Selfish Jean - Conan Doyle's heartless second wife

Russell Miller, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's latest biographer, unveils new evidence of the heartlessness of his subject's second wife

SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE'S second wife, Jean Leckie, was the great love of his life, as testified by the adoring notes he sent her, sometimes twice a day, whenever they were apart.

On a lecture tour of the United States in 1923, at the age of 64, his letters were reminiscent of those of a lovelorn teenager: "Oh girlie, it will be good to put my arms around you"; "You darling, I do want you so!"; "Darling, it will be good to see your sweet, sweet face"; "Don't forget, my heart's darling, that you are the best thing that ever happened to me. " This elderly Victorian gentleman even alluded, on occasion, to sex: "It will be a weary old jumper who comes back to you. His first jump will be into your arms. His next one into bed. Goodbye my sweet one. I hunger for your kiss …"

It was, then, something of a surprise to discover, while researching The Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle, that Leckie was an appalling woman – self-seeking, devious, the proverbial stepmother from hell.

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    They met at a party in 1896 and for 37-year-old Arthur it was virtually love at first sight, never mind the fact that he was already married and his wife, Louisa, was dying of tuberculosis. Louisa clung to life for another ten years and for the whole of that time, Jean Leckie pretended to be a friend while conducting a discreet affair with her husband.

    Arthur's close family shamefully connived in the liaison, his mother acting as chaperone to provide a vestige of decorum when the lovers contrived to meet in hotels. While Arthur fondly believed that Louisa, known in the family as Touie, never knew what was going on, being a man unversed in the art of philandering he must have betrayed his feelings by some word, look or gesture as, on her deathbed, Touie whispered to her daughter that she should not be surprised if her father married again and mentioned Leckie as his probable second wife.

    Touie died in July 1906. Arthur and Jean married as soon as they decently could the following year, and moved into a new home in Surrey. From the start, Jean made it clear that Arthur's two children from his first marriage were unwelcome. His son, Kingsley, was out of the way, ensconced at Eton, but his daughter, Mary, who had finished school and might have expected to move in with her father and new stepmother, was dispatched to Dresden to study singing.

    She pleaded to be allowed to return home for Christmas but was informed it was out of the question. When she asked her father in the spring, if she could go to Berlin to see an opera she was studying, he replied that she would have to choose between the Berlin trip and a pre-arranged visit from her brother – he could not afford both. This was from a man who was earning huge sums as a writer and, prior to marrying Jean, had always been extraordinarily generous with members of his family.

    In the summer of 1908, Mary was at last allowed home but the visit was not a success. She wanted to show her father and stepmother what she had learned in Dresden and offered to sing for them. Jean, who was said to be a trained mezzo-soprano, pointedly refused to accompany her stepdaughter on the piano, so Mary was obliged to accompany herself. Later, Jean privately told her husband that his daughter's singing was flat and that she stood no chance of a career in music. Conan Doyle waited until Mary was back in Dresden before passing on the bad news in a letter, telling her that while she had a sweet voice it would never stand out from others.

    Mary was indignant and realised that her father, who had little interest in, or knowledge of music, would hardly have presumed to criticise her musical ability without input from the "trained mezzosoprano" who was his wife. She could hardly wait to write and tell Kingsley:

    "Well, my dear, do you know what it all amounts to? Simply this – Jean wants the coast clear for herself, and she doesn't want any rivalry or competition. I might possibly in the future put her in the shade, therefore I'm politely invited to leave it alone! … Jean wants to reign supreme in her one Art, therefore I am at all hazards to be discouraged."

    When, after the First World War, Arthur dedicated himself to promoting the Spiritualist cause around the world, his wife mysteriously developed a talent for automatic writing – taking down messages she received from the other world. Many of them lavishly praised the work he was doing and the vital support she provided.

    Curiously, while deceased relatives from both their families frequently made contact, not a single message was ever received from the unfortunate Touie.

    Nor, indeed, was there one word from Arthur's father, Charles Altamont Doyle, who was an alcoholic and died, abandoned by his wife and children, in Crichton Royal Lunatic Asylum, Dumfries, in 1893.

    All his life, Arthur Conan Doyle was a prolific correspondent, writing literally thousands of letters to family and friends. I am the first biographer for more than 50 years to have been given full access to the Conan Doyle literary estate and I was amazed to discover that the estate does not hold a single letter either from Touie, or to her. Arthur travelled frequently during his first marriage and it is impossible to believe that he did not write to his wife at that time, or that she did not write to him. My belief is that, after Arthur's death in 1930, his wife destroyed anything that might have jeopardised her position as the one true love of his life.

    • Russell Miller's The Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle is published this week by Harvill Secker, priced 20.