Sherlock Holmes And The Cult Of Characterisation, Part 2 of ?

Sorry this has taken a little longer to write than the “tomorrow” implied in the last part. Like I said there, I have a whole ball of different ideas to untangle, and it’s going to take me a while to sort everything out into individual posts.
Because two weeks ago I saw a lot of different things, all of which seemed to me to be making points about a set of connected ideas, but it’s taking a little time to figure out the connections between them. The first thing I saw, though, was a line in a (surprisingly mostly sensible) article by Helen Lewis in the New Statesman:

Take the story of Sherlock Holmes: stripped of gas lamps and horse-drawn carriages, it’s a story about how the world accommodates a difficult genius, and what it means to care about someone who refuses to listen to good advice.

This, to me, seems so staggeringly wrongheaded it’s almost hard to know where to begin, but it’s fairly typical of the way that the idea of characterisation before all has distorted the way we look at texts these days. Because if there’s one thing the Sherlock Holmes books aren’t about, it’s any of that stuff.

The Holmes books are, fundamentally, not about Sherlock Holmes at all. Holmes is an excuse to tell the stories, which are often told in flashback by someone narrating them to him, and in which he often barely figures at all, except as a kind of deus ex machina, coming in at the end and tying up the plot threads. He’s not an active detective like a Poirot or any of the other later classic fictional detectives (although he is somewhat like Nero Wolfe in this respect, at least). Holmes never, at any point, changes significantly, and his characteristics are only those which would enable him to solve crimes.

Now, it’s true that he is nonetheless a well-drawn character — Doyle was a good enough writer that he created characters that work rather better than his plots do, and indeed the characters are rather better sketched than Doyle himself realised. Doyle’s own statements about Holmes and Watson often seem to contradict the portrayal of them in the books, but both Holmes and Watson are drawn well enough that one can certainly *place* them into active situations, and imagine their reactions to the kind of situations that turn up in more character-driven stories, but the stories themselves aren’t about that.

The typical form for a Holmes story is, roughly: Holmes says or does something unusual or exasperating because he’s bored, then does something staggeringly impressive with his intellect, at which point a client arrives. The client then tells a complicated story, which makes up the bulk of the narrative. Holmes either immediately solves the problem or does some cursory investigation and then announces the solution. Very occasionally he will confront the miscreant who created the plot he was investigating.

At no point are the stories *ever* about “how the world accomodates a difficult genius” — by the time we get to know Holmes he has already found his perfect niche, in which he remains for the entirety of Doyle’s work — and the bits about “what it means to care about someone who refuses to listen to good advice” tend to consist of about two sentences per story, along the lines of:

“Dash it all, Holmes,” I expostulated, “is it really necessary for you to inject cocaine while lighting your pipe at the same time? It’s dashed distracting, and it can’t be good for you.”
“Oh Watson,” replied the great detective,”what I would not give for a problem worthy of my intellect, so I did not have to distract my mind with cocaine, but sadly the crime pages of the newspapers are full of trivia.”

(That’s not an actual quote, but it might as well be).

These scenes are not “what the story is about” — they’re there as scene-setting, a way of showing that one of our two characters is a rather conventional medical man, and the other is a bohemian with a great intelligence. To say that these tiny framing sequences are what the story is about is to fundamentally misread the whole structure of the stories. One might as well say that the 60s Batman TV series is about a millionaire persuading his ward to keep up with his studies, or that Right Ho, Jeeves is about whether a white mess-jacket is acceptable evening attire.

So what are the Holmes stories actually about? That will have to wait until the next post (possibly tomorrow)…

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20 Responses to Sherlock Holmes And The Cult Of Characterisation, Part 2 of ?

  1. Mary Lea says:

    I hate my phone. It gobbled my reply at o dark thirty, but just to say THANKYOU. I don’t have brain power to repeat my response here, my thumbs and eyes don’t work so well in the morning, but I shall be back.

