by Dr. Mary Eichbauer and the Discovering Sherlock Holmes Project at Stanford University.
In 1891, Sherlock Holmes was a character very much of his time and place, who appealed to British readers directly by confronting the messy, changeable world they lived in. Rather than dwelling in romance or in an idealized past, as many of Arthur Conan Doyle's other characters did, Holmes was grounded squarely in Victorian London. The Sherlock Holmes mystery stories, written over a forty-year span from 1887 to 1927, represented the good, the bad, and the ugly of Victorian society: its ideals, its accomplishments, and its deepest fears.
Arthur Conan Doyle's birth year, 1859, fell 22 years into Queen Victoria's 64-year reign, a time of unparalleled growth and optimism for the British Empire. Resources and labor taken from colonies worldwide had made England prosper, and the time of serious independence struggles lay in the distant future. Business flourished, technology blossomed, and London grew at a great rate--from one million people to six in the space of a century--creating problems of urban overcrowding familiar to us today: poverty, homelessness, drug abuse, crime. While the great divide between rich and poor and the economic and human strain of maintaining the colonies exacerbated social problems that were as yet insoluble, Victorian Britons, led by Victoria's husband Albert, put their faith in technology and science. The contrasts and conundrums of this fascinating time provided Conan Doyle with the raw material and the backdrop for Sherlock Holmes: a man of science, undistracted by the gentler passions, who moved easily through the disquieting urban space, using his wits to solve its moral and practical dilemmas.
Physically, London could be a place of disturbing contrasts, a cosmopolitan city where the middle class drank tea in comfortable drawing rooms while epidemics of typhoid and cholera ravaged the squalid, overpopulated East End. The putrid Thames River, the city's main source of drinking water, despite the network of open sewers that dumped tons of waste into it daily, carried a reeking cloud of contagion to all levels of society as it meandered through the heart of the city. Since 1844, the government had struggled with various solutions to the sewage problem. In 1858, the year before Conan Doyle was born, the "Great Stink," caused by the unfortunate effects of a hot summer on a sluggish, polluted river, clotted with solid waste, drove thousands out of the city.
After years of effort, engineer Joseph Bazalgette designed and supervised construction of a sewer system, completed in 1866, that drained sewage away from the Thames and used the ebbing tide to wash it out to sea. London's air was not much cleaner than its water. The burning of coal for heat and cooking caused the greasy yellow "London fog" that Holmes and Watson prowl about in:
In the third week of November, in the year 1895, a dense yellow fog settled down upon London. From the Monday to the Thursday I doubt whether it was ever possible from our windows in Baker Street to see the loom of the opposite houses.
from "The Bruce Partington Plans"
Watson does not exaggerate; in the worst London fogs, it was impossible to see past your nose.
Inhabitants of London had more to fear from their city than an unhealthy environment. Barely thirty years before Doyle's birth, London was a criminal's paradise. Whole areas of the city were "owned" by criminal groups, and honest citizens hardly dared to walk through certain neighborhoods at night, even armed. In 1829, the Metropolitan Police was founded by Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel (hence the nickname "Bobbies"). By Conan Doyle's birth in 1859, there were over 200 police constabulary units in England and Wales, under the jurisdiction of individual counties. As Conan Doyle represents them in the Sherlock Holmes stories, the constabularies were highly bureaucratized organizations that did things "by the book"; constables themselves tended to be seen as good-intentioned, but plodding, and not always successful. Luckily, unlike Inspectors Lestrade and Hopkins, Holmes's erstwhile colleagues, the Metropolitan Police was not actually forced to match wits with Holmes's brilliant nemesis, Moriarty, leader of the most insidious criminal syndicate in England.
