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Essays

Sherlock Holmes, Romantic

 

by Bruce Fleming

Sherlock Holmes is hot. To make it clear just how hot, consider that in the last several years alone there has been yet another English-language publication of the complete Sherlock Holmes stories and novels, and two German versions. (Technical note: the Anaconda version takes astonishing liberties with the original: A Scandal in Bohemia becomes, literally translated, A Scandal in the Principality of O and omits the entire long first paragraph of the original about Irene Adler.) There remain in print facsimiles of the illustrated Strand Magazine stories (the illustrations gave us the idea of the gaunt Sherlock in the deerstalker hat that is nowhere mentioned in Conan Doyle), and there are so many take-offs and satires to be found in print or even theaters that they can’t all be listed: the funniest for my money is Robert L. Fish’s Schlock Holmes Stories, re-printed in 1990. Perhaps even more divertingly, there is a recent literary guide to Sherlock trivia, in the series “Big Ideas Simply Explained.”

That’s just recent books. The 2015 movie by Bill Condon called simply Mr. Holmes, with Sir Ian McKellen, asks us to imagine the fictional detective as an old man wracked with remorse at his inability to save a woman from her own remorse decades before, keeping bees overlooking the white cliffs of Dover. He even goes to see a (fictional) movie based on his largely embellished cases, an echo of the classics starring Basil Rathbone, and snorts in derision as he watches.

Sherlock Holmes sketch by Sidney Paget (1904). Source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Sherlock Holmes sketch by Sidney Paget (1904). Source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

It seems, in Mr. Holmes, he didn’t even live at 221B Baker Street, and Watson invented most of the details of his cases. But of course Mr. Holmes too was fiction, as have been the other spate of recent Holmes movies, including Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes movies with a considerably-more-virile-than-most-people-imagined-Holmes Robert Downey, Jr. and with the screen hunk Jude Law playing the man earlier cinematic versions had led us to think of as portly and bumbling, Dr. Watson. Then there is the “talk about cell phones every other sentence” relentlessly of-our-time BBC version of Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch. And there is a book by Guy Adams (who writes carry-on novels with Sherlock Holmes) offered as the “companion” to this series, one in English, one in German.

These are fictional fictional Holmeses. What was the real fictional Holmes? We’ve seen so many departures from Conan Doyle, it’s worth going back to the original. Not: what did he look like? We all know, and if movies choose something else, we “get” the divergence and the reference to the original. But the more fundamental question of his personality. Who “was” (the quotation marks to show his fictionality) Sherlock Holmes?

I

Sherlock Holmes, perhaps most fundamentally, wouldn’t have agreed with Hannah Arendt that evil is banal. What is banal is everyday life, he would have said – had he not been a fictional character well before Arendt’s time; evil and wrongdoing are what are interesting. Each of the fifty-six Sherlock Holmes stories and four novellas by his creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is centered around the jolt that takes us, and Holmes, out of the deadly banality of the ordinary: the strange case that pulls him from his lethargy into cases with ties to other lives, other worlds, people far more interesting than we ourselves are.

Yet the jolt that gets Holmes and his faithful chronicler and amanuensis Watson moving always comes out of inaction and dullness: the ordinary is always the point of departure, and this is what, alas, the adventure returns to. We have only to fill in the space between the jolts to get a sense of the dullness of existence without them. And since evil and wrongdoing are what shatter this dullness, we tend to root for the evildoers.

We’re supposed to want Holmes to catch the bad guys—it’s what he’s been hired for, after all—but when he does, that’s the bad news, not the good: it’s a return to the flat-line of Holmes waiting around for the next one. We readers don’t have to wait indefinitely; we merely turn the page—even readers at the time had only to wait for the next edition of the Strand Magazine. But Holmes is at the mercy of chance and fate. The stories ultimately end with a sense of the pointlessness of life, not its exceptional excitement.

