Monday, 24 June 2013

Sherlock Holmes: Past and Present

Conference at the School of Advanced Study, Senate House, London, 21-22 June 2013

On Friday and Saturday I spent a pleasant two days in the superb surroundings of Senate House, University of London, listening to papers on the subject of Sherlock Holmes and his cultural impact.  It is a mark of the significance of Holmes that the organisers, Jonathan Cranfield and Tom Ue, could attract over sixty speakers, and to cram it all in there were sometimes four sessions going on simultaneously, necessitating some very hard choices.  The event could easily have stretched across a third day.

The audience was heterogeneous by normal conference standards, including – in addition to the usual post-grads and early career academics – a variety of enthusiasts of the canon (the sort who can instantly name a story from a brief quote) and its branches, from cosplay to fan fiction and art.  These categories are not of course mutually exclusive.  There aren't many serious conferences where attendees come dressed as fictional characters, so it was clear from the start that this was going to be an unusual experience for even the hardened conference-goer.  Yet there was no ‘them and us’, and no sense of condescension.

The range of the papers was immense.  We had historical analyses, discussions of the influence of Holmes on media, his constant regeneration through the pastiche industry in print and online (though pastiche is a term that does not do justice to the inventiveness), the dissemination of the Holmes model of detective fiction around the world, and much else.  Conan Doyle cropped up occasionally, but this was his creation’s show, though with none of the foolish pretence that Holmes and Watson were real and Conan Doyle just a literary agent, and with few references that I heard to The Game.

The result was a scholarly but accessible series of talks.  It would be invidious to pick out individual ones as it was not possible to attend more than a small proportion of them.  For the same reason it is impossible to say what was missed out.  For example, I didn’t hear anyone refer to Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, but I was assured that it did come up in a talk I missed.  I did hear a fair amount about the BBC Sherlock of course, and the Johnlock fanfic genre.  I now know what PWP stands for: ‘Plot, What Plot?’  As well as the inevitable Benedict Cumberbatch I saw a fair few pictures of Robert Downey Jr, with Jeremy Brett and Basil Rathbone a long way behind.  Such narrow emphases entailed some overlap at times, but there were enough variations in perspective to avoid any danger of monotony.

The peg for the conference was Holmes’s forthcoming 160th birthday in 2014, though it didn’t honestly need a peg.  There were a number of supporting activities to the conference, including a small display in Senate House from its Historic Collections which showed items relating to Holmes and his world.  I was also obliged by my companion to make the short pilgrimage to Speedy’s Cafe in North Gower Street, sadly shut by the time we arrived.  I later learned that other delegates had made the sensible decision to combine their pilgrimage with breakfast on the second morning, though I suspect that finding an empty table would have taxed even Holmes’s ingenuity.

 It is a mark of the enduring popularity of Conan Doyle’s creation that there was so much to say about a single fictional character.  Whether Conan Doyle would have been pleased or irritated by all the attention being lavished on Holmes is impossible to know; he would probably have preferred a conference on his historical output.  He might have been surprised at the extent to which the Holmes/Watson format has mutated – naturally there were numerous references to Elementary, with Joan rather than John Watson – and would doubtless have lifted a quizzical eyebrow at the sheer quantity of works using his creations that are being produced, with no sign of a decline in their number.  Certainly his response on hearing about some of the things that Holmes and Watson get up to in the racier reaches of fan fiction would be easy to guess (some definitely NSFW, a term included in the title of a paper on the subject).

The organisers plan to gather the best conference papers for a volume to be published in 2014, as well as issuing an edited collection on Holmes’ fan phenomena.  They are also hosting a one-day symposium on Professor Challenger in December.  There are few opportunities for Challenger slash fiction one might think, but it would be rash to bet on it.


Last year I was contacted by an American High School student who was researching a paper on Conan Doyle.  He was presumably contacting anybody he could find with an interest in the man so that he could gather enough information to compile a term paper without having to make a huge amount of effort.  He asked me a series of somewhat random questions which I endeavoured to answer as well as I could.  I hope he found my replies useful, but as he never bothered to acknowledge them, I can’t be sure.

Why did you take an interest in Arthur Conan Doyle?

Most people first come across Sir Arthur Conan Doyle by reading, or more likely seeing an adaptation of, a Sherlock Holmes story.  I think my earliest exposure to Holmes was the Basil Rathbone films on television.  These are great fun, however much one deplores Nigel Bruce’s depiction of Watson, and however far the plots stray from the originals.  However, my first brush with what Conan Doyle wrote wasn’t the Holmes stories, it was a volume of his Brigadier Gerard tales which I came across as a pre-teenager.  These are historical romps set during the Napoleonic Wars, and I was immediately taken by the characterisation and narrative drive.  They are much underrated.

My interest in Conan Doyle developed as I appreciated what wide-ranging interests he had.  At the age of 15 I read Hesketh Pearson’s 1943 biography (which I still own), and from that grew a fascination with Conan Doyle’s character and career.   Some time later I picked up the one-volume Penguin edition of the complete Holmes stories, and read them straight through.  They complemented my more general enjoyment of Victorian and Edwardian literature and gothic and detective fiction.  Holmes taps into the nostalgia that many people have for the late nineteenth century, as exhibited by the currently popular neo-Victorian literary genre.  Since then I have read a number of Conan Doyle biographies as well as other works by him, and seen numerous screen adaptations.  I’ve found you cannot fault his fiction for sheer entertainment value.

What does he mean to you?

Reading biographies, I was particularly struck by his determination to pursue justice, demonstrated in his outspoken defence of George Edalji and Oscar Slater, causes that were not fashionable but which he felt strongly about.  I admired his doggedness, such as his adherence to Spiritualism, even though it damaged his reputation.  I don’t think he always behaved well towards his family and he betrayed a degree of self-absorption not uncommon among men of his time, but in general he had a sense of honour.

Are there any things you think are important to tell me about him specifically?

There is now a huge literature on Conan Doyle, which is a testament to his enduring popularity.  You need to take his Spiritualism into account in assessing his work, and if you have to focus on one aspect of a busy life you might find his relationship with Houdini is a useful way of bringing out aspects of his character in a dramatic way.  You should try to read a biography if you can – I would recommend Andrew Lycett’s Conan Doyle: The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes as a good overview.  I can also recommend Michael Dirda’s short book On Conan Doyle as a fascinating examination of the strong effect that reading Conan Doyle’s books can have. Stress that there is much more to him than Sherlock Holmes. He can also be very funny, which may seem surprising given his serious appearance.

Was there an exact moment when you realised you wanted to know more about Arthur?

No, my interest grew gradually, though I remember being excited on hearing that a Conan Doyle Society had been formed in the late 1980s.  I did write to them but didn’t join, though it was a stimulus for a more sustained exploration of his life.

What was the thing that interested you most about him?

It is often said that there is a strange discontinuity between the rationalism of Holmes and the credulity of Conan Doyle’s Spiritualist beliefs.  I find his complexity intriguing.  I am also fascinated by the variety of his work: the Holmes novels and stories, historical fiction, science and uncanny fiction, general short stories, war histories, pamphlets, books on Spiritualism – his range was prodigious.  He was an all-rounder, keen on sports as well as literature, and was adventurous; the British Library has just published the journal he kept on his trip to the Arctic on a whaler.  He had an enormous zest for life.  His literary style is natural and unforced, and even when he is not on his best form he is extremely readable.

November 2012