In the Sherlock Holmes stories, at least, the idyllic-seeming English countryside holds its own dangers. In Victorian England, small towns were still structured on the feudal model that had prevailed for centuries. In general, a large manor house, such as Baskerville Hall, dominated its village. And although the village people no longer led their lives serving the master of the manor, a strict social hierarchy still dictated that the master was the community leader in more ways than one. The health or dysfunction of the family living in the manor house could determine the whole character of a village. Holmes and Watson pursue many mysteries in the countryside surrounding London, where criminals carry on their nefarious activities away from prying eyes. As Holmes remarks:
"It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside. The pressure of public opinion can do in the town what the law cannot accomplish. There is no lane so vile that the scream of a tortured child, or the thud of a drunkard's blow, does not beget sympathy and indignation among the neighbours, and then the whole machinery of justice is ever so close that a word of complaint can set it going, and there is but a step between the crime and the dock. But look at these lonely houses, each in its own fields, filled for the most part with poor ignorant folk who know little of the law. Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places, and none the wiser."
from "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches"
England has seen a century of upheaval since the first Sherlock Holmes stories burst upon the scene. The old, mysterious London has melted away with its "pea-soup" fogs and plagues of sewer gas; British colonies have gained their independence, one by one; manor houses are as likely to be museums or bed and breakfast inns as private residences. The problems faced by modern British society would seem to have left the Victorian detective behind. Not so: the character that Conan Doyle considered unworthy of his serious literary aspirations still strikes a chord with modern audiences. As the world changed around him, Sherlock Holmes, the reassuring protector of British superiority, transcended his time, and today is loved for his weaknesses and eccentricities as much as for his strengths. In the 21st century, sequels and pastiches featuring the quintessential detective are still being produced at a steady rate.
Arthur Conan Doyle's original readers recognized their city and their time in the Sherlock Holmes stories. It was easy to imagine that he was just around the corner, riding in the next hansom cab. No wonder so many people believed that Holmes was real. Today, we can return to those stories to immerse ourselves in the dank vapors and dark alleyways of London, and glimpse another world in all of its splendor and squalor.
Arthur Conan Doyle and The Strand Magazine
Popular literature, such as the Sherlock Holmes stories, came of age along with another 19th-century innovation: the popular magazine. Magazines had existed in some form since the 18th century, but they had never been as cheap or as generally available. This new medium demanded art forms that could be consumed in small bites: on a train trip, or during a few leisure moments after a busy day. In earlier times, literacy generally extended only as far as the middle class, but, with the Education Act of 1870, elementary-school education became compulsory across England. Changing labor laws had given workers more leisure time and disposable income. Increased train travel, especially the advent of daily commuting, triggered a demand for light reading material. Typesetting, although still a complex and labor-intensive technology, had improved to the point where printing houses could mass-produce high-quality material that included photographs and engravings. Finally, the onerous Stamp Tax had been reduced, making printed material more widely affordable.
Publishers quickly learned to target their publications to the needs of particular segments of the population. Working-class people with an elementary-school education read "penny weeklies" such as Tit-bits, which contained short articles, bits of interesting information (what we might call "sound-bites"), and serialized stories. For the middle class, especially those with intellectual aspirations, magazines provided more in-depth articles on politics, science, history, economics, and the arts, as well as fiction that appealed to slightly more developed tastes than what appeared in Tit-bits.
Founded in January 1891, The Strand Magazine, named after a fashionable London street, was aimed squarely at its target audience's middle-class tastes. A typical issue might feature illustrated articles of scientific and historical interest, a series of humorous cartoons on a theme, pictures of famous people at different ages (from toddler to adult), interviews with celebrities, a treatment of a controversial issue of the day, and one or more pieces of fiction. The factual articles were not too complex, and the fiction tended to feature a mystery or "twist" to keep the reader interested. Nevertheless, the articles were skillfully edited and stylishly presented in a sophisticated format. Whoever bought a copy of The Strand felt like a true Londoner.
Conan Doyle wanted fame and success as a writer, and he went about achieving it more systematically and shrewdly than he had approached his medical career. First, he hired a literary agent, A. P. Watt, the very first man to advertise that sort of service. Then, he thought long and hard about what might appeal to his audience. Fearing that serialized stories would be of limited use to a reader who missed an issue, Conan Doyle decided to write stories that could be read independently but whose central character would be the same. Sherlock Holmes, who had already been the hero of Conan Doyle's novels A Study in Scarlet and Sign of the Four, seemed like a good candidate for such a series. Conan Doyle's agent submitted "A Scandal in Bohemia" to The Strand. It was accepted, and Conan Doyle was contracted to write a total of six stories featuring his detective.