The dullness of everyday existence with only the imagination as an alternative to reality is a standard Romantic theme, central to Shelley, Keats, and Coleridge among many other English poets: Tennyson hints at it in poems such as Ulysses and The Lady of Shalott, and T.S. Eliot later brings it center stage in his late-late Romantic (which we usually call Modernist) classic The Waste Land.

Yet the pre-eminent poet of ennui is undoubtedly found on the other side of the Channel, the Frenchman Charles Baudelaire. And his ennui with life in general and with his city, Paris, is echoed in London by Conan Doyle’s creation Holmes, Baudelaire’s near contemporary. Baudelaire wrote a collection called The Spleen of Paris—a sense of the futility of it all hanging over the very streets and buildings. We might speak of Sherlock Holmes and the Spleen of London.
Baudelaire evokes a sense of the grayness of real life in passages like the following:

In the caverns of sadness without bounds
Where Destiny has already consigned me
Where never a beam of happiness enters
Where, alone with the night, gloomy companion,
I am like a painter that a mocking God
Condemned to paint, alas, on shadows
Or, as cook to funereal appetites,
I boil and I eat my heart.

(Shadows; all translations B.F.)

Holmes is more prosaic, if no less emphatic: “My mind”, he tells Watson at the beginning of The Sign of Four, rebels at stagnation. . . . I abhor the dull routine of existence. I crave for [sic] mental exultation.”

“Exultation” too sounds a lot like Baudelaire. Here, from Elevation:

Behind the problems and the great pains
That weigh down our cloudy existence
Happy is he who can launch himself with a strong wing
Towards glowing and serene fields!

Holmes joins, at least fictionally, the long line of Romantic artists and writers caught between the reality of life and the things that take us out of it. For Baudelaire, distraction came in poetry and the imagination, which is to say from within, albeit threatened at all points by ennui. And Coleridge, in his Dejection: An Ode points out that sometimes the ennui wins. For Holmes, distraction came in “the most abstruse cryptogram, the most abstruse analysis”—which had to come from without, and over which he has no control. Drugs were necessary to many of the Romantic poets to render life supportable. For Baudelaire, the drug of choice was wine (he scorned marijuana or hashish), which is the subject of a whole cluster of poems of Les Fleurs du Mal. For Coleridge and de Quincy, the drug of choice was opium. For Holmes, it was (as Watson tells us) “the occasional use of cocaine, which he turned to only “as a protest against the monotony of existence when cases were scanty and the papers uninteresting.” And he tells Watson that he “abhors the dull routine of existence” (above) only after “thrusting” into his “sinewy forearm and wrist, all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture marks” the “hypodermic syringe” he has taken from its “neat morocco case” with its “seven-per-cent solution of cocaine”—sometimes, apparently, it’s morphine, at least in the early days, so Watson has to ask. Reality requires escape.

Illustration by Sidney Paget for 'Silver Blaze'

Illustration by Sidney Paget for ‘Silver Blaze’

For Holmes, there is no escape from ennui except that which a case, or cocaine, effects. Unlike the poets, he has no inner resources, none of Baudelaire’s ability to imagine himself in a place where (as in L’invitation au Voyage) “tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté, /Luxe, calme et volupté”—Everything is order and beauty/ luxury, calm and voluptuousness. The dramatic arc of all the Holmes stories is based on the impossibility of his keeping the ordinary at bay himself. As Holmes puts it before The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge arrives to pull him from his ennui: “My dear Watson, you know bored I have been since we locked up Colonel Carruthers. My mind is like a racing engine, tearing itself to pieces because it is not connected up with the work for which it was built. Life is commonplace; the papers are sterile; audacity and romance seem to have passed forever from the criminal world.”

