Within a few pages of meeting him in A Study in Scarlet, Watson describes his new friend Sherlock Holmes as having no interest in philosophy or social thought and only a “feeble” knowledge of politics. Yet to review the various books, monographs, movies, and other, more ad hoc projects that celebrate Holmes today is to let down a bucket into a bottomless well of progressive causes. Among other things, Holmes has been outed as a social crusader—in the current Benedict Cumberbatch television series, the baddies are invariably evil, right-wing Murdoch-like newspaper tycoons or caricatured, port-swilling Tories—a friend of the poor and the oppressed, and even, in one imaginative retelling, a half-blind sleuth who gropes his way around the slums of Rio de Janeiro, to “seek out the dispossessed, gay and transsexual community, offer[ing] them what help and support they need.”
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective has always been a master of disguise; now, without an identity of his own, he becomes whatever his interpreters wish him to be. Could Holmes himself solve the mystery of just who he’s meant to be? Time, perhaps, to turn from the theory and, like the great detective himself, examine the facts.
Rivers of ink have been spilled over Holmes’s sexuality. But we know that, while a lifelong bachelor, he’s capable of red-blooded feeling for a woman—in A Scandal in Bohemia, Irene Adler is “the daintiest thing under a bonnet on this planet.” A certain Miss Morrison is lingeringly noted for her wide eyes and blonde hair in the tale of The Crooked Man—“and yet”, Holmes adds, “I found her by no means wanting in shrewdness and common-sense”—while the three Cushing sisters of The Adventure of the Cardboard Box are given a respectful but searching once-over, in a sort of Edwardian gothic-literary take on the Judgment of Paris.
As a rule, few of the female visitors to 221B Baker Street go unremarked upon for the cut of their gib. On the other hand, Holmes pays the women the compliment of treating them as rational, calculating adults rather than as mentally vapid dolls—“It is of the first importance,” he announces in The Sign of Four, “not to allow your mind to be biased by personal qualities.”
What his interaction with women suggests is that Holmes is an individualist. In the best sense of the words, he’s a confirmed loner and an inveterate free-thinker. Holmes is often the only man in the room with a contrary opinion, whether about someone’s character or a set of circumstances. Even in his latest BBC manifestation, it’s hard to imagine him carrying a sign or joining a picket line. Instead, the tell-tale signs of the libertarian are everywhere, from Holmes’s dress-code—essentially respectable but with just that touch of the haphazard to eschew the orthodox—to his famously bohemian lodgings, and erratic but long work hours.
He’s the epitome of the sort of self-sufficient, small-state, freelance operator Margaret Thatcher surely had in mind when she said that there was no such thing as “society” in Britain, merely millions of innately free-willed and aspirational men and women.
Holmes is also a precursor to James Bond—surely another neo-Thatcherite—in enjoying some of life’s more luxurious consumer goodies. He frequently accepts expensive presents from grateful clients in high places, invariably travels first-class, smokes custom-blended tobacco, and takes hits from a jewel-encrusted snuff box, one of numerous gifts from the nobility.
He may be an opium user, but what would revisionist proponents of Holmes as a combination of dope-addled recluse and borderline sociopath have made of Dr. Watson’s description of him in A Study in Scarlet? “He was certainly not a difficult man to live with. He was quiet in his ways, and his habits were regular. It was rare for him to be up after ten at night, and he had occasionally breakfasted and gone out before I rose in the morning. Nothing could exceed his energy when the working fit was upon him.”
People often say that all modern biographies have to debunk their subjects, along the lines that Churchill was an incompetent drunk who wrote gushing fan letters to Mussolini or Cleopatra was the physical image of Golda Meir. In fact, most authors are probably less moved by the desire to cut down and more by the need for the new—what they say has to be different from what anyone else has said before. It’s simply not allowed to leave a character much the same as we always thought he was.
In the hands of revisionists, Holmes has become a Robin Hood figure, going about punishing the rich and powerful and redistributing their ill-gotten gains to the deserving poor. “For him, Britain’s grasping, bourgeois elites were always seeking to oppress the worthy artisan or the honest labourer,” one author informs us, in terms that might have found favor in 1930s Moscow. According to this reading, Holmes is a sort of quasi-Marxist avenger. He’s the voice of an egalitarian Britain, a pioneering campaigner against class deference; in The Adventure of the Priory School, doesn’t he sting the Duke of Holdernesse for an enormous £6,000 fee—the largest recorded in the entire canon—because of his obvious dislike for the great man’s patronizing hauteur?