Because of the very small success achieved by his first two Holmes novels, Conan Doyle's expectations were low. When "A Scandal in Bohemia" appeared in July 1891, during The Strand Magazine's first year, it was an instant hit. In assuring his own future, Conan Doyle also assured the grand success of The Strand, which ran monthly until 1950.
Arthur Conan Doyle
Like the elusive Sherlock Holmes, his most famous creation, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a man of many contradictions. Scientifically educated, he believed in séances and fairies. An advocate for more equitable divorce laws, he believed that women should be denied the vote. A humanist who identified with oppressed peoples, he staunchly defended English colonialism at its most aggressive. He dreamed of being a serious historical novelist, yet he is best remembered for stories that he considered pot-boilers. The product of a pragmatic, fiercely protective mother and a detached dreamer of a father, Conan Doyle became a man with astonishing self-confidence, a tireless self-promoter who also retained some measure of childish innocence throughout his life.
Arthur Conan Doyle's humble beginnings did not predict his future success. Born on May 22, 1859, to a middle-class, Catholic family, he grew up on Edinburgh's rough-and-tumble streets, far from his successful grandfather and uncles, who hobnobbed with London's intellectual elite. His celebrated grandfather, John Doyle, had reinvented the art of political caricature. John Doyle's eldest son, also named John, became a well-known caricaturist himself, and the second son, Richard, began his career as a successful cartoonist for Punch (an early magazine devoted to political satire) and ended it as a famous book illustrator. Two other sons were also successful in different fields.
Arthur's parents, Mary Foley Doyle and Charles Altamont Doyle, had moved to Scotland from London, hoping that Charles could advance his career in architecture. Having inherited some measure of his family's artistic talent, Charles began with every hope of success, but never realized his dreams. Plagued by depression and alcoholism, Charles was a distant father and husband, becoming so detached from reality that he ended life in an asylum. With considerable charity, his son Arthur later said of him, "My father's life was full of the tragedy of unfulfilled powers and of underdeveloped gifts."
As the only active parent, Mary Doyle had a strong influence on Arthur, the eldest surviving son of seven children, instilling in him a love of chivalric romances and a firm belief in the English code of honor. She made the boy memorize and recite his family's genealogy, ancestor by ancestor. When left to himself, Arthur loved to read American "wild west" adventure stories, especially those of Bret Harte and Thomas Mayne Reid, an Irish immigrant to the U.S. who wrote The Scalp Hunters (1851), young Arthur's favorite book. As an adult, Conan Doyle felt that the highest vocation he could pursue as a writer was to create well-researched historical romances idealizing British history.
The Doyles sent Arthur to an austere Jesuit school for his early education. Despite the Spartan fare and harsh discipline, Arthur excelled. When Arthur left the Jesuits, Mary Doyle persuaded him to pursue a medical degree at the University of Edinburgh. Arthur agreed, more out of a practical desire for a reliable profession than out of passion for the subject. By this time, Charles Doyle had lost his job, and the family had difficulty paying the school fees. A lodger named Bryan Charles Waller became the family's protector, eventually supporting Mary, Charles, and their children completely.
Dr. Joseph Bell
Once at university, Conan Doyle found the work difficult and boring. He gained more amusement from playing sports, at which he excelled, than in listening to lectures in large, crowded lecture halls. More interesting than studying was describing his instructors' eccentric personalities. Among his teachers was the man Conan Doyle later acknowledged as his inspiration for Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Joseph Bell. Dr. Bell taught his students the importance of observation, using all the senses to obtain an accurate diagnosis. He enjoyed impressing students by guessing a person's profession from a few indications, through a combination of deductive and inductive reasoning, like Holmes. Although Bell's methods fascinated Conan Doyle, his cold indifference towards his patients repelled the young medical student. Some of this coldness found its way into Sherlock Holmes's character, especially in the early stories.