Holmes was a late Romantic, albeit of a different sort than one who works in words, a sort of poet of action. Watson repeatedly calls Holmes an artist, as Holmes does himself. In The Adventure of the Empty House, Watson hears in Holmes’s voice “the joy and pride which the artist takes in his own creation.” In The Adventure of Black Peter, Watson tells us that Holmes, “like all great artists, lived for his art’s sake.” And Holmes notes before entering into The Adventure of the Copper Beeches, speaking of himself, “To the man who loves art for its own sake . . . it is frequently in its least important and lowliest manifestations that the keenest pleasure is to be derived.” And he’s clearly the artist here taking pleasure in his own art: the art is his solving the problem, not in the world itself.

Holmes’s occasional flashes of pride make him seem momentarily as prey to vanity as the rest of us, as does his satisfaction in the jewels given as thanks by crowned heads (including, it seems, the Queen herself after Holmes “spent a day at Windsor” at the conclusion of The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans). But these moments of humanity are few and far between. Generally, Holmes lives as we imagine an artist should, without much of the usual temptations of life: fame, honor. He always gives credit to the dull plodders at Scotland Yard who have called him in to clean up their messes, refuses a knighthood, and retires at the end to a small farm with a view of Dover where he keeps bees. He does, to be sure, make the Duke of Holderness pay 5,000 pounds for his services in The Adventure of the Priory School, but this is apparently as paybacks for the fact that the Duke himself knew where his missing son was sequestered. More typically, he’s interested only in “l’art pour l’art”, art for art’s sake.

Watson notes how the artistic temperament, such as Holmes’s, tends to melancholy if not distracted, and is influenced by the weather. The day Holmes gets involved in The Problem of Thor Bridge, as Watson notes, “It was a wild morning in October, and I observed as I was dressing how the last remaining leaves were being whirled from the solitary plane tree which graces the yard behind our house. I descended to breakfast prepared to find my companion in depressed spirits for, like all great artists, he was easily impressed by his surroundings.”

As the poet Verlaine put it, looking out at the city in Il pleure dans mon Coeur (In my heart, it’s weeping):

It’s weeping in my heart,
The way it rains on the city.
What is this melancholy
That penetrates my heart?

Watson too is prey to the same aimlessness as Holmes, and is saved from it only by Holmes and his problems, just as Holmes is saved from cocaine only by the arrival of a client. Despite his brief married life (stretching from the end of The Sign of Four until Holmes’s return from Reichenbach Falls in The Adventure of the Empty House where Holmes has learned of Watson’s “sad bereavement”—and leaving aside the fragmentary reference to another Mrs. Watson, most likely simply a mistake on Doyle’s part) Watson seems desperate for a purpose to his life.

Watson has returned after only a brief time as an army surgeon in Afghanistan, in a campaign that, though it “brought honours and promotion to many” brought Watson only “misfortune and disaster.” At this point he’s just graduated from Medical School and completed the Army’s course—then he gets the Jezail bullet, in his shoulder (at least at this point – in some stories it migrates to his leg). He’s pensioned out, and comes back to London to lead an existence that is “comfortless, meaningless”—plus he’s running out of money.

Enter Holmes, and suddenly, a reason for living. You don’t have to see beyond bromance to understand this as one of the great love stories of history, a kind of Gertrude and Alice before their time. Holmes and the strange adventures he confronts give Watson a sense of purpose—not to mention financial stability through shared digs. The years when Holmes was assumed missing—when, somewhat implausibly, his brother and housekeeper kept his rooms as they had been with all objects untouched—so that Watson has only to come around again for it to all start up again—is a great dry stretch in Watson’s life.

Watson needs Holmes and can’t stay away, even if Holmes isn’t very nice to him and has countless bad qualities. Even when (briefly) married, Watson is always at Holmes’s beck and call, and as soon as the wife (wives?) is (are?) no more, he moves back in. This is the sadder in that Watson knows how stupid Holmes thinks him. As Holmes announces after Watson has a try at applying Holmes’s methods to the colourless young woman who has sought their aid in A Case of Identity, all “preposterous hat” and “vacuous face” (“though there was something noble” in her “simple faith” in the man she imagines to be her betrothed, in fact her stepfather in disguise): “’Pon my word, Watson, you are coming along wonderfully. You have really done very well indeed. It is true that you have missed everything of importance, but you have hit upon the method.”