Again, let us examine the facts. It’s true Holmes displays distinct traces of an anti-establishment bias when it comes to dealing with Britain’s unproductive ruling classes. Many modern-day conservatives and libertarians might feel the same way. But set against this, there’s the distinct narrative thread that holds each of the detective’s 60 cases together and goes much of the way to explaining his enduring appeal for us nearly a century after his final bow. As Arthur Conan Doyle was among the first authors to realize, the reading public can be simultaneously appalled and fascinated by the most grotesque breakdowns of civil order. Holmes brought that irresistible shudder, midway between joy and terror, to the millions who allowed him to rationalize for them what was otherwise the inexplicable, macabre, or horrific.
More importantly, the stories offer us the satisfaction of a clean resolution of affairs. At the end of each tale, however outlandish its plot, matters are successfully restored to their rightful, pre-outrage state, Conan Doyle being a confirmed believer in the “rondo storytelling form … . It invites you to return, at the end, to your starting point.” In the process, Holmes invariably restores—even re-establishes—the bourgeois order. Individualist he may be, but he is also a Victorian patriot, with all the imperial implications that entails.
Take, for example, The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans, a Holmes story set in 1890s London. With its combination of murder, blackmail, governmental intrigue, stolen official blueprints, and the threat of their publication by a self-regarding foreign agent, it’s a potent mix of John Buchan and what’s surely a prototype of Julian Assange. Holmes not only recovers the missing documents, sending the Assange figure to jail for 15 years, we later learn from Dr. Watson that his friend goes on to spend “a day at Windsor, whence he returned with a remarkably fine emerald tie-pin,” the gift of “a certain gracious lady in whose interests he had once been fortunate enough to carry out a small commission”—neither the first nor the last time that Holmes applies his talents to serving the cause of the Crown.
Or take The Adventure of the Naval Treaty. It, too, deals with a purloined official paper and the disastrous consequences that might befall queen and country if it should fall into unfriendly hands. In the same situation today, a relativist anti-hero might pause in the narrative to dwell on the core moral ambivalence of his mission, lingering on his twin duty to his client and to the public at large and their sacrosanct right to know. Holmes, by contrast, wastes no time on such metaphysical asides. When he duly returns the treaty to its Foreign Office custodian—with a flair for the dramatic, literally serving it up to the astonished man on his breakfast tray—he’s again doing what he does best: restoring the status quo, bringing affairs back to their starting-point, and in this case, delivering a thunderously authoritative uppercut to the thief’s chin for good measure.
How much of himself, it’s only fair to ask, did Conan Doyle invest in his fictional sleuth? Critics still debate to this day the chicken-and-egg dilemma of which came first, Conan Doyle’s steadily darkening frame of mind that eventually led him to devote his life to communicating with dead people or Holmes’s own marked turn for the gothic, as depicted in a story like 1924’s The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire—a title with broadly the same resonance of, say, The Werewolf of Connecticut—with its cast of mysteriously crippled adolescent children and Peruvian blood-suckers.
The answer is that Conan Doyle, while always something of a maverick political operator, despised the corruption of imperial ideals—the drift toward independence in the likes of South Africa and India, the “spurious sense of grievance” whipped up by what he called “a handful of officially tolerated native agitators,” and the misplaced sense of guilt among the Westminster foreign-policy establishment—and never shrank from defending the status quo. In 1900, at the age of 40, Conan Doyle volunteered to serve with the British forces fighting the rebel Boers in South Africa, and he eventually spent six months working as a surgeon in a field hospital in Bloemfontein, where his duties included dealing with the “hellish vista” of a typhoid epidemic.
When Conan Doyle was knighted in 1902, it wasn’t for his services to literature. It was because he had spent much of the previous year tirelessly going about the United Kingdom giving speeches insisting on the need to defend the empire to the last drop of blood. In that sense, he was more “conservative” than the superbly incompetent Tories serving in government. Conan Doyle always spoke, for example, of Lord Lansdowne, the foreign secretary, with patience and amusement, as though he was a moron beyond reach—but at least a benign one, and in any case, “the foundations underpinning the greatest Empire on earth will defy the best efforts of a few privileged nincompoops to destroy it,” as he once remarked.
Conan Doyle himself twice unsuccessfully ran for public office as a Liberal Unionist, or de facto Tory, an experience he privately later compared to the ordeal of “a great author who, afforded no time to let his tale unfold organically, rushes out the plot in throwaway speeches and trite exchanges between the players.”
That ended his formal involvement in party politics, though not his tireless campaigning for the imperial cause. Conan Doyle’s pamphlet The War in South Africa: Its Causes and Conduct stoutly defended the British position, which was not only “morally just,” he wrote, but “conform[ed] to a profound code of personal honour.” This last quality was to be prized, he added, “as much, or more so, in war as it is in peace.” On the voyage home from Bloemfontein, Conan Doyle encountered a French army officer who insisted at a dinner party, “that included ladies,” that the British forces had used the particularly destructive “dumdum” bullet when firing on the enemy. In the words of his biographer John Dickson Carr, Conan Doyle “turned beetroot-red and called him a liar. The officer tendered a written apology.”