Around the time he obtained his medical degree, Conan Doyle's crisis of faith, which had been brewing since his days with the Jesuits, came to a head. He announced to his uncles that he had turned away from organized religion, shocking them deeply and causing them to withdraw their support. Because he refused to practice his family's religion, Conan Doyle was forced to make own way in the medical profession, with neither financial help nor letters of introduction to influential people. He was an uneasy agnostic, however, and although he hoped that pure rationalism could take the place of religion for him, it never did. Around 1880, he began to attend séances, and by the end of his life he had become an ardent spiritualist.
A restless man who loved adventure and physical activity, Conan Doyle took any opportunity to travel. He grew interested in photography and published several articles about it. To make a few extra pounds while studying medicine, he hired on as ship's doctor on brief voyages to the Antarctic and Africa. He also began to write short stories for sale, based on the adventure tales he had loved as a child and on his own first-hand experiences. After graduation, he struggled to establish a medical practice, since he could not afford to buy one. Although hampered by poverty and his lack of social connections, Conan Doyle achieved a modest success in medicine. His 1885 marriage to Louise Hawkins, the sister of a patient who had died, provided him with a small supplemental income that raised his standard of living.
In 1886, Doyle finished the first Sherlock Holmes novella, A Study in Scarlet. After several rejections, he was forced to sell it outright for £25 for inclusion in the 1887 Beeton's Christmas Annual, a holiday collection that often sold out, but did not usually attract much attention in the national press. The work was reprinted in 1889 and many more times, but Conan Doyle never earned another penny from it. Sign of the Four, the second work to feature Holmes and Watson, also achieved a small, but by no means brilliant, success.
While writing the early Holmes stories, Doyle also began what he considered his most important work: chivalric, historical novels based on British history, primarily, Micah Clark, Sir Nigel, and The White Company. Although these novels were widely admired, none of them created the stir caused by the first series of short stories featuring Sherlock Holmes and John Watson that appeared in The Strand Magazine, starting in 1891. Despite their overwhelming success, Conan Doyle never suspected that these stories would be the foundation of his literary legacy. After writing three series of twelve Holmes stories, receiving the unheard-of sum of £1000 for the last dozen, Conan Doyle was sick to death of the popular detective and decided to kill him off in the 1893 story, "The Final Problem." Conan Doyle considered the Holmes stories light fiction, good for earning money, but destined to be quickly forgotten, the literary equivalent of junk food. "I couldn't revive him if I would, at least not for years," he wrote to a friend who urged Holmes's resurrection, "for I have had such an overdose of him that I feel towards him as I do towards paté de foie gras, of which I once ate too much, so that the name of it gives me a sickly feeling to this day." The vehement public reaction to Holmes's death must have shocked Conan Doyle. People wore black armbands and wrote him pleading--or threatening--letters. Still, it was nine years before he capitulated to public opinion and brought Holmes back.
The third Holmes novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles, appeared in nine parts in The Strand Magazine during 1901-2, but it was presented as an old case from Watson's records, completed before Holmes's death. Conan Doyle did not make up his mind to resurrect Holmes until 1903, when he wrote "The Empty House." He continued, reluctantly, to produce Holmes stories until 1927, three years before his own death.
Conan Doyle became an important public figure, twice standing (unsuccessfully) for Parliament. He was knighted for his efforts on behalf of the Boer War, both as the author of a persuasive, pro-war book and as a volunteer, caring for wounded British soldiers in the field. He even took on several real-life mysteries, using Holmes's methods and his own status as a famous author to free two unjustly imprisoned men.
