When George Orwell was at a low ebb in Paris and lay listless on his bed with little money and less food, he said that he turned to the Sherlock Holmes short stories to keep him going. He added that he could not manage anything more demanding.
I believe that these stories keep many people going. Orwell was right there. But in saying they are undemanding is doing them an injustice. They may not ask much of their readers but they always give immense enjoyment.
It is a pleasure to go back to 1895. In fact, it is good to go back to any period before computers came and burdened us all, making us rush through our days rather than ambling through them pleasantly. Then, in 1895, the telegram was the fastest communication to hand, and one could still have ‘adventures’ from time to time.
Two middle-aged men are at home in one of the most famous addresses on earth, 221 B, Baker Street, London. Mrs Hudson is downstairs in the kitchen, and all is well with the Victorian world. We can join them and commiserate with Watson as Holmes comes out with some strange but totally logical suggestion. We admire Watson’s loyalty and patience and stand in awe of the great man’s powers.
Our idea of the Baker Street rooms and their occupants are formed by the drawings. Holmes had a marvellous illustrator, Sidney Paget. Paget set the norm for Holmes and Watson for readers ever after. Like Tenniel for Lewis Carroll and Quentin Blake for Roald Dahl, the illustrator is absolutely right. Paget’s Holmes has become our Holmes.
Holmes and Watson’s world is complete. The horse-drawn cabs, the trains, even the social classes are all in their respective place. Holmes deals nonchalantly with ministers and even in ‘The Second Stain’, with the prime minister himself. He is just as at home with the group of lads who watch out for him in alley ways and on street corners, the Baker Street irregulars. Shouldn’t they be at school? Surely the Education Acts even of that time made attendance compulsory.
The women in his life range from the noblest in the land, who are always referred to as “queenly”, to young typists and governesses. And, of course, there is Irene Adler who appears in ‘A Scandal in Bohemia”. This is the first Holmes short story, and its last line is “And when he speaks of Irene Adler, or when he refers to her photograph, it is always under the honourable title of the woman.”
The details of the daily life of Holmes and Watson fill out the picture. Take the weather. When a case begins, we are usually given some details, and London’s weather comes with extremes from high summer to the storms of November.
Here is the second paragraph of ‘The Adventure of the Cardboard Box’.
“It was a blazing hot day in August. Baker Street was like an oven, and the glare of the sunlight upon the yellow brickwork of the houses across the road was painful to the eye. It was hard to believe that these were the same walls which loomed so gloomily through the fogs of winter.”
Even on this hot day Watson mentions the fog or at least its absence, and that is what we think of most, London’s fog and cold. In those days there were no café tables out on the pavement. That came much later on. Here is the beginning of ‘The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez’. It’s always an ‘adventure’! How many adventures Holmes and Watson enjoyed!
“It was a wild tempestuous night towards the close of November. Holmes and I sat together in silence all the evening, he engaged with a powerful lens deciphering the remains of an original inscription upon a palimpsest, I deep in a recent treatise upon surgery. Outside the wind howled down Baker Street, while the rain beat fiercely against the windows.”
Then Watson adds a sobering note.
“It was strange there in the very depths of the town, with ten miles of man’s handiwork on every side of us, to feel the iron grip of Nature, and to be conscious that to the huge elemental forces all London was no more that the molehills that dot the fields.”
By the way, what was the palimpsest inscription?
“So far as I can make out,” says Holmes, “it is nothing more exciting than an Abbey’s accounts dating from the second half of the fifteenth century.”
Doyle was always original in the names of his characters. Take Sherlock Holmes himself. His name is so embedded in our minds that it seems as normal as John Smith. We forget how unusual it is and we take for granted how appropriate it has become.
Most of the characters in the adventures have a name worth remembering. Take Dr Grimesby Roylott in ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band’ . He was an evil man. His name says as much, but the most sinister villain of all was Charles Augustus Milverton in the story which has his name in the title. The name could have belonged to a jovial man of Pickwickian character but no, it refers to the cruellest blackmailer in London.
Holmes finds him repugnant. “I’ve had to do with fifty murderers in my career, but the worst of them never gave me the repulsion which I have for this fellow.”
Holmes often addresses someone by their full name, perhaps for the mere pleasure of saying it aloud.
“My dear Mr Grant Munro”, he says to the husband in ‘The Adventure if the Yellow Face.’
“Our visitor sprang from his chair. “What!” he cried. “You know my name.”
“If you wish to preserve your incognito,” said Holmes smiling, “I suggest you should cease from writing your name on the inside of your hat, or else that you turn the crown towards the person whom you are addressing.”
“How are you, Mr Ruben Hayes?” said Holmes to “a squat, dark, elderly man” standing in front of a public house in “The Adventure of the Priory School”.
“ ‘Who are you and how do you get my name so pat?’ the countryman answered, with a suspicious flash of a pair of cunning eyes.
‘Well, it’s printed on a board above your head. It’s easy to see a man who is master of his own house.’”
This story begins in the rooms in Baker Street with the dramatic entrance of the splendidly named headmaster, Dr Thorneycroft Huxtable, whose visiting card “seemed too small to carry the weight of his academic distinctions”.
Holmes and Watson are two gentlemen typical of the customs of their age. For them silence is a virtue. Here is the start of ‘The Adventure of the Yellow Face’.
Watson tells us, “One day in early spring Holmes had so far relaxed as to go for a walk with me in the park. For two hours we rambled about together, in silence for the most part, as befits two men who know each other intimately.”
The idea is echoed in the short story by Saki, ‘The Disappearance of Crispina Umberleigh’.
Two Englishmen were travelling in the same railway carriage on the continent. “Neither man was talkative, and each was grateful to the other for not being talkative. That is why from time to time they talked.” Find this tale if you can. It’s worth it!
When we read these stories, we think of Holmes and Watson more than of their author. We don’t say, ‘Now I must pick up a book by Conan Doyle’ but ‘Now I am going to read another Sherlock Holmes story’. Holmes stands out, and Conan Doyle retires quietly into the background, as a good author should.
This, then, is the first book I come to on my favourite bookshelf. I think I will take it down this evening and remind myself of the diabolical plan of the Norwood builder.
Doyle, A. C. (1987). Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Illustrated Short Stories. London: Chancellor Press.