Sherlock Holmes and Victorian Culture “A Victorian To The Bone”: Sherlock Holmes and the Cultural Norms of Victorian England When crafting a recent television series featuring the iconic fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, the writers chose to set their adaptation in contemporary London, complete with all the technological advances and cultural changes of the present day, rather than the Victorian (and later Edwardian) London that was the setting of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original Holmes stories. Writer Mark Gatiss said of this decision, “What appealed to us about the idea of doing Sherlock in the present day is that the characters have become almost literally lost in the fog… And while I am second to no one in my enjoyment of that sort of Victoriana, we wanted to get back to the characters...” (Thorpe). In other words, by divesting the story of its Victorian setting, the writers hoped to connect their audience to the characters of Holmes and Watson in a deeper way. Indeed, the Victorian era is now far enough in the past that it often seems alien and exotic to modern readers of the Holmes canon, particularly non-British modern readers. The character of Holmes himself can seem similarly exotic, blurring within a haze of gaslights and hansom cabs, deerstalker caps and smoking jackets, and other such period accoutrements which may be more setting than character. Yet I believe that the ideal way to understand Sherlock Holmes is to understand him as he stood within the time and place he was written into. If we want to understand Sherlock Holmes the man, we must first understand Sherlock Holmes the Victorian. In what ways was Sherlock Holmes a Victorian, and in what ways did he depart from the prevailing culture of his day? Were his behavior, speech, dress and mannerisms typical of the day, or were they atypical? Was he an oddity in the society of London in the late 1800s, or did he fit in? Class was an important aspect of identity in Victorian London, if not the most important aspect. People seemed to define themselves almost exclusively by occupation and status. Everything the Victorians did, every manner of dress or speech they affected, was classconscious (Keating 7). Sherlock Holmes was no exception to this. It is tempting, sometimes, to treat our fictional heroes of eras past in an anachronistic manner, placing the words of present paradigms in their mouths, but Holmes does not permit us that liberty: his behavior demonstrates an acceptance of the class system he inhabits. To begin with, Holmes himself is not an upper-class Victorian (Harrison 13). He is not landed gentry, and he cannot speak of his inheritance in terms of how many pounds per year he can withdraw. We know that he is not rich: the entire reason why Watson and Holmes are introduced to one another (in the novel A Study In Scarlet) was because Holmes needs a flatmate to help him afford his rent (Doyle 16). But neither is he poor, “working-class,” though he can affect the dress and dialect of a rough lout or out-of-work groom when the situation calls for disguise (Doyle 167). Holmes maintains a lifestyle that includes dining out, violin concerts, holidays in the countryside, and other such luxuries that few cabbies or grooms could afford. Holmes speaks of his ancestors as having been “country squires” (Doyle 435), “who appear to have led much the same life as is natural to their class.” In several stories, too, he displays what
some have interpreted as a “reluctance” to discuss money, “…all that reluctance to consider—or even to discuss—money which is the universal and enduring neurosis of the English middlemiddle-class” (Harrison 13), at one point rebuking a Duke for bringing up the subject of his fee. He seems to have “this absurd, but almost understandable desire to pose, not only as the Compleat Professional Man, but as one who has small need to earn his bread” (Harrison 14). This would place Holmes firmly in the middle class of Victorian society, a professional gentleman who must keep up an appearance of relative wealth while not being wealthy enough to avoid the need for an occupation. Holmes seems to style himself a “gentleman,” and indeed seems to take such a status very importantly (Keating 10-11). In “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans,” Holmes berates the murderer they apprehend because of his class: “How an English gentleman could behave in such a manner is beyond my comprehension” (Doyle 930). Holmes holds “gentleman” to be a high standard to which he aspired, as many of his contemporaries did. "…However concocted, the ideal of the English gentleman was a very real one… impressed on the hearts and minds of men who by the thousand went out from their country and set an example to the world. …It was one to compare with that of the noble Roman or of the chevalier sans peur et sans reproche. It was looked up to, admired and imitated all over the globe, that strange, indefinable yet quite clear notion of always and in all circumstances ‘doing the decent thing’… It was an ideal embodied in the person of Mr Sherlock Holmes as if he had been created for this and no other purpose." (Keating 11) Living as a middle-class English gentleman in Victorian times was not always easy. For one thing, it was a financial tightrope. “For a man wishing to keep above the level of the workingclass, the world of 1881 was not a cheap one” (Harrison 92). The rent that Watson and Holmes share would have probably been about four pounds a week, and would have been about as cheaply as the pair could live without damaging their social standing (Harrison 92), but we know that Watson’s army pension is only “eleven shillings and sixpence a day” (Doyle 15), about 3.8 pounds per week, while Holmes’ employment is sporadic. No wonder the doctor and detective are each looking for a flatmate! Add to their rent the cost of the various forms of social entertainment they engage in as much to keep up their social positions as for personal enjoyment (dining out, going to violin concerts, playing billiards), and