Newsletter - Bumsted on Holmes by Jack

Monday Apr 13 2015

Over the years, popular culture has spawned many phenomena that defy easy – or rational – explanation. Clearly one of the most fascinating (and complex) stories in the history of popular culture is that of Sherlock Holmes, a fictional detective created in 1887 by a young unknown writer named Arthur Conan Doyle. In many ways, Sherlock Holmes would seem an unlikely candidate for either lionization or for wide circulation as a fictional character. Virtually nothing is known of his background beyond a few vague hints. His expertise extends to a narrow range of subjects, and he tells Watson that this is deliberate, since he cannot afford to clutter his brain with knowledge useless to his profession. What he does know about is crime and criminal literature, technical subjects (tobacco ash, ciphers), the geography and people of London, classical music, some knowledge of literature, “ a good practical knowledge of British law” (as Watson tells us), a knowledge of chemistry. His final attribute is an unparalleled power of observation of trifles and the ability to deduce much from those trifles. Holmes is also capable of male friendship, although female friendships seem to pose a problem. He is very organized in his work – his criminal files, for example – but messy in his personal life. He is mildly racist in a typically 19th-century British way. More to the point in terms of his becoming a hero, he has a troubled personality and is most probably a manic-depressive. He is certainly a drug addict, although in his day cocaine was commonly prescribed for melancholia and depression, and it was neither illegal nor expensive. All in all, these are at best a rather mixed bag of traits to be admired.

            A few words about Watson. Contrary to the interpretation of Nigel Bruce, who played Dr. Watson against Basil Rathbones’ Sherlock in the movies and on the radio in the 1940s, Watson is no fool. He is a competent doctor, a good chronicler of the exploits of his friend – although he often tells only a part of the story – and most of all, he is a reliable and true friend in the male-world sense of Britain in the late 19th century. We could all use a friend like Watson.

            There is a myriad of mythology and mechanical realities surrounding the Great Detective. This mythology and reality suggest much about Holmes and his creation. Take, for example, Holmes’ best-known phrase, “Elementary, my dear Watson.” It has been uttered countless times in a variety of circumstances. The point is that Holmes never said it, at least not in the canon of 60 short stories and four novels. He used the term “elementary” seven times in the canon, and the phrase “my dear Watson” in at least 23 of the stories. But he never once linked them. American dramatist/actor William Gillette coined the phrase “Oh, this is elementary, my dear fellow,” in a play featuring Sherlock Holmes which he wrote under authorization from Conan Doyle in the 1890s. This play, by the way, dispels the notion that Doyle thoroughly buried Holmes after killing him off in 1893. Doyle needed money for a new house, and so he wrote a play featuring Holmes. But Doyle was a bad playwright, and eventually the American playwright and actor, William Gillette was called in as play doctor. Gillete’s version of the play which drew ideas from a number of the short stories, began a run on Broadway, in October 1899 after a brief tour of New York State and New England. It was made into a silent movie in 1916, with Gillette himself in the role of Holmes.

   The author who actually coined the well-known phrase was P.G. Wodehouse, in a novel entitled Psmith, Journalist (the “P” was silent) published in 1915. It was uttered by Psmith and not by Sherlock Holmes. The phrase was probably popularized when it appeared in the first talkie Holmes movie, made in 1929.  In a similar way, the items of costume most often associated with Sherlock Holmes – the deerstalker hat, the Inverness cape, and the Calabash pipe – never appear in the canon, but are instead additions to Holmes’s persona developed by Sidney Paget, Doyle’s illustrator at the Strand Magazine. They were then taken over by William Gillette, and can be seen on the posters illustrating both the Broadway production and the 1916 movie.

