Thursday, January 23, 2003

Sherlock Holmes and the Anglosphere

Andrew Sullivan quotes Sherlock Holmes as apparently an early proponent of the Anglosphere.

"It is always a joy to meet an American, Mr. Moulton, for I am one of those who believes that the folly of a monarch and the blundering of a minister in far-gone years will not prevent our children from being some day citizens of the same world-wide country under a flag which shall be a quartering of the Union Jack with the Stars and Stripes."

It isn't just this one story, either. The Holmes books are very kind and complimentary to Americans, even if they sometimes have the usual British prejudices towards them.

"Tomorrow it will be but a dreadful memory. With my hair cut and a few other superficial changes I shall no doubt reappear at Claridge's tomorrow as I was before this American stunt - I beg your pardon, Watson; my well of English seems to be permanently defiled - before this American job came my way."

( His Last Bow. 1917).

Most of the Holmesian canon is short stories, but in two of the four novels( A Study in Scarlet and The Valley of Fear) about half the action takes place in America. (In both cases, Holmes is in London, and figures out what happened later). Usually sympathetic American characters crop up in quite a few of the other stories. (German and French characters tend to be much less straightforward). Sir Henry Baskerville, the principal character (apart from Holmes and Watson) of The Hound of the Baskervilles , is British but supposedly grew up in America. (Intriguingly, though, both Sir Henry and Holmes himself were played by Australians in the most recent BBC television adaptation, so there is one more for the Anglosphere).

And as one final observation, Conan Doyle once wrote a play entitled Angels of Darkness , which was never published and is lost. However, it apparently features Watson living in San Francisco prior to meeting Holmes, and married to an American.

As a somewhat ludicrous aside while talking about Dr Watson in San Francisco, it is worth spending some time on the question of Dr Watson's wives, merely because it is amusing. Conan Doyle rather rushed the writing of the Holmes stories, and as a consequence the details of the stories are not always entirely consistent from one to another. The chronology of the stories appears to be that Watson lives with Holmes in 221b Baker Street, then gets married to Mary Morstan and leaves in 1888 . Sherlock Holmes apparently dies. At some point in the next couple of years, Mary dies. Holmes returns in 1894, and Watson then returns to live with Holmes in Baker Street. (Holmes' brother Mycroft has kept the rooms in Baker Street exactly as Holmes left them, which is convenient, although it must be said that Mycroft, unlike Watson, was aware that Holmes was not dead). Watson then gets married again in 1902, and leaves Baker Street again. Some years later, Holmes (like Conan Doyle himself) retired to Sussex for a career in beekeeping, but still meets up with Watson to take cases from time to time.

However, there are various details of chronology that are not entirely consistent, and if you take it literally, Watson is leaving and returning rather more than makes any. One way to interpret it all is to conclude that Watson was married more than twice, and in taking to to extremes some people have found evidence that Watson had as many as seven wives.

If so, what actually happened to the wives?

The second dubious explanation is that Watson was a serial killer.

How hard would it be for a doctor to procure poisons or administer deadly infections? Watson does admit to having "another set of vices" in "A Study in Scarlet"--could he be referring to a murderous streak a mile wide? This would make Watson one of the most diabolical, cunning, and daring killers of all time, to stay so brazenly close to the world's greatest detective and yet defy discovery at every turn. One would surmise that Holmes would get suspicious by the fourth or fifth time he was asked to present a ring as the best man.

This is all very silly, but much fun has been had discussing the subject.

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