it becomes clear that the reason Holmes saves and re-uses his dottles (charred, foul-tasting tobacco found at the bottom of a pipe after it has been smoked) might be out of financial necessity (Harrison 92-95). Clothing was very important to the Victorian gentleman—so much so that in Ward’s Prose Quotations the entry under “gentleman” said, “See Christianity, dress” (Keating 10). It is certainly important to Watson, our narrator, who repeatedly identifies “gentlemen” characters by what they are wearing (Keating 11). Clothing seems no less important to Holmes himself, who affected a “quiet primness of dress” (Doyle 386). Holmes may treat his belongings with “contempt,” leaving his sitting-room in a slovenly state, pinning papers to the mantle with a knife, keeping tobacco in a Persian slipper, even shooting up his apartment’s walls with a pistol—but he maintains a personal cleanliness (Harrison 43), even going so far as to make sure he still has a “clean collar” when roughing it out on the moors in The Hound of the Baskervilles (Doyle 741). In film and stage, Holmes is often portrayed as wearing a long tweed coat and a
deerstalker cap—even when in London. But in the original stories, while Holmes is indeed described as wearing an “ear-flapped travelling cap” in “Silver Blaze” (Doyle 335), that was an adventure taking place out on the moors. This would not have been his everyday mode of dress. “Now, it is obvious that a man so careful of the sartorial conventions as Holmes must have been would wear that tweed outfit only when travelling: at other times, he would wear the dress that custom, no less than fashion, ordained, so as not to embarrass either the world or himself” (Harrison 58). At other times Holmes wore frock coats, top hats, waistcoats, and all the customary clothing of an urban Victorian gentleman. Nor did Holmes seem to deviate from Victorian norms in politics, except in a few minor ways. He seems to be a very patriotic person, marking his sitting room’s walls with a “V.R.” (Victoria Regina) in “The Musgrave Ritual” (Doyle 386). In “The Last Bow,” near the end of his life, Holmes undertakes a spy mission for the British government on the eve of World War One, and on several other occasions he performs detective work for high-ranking government officials. In “The Noble Bachelor” he even uses the rhetoric of Empire to an American, stating that “I am one of those who believe 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 worldwide country” (Keating 57), meaning that he feels that the British Empire and the United States will merge. Perhaps the only political stance Holmes holds which is notable for his culture is that he is an enthusiastic supporter of compulsory education, praising the Board schools as “lighthouses” and “beacons of the future” (Doyle 447), though this was not necessarily a popular stance (Keating 15-16). It is in Holmes’ own education that he begins to depart from Victorian norms. In all we have examined so far—in class, in finances, in dress, in politics—Holmes has not varied from the culturally acceptable, even the usual, but his education is a somewhat unusual one, as unusual as (though not as intensive as) the childhood tutoring of philosopher John Stuart Mill. Holmes is still an undergraduate in college in “The ‘Gloria Scott’” (Harrison 1). Holmes later mentions that he was “at College” for two years (Doyle 374), which “means that Holmes shortened his stay at the University by at least one year” (Harrison 2), leaving without a degree. By the time Watson meets Holmes, years later, Holmes is already established as a private consulting detective, but is also pursuing research at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital: Watson at first thinks he is a medical student, but his friend Stamford says he doesn’t know “what he is going in for.” “His studies are very desultory and eccentric, but he has amassed a lot of out-of-the-way knowledge which would astonish his professors” (Doyle 16). He did not “appear to have pursued any course of reading which might fit him for a degree in science of any other recognized portal which would give him an entrance into the learned world,” yet “within eccentric limits his knowledge was so extraordinarily ample and minute…” (Doyle 20). So in essence, Holmes was a college drop-out who continued to audit classes and pursue his own academic path. When Watson first becomes Holmes’s flatmate in A Study In Scarlet, he is curious about this unusual education that seems so specific without having a readily apparent aim, and so he decides to catalogue Holmes’s knowledge—and his ignorance. “Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know nothing,” Watson notes, adding that after he had quoted Thomas Carlyle, Holmes “inquired in the naïvest way who he might be and what he had
done” (Doyle 21). Holmes’s knowledge of astronomy is also nonexistent, right down to not knowing that the earth revolves around the sun. “That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to me to be such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it” (Doyle 21). To Watson’s mind, a Victorian gentleman should have basic knowledge of such things—it is not “civilized,” and says something about a person’s identity, to be ignorant of astronomy or philosophy. Yet Watson also recognizes Holmes’s specialties, such as being able to tell what part of London a soil sample came from, or knowing all about poisons (Doyle 22). This unusual set of specialized knowledge is, of course, what Holmes uses to solve the mysteries he is hired to solve: essentially Holmes creates a field of study for criminology—a career which, at the time, was not yet in existence. It may be that Watson’s initial assessment of Holmes’s education is erroneous, or it may be that as Holmes’s career develops, he becomes more widely read. Either way, by later stories Holmes is no longer as ignorant of areas that did not apply to his specific occupation (Hall 4647), demonstrating knowledge in archaeology (in “The Devil’s Foot”) and biology (in “The Lion’s Mane”). The same man who had to ask