Holmes needs adventure and Watson needs Holmes. It’s not surprising that both are as pessimistic about life in general as Baudelaire who, in his invocation to the reader at the beginning of Les Fleurs du Mal announces as his opener that “Stupidity, error, sin, miserliness/ Fill our spirits and wear out our bodies.” Holmes, though less exhaustive in his listing of problems with life, is similarly skeptical about there being much to be positive about, and Watson implicitly echoes him.

Watson judges the man who ends up being the murderer in The Adventure of the Retired Colourman a “pathetic, futile, broken creature” when he visits them (to ask for their help in solving the murder he himself has committed!—as Holmes calls it later, “pure swank”). Holmes retorts: “Exactly, Watson. Pathetic and futile. But is not all life pathetic and futile? Is not his story a microcosm of the whole? We reach. We grasp. And what is left in our hands at the end? A shadow. Or worse than a shadow—misery.” And then they go on to investigate the case—the murder by this strange man—who turns out to be vicious and unexpectedly strong—of his young wife and her supposed lover. For the duration of the story we at least, and Holmes too, have avoided the shadow. But after the story, for all of us, there is only silence. The adventure has beaten back futility and the shadow for a time, but these must constantly be beaten back, and at some point the silence overwhelms us.

Other stories, largely narrated by Watson but quoting Holmes, acknowledge the lives of quiet desperation most of us lead. In The Red-Headed League, an otherwise uninteresting drone of a man is caught up in an adventure that is the result of his being in the wrong place: it’s intimated to him that he’s interesting, but he turns out not to be. The bad guys merely want the rooms he lives in. The victim, Jabez Wilson, has at least the distinctive visual feature of having fiery red hair—he’s enticed away from where he lives (from which the bad guys are planning a bank heist to the bank next door) by the pretense of having been hired to do well paid work merely because of his hair colour. Watson dismisses him by noting that save for his “flaming red” hair, Wilson “bore every mark of being an average commonplace British tradesman, obese, pompous, and slow.”

In The Three Garridebs it isn’t even something as striking as red hair that is held to set apart the victim from the normal run of pitiful human beings. Instead, it’s merely the man’s name that suggests to the criminal the cover story, which he accepts, that a large sum of money is awaiting him if he helps find another person named Garrideb: this necessitates his leaving the flat which otherwise he never leaves. The hapless object of the bad guy’s interest is one Nathan Garrideb, described as a “very tall, loose-jointed, round-backed person, gaunt and bald, some sixty-odd years of age [the average life expectancy from birth in England in 1890 was in the low 40s]. He had a cadaverous face, with the dull dead skin of a man to whom exercise was unknown.” And he almost never leaves his rooms; as he says, “I am not too strong, and my researches are very absorbing.”

What does he do all day? He collects an astonishing array of unimportant objects, interesting apparently only to him: coins, fossils, skulls, butterflies, flints. They aren’t worth much to anyone, he admits, when Holmes asks if he has anything worth stealing. By this point Holmes knows who is trying to get him away, only not why. The explanation is a counterfeiting setup in the basement from a previous tenant whom, in fact, the bad guy had killed five years before—after which point this strange old man, who only left his rooms to go briefly to an auction house, has been in possession. As the bad guy asks Holmes after he is apprehended, in self-justification of his complex scheme playing on the names: “And can you wonder that when I found this crazy boob of a bug-hunter with the queer name squatting on top of it [the counterfeiting press] and never quitting his room, I had to do the best I could to shift him?”

