Barbaric Kings and Plodding Imbeciles: Conan Doyle’s Sly Subversion of Victorian Society (part 1)

Hi, folks. Janet Hutchings of EQMM asked me to write something a bit different, so I came up with this new angle on the Holmes stories. Part 2 comes out next Wed.

A number of today’s crime writers are also college professors who bring a unique critical approach to reading (and writing) crime fiction. In the course of teaching a college class that covers material stretching from Edgar Allan Poe and Dashiell Hammett to S.J. Rozan and Megan Abbott, I have uncovered evidence of numerous indirect criticisms of English society in the Sherlock Holmes stories, and a propensity for subverting revered Victorian institutions such as the aristocracy, the justice system, and even motherhood itself.

Any Holmes fan is familiar with the scenarios in which the police officials are completely baffled by a case, draw ridiculous conclusions from the available evidence, waste time chasing worthless clues, are stubbornly insistent upon arresting an innocent man, and then claim all the credit when Holmes solves the case.

This is not the cynical world of corrupt police officials found in the later American hardboiled school. In the Holmes stories, the incompetence and arrogance of the police inspectors is usually handled with a humorous wink at the reader. But any competent literary critic will tell you that in rigidly hierarchical societies such as Victorian England, humor is often the best vehicle for social commentary, since a direct attack on such institutions would be met with ostracism and even prosecution in some cases.

Think of that fabulously arch moment in the first published Holmes short story, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” when the king of Bohemia, so overdressed when we first meet him that Watson is unfavorably impressed by his “barbaric opulence,” speaks of Irene Adler:

“Did I not tell you how quick and resolute she was? Would she not have made an admirable queen? Is it not a pity that she was not on my level?”
“From what I have seen of the lady, she seems, indeed, to be on a very different level to your Majesty,” said Holmes, coldly.

Meaning, of course, that she is far superior to the king.

That princes and kings can be cads is not exactly news, but we should take a moment to consider how radical it was to say so in print at the time, even if the criticism was safely displaced onto the Bohemian nobility. While some Victorian readers might have chuckled at the implied inferiority of the Central European nobility to a mere stage actress (and a commoner), many in the audience must have picked up on the indirect criticism of all such spoiled monarchs. The king in question, after all, has a German name–an almost comically absurd one at that–just as Queen Victoria’s mother and husband did (Princess Marie Luise Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld and Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, respectively).

Some of these negative attitudes towards the aristocracy and the police are a result of the British class system. The audience for the Holmes stories clearly relished the depiction of the nobility as pompous asses who are every bit as criminal in their behaviors as the lowest thieves, and the besting of the plodding, lower class British bobbies time and again by an amateur (and a gentleman) who is happy to work for free if the client is needy and the case has one or two points of interest, as Holmes himself would say.

However, if we recall that Victorian Britain considered itself to be the very pinnacle of civilization at the time–the aristocratic characters repeatedly treat police inspectors (and even Holmes himself) as mere servants who are there to serve their “superiors”–it is possible to perceive the sly subversion of that society in these unflattering portrayals of the noble classes and the criminal justice system. (Perhaps that is also one of the reasons Holmes keeps quoting French terms and catchphrases in the early stories as well.)

These carefully crafted critiques may also reflect Conan Doyle’s own experiences as the Scottish-born child of an Irish family (yes, they were an oppressed minority) living in England, who couldn’t directly attack the social structure that he desperately needed to be a part of, and as a young doctor who, despite his excellent medical qualifications, struggled for many years to gain recognition and build a client base, much like Holmes himself in the early stories. (In later stories, once his reputation has been better established, Holmes is shown working in closer collaboration with the police.)

Consider the case of Mr. Jabez Wilson in “The Red-Headed League.” As a businessman and a shopkeeper, he can be said to represent the very backbone of English middle class society. He is also described as “a very stout, florid-faced, elderly gentleman, with fiery red hair.” In other words, he very much resembles John Bull, the symbol of England personified, especially in the original black-and-white illustrations by Sidney Paget. If we combine this image with Napoleon’s famous dictum that England is “a nation of shopkeepers,” Mr. Wilson can indeed be said to symbolize England. Yet Watson tells us that Mr. Wilson “bore every mark of being an average commonplace British tradesman, obese, pompous, and slow.”

So a symbolic representative of the average Englishman is obese, pompous and slow–so slow that he doesn’t even recognize Holmes’s genius: “I thought at first that you had done something clever, but I see that there was nothing in it after all,” says Wilson, chuckling with self-satisfaction.

Once we leave 221B Baker Street, the main action of “The Red-Headed League” takes place in Saxe-Coburg Square (the surnames of Queen Victoria’s closest relatives), where we are introduced to Merryweather, a bank director dressed in an “oppressively respectable frock-coat” (now there’s a curious phrase) who apparently cares more about missing his card game than preventing a bank robbery, a police agent named Jones whom Holmes calls “an absolute imbecile,” and a criminal, John Clay, who as he is apprehended declares, apparently without irony: “I beg that you will not touch me with your filthy hands… You may not be aware that I have royal blood in my veins. Have the goodness also when you address me always to say ‘sir’ and ‘please.’”

No wonder Holmes declares near the end: “My life is spent in one long effort to escape from the commonplaces of existence.” After all, his remarkable gifts go unrecognized by the “oppressively respectable” and hypocritical society of his time. (To top it off, Holmes’s final remark is a quotation from Flaubert–another Frenchman.)

Crime so often shows the worst of human nature, so depicting an evil mother is not to be taken as a condemnation of all mothers. But consider the mother in “A Case of Identity” who connives with her second husband to take advantage of her daughter’s “short sight.” Not only is the Victorian ideal of the self-sacrificing mother inverted here, but even the daughter comes in for poor treatment. Watson tells us that Miss Mary Southerland has a “somewhat vacuous face,” gives a “rambling and inconsequential narrative,” and wears a “preposterous hat.” Watson notes her “vacuous” face twice and her short sightedness several times. So much for the idealized image of the young woman as innocent victim of criminal deception.

In “The Boscombe Valley Mystery,” an innocent man has been charged. “Many men have been hanged on far slighter evidence,” says Watson. “So they have. And many men have been wrongfully hanged,” Holmes replies, questioning and subverting the exalted principles of British jurisprudence.

Naturally, Inspector Lestrade dismisses Holmes’s methods:

“I find it hard enough to tackle facts, Holmes, without flying away after theories and fancies.”
“You are right,” said Holmes, demurely; “you do find it very hard to tackle the facts.”

Holmes calls Lestrade an “imbecile” later in the story.

Some of Holmes’s frustration at being dismissed by those with inferior minds is derived from Poe’s Dupin, another man a with brilliant mind who is forced to waste his time dealing with ignorant and unappreciative people. But Dupin’s contempt was displaced from Poe’s America and aimed at the Prefect of the Parisian police. Doyle was writing about his own society.

One might even suggest that the happy ending of this Holmes story, in which the young couple will live “in ignorance of the black cloud which rests upon their past,” is a veiled condemnation of the average Briton’s ignorance of (or indifference to) the ravages of British colonialism, since the germ of the story’s conflict began years before in the diamond minds in Victoria, Australia. (Victoria, you say? Gee, that name sounds familiar…)

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