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David Hines [userpic]

Leila Maturin gets even cooler

April 28th, 2010 (11:02 pm)

So, I was thinking about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle today, as one does, and I remembered out of nowhere that, oh yeah, in addition to having the dinner with Oscar Wilde that led Wilde to go home and write THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY, Doyle corresponded with Robert Louis Stevenson. Specifically, I remembered that Robert Louis Stevenson had written Doyle about Dr. Joseph Bell, who was a big inspiration for Sherlock Holmes. Looking for the quote, my Googling led me to a citation to the obituary of Robert Scot Skirving.

The name Scot Skirving made me sit up and pay attention. Know why? Because Scot Skirving is the maiden name of Leila Maturin, who was the mutual friend of Robert Louis Stevenson and Joseph Merrick, a.k.a. the Elephant Man.

You may or may not remember that a while back I posted about Leila Maturin. Maturin was a doctor's widow, about eight years older than Merrick. She was born in 1854, was married at twenty-nine, and was widowed at thirty when a child her husband was treating for scarlet fever had the temerity to cough in Dr. Maturin's face. She would have been in her mid-to-late thirties when she and Merrick met. They were introduced by Frederick Treves, Merrick's doctor and benefactor, who thought that Merrick needed to meet a woman who wouldn't be terrified at the sight of him, and judged Leila Maturin as having the requisite strength of character.

I still don't know how Treves knew her, or what she was doing in London. I did know that she was an amateur actress in Edinburgh, and was friends with Robert Louis Stevenson; in I CAN REMEMBER ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON (edited by Rosalie Masson, W&R Chambers, Limited, Edinburgh and London 1922), her brother Owen recalled that Stevenson often walked home with them after rehearsals (not because, Owen noted, he liked Owen's company). And in the same work, Flora Masson recalled that she and Leila were actually walking down the street one day when they heard a yell: it was Stevenson, waving to them from his carriage, as he was leaving Edinburgh.

But that's not her only literary connection. Because, dig this, her brother Robert was *also* a doctor, and he was five years younger than Leila; he was born in 1859, and went to medical school in Edinburgh from 1876 to 1881.

Guess who else was born in Edinburgh in 1859 and studied medicine there from 1876 to 1881?

That would be Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

He and Robert Scot Skirving knew each other because, as Robert's obituary notes, Doyle sat in front of him in class. Like Doyle, Robert went to the practical clinics held by Dr. Joseph Bell, whose observational skills served as an inspiration for Doyle's creation of Sherlock Holmes. The Scot Skirvings and Doyle had a mutual friend in Robert Louis Stevenson, who corresponded with Doyle and who, despite being far away in Samoa, followed the Holmes adventures avidly. (There's a great, mildly horrifying letter where Stevenson reports to Doyle that he related "The Engineer's Thumb" to one of Stevenson's Samoan employees; the listener was swept up in the story, although Stevenson had to stop to explain unfamiliar little details like coining machines and railroads, neither of which had gotten into Samoa at the time. Lest Doyle take this as testimony to his skill as a writer, Stevenson went on to elaborate: *he had sold the guy the tale as a true story.*)

I don't know if the details are recorded on this anywhere, but you could make a hell of a plausible case arguing that Doyle may well have gotten to know Stevenson through the Scot Skirvings. (ETA: Unless you've read ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE: A LIFE IN LETTERS, which includes a note that Doyle mused in an interview that it was odd to think he'd probably brushed up against Stevenson in Edinburgh, which means that it's probably the case that they didn't meet in person in that period at all. DAMMIT. Jossed by a dead literary icon.) Stevenson was bumping around Scotland and England between 1880 and 1887, so if he and Doyle hadn't gotten to know each other at some point before that, they could well have met up through the Scot Skirvings in the early 1880s. Leila didn't marry until 1883, so she was still in Edinburgh then.

Okay, okay, this is speculative, but COME ON, PEOPLE, in my fanon Leila Maturin totally shook hands with Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the Elephant Man.

Even if by some really annoying quirk of history she and Doyle never actually met up, then the Elephant Man and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle are at *at most* two degrees of separation.

…man, if I ever get a time machine, I'm totally going to drop in on her for lunch. Hell, I'm offering her a ride.

(This literary meet-up skill seems to run in the family. Her father, also named Robert Scot Skirving, turns up in the letters of Jane Welsh Carlyle. And was once tried for leading a student riot that saw them pelting the bejesus out of police with snowballs in Edinburgh in the 1830s. God, what a clan!)

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