The First World War tore apart Conan Doyle's familiar world. Like so many others, he lost close family members to the conflict. Conan Doyle's brother-in-law and nephew died in combat, while the influenza pandemic took his brother Innes and his eldest son Kingsley, weakened by war wounds. During the war, he managed to have himself appointed as an observer for the Foreign Office, but he was kept away from the horrors of the western front for fear that he might reveal to the public things that the military would rather have kept quiet. Even Sherlock Holmes served England in the war. In the story that Conan Doyle intended to be the last Holmes outing, His Last Bow, published in 1916, Holmes outwits a German spy.
Conan Doyle found a refuge from the horrors of the war, and he clung to it tenaciously. Starting in 1916, he publicly declared himself a spiritualist, and over the next few years he made spiritualism the center of his life, writing on the subject and traveling all over the world to advocate his beliefs. Never afraid to take an unpopular stand, Conan Doyle wrote a book in 1922 called The Coming of the Fairies, in which he defended the veracity of two young girls who claimed to have photographed each other playing with actual fairies and goblins.
Towards the end of their lives, long after Conan Doyle's death, the aged "girls" admitted to having used paper cutouts as stand-ins for the fairies. Interestingly, Conan Doyle's own Uncle Richard had invented, in his book illustrations, the typical representation of a fairy as a little girl with dragonfly wings and a gossamer gown. No matter how many times Conan Doyle was tricked by mediums later proven to be dishonest, he continued to believe in spiritualism. The famous American magician Harry Houdini made a project of trying to convince Conan Doyle of his error, but all he managed to do was ruin their friendship. Houdini saw spiritualism as cruel because it gave people false hope; Conan Doyle, who was already suffering from serious heart disease, wanted to believe that death was a grand new adventure. He fought his infirmity, trying to continue writing and traveling as before. He died at the age of 71, secure in his spiritualist beliefs.
Doctor, writer, believer in the supernatural--Conan Doyle's personality encompassed all these traits that contributed to the Sherlock Holmes stories we love to read today. Conan Doyle's fanciful imagination, combined with his scientific training, created ideas that have helped to shape the modern mystery and science fiction genres. One of the first to anticipate the dangers of submarines in warfare, he wrote a Sherlock Holmes story on the subject. His novel The Lost World is the ancestor of Jurassic Park and countless other films. Another of his stories, "The Ring of Thoth," was probably the plot source of the 1932 film The Mummy with Boris Karloff. An 1883 medical article called "Life and Death in the Blood," outlining the imaginary voyage of a microscopic observer through the human body, anticipated the main idea behind the film Fantastic Voyage. Conan Doyle's most long-lived idea, however, was Sherlock Holmes himself, who has continued to evolve in our time through the works of other writers and filmmakers, taking forms even his creator could never have imagined.
As a Halloween costume, it's almost too easy--just wear a deerstalker cap, stick a calabash pipe between your teeth, and carry a magnifying glass. Say, "Elementary, my dear Watson." Chances are, everyone will know that you're supposed to be Sherlock Holmes. No matter that Holmes wore a cap only once in the original stories, that his pipe of choice was not a calabash, and that he never uttered that phrase. He did, however, use a magnifying glass occasionally.
Like other pop culture icons, Holmes and Watson have evolved since their creation over a century ago. Their characters have changed, as have the qualities for which audiences admire them. Below appear some of the best-known permutations of Holmes and Watson, as they have traveled from print to stage and radio, to film and television, and back to print again. It would be impossible to list every version here, so some guidelines have been included for further investigation. The game is afoot! Happy sleuthing.
Conan Doyle Slept Here
The fate of Undershaw, Conan Doyle's home from 1896 to 1906, is uncertain. Although his mother, Mary Foley Doyle, claimed to trace her lineage back to the royal Plantagenets through her mother's side, and loved to tell her eldest child tales of British history, Conan Doyle wasn't royalty, by any stretch of the imagination. When he became a wealthy man, he had to create his own estate.
The fate of Conan Doyle's home from 1896 to 1906, which he had a minor hand in designing, is still in doubt. After learning in 1893 that his wife Louise ("Tooie") might not live out the year, Conan Doyle first took her to Switzerland, whose dry air and high altitudes were more healthful for consumptives than the damp climate of England. When friends told him about the mild, dry microclimate of Hindhead, Surrey, he decided to build a home there. In 1895, Conan Doyle bought land and chose an architect to build Undershaw. Under her husband's watchful care, Tooie lived another decade, and died at Undershaw in 1906.
