Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die, by Alex Werner (ed.)

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Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die, a clunky but accurate title, has been co-produced by the Museum of London and Ebury Press to accompany an exhibition on Sherlock Holmes at the museum.  Despite its origin the hardback book, compiled by Alex Werner, the museum’s Head of History Collections who is also responsible for curating the exhibition, stands on its own as a useful and accessible series of essays on aspects of Holmes, particularly as he relates to London.  In addition to the essays the pages are a visual treat, plentifully illustrated with photographs, maps, paintings, drawings, postcards, posters and film stills.

David Cannadine sets the scene in his introductory essay ‘“A Case Of [Mistaken] Identity”: Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes and Fin de Siècle London’.  The early Holmes stories catch London at a transitional period, transforming from the national capital which we know from Dickens (but we mustn’t forget that Dickens himself tracked the changes being wrought on London in his time, particularly by the railways) to the centre of Empire.  London provided a rich source of inspiration for authors, with the contrasts and contradictions between old and new, rich and poor, a city of unsurpassed beauty and at the same time a ‘cesspool’, a cohabitation of public virtue and private vice and hypocrisy, a time of confidence in progress yet one of fear of decline and regression.

While Holmes is inextricably associated with London, Conan Doyle only lived there for four years, making his links tenuous.  As a very short-term resident, and in the absence of an in-depth knowledge of the metropolis totally at odds with Holmes’ encyclopaedic knowledge, he conjured up an environment largely from his imagination, using maps to help with the topography.  The strength of Conan Doyle’s writing was that in a few strokes he could create an environment which feels solid despite the absence of detailed descriptions, though Cannadine suggests that Conan Doyle’s recollections of Edinburgh played a role in his imagining of London.  Even so, what is often glossed over in the identification of Holmes with London is that many of the stories are set elsewhere, in provincial environments where Conan Doyle was on safer ground.  By the time the final stories were written post-war London had changed still further, and the London of the 1880s must have seemed a world away to their first readers, beginning to develop that romantic late-Victorian glow which is now so inextricably bound up with our conception of Holmes.

John Stokes’s ‘The “Bohemian Habits” of Sherlock Holmes’ unpicks the complex of associations evoked by the term ‘Bohemian’ and ‘Bohemianism’ in the fin de siècle, and indicates the distinctions between  lounging, loitering, loafing and idling.  He shows that Holmes, when not occupied with a case, shared the Bohemian ethos in his unconventional habits at home, his frequent lassitude, drug habit, unsocial hours, musical interests and flânerie.  Bohemianism had connotations of intellectualism, aestheticism and artistic endeavour among gregarious individuals who were bon viveurs and enthusiastic drinkers.  It was a lifestyle that was the preserve of those who had ownership of their own time, often with independent means or few means at all, and who were united in living outside society’s rigid norms.  Holmes conformed in his non-conformity to many of these traits, though not all, such as his lack of sociability.  Like so much else to do with the period it was a lifestyle, seen retrospectively through a haze of nostalgia, which was swept away by the hard realities of the First World War.

‘Sherlock Holmes, Sidney Paget and the Strand Magazine’, by Alex Werner, is back on more familiar terrain in looking at the contribution that the early artistic depictions made to our conception of Sherlock Holmes.  The most famous was that by Sidney Paget, someone who almost did not get the job as the invitation was intended for his brother Walter, but Sidney opened the envelope addressed simply to ‘Mr Paget’.  The influence of Sidney’s illustrations cannot be underestimated in complementing the stories, finding key moments that are interesting in their own right but at the same time elaborate on the text.   Werner also examines the Strand’s place in the burgeoning periodicals market, and the technical issues in translating Paget’s illustrations into their published form.  Paget was not the only illustrator of the Holmes stories as they appeared, Frederic Dorr Steele providing images for Collier’s in the United States which were based on William Gillette’s stage representation, another strand in the repertoire of depictions.  A drawing of Holmes by Steele was used in an advertisement for an osteopathic remedy in the Strand in 1903, showing how easily the character escaped the stories, here for an unrelated marketing opportunity, the tenuous link being that they are both good at what they do.