Watson warns us at the beginning that the story “may have been a tragedy, or it may have been a comedy”—and then continues in what seems a whimsically comedic vein to make his point: “It cost one man his reason, it cost me a blood-letting, and it cost yet another man the penalties of the law.” The shock of realizing that there is no money (the “boob of a bug-hunter” has been sent far away, to Birmingham, to meet the fictional third Mr. Garrideb whose mere existence, he believes, will be the source of millions) makes him the one referred to by Watson as the man who loses his reason: “When his castle in the air fell down, it buried him beneath the ruins. He was last heard of at a nursing-home in Brixton.”

The adventure almost pales beneath the pathetic weight of its victim, made clear by Conan Doyle and his characters. Nathan Garrideb was a meaningless little man, fussing with his meaningless collection—he thinks with more money he can fill out his collection so that he will be “the Hans Sloane” (whose collection was the basis of the British Museum) of his age. He’s gullible, and has unrealistic dreams of glory. He has “large round spectacles” and a “small, projecting goat’s beard” in addition to his “stooping back”: “The general effect, however, was amiable, but eccentric.”

If Mr. Garrideb is egregiously pitiful, the average Englishman of good character in the Holmes stories is, finally, dull. As for example Mr. Scott Eccles, who is used as the witness in The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge, and whose account of what transpired when he was an overnight guest of the handsome young man Garcia, fabulous though it is, is later unquestioned by the police. Watson describes Eccles as a “stout, tall, gray-whiskered and solemnly respectable person” whose “life history was written in his heavy features and pompous manner. From his spats to his gold-rimmed spectacles, he was a Conservative, a churchman, a good citizen, orthodox and conventional to the last degree.” It’s striking that even Watson, whom Holmes clearly finds slow, has this response to a man even more plodding than himself.

Holmes remarks that it is because he is so believable that he has been brought to the Lodge at all, noting the improbability of a good looking (as Eccles himself notes) urbane young man being interested in friendship with Mr. Eccles to the point of inviting him to be his houseguest. It turns out the friendship was feigned; the exotic Garcia wanted a respectable witness.

It’s not just Eccles who is an average schlub caught up in larger nets flung by stronger hands. Mr. Henry Baker, who loses the goose in The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, knew nothing of the priceless stone that was inside the bird. He’s almost as pitiful as Mr. Garrideb, having fallen on hard times (his hat is old), if not entirely devoid of self-respect (he’s daubed it with ink to make it look better), has taken to drink (he’s dropped wax on it more than once weaving up the stairs with a candle at night), and his wife has ceased to love him (the hat hasn’t been brushed). And then there’s the fact that his hair is gray (remnants of a recent cut are on the band inside, stuck with his hair cream).

So much for the average Joe. But Holmes doesn’t seem to think much better of the better-off English country squires either. In The Greek Interpreter, Holmes suggests that English squires possess no particularly desirable qualities: his own ancestors, he tells Watson, were such country squires, “who appear to have led much the same life as is natural to their class.” He ascribes his own “faculty of observation” and his “peculiar facility for deduction” to his grandmother having been not only French, but the sister of “Vernet, the French artist”. “Art in the blood”, he remarks, “is liable to take the strangest forms.” Indeed, all good things in the Holmes stories come from abroad, at least indirectly: Garcia, the good-looking and, it turns out, virtuous young man who makes such a contrast to the stolid Mr. Eccles is “of Spanish descent.”

English women in Holmes’s world are like these male schlubs, taken advantage of by those who are stronger. The daughter in A Case of Identity falls for a suitor who whispers (he’s had “quinsy”—abcesses behind the tonsils, rare in the post-Victorian age—as a child) and has such weak eyes he wears coloured glasses: it’s her stepfather in disguise, seeking to get her mind off the real suitors who, in marrying her, would deprive him of a sizeable income. The murderer Dr. Roylott in The Adventure of the Speckled Band, has similar motives: when his step-daughters marry, they take away a lot of money—he kills one and is going for the second when Holmes intervenes. The criminals are the only ones with any oomph.

