much more disturbing, like the man (and I assume this is supposed to be Charles himself) who reaches out and grabs the hand of a skeletal death dressed as a bride.

The diary entry about those long past, weekly Sunday shows is one of the longer textual entries and I found it very poignant as it starts with a mention of Richard’s Journal, which was published in 1885, two years after Dicky Doyle’s death. Apparently, Charles read it for the first time while he was at Sunnyside House.

A propos of “Dick’s Journal” – Copy of which Dr. Howden has kindly lent me – I should like to mention one point on the inner life of the Doyle Family when this Journal was written – It is this – On Sunday the Day was observed by all the Children – Great and Small – Annette, James, Dick, Henry, Frank, Adelaide and myself, going to the Mass […] and getting home to Breakfast at 10 – The after day was spent in perfect quiet till 8 in the Evening when the Camphore Lamp and Mole Candles were lit in the Drawing Room, and guests began to arrive, often comprizing the most distinguished Literary and Artistic Men of London and Foreigners […] Most delicious Music was discoursed by Annette on the Piano – and James on the Violencello till about 10 when the Supper Tray was laid […]

Those reminiscences of a happier past struck me as quite sad, especially combined with the fact that Charles wrote them while locked up in a mental hospital. On the whole, I found DOYLE’S DIARY extremely disturbing.