Brief Biography of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Arthur Conan Doyle was born in Edinburgh, Scotland. His early life was not glamorous, but thanks to the support of wealthier relatives, he was sent to England for his education. He ended up studying medicine in Edinburgh, and would remain in the medical field throughout his life. Alongside his medical career, however, Arthur was a prolific writer. Not only did he write four Sherlock Holmes novels, and over fifty Holmes short stories, he also wrote seven historical novels, nine general novels, five narratives, multiple collections of short stories, and several stage works. His interests were extremely varied. He was a keen sportsman, trying his hand at boxing, football, cricket and golf. He was also a very active political campaigner and justice advocate, and a famous proponent of Spiritualism. He was also interested in history, particularly the Napoleonic era, which many of his literary works reflect. He was the father of five children, and was married firstly to Louisa Hawkins, and then to Jean Leckie, following Louisa’s death in 1906. Conan Doyle passed away of a heart attack in 1930, at his home in East Sussex. His last words were to his wife: “You are wonderful.”
Historical Context of The Red-Headed League
The modern police force was formed in England in 1829. Of course, by the time of Conan Doyle’s writing in 1891, people were more used to the police, but the detectives of the age still weren’t all that respected. They were considered fairly incompetent, especially in the face of major unsolved crimes such as the Jack the Ripper murders in the 1880s. This is why the Sherlock Holmes stories present the police as being quite inept at their jobs, and offer up Holmes’ rationality as a superior alternative. Another potentially relevant historical circumstance is that of the Royal family at the time, or more specifically, Prince Edward VII (later King Edward VII, and known affectionately as Bertie). Bertie was Queen Victoria’s eldest son, and although he was popular with the public, he was involved in numerous scandals in the late nineteenth century. The Royal Baccarat Scandal, for example, was a British gambling scandal involving the prince in 1891, the same year that “The Red-Headed League” was written. Bertie was also allegedly involved in a scandal involving a homosexual brothel that employed young boys. He undoubtedly led a wild and scandalous existence, and it seems as though this might be referred to in the story. The crime takes place in Saxe-Coburg Square, which is a reference to the royal surname, Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. John Clay claims that he is royalty when he is caught, and demands not to be man-handled. Thus, the young criminal Clay may be a tongue-in-cheek reference to the illegal tendencies of the real Prince Edward at the time.
Other Books Related to The Red-Headed League
The Sherlock Holmes stories are an early example of the detective genre, but an even earlier example can be found in Edgar Allan Poe’s detective, C. Auguste Dupin, who first appeared in Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Dupin is fairly similar to Holmes, in that he is fairly astute in his deductions as an outsider, but he is by no means the professional and rational detective that Holmes is. The same is true of Holmes’ English predecessors in the detective genre, such as Sergeant Cuff in Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone
. Cuff is again not nearly as rational or as professional as Holmes. In fact, Holmes’ rationality could be a direct influence of the scientific texts of the age, which employed a more methodical approach to writing than traditional fiction. Science and literature were much more closely connected at the time, and seminal scientific texts, such as Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species
, were accessible to both a literary and a scientific audience. The same could perhaps be said of Sherlock Holmes: the stories are a way of making the scientific method of problem-solving available to the wider literary public.
Key Facts about The Red-Headed League
Full Title: “The Red-Headed League”
When Written: 1891
Where Written: Europe
When Published: 1891
Literary Period: Victorian
Genre: Detective fiction, crime fiction
Setting: London, England
Climax: Sherlock Holmes captures John Clay in the cellar of the bank.
Antagonist: John Clay
Point of View: First person and third person
Extra Credit for The Red-Headed League