The Sherlock Holmes

Thanks to Conan Doyle's "Sherlock Holmes", which is known to everyone as a legendary detective fiction, Baker Street has become a most famous street or even a landmark across the whole Greater London. Additionally, speaking of the Baker Street in modern London, presumably the Sherlock Holmes Museum (also known as the 221B Baker Street), Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum or maybe Selfridge Store would first appear in our mind. But if we carefully observe the whole book, in which plenty of details (such as the weather of London, famous places of London) of London can be easily traced, you would find London in the Victorian Age was in fact of a great diversity and complexity. In terms of diversity, one is likely to believe that during the time when Sherlock Holmes was giving his full play in his abilities in London, a large number of international people had started to head towards, or had already settled in London, for instance, Earl's Court is initially colonised by Australians (and there are plenty of them here) and then gradually becomes the home to Iranians, Iraqis, Bengalis, French, Greeks, Chinese and Moroccans. While talking about complexity, one shall state that the complexity of London is the successor of the diversity of London. Countless internationality, widening gap between the upper class, working class and the servant class, swiftly industrialized society were the elements, which led to what London became in the Victorian time. In this project, we will be going through some of the chapters in Conan Doyle's "Sherlock Holmes", tracing some bits of London in this incredible book, in particular how Conan Doyle represents London, at that time the flourishing metropolitan cities, to the readers. In the meantime, it is perhaps worthwhile to compare and contrast current London and its past in the Victorian period.

In the very beginning of "Sherlock Holmes", a precise time - "In the year 1878 I took my degree of doctor of medicine of the University of London"[1] (Doyle, p13) is given. That was before Dr. Watson met Sherlock Holmes, therefore it would be around the end of 19th century when most of Holmes' cases occurred. Dr. Watson first described his first impression of London after his return from the service in the British Army in Afghanistan. "Under such circumstances I naturally gravitated to London, the great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained."[2] It is very fascinating that Dr. Watson made such description of London, and ironically depicting London as a cesspool. Yet if we look back on the general social condition of the people in London: crowdedness, unceasing infectious sickness, huge amount of rubbish and extremely dirty water, we would understand the reason why Dr. Watson gave such statement. Apparently that would be the inevitable outcomes in the beginning stage of the fast developing industrialized society, but it is in the meantime worth a introspection, whether the cost was too high or not.

In Sherlock Holmes' first case - "A Study in Scarlet", No.3 at Lauriston Garden Street is the main criminal scene in which Dr. Watson witnessed Holmes' attempt to solve the mysterious case. The "Lauriston Garden" is illustrated as the following: "Number 3, Lauriston Garden, wore an ill-omened and minatory look. It was one of four houses which stood back some little way from the street, two being occupied and two empty. The latter looked out with three tiers of vacant melancholy windows, which were blank and dreary, save that here and there a 'To Let' card had developed like a cataract upon the bleared panes. A small garden sprinkled over with a scattered eruption of sickly plants separated each of these houses from the street and was traversed by a narrow pathway, yellowish in colour, and consisting apparently of a mixture of clay and of gravel. The whole place was very sloppy from the rain which had fallen through the night. The garden was bounded by a three-foot brick wall with a fringe of wood rails upon the top."[3] This kind of description is what a detective fictions read encounters occasionally, but such a precise appearance of a house is what I rarely see in this sort of book. Furthermore, if we carefully read the above quotation, some common features of the buildings in Victorian era are clearly presented: "the cataract upon the bleared panes", namely the "To Let" card, only exist in the United Kingdom. In other English speaking countries, people would probably have "For Renting" rather than "To Let", this is of something typical English. What comes after is the distinctive English garden, owing to the temperate marine climate, London has been always having 'natural' abundant supplies of rainfall, thus we can see the gardens full of scattered eruptions, and the pathway mixed with clay and gravel. In addition it ought to remind us of the term "cesspool", which Dr. Watson used to describe London, because in the end of 19th century, although compared to other cities, London had been already a very highly developed huge city, the drainage system had not already been flawless, and consequently water (not necessarily waste water) would silt up in the city, additionally silted water might be a best place for the germs and bacteria to be bred, then no wonder with the vast population many disease could be very harmful and infectious, making London a cesspool in the Victorian era.

