definition Mary Foley Doyle, known as "the Ma'am" by her son
Arthur Conan Doyle, was an interesting woman. She saved the Doyle family
from ruin when her husband was institutionalized. She gave her children
hope for tomorrow with tales of past glories and victories. She also had
a mysterious relationship with a man fifteen years her junior.
Marriage to Charles Doyle
Mary Foley met her future husband,
Edinburgh where her mother ran a boarding house. Charles Doyle had
recently arrived from England to take a civil service job and need a
place to live. In 1855 Mary and Charles married. Over the course of time
they had seven children that survived to adulthood.
Charles did his best to provide for his large family.
He supplemented his income with money he earned from painting and
drawing. He was a talented artist who longed to devote himself to his
art full-time. Eventually the unfulfilled longings turned into despair.
Charles fell into a deep depression and began drinking heavily.
He was dismissed from his job. That same year he was
sent to a hospital specializing in the treatment of alcoholics. Later he
developed epilepsy. At that time the condition was misunderstood and
untreatable. As a result Charles Doyle spent the rest of his life
confined to a series of hospitals and asylums.
Tales of Knights and Ladies
Even before her husband was sent away life was hard for Mary Doyle.
Charles was emotionally absent because of his depression and drinking.
After he was sent away the financial worries were considerable. However
Mary had a unique coping mechanism.
Mary had long been interested in the tradition of
chivalry and tales of knights. She shared these stories and values with
her children. She also told them that they were of noble blood through
her mother's family. The veracity of her claim is unproven, but the
outcome of her actions is not. The stories gave the family the courage.
The tales of deeds of bravery sustained the family as they dealt with
the uncertainty of their situation.
The stories also inspired Mary's oldest son, Arthur
Conan Doyle, in other ways. He would later say that he got his love of
literature and storytelling from his mother. He once said, "I am
sure, looking back, that it was in attempting to emulate these stories
of my childhood that I began weaving dreams myself."
Dr. Bryan Waller
Conan Doyle openly discussed many aspects of
his life. However he was oddly silent regarding the subject of Dr. Bryan
To make extra money after her husband was
institutionalized, Mary Doyle started taking in boarders. Dr. Bryan
Waller was one of those boarders.
It would seem that he had a positive effect on the
family. His presence helped to financially stabilize the household.
While he was only six years older than Arthur, certainly he must have
acted as a role model for him. Arthur followed Waller into medicine and
even attended the same university as Waller.
Waller and Mary Doyle unquestionably had a good
relationship. So good that in 1882 she and two of her daughters moved
into a cottage on Waller's estate. She would live there, rent free,
for more than thirty years.
Historians have suggested that Waller and Mary had an
affair. However no one has been able to prove it. The closest Conan
Doyle came to talking about the subject was when he said that Mary's
taking boarders "may have eased her in some ways, but was
disastrous in others."
Excellencies and Virtues
Despite his feeling about his mother's
association with Dr. Waller, Conan Doyle had an excellent relationship
with her. He always sought her advice, but felt free to disagree with
it. He was inspired by her example in the face of adversity and
respected her opinion in all matters.
One can but wonder if the following quote from Sir
Nigel was inspired by Mary Doyle:
To his pure and knightly soul not Edith alone, but
every woman, sat high and aloof, enthroned and exalted, with a
thousand mystic excellencies and virtues which raised her far above
the rude world of man.