who Carlyle was in A Study in Scarlet later comments that Carlyle is the “brook” to Jean Paul Richter’s “parent lake” during a conversation in The Sign of Four (Doyle 121). By the middle of his career Holmes was as familiar with the philosophers and statesmen of his time as society expected him to be. Many would think of Holmes’s use of narcotic drugs as departures from Victorian norms. Throughout the stories, Holmes uses cocaine and occasionally morphine as stimulants when he does not have a mystery to keep his mind occupied. This, however, was not necessarily a departure from what was acceptable. “…there was, at the time when Holmes began to take cocaine, no popular prejudice against drugs or drug-takers” (Harrison 154), at least not the drugs which Holmes indulged in. Watson disapproved, but not as much as he disapproved when he worried that Holmes had begun to indulge in opium (Doyle 232), apparently a less sociallyacceptable drug, as an opium addict is described as “an object of mingled horror and pity to his friends and relatives” (Doyle 229). It seems less so with Holmes’s cocaine. “In Holmes’s day, not only was the purchase of most ‘Schedule IV’ drugs legal: Madeleine Smith and Mrs. Maybrick bought their arsenic; De Quincy and Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson, their laudanum; with no more trouble than that with which they all purchased their tooth-powder.” (Harrison 154). So here we have no deviation from what the Victorians found acceptable. Perhaps the most interesting facet of Victorian culture to explore in Holmes’s life is Philosophy/Theology. The late 1800s were a time of philosophical change. The works of Charles Darwin’s On The Origin of Species had been published in 1859, the year Arthur Conan Doyle was born (Frank 337); Darwin’s book The Descent of Man, which challenged the religious understanding of the origins of humanity, and thus, challenged religious paradigms themselves, was published in 1870—three years before 1873, when the earliest of the Holmes stories is set (Keating 18). Christian faith had previously been a given of Victorian life, but now many Victorians found themselves challenging established religion in favor of a more scientific, rationalistic, empirical approach to the world. The Board schools which Holmes praised produced a generation which understood the tools of scientific inquiry and how to apply them (Keating 15-16). Arthur Conan Doyle himself wrote of the impact Darwinian thought had on
him when he was at Edinburgh University: "…I found that the foundations not only of Roman Catholicism but of the whole Christian faith, as presented to me in nineteenth century theology, were so weak that my mind could not build upon them. It is to be remembered that these were the years when Huxley, Tyndall, Darwin, Herbert Spencer and John Stuart Mill were our chief philosophers, and that even the man in the street felt the strong sweeping current of their thought…" (Frank 338). Doyle had a hard time reconciling his Catholic upbringing with the “scientific desire for truth” (Owen 66), and so became an agnostic (67). It is in this post-Darwin upheaval that Holmes lives and thrives. Holmes himself is a reader of Darwin: in A Study In Scarlet he quotes from Descent of Man about how the power of producing music has existed in humankind before the power of producing speech (Doyle 37, Keating 38). Holmes has a rationalistic, deductive approach to life, using the tools of scientific inquiry to aid in his career (Keating 20), which would have seemed anachronistic in a pre-Darwinian age, but which was cutting-edge thought in the Victorian era. In a striking link to Darwin, Holmes even seems to place great emphasis on biology and descent, favoring nature over nurture in his explanations for criminal behavior. He explains the evil of Professor Moriarty by saying that the Professor had “hereditary tendencies of the most diabolical kind… a criminal strain ran in his blood” (Doyle 471). Likewise with Colonel Moran, Moriarty’s right hand man: “I have a theory that the individual represents in his development the whole procession of his ancestors, and that such a sudden turn to good or evil stands for some strong influence which came into the line of his pedigree” (Doyle 494). In The Hound of the Baskervilles, when Holmes discovers that Stapleton is a Baskerville, he comments that “…it is an interesting instance of a throwback… A study of family portraits is enough convert a man to the doctrine of reincarnation” (Doyle 750). And even regarding himself and his own skills, when Watson asks if Holmes’s powers of deduction come from his training, Holmes does not seem to believe so. “To an extent…” he says, but then talks about his ancestry, particularly his grandmother who was sister to “Vernet, the French artist.” “Art in the blood is liable to take the strangest forms” (Doyle 435). Out of Holmes’s science-driven philosophy comes a rejection of superstition. Holmes always seeks a material explanation for even the strangest of occurrences (Hall 11). In “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire,” Holmes is approached with what seems to be a vampire attack, but refuses to even consider such a possibility. “Rubbish, Watson, rubbish! What have we to do with walking corpses who can only be held in their graves by stakes driven through their hearts? It’s pure lunacy. …The world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply” (Doyle 1034). Likewise in The Hound of the Baskervilles, Holmes dismisses the legend of the Hound as interesting only “to a collector of fairy tales” (Doyle 676), and comments that “I have hithero confined my investigations to this world,” preferring to focus on the real and material footprint than on supernatural speculation (Doyle 681). In this instance he stands in contrast to Dr. Mortimer, a fellow “trained man of science” who nevertheless has “quite gone over to the supernaturalists” in his explanation of the Hound, showing perhaps that the naturalistic approach has not fully permeated even as scientific a field as medicine (Frank 340).