Then there are the governesses, all of them victimized by lack of money and at the mercy of their male employers, who may treat them well or ill. Miss Violet Hunter goes to the house called “The Copper Beeches” despite misgivings, and finds she is expected to impersonate a young lady who, it turns out, is imprisoned in the attic. Holmes is alerted to skullduggery by the fact that the salary offered is much too generous. She was suspicious too, but life’s hard for everybody, and requires compromises and risk-taking against people’s better judgment. Not just for women.

Miss Hunter escapes unscathed, but sometimes things turn out badly. The engineer who loses his thumb in the adventure named after this very thumb (unsurprisingly, The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb) also had misgivings at the too-high, but tempting payment for the job but could not, he believed, refuse. (The bad guys try to squash him in a room that compresses, and hack off his thumb as he is hanging from the window after an improbable escape.)

The young doctor in The Adventure of the Resident Patient set up in a practice from which his benefactor takes three quarters of the earnings in order, it turns out, to protect this benefactor—a former bank robber—is facing financial difficulties, and so accedes to the extortionate proposition. In The Adventure of the Crooked Lip, the young reporter discovers it’s more lucrative to beg in a grotesque disguise than work normally. The brother in The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place faces financial ruin and so puts off announcing the death of his sister, which would mean his undoing as the house lives in is hers until her death, until his horse has run the race he hopes will solve his financial problems. In a rare happy ending, Conan Doyle has the horse win. Even the aristocratic Lord St. James, who loses his American dowry and his bride in The Adventure of the Noble Client, needs to fortune hunt and is furious to find that she is already married. (The husband shows up at the church; the wife had thought him dead.)

Sometimes the plot threads of men forced to take chances, women at the mercy of men, and money corrupting converge. The lady in The Solitary Cyclist is prey to two designing men who played cards to see who will marry her, because she is—unbeknownst to her—heiress to a fortune from South Africa. The Greek Interpreter is needed so that the criminal can force the Athenian brother to consent to their marriage for monetary reasons with the sister. The lady whom Watson marries after The Sign of Four gets only a string of pearls and not the entire treasure, thus making her marriageable to a poor doctor—much to the relief of both: the treasure is strewn along the Thames during the (for Conan Doyle) abnormally spirited and abnormally outdoorsy high-speed boat chase.

Just as the adventures contrast with the underlying grayness of existence, so not everybody in Holmes’s world is this dull. But it’s almost always the outlaws—or women—for whom we end up rooting: at last, excitement! Holmes isn’t much interested in women, in fact doesn’t like them (Watson tells us), but he is all admiration for Irene Adler, who beats him at his own game of disguise and outwits the King of Bohemia. But she too is an artiste, a prima donna assoluta in the world’s opera houses—her birth in New Jersey doesn’t seem to have slowed her down. As Watson puts it, Holmes “refers to her under the honorable title of the woman.” Watson has an eye for the ladies (falling in love at first sight in The Sign of Four): it is he, not Holmes, who describes the perpetrator in The Adventure of the Second Stain as “the most lovely woman in London” and then comments admiringly on “the subtle, delicate charm and the beautiful colouring of that exquisite head.”

Both Holmes and Watson equally acknowledge a good-looking or powerful man, who almost inevitably turns out to be the villain. By contrast with the pitiful real Mr. Garrideb, the bad guy, the faux Mr. Garrideb, is a “short, powerful, man” with a “round, clean-shaven face” and “alert”, “bright” and “responsive” eyes. He may be a criminal and a killer, but he has energy. Indeed he insists that he merits a medal “as large as a soup-plate” for killing the counterfeiter years before. And Watson agrees: “Evans had indeed done great service … for the counterfeiter stands in a class by himself as a public danger.” Many police agents “would willingly have subscribed to that soup-plate medal of which the criminal had spoken, but an unappreciative bench took a less favorable view…”