We had better refer to other chapters in "Sherlock Holmes", so that we could know London in that period a bit deeper. In another case called "The Sign of The Four", some descriptions of London are worth reading. "It was a September evening, and not yet seven o'clock, but the day had been a dreary one, and a dense drizzly fog lay low upon the great city. Mud-coloured clouds drooped sadly over the muddy streets. Down the Strand the lamps were but misty splotches of diffused light, which threw a feeble circular glimmer upon the slimy pavement. The yellow glare from the shop-windows streamed out into the steamy, vaporous air and threw a murky, shifting radiance across the crowded thoroughfare."[4] Here things, which have to do with climate, appear again, for instance 'September', 'a dense drizzly fog'. The latter reminds me of London's famous alias during 19th century - 'the city of fog'. Under normal weather circumstances, fog tends to merge in spring, particular that kind of humid weather, yet we notice that the fog was merged in September in autumn, not very usual. Hence we are privileged to think, is that the real fog? Or perhaps that was merely the outcome of Industrialization. It is such a shame that Sir Conan Doyle does not portray the Strand in details a bit more. We shall know that one of central London's widest street nowadays - the Strand, is originally a bridle-path, not like its present day appearance. It is owed to redevelopment which took place in the early part of the 19th century. A famous architect was commissioned to draw up a plan for the street which Disraeli was to describe as 'perhaps the fines street in Europe'. Nowadays the Strand serves as little more than a useful, if occasionally jammed, link between Charing Cross and Fleet Street. Residential property is scarce and architectural blandness has taken hold. For every gem of a building - Coutt's Bank for instance has an impressive all-glass contemporary facade - there are half a dozen non-descript office blocks.

The Strand's most interesting structure is undoubtedly the Savoy Hotel, tucked away towards the river in Savoy Court - the only street in Britain in which motorists are expected to drive on the right. If you watch the film version of this "The Sign of The Four', you would see Holmes' and Dr. Watson's carriage were driving on the right side of the main street, and the very original Savoy Hotel has a glimpse in the film, too. Opened in 1889, the Savoy remains one of London's most comfortable luxury hotels, providing a wonderful view of the Thames from its restaurant - the Savoy Grill - and a cheaper opportunity than some of its counterparts to gaze at celebrity guests from the comfort of its lobby. A reminder that London is a city of sharp contrasts can be found less than two minutes' walk from the Savoy's gleaming entrance. The doorways of shops and offices along the Strand are used for shelter by the young homeless. The eastern edge of the Strand runs into the Aldwych, a crescent-shaped thoroughfare which is home to Bush House, headquarters of the BBC World Service and the Australian and Indian High Commissions nowadays. Continuing with Sherlock Holmes' and Dr. Watson's journey passing through the Strand, I have encountered another description of the Strand, which is also very impressive. "At the Lyceum Theatre the crowds were already thick at the side-entrances. In front a continuous stream of handsoms and four-wheelers were rattling up, discharging their cargoes of shirt-fronted men and beshawled, bediamonded women."[5] The reason why I take this out is because when you are walking in the Strand, you can hardly find any theatre. According to Sir Conan Doyle, we know there must be a theatre called Lyceum before, but it is now vanished. If we take the specific time into our account, it would be comprehensible. At the end of 19th century, namely the Victorian era, theatres are of the upper class' luxury entertainment. But following the wave of industrialization, entertainments such as theatres are due to be replaced by representative capital organizations of banks, subsequently in the Strand, shops, theatres, hotels and restaurants promptly give way to finance houses and banks and banks symbols of the City's more serious approach to money-making. Temple Bar, the point at which the Strand merges with Fleet Street opposite the Royal Courts of Justice, marks the boundary between the City of Westminster and the City of London, indications that you have crossed the border are soon apparent.

Let us leave the case of "The Sign of The Four" and move to the next one, called "The Six Napoleons", in which Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson were going around London and searching for the criminal. In this chapter, Sir Conan Doyle uses a very exceptional way to describe their journey, which is "In rapid succession we passed through the fringe of fashionable London, hotel London, theatrical London, literary London, commercial London, and finally, maritime London, till we came to a riverside city of a hundred thousand souls, where the tenement houses swelter and reek with the outcasts of Europe." (Doyle, p496) In fact, there are plenty of places and streets are mentioned in this case, such as Kennington, Kensington, and Fleet Street. Then I would like to talk about the Fleet Street a little bit more. Until recently, however, Fleet Street was only an adjunct to the Square Mile. Much of its history shows pre-occupation not with money-making capitalism, but with what many would regard as the twin pillars of a civilised society - the law and the printed word. Fleet Street's relationship with printing dates back to the 16th century when Wynkyn de Worde established a printing press on the south side of the street, close to Shoe Lane. Other printers - along with writers such as Doctor Johnson, who had a house in Gough Square - soon followed. In the early 18th century, Fleet Street's first newspaper, the Daily Courant, was published. Over the last 100 years Fleet Street assumed increasing importance as a communications centre. More and more newspaper and news agencies moved in, vying with each other over the extravagance of their headquarters. The offices of the Telegraph and the Express were particularly impressive. The mid-1980s, however, saw a massive overhaul of British newspaper practices. New technology put paid to thousands of jobs as the newspapers were shifted elsewhere. All that remains of the industry in Fleet Street are the pubs (once inexorably linked with journalists, but now the preserve of thirsty barristers and their clerks) a handful of news agencies and St Bride's Church. Established in the 6th century, St Bride's is known as the Journalists' Church and has a printing museum in its crypt.