            True fans of Sherlock Holmes are interested only in the canon. If they reside in North America they call themselves Sherlockians, while in Great Britain they are Holmesians. Much of their work, as I have already suggested, is scholarly, mock or serious, and not surprisingly, the writers were often academics. Their focus was upon what they called the Great Game, a phrase they probably borrowed from British activity in Asia, often referred to as “The Great Game in Asia,” although it may also owe something to Holmes’s comment to Watson, “the game’s afoot, Watson.” The premise is that Holmes lives on, (after all his obituary has never appeared in the Times of London) and that his friend Watson really writes up his exploits. Arthur Conan Doyle is mostly left out of this picture, although he is sometimes referred to as Watson’s literary agent.

            The Sherlockians/Holmesians initially operated as disconnected individuals, but they eventually came together in organized societies. The Manhattan-based literary critic Christopher Morley, who had published the first collection of all the Holmes stories shortly after Conan Doyle’s death in 1930, conceived of the first society. This society was founded in 1934 and was called “the Baker Street Irregulars,” in honour of the band of London street urchins who sometimes helped Holmes. Many famous Americans became members of the Baker Street Irregulars, which met occasionally at a New York restaurant for dinner and the exchange of ideas. They included William Gillette the actor, Gene Tunney the boxer, Rex Stout, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, president of the United States and a self-confessed consumer of crime fiction. In 1946 the BSI began to publish The Baker Street Journal, the first magazine devoted to Sherlock Holmes and his exploits. The BSI soon spawned imitators in other American cities: the Speckled Band of Boston (1940), The Hounds of the Baskervilles (Chicago, 1943), the Six Napoleons of Baltimore (1946), and The Sons of the Copper Beeches (Philadelphia, 1947). The movement extended even to Canada, where The Bootmakers of Toronto were established in 1972, and publish a journal entitled Canadian Holmes. It is still very active, as its website suggests. No other figure of crime fiction – and few in the wider literary world – has produced such an outpouring of fan interest, which is more akin to the adulation of pop stars or movie stars than literary characters.

            Much of the “scholarship” read at meetings of the various societies and published in their journals, involves unanswerable questions derived from the canon, also known as the Sacred Writings. The actual location of 221B Baker Street and the question of the unspoken relationship between Holmes and Watson are among the questions considered by the various societies over the years. A little book recently loaned to me by one of Whodunit’s customers is well representative of the genre, It is entitled My Dear Holmes; A Study in Sherlock”. It is British published, date 1951, and the author is Gavin Brend, who provides no other information as to his identity beyond the admission in his preface that “for me a world in which it is always 1895 is not without its attraction.” It has been pointed out that “the truth is that the Victorians had almost nothing in common with us,” and it is easy to misunderstand the civilization of late 19th century Britain. But what follows in this book is a series of essays that attempt to fill in some of the lacunae of the canon, using only the canon as evidence. The first question explored is: Did Holmes attend Oxford or Cambridge? The author decides for Oxford, chiefly on the grounds that Holmes in one story was unaware of a late-night train from London to Cambridge. The second chapter deals with the date of the Gloria Scott affair, the solution of which set Holmes on his career as detective. Brend concludes that Holmes was at Oxford from 1871 to 1875, and the Gloria Scott affair dates from 1873. The chain of reasoning is intricate and occasionally difficult to accept, because part of the exercise is to reconcile casual statements about Holmes made by Watson that are in truth irreconcilable. But the author perseveres through a long series of similar explorations. Several chapters attempt to unravel the question of Watson’s wives. He concludes with a table that dates each of the stories and novels, finishing with His Last Bow in August 1914, not coincidentally the date of the start of the Great War. Brend ended his text proper by speculating on Holmes’s life after 1914:

Holmes probably spent the next four years in unmasking German spies a task for which he was obviously well-equipped. Thereafter we imagine that he returned to his bees on the Suffolk Downs and that he is still there today. For he bears a charmed life. If ever a man were immortal, that man was Sherlock Holmes

            Which brings us to the silver screen, for movies are a medium in which Holmes (and Watson) have always been very popular. It has plausibly been argued that Sherlock Holmes has appeared in more films and been played by more actors than any other character in the history of the cinema. I will consider Holmes and the cinema in a future essay in this newsletter.



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