[from Wikipedia:] Doyle commissioned the construction on the site by architect Joseph Henry Ball, whom Doyle described as "...an old friend and a man of most fastidious taste and critical turn of mind who will keep a constant eye upon the work." Built in the style 'Surrey-vernacular', the house is largely composed of red brick and is asymmetrical. A factor in the construction were the large south-facing windows which let in plentiful light, intended to provide a cheerful indoor environment. The windows also featured specially manufactured stained glass with a coat of arms said to be that of Doyle's family; many of these have not survived the attacks of vandals in recent years.
Undershaw's main entrance opened into an entry hall of two stories with a brick fireplace. Doyle's home also included a generator for the electric lighting, which was not common outside of cities at the time, and a dining room which could seat thirty people. A special display shelf in the wood-paneled drawing room, located near the ceiling, displayed a collection of weapons, stuffed birds, walrus tusks and various trophies. The doors of the house were also unusual in that they open both ways. The current internal layout has 14 bedrooms, with a size of 10,000 square feet (930 square meters).
Doyle's three-storey home featured a grand staircase of shallow steps, to prevent Louise Doyle from becoming winded on the way upstairs. It also boasted a billiards room and Doyle's private book-lined study, where the author wrote some of his best-known work.
Doyle lived at Undershaw for a decade between 1897 and 1907 (Louise died in 1906). The house was the place where many of Doyle's most famous works were composed including The Great Boer War, The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Adventures of Gerard, The Return of Sherlock Holmes and Sir Nigel. Doyle also entertained many notable house guests at Undershaw including Sherlock Holmes illustrator Sidney Paget, the famous Sherlock Holmes actor William Gillette and the creator of Dracula, Bram Stoker. Other notable visitors included E.W. Hornung, J.M. Barrie, Thomas Wemyss Reid, Gordon Guggisberg, Churton Collins, Virginia Woolfe and Bertram Fletcher Robinson.
Undershaw was converted into a hotel not long after Doyle sold it. During 2004, the hotel closed and the property was purchased by Fosseway Limited - it has remained unoccupied since that sale. On 18 August 2010 the Los Angeles Times reported that plans are underway to redevelop the home into a multi-unit apartment building, stating "The hammers start raining blows on Undershaw as early as next month."
The plan is opposed by preservationists, who want to see the home converted into a museum dedicated to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. However, in June, 2010 the Waverley Borough Council declined to buy Undershaw from the developer. The council's chief of planning, Matthew Evans, stated "We don't have that kind of money. We have to tighten our belts." But councillor Jim Edwards, the only vote against the planning officers' recommendations, took the preservationists' side, saying "This house has got tremendous historical importance. This is a massive development, and quite unacceptable in my view." And Doyle's great-nephew Richard Doyle, reportedly 'upset', said "The family had been trying to come up with ways of buying it, but the price was so high we could not afford it. We just wish there was something we could do."
In March 2010 it was stated that the developer would accept £1.5 million for the property, but it was unclear six months later if the offer was still open at that price. Preservationists were frustrated when attempts to promote Undershaw into the top rank of protected buildings failed. A government report stated that the house was not architecturally notable, and that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was not of the same standing as Jane Austen or Charles Dickens.
While the red brick house is less than an architectural marvel, it bears the imprint of Conan Doyle's character. Doors are doubled-hinged, to accommodate a large man with an energetic stride who couldn't stop to turn a knob or pull a door towards him. Stained-glass panels show the coats of arms of Mary Foley Doyle's venerable family, and doors are monogrammed with Conan Doyle's initials. Conan Doyle wrote both The Hound of the Baskervilles and The "Empty House" at Undershaw.
