Yo Holmes

sherlockHaving blogged about Dickens, it’s only right that I should talk about the other literary persona that springs to mind in any discussion of Victorian London. I refer, of course, to Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective.

The image on the left depicts Basil Rathbone as the legendary sleuth. This is basically the shorthand depiction of what Holmes looks like – deerstalker hat, calabash pipe, magnifying glass in hand. If someone is wearing these, you instantly know what the allusion is. So all-pervading is this depiction that we tend to forget how entirely wrong it is.

Tiles at Baker Street Station

Tiles at Baker Street Station

 It is with this in mind that I set to work on writing today’s entry – an examination of the myths surrounding Sherlock Holmes.

1. Sherlock Holmes wore a deerstalker hat

Thanks to Sherlock Holmes, it’s now impossible to wear a deerstalker hat without looking like an allusion. A friend of mine who formerly resided near Baker Street said that he’d be quite happy never to see one ever again. Yet there is nothing in the stories to indicate that Holmes ever wore such a piece of headgear.  The stories do refer to a “travelling cap,” but the deerstalker is the invention of Sidney Paget, the original illustrator. It’s not impossible that Holmes wore a deerstalker – a travelling cap could just about refer to one. It is highly unlikely that he wore one in London, though – the deerstalker is, as its name implies, a hunting cap for the countryside.

One could argue that Holmes, being a Bohemian eccentric, might have worn one anyway, regardless of the fashion faux pas.

2. Holmes smoked a calabash pipe.

Again, while it’s possible that he did, at no point in the stories is such a distinctive item mentioned. He did smoke a pipe, it’s true, but the stories only specify a cherrywood, a briar and a clay pipe. For the origin of this particular component of the Holmes mythos, we need to look to the stage. The first actor to portray Holmes in the theatre was an American named William Gillette. The stage directions called for Holmes to be smoking a pipe. Now, as anyone who’s been on stage will know, it’s quite difficult to project  clearly with anything in your mouth. Yr. Humble Chronicler has trodden the boards on a number of occasions and speaks from experience. Gillette’s solution was the calabash, with which the bowl and most of the stem is below the level of the mouth, making projection easier.

3. Holmes’ catchphrase is “Elementary, my dear Watson.”

The words “elementary” and “my dear Watson” do crop up, but never together. It’s one of those enduring myths, like how Captain Kirk never said “Just the facts, ma’am,” but everyone thinks he did. Something like that.

4. Doctor Watson was a useless old duffer.

Actually, Watson is something of a playa. In A Study in Scarlet, the first Holmes story, he is about 35. He has recently returned from Afghanistan as a military surgeon, a position he took shortly after graduation, and was discharged after being shot in the shoulder.

(PARENTHESIS: This wound in later stories is described as being in his leg. Some fans interpret this migrating wound as evidence that Watson was actually shot in the buttocks, but was being all Victorian about it)

Nor is Watson the borderline moron he’s often portrayed as being. He is actually a very intelligent man, but not in the same way that Holmes is. On several occasions he provides important assistance in solving the mystery, and a number of stories make the observation that he has learnt a great deal from his flatmate.

I suspect that Watson’s character, initially at least, was based on the idea that a character as eccentric as Holmes, with whom so much depends on sudden revelations, needs a more grounded character to provide the reader with an accessible point of view.

5. Sherlock Holmes lived at number 221B Baker Street

“Come now, Tom,” you will surely be saying at this point, “Sherlock Holmes indisputably lived at 221B Baker Street. There’s a blue plaque and everything! Blue plaque!”

To which I would say that you’re not wrong, but you’re not entirely right either. Firstly, 221B never existed. At the time when the books were written, there wasn’t even a 221. The part of the street now containing number 221 was back then called Upper Baker Street. There are currently (sort of) two 221Bs. There’s the actual 221, which is Abbey House. Then there’s the postal address, which is the Sherlock Holmes Museum at Number 239.

Any post to Sherlock Holmes gets delivered to the Museum, although for a long time the Abbey National Building Society employed someone specifically to act as Sherlock Holmes’ secretary. A number of the letters received were published in the book Letters to Sherlock Holmes (ed. Richard Lancelyn Green) and make interesting, entertaining and sometimes alarming reading. For instance, there are requests for autographs, letters of admiration from fans and questions on matters not covered by the books (like how many bathrooms Holmes had).  Then there are more unusual requests, such as the Portuguese gent who requested an autographed photo of Holmes to deter burglars. And then there are the more worrying requests for actual assistance in solving crimes – my personal favourite coming from an American citizen asking the great detective to look into that Watergate business.

There’s even a letter from the Church of Scientology inviting Holmes to come over for a free Case Analysis. Even long-dead fictional detectives aren’t safe from those bastards.

Anyway, if you’re curious as to the actual address Arthur Conan Doyle had in mind, clues in the stories suggest that Holmes was based at number 31.

If one wanted to be really pedantic, it’s worth noting that Holmes lived out his retirement in Sussex.

6. Professor Moriarty was Holmes’ arch-nemesis

This is the point at which people will no doubt put on their hat and coat and storm out in disgust at my ignorance, so hear me out. Yes, Moriarty was created to be Holmes’ greatest nemesis. To this day, “Moriarty” is an instantly understood metaphor for an enemy who is also an equal. My point, though, is that just about every adaptation makes out that Moriarty was more-or-less the only criminal Holmes ever dealt with.

Professor James Moriarty, formerly of the University of Leeds (not even joking)

Professor James Moriarty, formerly of the University of Leeds (not even joking)

However, upon reading the books, one discovers that actually, Moriarty only actually comes directly up against Holmes in The Final Problem – also the story in which he falls to his death from the Reichenbach Falls. He appears in The Valley of Fear, but doesn’t meet Holmes. One of his agents, Colonel Moran, appears in the later story The Empty House and there are references to the Professor in several other stories.

Some scholars have chosen to speculate that Moriarty may not be all that he seems – for instance, the physical description of him bears some similarity to Holmes himself. One theory has it that Holmes and Moriarty are the same person, or that Holmes somehow invented Moriarty. Another theory suggests that Moriarty is in fact an alias for Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s brother, which is just stupid.

More credible is the idea that the creation of Moriarty wasn’t so much to provide Holmes with an archenemy so much as to provide a set-up to kill the detective off.


So there you have it – six preconceptions debunked.

Wait, I didn’t mention the magnifying glass. Holmes did use one of those.

Further Reading

https://londonparticulars.wordpress.com/2010/05/12/elementary/ – A more recent entry concerning the 2009 film.



Filed under 19th century, 20th Century, Baker Street and Marylebone, Film and TV, Geography, History, Literature, London, Museums, Notable Londoners

7 responses to “Yo Holmes

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