On the 21st & 22nd June, I attended the ‘Sherlock Holmes – Past and Presence’ conference held at Senate House, University of London. Of all the panels I attended my favourite one was easily the discussion on ‘Holmes and the Moving Image’, especially the paper presented by James Brown on ‘Sherlock Holmes: Between Past and Present’ which examined the idea that Sherlock Holmes is literally a timeless figure.
Early Holmes adaptations updated to the stories to present day but kept Holmes firmly in the 1890s creating the everlasting image of the great detective with his deerstalker, Inverness cape and pipe. The first two Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce films produced by Fox did attempt to place the stories in their original setting but when Universal took over they updated the stories to ‘present day’ but kept Holmes ‘ageless and locked in a time bubble’. It wasn’t really until the Granada series that they really tried to put Holmes back into the Victorian age, going at great lengths to pinpoint a date and stick as closely as possible to it. (Alastair Duncan pointed out that the Ronald Howard series also attempted to place Holmes in the Victorian age but I’m not very familiar with that adaptation so don’t know how much they stuck to their Victorian setting).
What distinctly struck me about this is that there is really nothing new in the idea of updating Sherlock Holmes, the majority of Sherlock Holmes have updated the stories – Basil Rathbone’s Holmes makes use of modern technology, as does Benedict Cumberbatch but these are not alien to the character of Holmes, the Sherlock Holmes of the original stories was a modern man and used up to date modern technology to aid him in his activities so there is nothing revolutionary about Sherlock Holmes searching the Internet or listening to the wireless because he is very much a man of his time, whatever time that may be.
Another panel I enjoyed was a discussion about Holmes as a social explorer in Luke Seaber’s paper on ‘Sherlock Holmes as a Social Explorer’ which linking in with Benjamin Poore’s paper on ‘Holmes as a Master of Disguise’ suggested that because Holmes is able to adopt different persona’s efficiently he does have a very good understanding of social cues and an understanding about how those social cues differ in the class of society he was moving in. Seaber suggested that Holmes’s understanding of people comes from his ability to categorise people, like Henry Mayhew in his classification of people in ‘London Labourer and the London Poor’ (1851) so essentially, Holmes takes part in ‘incognito social exploration’ through his use of effective disguise.
An idea also suggested during one of the panels was that Sherlock Holmes himself was a character and that he was always acting, so did Watson really know his friend?
In Ms Holmes of Baker Street: The Truth about Sherlock C. Alan Bradley & William A.S Sarjeant argued that Sherlock Holmes was actually a woman and that her mood swings could be attributed to her periods. In their book they attempt to show
“evidences of Holmes’s feminity which might equally well be regarded as indications of homosexual proclivities. That alternative can, we feel, be disregarded in view of the evidence presented, not only that Holmes suffered from the physical vicissitudes to which all women are subject until released from them by menopause, but also twice became pregnant.”
Samuel Rosenberg theorised in his book Naked is the Best Disguise that ‘The Red Headed League’ was actually about the prevention of homosexual rape. Christopher Redmond discussed this in his book In Bed with Sherlock Holmes in the chapter ‘A World Without Women’:
“…one must consider the opinions of Samuel Rosenberg, the frequently reviled pioneer of Doylean criticism to whom nothing is scared and all is Freudian…He finds great significance in the scene that has Fleet Street clogged with men all bent on a single object, and he uses the first name of pawnbroker Wilsen (Jabez is the town where lived the scribes – I Chronicles 2:55) to connect the encyclopaedia-copying redhead with a scene in the Old Testament (Genesis 19:4-11) in which men converge not to apply for a job but to attempt homosexual rape on two exquisite creatures who are in fact angels. Rosenberg goes on to stress the ‘womanly’ character of John Clay: Watson actually uses that word, and there is mention of pierced ears and other effeminate characteristics. Finally, he identifies the pawnbroker’s ship and its three hanging balls as ‘a symbolic area of unhappy homosexuality‘ and the bank’s vault as a ‘cloacal cellar filled with fecal gold‘. The result: the planned robbery is symbolically a homosexual rape, and Holmes thwarts the perversion as well as preventing theft.”
Redmond goes on to say
“This analysis, though it may sound both far-fetched and distasteful, is supported by many details in the story, from Holmes’s affectionate reference to Watson early in the story as ‘my partner and helper’ to the gratuitous reference to the sexual ambiguousness George Sand at its very end. And, as already mentioned, there is the absence of women even in supporting roles, to which Holmes draws particular attention: ‘Had there been women in the house, I should have suspected a mere vulgar intrigue. That, however, was out of the question.’ It will certainly appear far-fetched to use it as the basis for an allegation that Holmes is drawn as homosexual, or that Doyle deliberately wrote a story with homosexual motifs.”
You could probably write an entire thesis on Christopher Redmond’s often problematic attitudes towards homosexuality and women in his books on the canon but I’m not clever enough to do that, but I thought people might interested in seeing some of the stranger scholarship out there.