A developer first planned to convert the home into 13 apartments, but has compromised at four. Conservationists want the home listed as a Grade I English Heritage Property, which would preserve it as a single-family dwelling with some public access. But there are problems: the house spent many years as a hotel-restaurant, and has been abandoned since 2004. Vandals have left it open to the elements, and, according to recent reports, have destroyed some of the architectural features. The appropriate government agencies are assessing the application for historical preservation now. Undershaw might not survive the wait.
Conan Doyle claimed to be involved in the introduction of a device which has an "enormous future." In the 11th November 1913 issue of Cycling magazine, he stated that "autocycles" would soon be in use by the "hundred thousand" and would "give a boom to the cycle trade". Nor would it interfere with the motor cycle trade for "the young fellow who loves power and speed will still prefer the motor cycle."
He then goes onto suggest that dad (paterfamilias) can use his bike for business, mum (mater) can use hers for a spin on Saturday, and the boys can fit it out for a summer holiday. "In a year or so they will be everywhere, they are cheap, effective and meet a popular want!"
The Many Faces of Holmes
The original readers of the very first Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, had to do with four lackluster illustrations by D.H. Friston, but, when the novella was published in book form, Holmes looked something like Arthur Conan Doyle's own father, Charles Altamont Doyle--and was, in fact, the elder Doyle's creation. The author's father created a series of vague line-drawings that unfortunately failed to capture the excitement of the text. He gave Sherlock Holmes his own features, including his scraggly beard. No record exists of his son's response.
When "A Scandal in Bohemia" was published in The Strand Magazine in 1891, readers were greeted with Sidney Paget's moody drawings, which represent Holmes as tall, handsome, and elegant, despite Conan Doyle's original description, according to which Holmes was extremely thin, with a large nose and small eyes set close together. Apparently Paget's younger brother Walter, whom the artist used as a model, was quite a handsome fellow. Years later, after his brother's death, Walter himself illustrated a few of Conan Doyle's stories in The Strand.
Conan Doyle soon grew attached to Sidney Paget's elegant vision of Holmes, and when he met the American actor William Gillette, who wanted to play Holmes on the stage, he felt that his creation had come to life.
Holmes is balding in J. Frank Wiles's illustration from The Valley of Fear. Others, such as the American illustrator Frederic Dorr Steele, who based his Holmes on William Gillette, also created a compelling vision of the detective and his world. Holmes usually remained tall and thin, but not always young or handsome.
Holmes and Watson were well-represented on the radio, too. See "The Sherlock Society of London" website for a list of radio plays (including some stories not written by Conan Doyle) that can be downloaded in MP3 format.
Holmes in Film
During Conan Doyle's lifetime, silent film versions of the Sherlock Holmes stories were made in England and the U.S. In the U.S, John Barrymore played Holmes in a film based on one of Gillette's stage plays, and British actor Ellie Norwood played Holmes in 47 silent films between 1920 and 1923. Typing "Sherlock Holmes" into the search engine of the "Internet Movie Database" at www.imdb.com will retrieve hundreds of titles, including drama, comedy, pastiche, cartoons, and all sorts of other stories that borrow the characters of Holmes and Watson. Gaslight on the Web contains links to a photo gallery of some of the many actors who played Sherlock Holmes on the stage and in film. (ed. Tom Bayne). Sherlockian.net also maintains links to sites about actors who portrayed Sherlock Holmes on radio, TV, film, and stage.
The two best-known Holmes of our time are probably Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett. Rathbone played Holmes alongside Nigel Bruce, as a rather doddering Watson, in 14 films between 1939 and 1946; some were filmed adaptations of Conan Doyle's stories, while others used newly created plots. In the 1980's, Jeremy Brett acted opposite two excellent Watsons, David Burke and Edward Hardwicke, in 36 episodes and four films produced by Granada Television in England and shown on PBS. Most are available on DVD.