After a reprint of an article on Conan Doyle, ‘A Day with Dr. Conan Doyle’, taken from the Strand in 1892, when Conan Doyle was living at Norwood, Pat Hardy in ‘The Art of Sherlock Holmes: “The Air of London is the Sweeter for my Presence”’ examines how the Holmes stories call up a mythic image of London that has not only influenced the way the city in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods is viewed, but has continued to influence adaptations of the stories.  Bound up in this conception are the paintings of London produced at the same time Conan Doyle was writing, a generous number of which accompany the article.  They may have been considered staid in comparison to experiments taking place on the Continent, but they were a forceful indication of London as the world’s major city, both in majestically panoptic overview and in street-level engagement with everyday life.  At the same time they often showed it to be a place of mystery, as suggested by the likes of Monet, Whistler, Pennell, Grimshaw and others, not forgetting the murky photographs of Alvin Langdon Coburn, all concerned with mood above unadorned documentation, finding beauty in the mundane, and fog and the haze of aerial perspective softening the harshness of urban squalor and pollution.

‘Throwaway Holmes’, by Clare Pettit, begins with the observation that Conan Doyle initially saw Holmes as a disposable property, to the extent of attempting to dispose of him over a cliff in order to concentrate on what the author considered rather more serious works.  It was not just Holmes though who was seen as disposable; so, as culture in general became more throwaway, were the magazines the stories appeared in, ephemeral productions designed for quick and easy consumption with minimal attention.  Stories were tailored to the reading habits of people living in an accelerating age where news was being transmitted further and faster than ever before.  The reading public was being subjected to information overload as the quantity of print exploded, with the result that news was becoming more and more compressed – this was the age of Tit-Bits and The Review of Reviews (the common link between them being Sir George Newnes), specialising in the pre-sifting of news in order to speed up its absorption.  In the face of this avalanche of print, magazine short stories were designed to be self-contained so that if an issue of the periodical was missed it didn’t matter, and the stories could be read in any order.  The casual reader was relieved of the responsibility of remembering to buy a particular title regularly in order to follow a developing narrative.  The paradox of this supposed disposability, as Pettitt concludes, is that the Holmes stories have achieved longevity despite their formulaic nature, endlessly reinvented in a variety of media.  That there is no end in sight is suggested by the second part of the book’s subtitle: Holmes will never die.

The final shortish chapter, ‘Silent Sherlocks: Holmes And Early Cinema, by Nathalie Morris, examines the early years of the continuing love affair between Holmes and the moving image, up to Conan Doyle’s death in 1930.  It is a relationship almost as old as film itself, with the first screen adaptation as early as 1900.  A trick film of less than a minute in duration, Sherlock Holmes Baffled drew visually on William Gillette’s stage performance.  From this modest beginning the films became longer and more elaborate in setting, but with varying degrees of sophistication in storytelling.  They eventually supplied a significant income stream for Conan Doyle and later his estate.  Just as the nascent industry had been quick to spot the potential of Holmes as a property, he was an early subject of sound film, with the first Holmes talkie in 1929, rather exemplifying the link with modernity that Pettitt identifies as a characteristic of Holmes (as is the ease with which he can be brought up to date, from fighting Nazis to sending text messages with no sense of absurdity).  At varying times individual actors have become identified with the role, beginning with Gillette, who portrayed Holmes on screen as well as stage, Eille Norwood, then more familiarly Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett.  The book concludes with a gallery of actors who have played Holmes on film and television from Raymond Massey in 1931 to Jonny Lee Miller in 2012, showing the great detective’s infinite flexibility.

It’s a miscellaneous bunch of essays that can only scratch the surface of the phenomenon, but they are an enjoyable read full of insights, and not just into Conan Doyle’s creation: as well as a celebration of Holmes it is a love letter to a vanished London.  While there is a lot packed into the book, what is missing – all the more surprising considering the book’s subtitle – is a consideration of the production of pastiche stories on an industrial scale.  Even more than the films and television programmes utilising the characters, they, issuing from both professional and amateur pens, have fashioned a corpus on a scale that Conan Doyle could not have envisaged.  But then no survey can ever be complete.  That the field is a fast-moving one is indicated by the rueful assertion that William Gillette’s 1916 film based on his stage play was lost.  That’s old news because in late 2014 it was announced that a print had been found in the collections of Cinémathèque Française, having fallen foul of that perennial archival ailment, ‘mislabelling’.  The extensive realm of Sherlock Holmes has just expanded still further.

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