In time, Conan Doyle also spoke out on a range of wider issues that aroused his finely honed senses of honor and justice. In 1909, he published a 60,000-word booklet called The Crime of the Congo, railing at conditions in that slave state. In 1912, he reversed his lifelong view and declared himself in favor of partial Irish home rule, though, as he was at pains to add, he did so in the hope that such a step “will actually strengthen Ireland’s relations with the mother country.”
Even in his later paranormal phase, whose deepening obsessions were early on marked by his joining the Society for Psychical Research in 1887, Conan Doyle remained a cultural and social conservative, raging, for instance, against the “intellectual insanity” of modern art and coming out strongly against female suffrage, particularly after a group of women saw fit to burn down his local village’s cricket pavilion. Right to the end of his life, his tastes in literature inclined to the works of Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy, and he was singularly unimpressed by Radclyffe Hall’s lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness when it appeared in 1928. “We do not want to see this country in the same condition as France, which has a great deal of pornographic literature in circulation,” Doyle harrumphed. “Personally, I hate all these sex novels. That sort of stuff is very cheap and very easy.”
Looking at Conan Doyle’s life in full, it’s clear that there was once a time when he had been floundering around as an “impoverished young hack,” as he put it, and there was to come a time when that same writer metamorphosed into an elderly occult propagandist, querulous and dogmatic, open to widespread ridicule. But in between there was a wonderful golden late summer. For most of that time, Conan Doyle was a conservative in the true sense of the word, supporting the established causes but avoiding the smug self-righteousness of so much of the British ruling elite of the day.
He was also far too accomplished a writer, and too aware of his audience, ever to let Holmes stray far from the political and social orthodoxies of the literate middle-classes. To the very end of the canon, Conan Doyle was still at pains to keep his personal beliefs separate from those of his famously rational detective. “This agency stands flat-footed upon the ground, and there it must remain,” Holmes announces in one story. “The world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply.” Conan Doyle chided one critic who wondered if Holmes, too, would repent of some of the orthodoxies of his youth and come out as a spiritualist with a poem that ended: “So please grip this fact with your cerebral tentacle / The doll and its maker are never identical.”
Conan Doyle published his final 12 Holmes adventures between 1921 and 1927, by which time the detective is presumed to be in his early 60s, thus bringing the series to a conclusion after 40 years. While some of the latter-day stories show the author’s old eye for detail and lapidary description of character, they fall short of his finest work. Conan Doyle himself acknowledged as much in a letter to his editor accompanying his final manuscript. “It is not of the first flight,” he wrote, “and Sherlock, like his author, grows a little stiff in the joints, but it is the best I can do.”
Personally, I find Holmes’s concluding stories to be almost unbearably poignant. It’s not only that, in hindsight, we know that both the “doll” and its maker are on their way out, but there’s also the abrupt transition from the classic Baker Street milieu, with its soupy, gaslit backdrop, to the bucolic charms of life among England’s gently rolling South Downs. Here’s how Holmes sets the scene of his retirement in The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane:
[The case] occurred after my withdrawal to my little Sussex home, when I had given myself up entirely to that soothing life of Nature for which I had so often yearned during the long years spent amid the gloom of London. … My villa is situated upon the southern slope of the downs, commanding a great view of the Channel. … My house is lonely. I, my old housekeeper, and my bees have the estate all to ourselves.
Surely this retreat to the heart, then as now, of Tory England speaks to the deep vein of traditionalism that lies under Holmes’s bohemian façade. The final stories may include some of the most outlandish plots of the entire series, but alongside all the veiled lodgers and creeping professors, the obsessive moral theme becomes more than ever the urgent need to maintain a social order under threat both from within and without. There’s no need to look further for proof of Holmes’s profound sense of disquiet than when he’s left in old age with a feeling of having “failed both my clients and myself,” or when he contemplates the coming ruin of the “quiet, ordered, harmonious, well balanced” Britain personified by Queen Victoria and the rise of the “brash, smug, self-regarding generation” yapping impatiently at the old nation’s heels.
“Is not all life pathetic and futile?” Holmes inquires in his 60th and final appearance, The Adventure of the Retired Colourman. “We reach. We grasp. And what is left in our hands at the end? A shadow. Or worse than a shadow—misery.” There speaks the true voice of the British conservative.
Christopher Sandford is the author of Masters of Mystery: The Strange Friendship of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini.