“A Little Amusement at His Expense:” Conan Doyle’s Sly Subversion of Victorian Society, part 2

The French author Honoré de Balzac once wrote that “behind every fortune lies a great crime,” and his words are borne out in “The Blue Carbuncle.” Belonging to a countess and worth at least £20,000, the precious stone brings nothing but trouble to whoever possesses it. Holmes dismisses the fetishization of such objects in a famous passage:

In the larger and older jewels every facet may stand for a bloody deed. This stone is not yet twenty years old… In spite of its youth, it has already a sinister history. There have been two murders, a vitriol-throwing, a suicide, and several robberies brought about for the sake of this forty-grain weight of crystallized charcoal.

Dismissing the immense wealth of an aristocratic countess as a piece of “crystallized charcoal” represents a fairly overt critique of the culturally constructed relationship between wealth and class.

In “The Noble Bachelor,” Holmes once again expresses his distaste for cases dealing with the nobility, “which call upon a man either to be bored or to lie,” while “the humbler are usually the more interesting.” Holmes even yawns as Watson first describes the case to him, and shows further contempt for the British class system, noting that “the status of my client is a matter of less moment to me than the interest of his case.”

This is one of many characteristics that makes Holmes such a beloved archetypal hero. Money, class, status–none of it matters to him. But it mattered very much to the Victorians.

Lord St. Simon, whom Watson describes as “a man whose pleasant lot it had ever been to command and to be obeyed,” comes off as a condescending fool in his first exchange with the great detective:

[Lord St. Simon:] “I understand the you have already managed several delicate cases of this sort, sir, though I presume that they were hardly from the came class of society.”
[Holmes:] “No, I am descending.”
“I beg pardon?”
“My last client of the sort was a king.”
“Oh, really! I had no idea. And which king?”

Lord St. Simon also believes that his fiancé ran off because marrying into such a fabulously prominent family was simply too much for her. Needless to say, Holmes rejects this self-aggrandizing assertion.

This issue of wealth and class turns up again in “The Beryl Coronet,” in which one of “the highest, noblest, most exalted names in England” refers to £50,000 as a “trifling” sum before entrusting the coronet in question to a banker who is understandably hesitant to assume responsibility for such a priceless and irreplaceable object. That the nobleman makes this unorthodox arrangement in order to cover up some potentially embarrassing indiscretion goes without saying, of course.

Too much wealth concentrated in one place has a poisonous effect on human relations, and in this story we see it trickle down from the aristocracy to the bourgeoisie: The banker is awfully quick to presume his son’s guilt when a piece of the coronet goes missing, and when the jewels are returned, he hugs “his recovered gems to his bosom,” a display of affection he has not shown to his own family. The banker is another “portly” figure who resembles John Bull in the Paget illustrations, who therefore could be said to symbolize English society in general.

In contrast to the “vacuous” Miss Mary Southerland in “A Case of Identity,” Holmes is “favorably impressed” by Miss Violet Hunter in “The Copper Beeches.” She is humble, brave, and above all, intelligent: Her story provides Holmes with all the details he needs, and unlike the petulant and privileged aristocrats who typically engage Holmes’s services, she is “a woman who has had her own way to make in the world.”

This time, the bourgeoisie take it directly on the chin: Mr. Rucastle is “a prodigiously stout man” who rubs his hands with glee as he ogles the prospective governesses for his child, a nasty little boy who enjoys trapping animals and “giving pain to any creature weaker than himself.” Oh, and Mr. Rucastle also keeps his own daughter locked in an upstairs room so he can keep all her money for himself.

Once again, he resembles John Bull in the Paget illustrations, and an academic might be tempted to suggest that if Mr. Rucastle represents England, his false good humor masking a homicidal coldness and greed, then his sins are visited upon his children: his son represents the cruelty that a system of such extreme economic inequality produces–the violence needed to enforce imperialism abroad and repressive values at home–while his daughter represents those who suffer from their vulnerability to the forces symbolized by the two male figures. But that might be going a bit far for some of you.*

Fortunately, a member of the working class, “a persevering man, as a good seaman should be,” in Holmes’s words, wins the girl’s heart and spirits her away.

