Sherlock and Shirley
Kate is the author of All Lies and Jest (published by gwdbooks.com) and blogs as Fausterella. She’s written for the Guardian, the Huffington Post, feminist site the F-Word, and socialist blog Choler. She is London-based with two daughters and would like more sleep.
I think A Scandal in Bohemia was the first Sherlock Holmes story I read, although I don’t remember how old I was when I read it — eleven perhaps. But I already knew who Holmes was by then: as British cultural icons go, he is perhaps only superseded by Robin Hood and King Arthur. It’s as if Conan Doyle simply wrote down the adventures of an existing legend, like Enid Blyton writing Brer Rabbit. Once Holmes existed, he had always existed.
Having said all that, Holmes was never actually my favourite detective. I loved detective stories — still do — and between ages ten and twelve, I spent probably 95% of my time reading every Agatha Christie novel in existence, then moved on to Dorothy L. Sayers. My detectives of choice were Poirot, Miss Marple, and Peter Wimsey. Yet all of them — and every fictional detective since the 1890s — explicitly or implicitly measured themselves against Holmes. Not always politely: Christie makes Hercule Poirot disassociate himself from Holmes because he rushes around looking for clues, while Poirot prides himself on solving cases using only his “little grey cells.” Spectacularly unfair to Holmes, really, since he could hardly be accused of failing to use his own little grey cells on top of the rushing around. But it fitted with Poirot’s character to say it, and I loved the way that Poirot dismissed the fictional detective, unaware that he himself was also fictional.
Part of Holmes’ wide appeal and instant-classic status is, of course, the degree to which Conan Doyle’s characters and stories have been referenced, adapted and recreated. I’m currently reading Kim Newman’s entertaining Moriarty, for example, in which Colonel Moran is the wicked Watson to Moriarty’s villainous Holmes. See also Neil Gaiman’s brilliant Lovecraft-Holmes mashup, A Study in Emerald, in which Holmes’s upholding of law and order includes unquestioning devotion to the tentacly Old Ones.
And let’s not even get into the fanfic.
I’ve become part of this myself, in a small way. Last year, I began a genderswitching project: taking out-of-copyright classics and swapping everyone’s genders over, to see what happened. (I’ve written about it here.) I started with Austen, but when I moved on to Conan Doyle, I quickly become enamoured of my new Holmes and Watson: Shirley Holmes and Jane Watson, an endearing couple made up of a calm doctor dealing with her best friend’s rational, irascible genius. I could visualise Shirley very easily, much more easily than I had Austen’s characters: disguising herself as a tradeswoman, outwitting the charismatic Ira Adler and being outwitted by him in turn, and taking her place in what had become a fascinatingly female-dominated society. (The genderswitching process really shone a light for me on how male-dominated the originals are; there are so few major women in the Holmes books that I had to pick A Scandal in Bohemia as my narrative just to make it worthwhile switching genders at all.) A couple of paragraphs will give an indication:
“She disappeared into her bedroom and returned in a few minutes in the character of an amiable and simple-minded Nonconformist clergywoman. Her broad black hat, her baggy trousers, her white tie, her sympathetic smile, and general look of peering and benevolent curiosity were such as Miss Joyce Hare alone could have equalled. It was not merely that Holmes changed her costume. Her expression, her manner, her very soul seemed to vary with every fresh part that she assumed. The stage lost a fine actress, even as science lost an acute reasoner, when she became a specialist in crime.
It was a quarter past six when we left Baker Street, and it still wanted ten minutes to the hour when we found ourselves in Serpentine Avenue. It was already dusk, and the lamps were just being lighted as we paced up and down in front of Briony Lodge, waiting for the coming of its occupant. The house was just such as I had pictured it from Shirley Holmes’s succinct description, but the locality appeared to be less private than I expected. On the contrary, for a small street in a quiet neighborhood, it was remarkably animated. There was a group of shabbily dressed women smoking and laughing in a corner, a scissors-grinder with her wheel, two guardswomen who were flirting with a nurse-boy, and several well-dressed young women who were lounging up and down with cigars in their mouths.”
That’s a world I’d like to visit.