Indeed, Conan Doyle seems to have had a weakness for male physicality. The King of Bohemia, who consults Holmes in the matter of Miss Irene Adler, is not the good guy, but he’s a king: he is “hardly less than six feet six inches in height, with the chest and limbs of a Hercules.” The exiled dictator who kills the good-looking Garcia in The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge is, as Holmes describes it, “a man of fifty, strong, active, with iron-gray hair, great bunched black eyebrows, the step of a deer and the air of an emperor—a fierce, masterful man.” The man who helps Lady Brackenstall kill her undeserving cowardly husband—so undeserving that Holmes lets off the guilty parties at the end, as he sometimes does (usually things are arranged by the culprit dying of an incurable condition)–is “as fine a specimen of manhood as ever passed through [their door, says Watson]. He was a very tall young man, golden-moustached, blue-eyed, with a skin that had burned by tropical sun, and a springy step, which showed that the huge frame was as active as it was strong.” And he’s told to go away for a year until things blow over. That’s the extent of his punishment. The gods apparently love these hyper-males: clearly Holmes and Watson do too.

The army buddy who seems to have disappeared in The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier is described as “frank” and “manly”—quite different from the person with the blanched face whom the friend later sees—“slinking”, “furtive”, and “guilty.” Yet when he finally appears, the apparent victim of leprosy, Watson reports that “one could see that he had indeed been a handsome man.” The good news is that it’s not leprosy, but a harmless skin condition—a strangely merciful conclusion given that he has slept unbeknownst to himself in a bed of a recently abandoned leper’s colony after being wounded in the Boer War.

Gods walk among us, but they’re very rare. Conan Doyle even endows Holmes with (underused) physical abilities: Watson’s list in A Study in Scarlet of the strengths and weaknesses of his new roommate include, after “10. Plays the violin well”, “11. Is an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman.” Conan Doyle has Watson sing the physical praises of his friend in The Yellow Face: “Few men were capable of greater muscular effort, and he was undoubtedly one of the finest boxers of his weight that I have ever seen.” That this is improbable is conceded, as “Holmes was a man who seldom took exercise for exercise’s sake. . . he looked upon aimless bodily exertion as a waste of energy, and he seldom bestirred himself save when there was some professional object to be served. . . That he should have kept himself in training is remarkable”—which Watson goes on to ascribe to the fact that Holmes’s “diet was usually of the sparest, and his habits were simple to the verge of austerity.” Holmes also seems to have great physical strength improbable for a man of his habits: he bends back the poker that Dr Roylott, the murderer-via-snake of The Adventure of the Speckled Band, bends to show him how little he is to be trifled with—but does so after the murderous doctor has left.

If force in this world is frequently allied with criminal tendencies or brutality, or with Holmes who pursues this, ugliness is allied with malefaction. Jonathan Small, the co-perpetrator (with his undersized Andaman Island henchman) of the theft of the Agra treasure in The Sign of Four. has been a cripple since the age of twenty, when a crocodile bit off his leg. In The Man with the Twisted Lip, the respectable man getting his livelihood as a beggar is in fact a “pale, sad-faced, refined-looking man, black-haired and smooth-skinned” who had had been hidden under “coarse brown tint” and the “horrid scar”, as well as “the twisted lip which had given the repulsive sneer to his face.” The hapless Inspector Lestrade who never gets anything right, is a “lean, ferret-like man.” Holmes’s world seems only one step removed from that of fairy tales, where princesses are as good as they are beautiful and where the villain is usually deformed – the paradox of Snow White’s Wicked Queen being beautiful is resolved when she turns into a crone.

Continue reading Part II (‘Conan Doyle’s Sherlock’)…
Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes during the filming of 'Sherlock' in 2010 (Source: Wikimedia Commons, fair use)
Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes during the filming of ‘Sherlock’ in 2010 (Source: Wikimedia Commons, fair use)

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