Some thoughts on adaptation regarding Sherlock Holmes

In 2013, I attended a lecture series at the University of London called Sherlock Holmes – Between Past and Present. One of the standout lectures was from James Brown about ‘Holmes and the Moving Image’, which examined the idea that Sherlock Holmes is literally a timeless figure.

Early Holmes adaptations updated to the stories to present day but kept Holmes firmly in the 1890s creating the everlasting image of the great detective with his deerstalker, Inverness cape, and pipe. The first two Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce films produced by Fox did attempt to place the stories in their original setting but when Universal took over they updated the stories to ‘present day’ but kept Holmes ‘ageless and locked in a time bubble’. It wasn’t really until the Granada series that they really tried to put Holmes back into the Victorian age, going to great lengths to pinpoint a date and stick as closely as possible to it. (Alastair Duncan pointed out that the Ronald Howard series also attempted to place Holmes in the Victorian age but I’m not very familiar with that adaptation so don’t know how much they stuck to their Victorian setting).

There is really nothing new in the idea of updating Sherlock Holmes, the majority of Sherlock Holmes have updated the stories – Basil Rathbone’s Holmes makes use of modern technology, as does Benedict Cumberbatch but these are not alien to the character of Holmes, the Sherlock Holmes of the original stories was a modern man and used up to date modern technology to aid him in his activities so there is nothing revolutionary about Sherlock Holmes searching the Internet or listening to the wireless because he is very much a man of his time, whatever time that may be.

Another panel I enjoyed was a discussion about Holmes as a social explorer in Luke Seaber’s paper on ‘Sherlock Holmes as a Social Explorer’ which linking in with Benjamin Poore’s paper on ‘Holmes as a Master of Disguise’ suggested that because Holmes is able to adopt different persona’s efficiently he does have a very good understanding of social cues and an understanding how those social cues differ in the class of society he was moving in. Seaber suggested that Holmes’s understanding of people comes from his ability to categorise people, like Henry Mayhew in his classification of people in ‘London Labourer and the London Poor’ (1851) so essentially, Holmes takes part in ‘incognito social exploration’ through his use of effective disguise.

An idea also suggested during one of the panels was that Sherlock Holmes himself was a character and that he was always acting, so did Watson really know his friend? I was especially reminded of all this with regards to the most recent series of Sherlock. Sherlock is very much part of the long tradition of adapting the character of Sherlock Holmes, rather than the stories…although Sherlock is perhaps closer than most of the looser adaptations.

Holmesian Speculation: John *Heron* Watson?

(Originally posted on my rarely updated Holmesian blog)

At the Royal Society of Medicine there is small collection of items from the Royal College of Surgeons’s exhibition on ‘The Real Sherlock Holmes‘. It’s a fascinating collection, great to read more about ACD as a medical student and take a look at the people who inspired him.

An interesting thing I discovered whilst there was that the president of RCS from 1878 called Sir Patrick Heron Watson (1832 – 1907); his surgical career carries a certain resemblance to Watson’s. I tried finding an online resource, and all I could really find was this article (PDF) titled ‘An Edinburgh surgeon of the Crimean war–Patrick Heron Watson (1832-1907)’ by WB Watson, published in the Medical History journal v.10 (2) in April 1966.

Basically, after his training and whatnot, Sir Patrick Heron Watson decided to become an army surgeon and headed out to help in the Crimean War. Initially he was posted to Koolalee Hospital in Turkey, where he caught typhus and after a short convalescence was posted to the Crimea with the Royal Artillery – where unfortunately he contracted dysentery. He was put back on a boat going to Scutari (ships doctor said he wouldn’t last the night) and spent the next four weeks in the hospital there, where he became ill with mercury poisoning before finally being sent back to England and spent further recovery in a hotel in London.

Given that ACD used so much from his own experiences and life as influence for Holmes, it wouldn’t surprise me if Sir Patrick Heron Watson’s early army career was inspiration for John Watson’s career and that the ‘H’ is for Heron.

Update: 

As with all things Holmesian, there are more resources out there talking about Sir Patrick Heron Watson being the source for both Watson’s middle name and surname.

An article in the Baker Street Journal titled ‘Some Observations upon the Segregation of the Bea (sic)‘ (PDF) by S. E. Dahlinger reveals that in 1949 Jay Finley Christ wrote an article called “John H. Watson Never Went to China” which challenged John Dickson Carr’s belief that John Watson was based on ACDs friend James Watson, as ACD didn’t met him until after he wrote STUD. The case was then followed up in the 1980s by Jon L. Lellenberg and W. O. G. Lofts who published “John H(eron) Watson, M.D.” in vol. 30, No.2 of the Baker Street Journal (pages 83 – 85 if you want to look it up).

Perhaps a change?

shexhibit1

Today I went to the Sherlock Holmes exhibition at the Museum of London with a friend. The exhibition is highly recommended and beautifully organised. Strangely this got me thinking about my NaNoWrimo attempt, or lack of attempt.

The story I’m writing involves a fair amount of world creation. The world exists quite clearly in my head but I don’t think I’ve established it very well on paper. I think I need establishing shots, something which tells you more background to the world. Not a prologue as such but setting the scene.

I have a bit of another plot hedgehog*, something much darker and unrelated to the sci-fi steampunk world I’ve started to put together. I might see if I can put the scene I have in mind down on paper, or maybe start putting together a storyboard for a short film. I wonder if there’s a NaNoWrimo equivalent for scripts/plays?

*I say plot hedgehog rather bunny as I tend to discover my plots when I sit down and something sharp sticks into me. Also they usually come out at night.

Review: ‘Young Sherlock Holmes: Red Leech’ by Andrew Lane

Red Leech, Andrew Lane’s follow up to his first Young Sherlock Holmes novel pits Sherlock, Virginia and Matty once again against a man with an insane plan and a bizarre medical problem. This time the action takes place across the pond and we have no end to action scenes from young Sherlock battling away hand to hand in the engine room of a stream ship to escaping from a tank of monitor lizards. It’s all very preposterous and not quite as entertaining as the first. There’s some lovely little moments between Mycroft & Sherlock, and I do like young Matty but Virginia feels very redundant tagging along for no discernible reason.

Thoughts on the Holmes brothers

WS Barring-Gould created a third brother to explain why Mycroft was working in London and not home minding the country estate. Barring-Gould assumes two positions regarding this mysterious third brother:

1) The Holmes family are upperclass
2) there is a country estate

Sherlock refers to his ancestors as being country squires who lived much as country squires did. It’s entirely possible this is suggesting like a lot of the upperclass landowners there were mis-investments, money being squandered and a family line being beset with all sorts of financial and interpersonal issues. Anyone who watches Downton Abbey will be familiar with the story of a family where there were no immediate male heirs. There could have once been a country estate, but not one Mycroft inherited.

Additionally, Barring-Gould is keen on the idea of the Holmes brothers being upperclass. It’s possible they were not. Mycroft would have joined the civil service following the results of the 1854 Northcote-Trevelyan report. This report criticised the civil service for being a dumping ground of the sons of the upperclass who did not demonstrate the kind of pioneering attitude Britian needed to oversee its colonial interests, the report recommended an end to nepotism and suggested the Chinese method of recruitment where potential candidates took an exam to secure their appointment. It wasn’t until the 1870s that the recommendations of the report were being put into place, by this time Mycroft would have been done with university and very likely would have found himself taking further exams to secure his employment as Ronald Knox* suggests as clerk in an unmentioned branched of government, before rising to his position as the British Government by the time Holmes and Watson meet. Oxbridge would not have been a barrier to the middle class Holmes brothers who could have benefited from patronage, something the Anglican church often did. Sherlock is quite enthusiastic about the board schools, “Beacons of the future! Capsules with hundreds of bright little seeds in each, out of which will spring the wiser, better England of the future.” As he’s a man who sees education for all as the future perhaps because this suggests own education was paid for by charitable or philanthropic means. Fittingly, this quote comes from ‘The Naval Treaty‘ which could be read as Conan Doyle’s commentary on the civil service – Percy Phelps, through his uncle Lord Holdhurst secured a position in the foreign office, looses an important document and has an epic breakdown as a result.

Of course, there’s also nothing to say Mycroft was managing the country estate and spent his weekends there checking up on things.

(*’The Mystery of Mycroft’ by Ronald A Knox, possibly published in 1934 – not sure but it’s definitely in HW Bell’s 1934 collection of essays ‘Baker Street Studies‘)