Apart from the above places we have already mentioned, Kensington is another place, which appears many times in the whole "Sherlock Holmes". Clearly neither Holmes nor Dr. Watson belong to the upper class, whereas maybe it is owing to their home that based in Baker Street is not very far from Kensington, where may be called the congregation of the upper class men. For a very long time, Kensington is London's royal borough - a leafy, multi-faceted district of considerable style. Elevated to royal status in 17th century when William III abandoned Whitehall Palace and its plague-ridden environs for the healthier aspects of Kensington Palace, Kensington retains a sophisticated charm which appeals both to the indigenous upper crust and the wealthy foreigner. It is not by chance that there is a high concentration of embassies and legations in the area. Its State Apartments were opened to the public in the Queen Victorian's reign and subsequently became the site of the Museum of London. In the 1930s, the Museum moved to the City, but the Apartments remain open. A trip to the palace should include a visit to the Council Chamber and the Queen's bedroom. The palace stands in Kensington Gardens, the westernmost section of the huge stretch of central London parkland which originates at Green Park in the heart of the West End. In Sherlock Holmes' case "The Red-headed League", Kensington Gardens is described as which have, since the 19th century served as a refuge from the gruelling hubbub of the city, "I never hope to see such a sight as that again, Mr. Holmes. From north, south, east and west, every man who had a shade of red in his hair had tramped into the area next to Kensington Garden to answer the advertisement."[6] and have more of an intimacy than Hyde Park, next door, perhaps because of their connections with Kensington Palace, now there is the sense that gardens are a private enclave, to be enjoyed only if you mind your Ps and Qs and do not move your shirt.

In the whole "Sherlock Holmes", we often see Holmes and Dr. Watson stroll around London, but most of this kind of scenes occur in either Fleet Street or around Kensington area, such as the Palace. Currently, the peace is seldom disturbed by the thud of bat upon ball and joggers keep only a discreet presence. Noticeable are the armies of nannies employed by well-to-do families to push their offspring along the Broad Walk, a fashionable place to stroll since the Victorian era. Such is the popularity of Kensington Gardens among the last vestige of the servant class (now better trained, better qualified and more professional than their Edwardian counterparts) that the Broad Walk, at peak times such as mid-morning or in the middle of a week, it takes on all the characteristics of a pushchair Silverstone.

In conclusion, after thoroughly going through the legendary "Sherlock Holmes", numerous places of London are presented by Sir Conan Doyle, with the journey with Sherlock Holmes. We have looked at the very typical London house, very crowded Kensington, elsewhere in the books are for instance the dock in East London (in the case "The Sign of The Four"), banks and press central London (in the case "The Stockbroker's Clerk") or antique shops in the West London (in the case "The Dancing Men"). This kind of experience is quite extraordinary, particularly when you attempt to find the trace of London while you are reading something thrilling like "Sherlock Holmes". To be fair, the overall status of London is not fully presented in this book, after all it was aimed as a detective fiction rather than nonfiction. But with the details given in this book, we are still capable of glancing how London actually was like in the late 19th century, particularly when we do some compare and contrast between those places' past and now, the outcome would be absolutely more approach to the fact.

Bibliography:

  • Blakeney, T.S. (1994). Sherlock Holmes: Fact or Fiction?. London: Prentice Hall & IBD
  • Doyle, A. I. C. (2005). The Complete Sherlock Holmes. London: CRW Publishing Ltd.
  • Keating, H. R. F. (2006). Sherlock Holmes: The Man and His World. Edison, NJ: Castle.
  • Weller, Philip (1993). The Life and Times of Sherlock Holmes. Simsbury: Bracken Books.

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