(*And if you really want to go off the deep end, one might suggest that in “The Engineer’s Thumb,” the loss of Hatherly’s opposable thumb–a crucial characteristic of our development as a tool-making species–to an ax-wielding assailant in a room that has been converted into a giant hydraulic press represents how industrialization and its accompanying greed robs us of our humanity. [Warning: This is extreme literary analysis performed by a trained professional. Don’t try this at home.] Hatherly is another Doyle-like figure, most notably when he describes the troubles facing a newly minted engineer: “I suppose that everyone finds his first independent start in business a dreary experience. To me it has been exceptionally so. During two years I have had three consultations and one small job,” he laments, in words that could be describing Doyle’s own early struggles.)

Another arrogant bourgeois gets a taste of Holmes’s unique brand of justice in “Silver Blaze,” when Holmes notes, “The Colonel’s manner has been just a trifle cavalier to me. I am inclined now to have a little amusement at his expense.” Presumably Doyle’s audience lapped this up, just as we do today. (We still love to see arrogant rich people get their comeuppance, don’t we?)

Finally, we come to “The Yellow Face.” Though by no means one of the great Sherlock Holmes stories–and perhaps because of it–this story contains a number of references to cultural tensions between the English and the Scots, and seriously challenges the presumed moral superiority of the imperious English.

Though unstated in the story, Mr. Grant Munro is very likely Scottish (Leslie Klinger informs us in the New Annotated Sherlock Holmes that “both Grant and Munro are common Scottish names”). English popular culture of the time typically caricatured the Scots as backward country folk with thick accents who are ignorant of big city ways, and above all, cheap. (The Scots would counter that their characteristic frugality is a result of having their country’s wealth plundered by the English, but that’s another story.)

Munro has called while Holmes was out, leaving behind a pipe that Holmes examines closely and identifies as a well-made but relatively inexpensive model that has been “twice mended.” Doyle’s target audience was presumably expected to jump to the conclusion that this is a sign of cheapness, until Holmes point out that the repairs have been made with silver bands that “must have cost more than the pipe did originally.”

So instead of labeling Munro a cheapskate, Holmes deduces that he is a man who would rather repair something that has emotional significance for him than “buy a new one with the same money.” Munro is loyal to the things he loves, which has important ramifications later in the story.

We are soon told that Munro didn’t want his wife to sign her money over to him, even though she has “a capital of about four thousand five hundred pounds,” because he already has an income of “seven or eight hundred.” Again, there is a difference between appreciating what you have and being “cheap.” Munro (“a muscular man… with an excellent set of teeth”) compares quite favorably with the portly, overfed Englishmen in the other stories who are willing to abuse and imprison their family members for the sake of money.

Munro fears the worst–that his wife’s first husband has come back to haunt them, perhaps–and is greatly relieved when he learns that the big secret his wife has been keeping from him is that her first husband was black, and that they have a black child.

“It was a long two minutes before Grant Munro broke the silence,” we are told. Munro’s silence is apparently due to him processing the unpleasant revelation that his wife didn’t have enough faith to confide in him from the beginning. Thus the story suggests that the Scots may be more tolerant of racial difference than the English, perhaps because they identify more readily with oppressed minorities.

In his final speech, Munro can be seen as representing all of Scotland addressing their English neighbors to the south when he says: “I am not a very good man, Effie, but I think that I am a better one than you have given me credit for being.”

And just in case you start feeling superior to all those smug Victorians, Klinger points out that the first American publication of “The Yellow Face” lengthened Munro’s silence to ten minutes, suggesting that Munro is confronting the unpleasant revelation that his wife had a child with a black man–a very different emotional moment, to be sure.

There are many more examples of such implicit critiques of Victorian society in the Holmes canon, but I think that’s enough for now.

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…)

Facebook Iconfacebook like buttonTwitter Icon