The Secret History of Sherlock Holmes

18 Oct

While Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional master detective, Sherlock Holmes, is known for his astute logical reasoning, his ability to adopt almost any disguise and his use of forensic science to solve difficult cases, rather less is known about his early life and family. This is in part due to the nature of Doyle’s stories, which purposely focus on the investigation rather than the detective and eschew details about Holmes himself, often using the framing device of his colleague Doctor Watson’s narration. Although this is highly effective as a narrative device, it raises as many questions as it answers when it comes to Sherlock the man, as opposed to Holmes the master investigator. Where was he born and educated, did he have any family apart from his brother Mycroft, what happened to him after he finally retired from detective work? etc. Whilst Doyle’s stories allude only distantly to these issues, the many fans of Sherlock Holmes have, somewhat appropriately, through careful detective work of their own, managed to come up with a number of theories, explanations and answers in what is usually described as ‘The Great Game’: a concerted attempt to resolve anomalies and clarify details about Holmes and Watson from the Conan Doyle canon. You may be surprised to hear that, as a result of this exercise, evidence has been found in Doyle’s own work that, among other things, Holmes and Mycroft have another elder brother and even a younger sister!

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Details about Sherlock Holmes’s personal life, except for his many cases, are scarce in Doyle’s original stories. Nevertheless, mentions of his early life and extended family paint a loose biographical picture of the detective. An estimate of Holmes’ age in His Last Bow places his birth year at 1854; the story, set in August 1914, describes him as 60 years of age. Leslie Klinger, author of The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, posits the detective’s birth date as 6 January. Doyle himself said that Holmes first developed his methods of deduction as an undergraduate; his earliest cases, which he pursued as an amateur, came from fellow university students. As to the university Holmes attended, Dorothy L. Sayers once suggested that, given details in two of the adventures, the detective must have studied at Cambridge rather than Oxford: “of all the Cambridge colleges, Sidney Sussex (College) perhaps offered the greatest number of advantages to a man in Holmes’s position and, in default of more exact information, we may tentatively place him there”. Beginning in 1881 Holmes shared his lodgings at 221B Baker Street, London. This fits in neatly with the information in The Gloria Scott that it was a meeting with a classmate’s father that led Holmes to adopt detection as a profession, and he spent six years after university as a consultant before financial difficulties led him to accept John Watson as a fellow lodger (when the narrative of the stories begins). Thus he would have left university in 1875, when he would have been around 21 years of age.

His parents are not mentioned directly in the stories, although Holmes mentions that his ancestors were “country squires”. In The Greek Interpreter, he claims that his great-uncle was French artist Horace Vernet. Holmes’ elder brother Mycroft, seven years his senior, is a government official, but there is speculation based on Doyle’s own notes that he also has another brother, Sherrinford, who is older than Mycroft. He was first proposed by William S. Baring-Gould who wrote in his fictional biography of the character, Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street, that Sherrinford was the eldest brother of Sherlock Holmes. Holmes once stated that his family were country squires, which means that the eldest brother would have to stay to manage the house. If Mycroft were the eldest then he could not play the role he does in four stories of the Sherlock Holmes canon, so Sherrinford frees them both. This position is strengthened by the fact that Mycroft’s general position as a senior civil servant was a common choice among the younger sons of the gentry. But Sherrinford is not the only hypothetical Holmes sibling. Enola Holmes is the younger sister of Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes, who supposedly actually appears in the story The Copper Beeches as Violet Hunter. As tenuous as this link may be, it was enough for author Nancy Springer to base an entire series of novels on the adventures of Enola Holmes.

Finally, Sherlock Holmes has long been a popular character for authors and creators other than Arthur Conan Doyle, and they have continued his adventures beyond the established canon. Arthur Conan Doyle’s own son Adrian Conan Doyle, in a joint effort with John Dickson Carr, wrote twelve Sherlock Holmes short stories, that were published under the title The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes in 1954. Cay Van Ash wrote a novel Ten Years Beyond Baker Street (1984) set in 1914 where Dr. Petrie calls Holmes out of retirement to battle the evil sorcerer Fu Manchu. Michael Chabon wrote The Final Solution in 2004, which deals with an elderly Sherlock Holmes, referred to only as ‘the old man’, solving the case of the missing parrot belonging to a nine-year-old Jewish refugee boy from Germany. Mitch Cullin’s downbeat novel A Slight Trick of the Mind (2005) takes place two years after the end of the second world war, and explores the character of Sherlock Holmes (now 93) as he comes to terms with a life spent in emotionless logic. The collection Shadows Over Baker Street contains 14 stories by 20 authors pitting Holmes against the forces of H P Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. Among them is Neil Gaiman’s A Study in Emerald, which won the 2004 Hugo Award for Best Short Story. Gaiman also wrote another short story about Holmes, The Case of Death and Honey, which was inspired by the thought of why Holmes had taken up beekeeping. “After all, it’s not the most labour intensive of retirement hobbies” said Gaiman once, “And Sherlock Holmes was never happy unless he was working on a case”. The resulting story contains a fiendishly clever explanation for just why Holmes was so interested in bees – and it certainly wasn’t because he wanted a quiet retirement!

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2 Responses to “The Secret History of Sherlock Holmes”

  1. Ben November 2, 2015 at 10:38 pm #

    This is really interesting and must have taken a fair amount of research. Good post.

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  1. Anilbalan’s new Ghost Cities blog post: The Secret History of Sherlock Holmes | Hugh Paxton's Blog - October 18, 2015

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