Search for "Sherlock Holmes" on any internet bookseller's site, and thousands upon thousands of titles will appear. Since Conan Doyle's time, writers have been tempted to create their own tales using Holmes as inspiration. Every Holmes is different. Some authors concentrate upon Holmes's drug addiction or have him meet a famous historical figure (Nicolas Meyer's The Seven-Percent Solution does both). Some focus on his relationship with Watson, while others invent a lady-friend for him or choose a female acquaintance from the books to be his paramour. Sometimes Moriarty returns, sometimes Holmes's brother Mycroft. Occasionally Holmes acquires offspring. In the past two years alone, at least two dozen novels or short story collections have come out, not to mention several new editions of the original works.
Here are some recent fictional treatments: Caleb Carr's The Italian Secretary (Carroll & Graf, 2005) takes Holmes and Watson into the realm of the supernatural. In Mitch Cullin's A Slight Trick of the Mind (Nan A. Talese, 2005), Holmes is in his nineties and has become rather forgetful. Laurie King's series (published by Bantam) portrays an aging, but still vital, Holmes and his young wife. Thos. Kent Miller in The Great Detective at the Crucible of Life (Wildside Press, 2005) involves Holmes in a Rider Haggard story in Africa, and Sherlock Holmes and the Search for Excalibur (Authorhouse, 2005) winds up a trilogy by Luke Steven Fullenkamp in which Holmes and Moriarty seek the famous sword. (If that seems far-fetched, consider this: in a 1958 short story called "The Martian Crown Jewels," science-fiction author Poul Anderson sent Holmes to Mars.) Some authors focus on Mrs. Hudson, Holmes and Watson's faithful landlady, or on other minor characters. Others stay busy figuring out what Holmes did during those years between "The Final Problem" and "The Empty House," when Watson thought him dead.
For those who want to return to the source, a new version of the original writings is now available: The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes has come out in three volumes, two for the short stories and a third for the novels. It is edited by Leslie S. Klinger and published by Norton. One caveat: the notes and commentary all play "the Grand Game," and assume that Holmes and Watson were real people.
The Grand Game
What do we really know about Holmes? Who is he? Where was he born, who were his parents, where did he go to school? Is he English? French? American? These questions are irrelevant, you might argue, because we know that Holmes is a literary character, not a real person. A large group of dedicated people from all over the world might not agree. They call themselves Sherlockians, and they play at "the Grand Game," according to which Holmes and Watson are real people and Conan Doyle is their rather incompetent literary agent.
In 1912, Ronald A. Knox, a detective-story writer and Catholic priest, wrote an article called "Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes," in which he satirized the ponderous jargon of literary criticism. The article's assumption that Sherlock Holmes was a real person caught the fancy of writer and editor Christopher Morley, who formed a Sherlockian club called the Baker Street Irregulars that continues to meet today.
Conan Doyle wrote the Holmes stories quickly, never imagining that they would receive much scrutiny. If he forgot a date or fact from a previous story, he forged ahead without looking it up. This bad habit has resulted in some startling discrepancies. Was Watson wounded in the leg or the arm? How could Watson's deceased wife be on a visit to her mother's? Is Watson's given name "James" or "John"? To correct these and other inconsistencies, Sherlockians comb the "canon," or "sacred writings," for clues, seek secondary sources (inventing some themselves when all else fails), and write "scholarly" articles, using Holmes's methods to solve contradictions in the works or following clues to add new "facts" to Holmes's and Watson's biographies.
One favorite Sherlockian controversy centers on the "original" location of 221b Baker Street, a non-existent address in Conan Doyle's time. When Baker Street was renumbered during the 1920s, 221b was created on the block formerly called Upper Baker Street. Many faithful representations of the sitting room at 221b Baker Street have been constructed throughout the world. All contain the violin, the tobacco-holding Persian slipper, and other Holmesian accouterments mentioned in the stories.
The Game is played seriously, but is played best when it avoids pomposity. Christopher Morley once wrote, "What other body of modern literature is esteemed as much for its errors as its felicities?" Conan Doyle, on the other hand, wondered why anyone "should spend such pains on such material." He alone, it seems, was immune to the fascination exerted by Sherlock Holmes and John Watson on generations of readers.