In this rejection, Holmes stands shoulder-to-shoulder with many other great minds of the Victorian Age. John Stuart Mill writes of his own rejection of religion as a casting-away of “superstition” (146), rejecting any morality derived from “a matter of blind tradition, with no consistent principle, nor even any consistent feeling, to guide it” (52). This is not to say that Holmes is necessarily an atheist as Mill was. Holmes rarely speaks openly about his beliefs, but from what little he says we can infer a theology of sorts. We can assume that he had a religious upbringing, as many Victorians had: he comments in “The Crooked Man” that his “Biblical knowledge is a trifle rusty” (Doyle 422), and mentions having been on his way to chapel when he was in college—though chapel attendance may have been mandatory (Rosenberger 50). Despite this, however, he does not seem to be an adherent to any organized religion: only once do we see Holmes in a church, when in disguise he follows Irene Adler to her secret wedding (Keating 135). He refers several times to the “God of justice,” seeming to reflect a belief that a deity does aid in the redressing of wrongs (either in this life or the afterlife) (Rosenberger 52), saying at one point, “If there is not some compensation hereafter, then the world is a cruel jest” (Rosenberger 54). Holmes seems to arrive at his theological beliefs through pure inference, rather than from the received text or doctrine of any faith. "There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion… Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. …It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers." (Doyle 455-456) This seems to echo one of the earlier chapters of A Study in Scarlet, when Holmes claimed that “From a drop of water… a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other” (Doyle 23). Holmes seems to feel that his beliefs are logical inferences rather than leaps of faith. And yet at other times he seems frustrated at the limits of human reason. In “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box” he claims that the mystery must have an answer, “or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable. But what end? There is the great standing perennial problem to which human reason is as far from an answer as ever” (Keating 135). In this, Holmes is again within the tolerances of Victorian society. The middle of the 1800s was a time when religion was very important, when church attendance was expected and when the “day of rest” was compulsory (Keating 6). By the beginning of the 1900s, however, religious publication had dropped (Keating 125), and alternative beliefs such as atheism or agnosticism were tolerated more (Mill 54). One thing that is interesting to note, as regards the interaction between Sherlock Holmes and the supernatural, is that Doyle’s readers seemed to seize upon the fictional detective as a champion of rationalism. Holmes’s adherence to science and the material, even in the face of events that seemed supernatural, hit a cultural nerve. In the early 1920s, when Arthur Conan Doyle (a spiritualist by this time) “championed” the Cottingley fairy photographs, a series of photographs of two young girls playing with what seemed to be supernatural creatures, the public was surprised. “His espousal of the fairies dismayed many of even his most ardent admirers” (Owen
48). Doyle wrote repeated articles and editorials about the photographs, certain that they were authentic; a disbelieving public could not believe that the same author had created the scientifically-minded Sherlock Holmes (Owen 67). A political cartoon around that time showed a “scowling” Holmes shackled to Arthur Conan Doyle, who had his “head in the clouds” (Owen 67). If nothing else, this demonstrates what the Victorians and the children of Victorians had come to see Holmes as representing: a rationalism they felt more comfortable with than with a belief in ghosts or fairies. “No man is an island—especially in Time,” writes Michael Harrison. “Each man is a part of the society in which he lives: he has a hand in giving it its peculiar flavour, and he has been moulded by it” (46). This may perhaps be less true of fictional characters than of historical personages, but it is certainly true of Mr. Sherlock Holmes. Many of the aspects of Holmes’s character that readers today find exotic—his dress, his mannerisms, his habits, his love life, even his scientific approach to observation—are in fact inextricably bound within the era that the Holmes stories were written through and set within. While there are many ways that Holmes astonishes the more conventionally Victorian Watson, Holmes is never so far from the social expectations of his day as to make of himself an outcast or rebel. On the contrary—Sherlock Holmes was very much a Victorian himself.
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