  2. Holly says:

    You know I largely agree with the points you’re making here, but honestly I’ve often identified quite a lot with some of the things Watson says about Holmes because I have to live with you — which is not to say you’re a bohemian genius, but certainly you’re unconventional and your priorities are not those of the rest of the world. And indeed I identify with Holmes when he has no work: not having anything to do brings out exactly the kind of restlessness, boredom and irritability in me that it does in him (though thankfully I don’t go as far as to inject cocaine!).

    Were these relatable characteristics intended by the author? Possibly not. Are they still part of my enjoyment of the stories? Definitely. They’re clearly not part of yours, and that’s fine, but that doesn’t mean that use of them isn’t valid. Authorial intent isn’t everything; people have always been getting more out of art than was deliberately put into it.

    • Oh I agree that they’re identifiable, relatable, characters — but they’re not “what the story is about”. And they’re definitely part of my enjoyment of the stories — I never said otherwise. They’re just not the primary focus of the stories…

  3. I think you’re obviously right here.

    It’s fairly clear that, in referring to “the story of Sherlock Holmes”, Helen Lewis can’t mean any specific one of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. My guess is that by “story” she means something more like “myth” or “icon”; that she’s thinking of how that myth is reinterpreted in contemporary media; and that (like many 21st-century TV viewers) she’s reading series (and to a lesser extent characters who recur across series) as being “about” high-level long-term arc stuff rather than the detail of their individual episodes.

    Glossed that way, her comments are applicable to Sherlock and Elementary, and could refer to earlier stuff like the Jeremy Brett series too. All of which illustrates what you’re saying, of course.

  4. gavinburrows says:

    ”Doyle was a good enough writer that he created characters that work rather better than his plots do, and indeed the characters are rather better sketched than Doyle himself realised.”

    One of the things I found aggravating about the most recent series of ‘Sherlock’ is that it seemed to go from thinking Holmes and Watson existed as a means to tell Holmes-and-Watson stories to telling Holmes-and-Watson stories as a means to talk about Holmes and Watson. Which seemed to me to be hopelessly wrongheaded. And it’s a little alarming to hear that Helen Lewis quote, and realise people are even writing all that back into the Doyle original.

    But what you say here perhaps describes how this could come about. Doyle gives Holmes and Watson a sheen beyond their plot function. It’s like opening a car bonnet and finding a dazzlingly hand-polished carburetor and spark plug, so much so they look like aesthetic objects in their own right. There might even be the temptation to pull them out and stick them up on a shelf somewhere. But that temptation overlooks the fact that they’re really there to do something. They’re really there to make the story work.

  5. prankster36 says:

    I agree with this and, I think, the general point that you’re aiming for in this series of posts, but I would like to point out that “what the story is about” isn’t tied in with sheer quantity of writing. The fact that “Holmes can be annoying” is reduced to 2 sentences per story doesn’t mean that it *isn’t* a significant theme of the original stories–even putting aside the authorial intent, which as we all know is hardly the be-all and end-all of critical analysis anyway.

    It seems to me (the usual caveat that I’m hardly claiming expertise in these matters) that for much of the existence of genre fiction, it hasn’t been focused on character anyway, and certainly not Victorian pulp stories–but it’s for precisely that reason that characterization tends to be what distinguishes these characters from one another. Lord knows there are a lot of samey pulp characters who follow a basic model, be it “swashbuckling adventurer” or “brilliant detective” or what have you, and with very little to distinguish one from the other; these tend to fade from memory pretty fast, while a well-drawn character with interesting themes that attend them (because the two are often linked in my mind) sticks around, even if it’s not intended as the focus of the story. These characteristics then become magnified by the culture, through interpretations, analysis, even parody (as has happened with Sherlock Holmes). And of course bits get added to it, like the deerstalker.

    Which actually brings me to an interesting point: Lewis, in your quote, says “the story of Sherlock Holmes”–not “Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories”–which, one might argue, are not the same thing! I think this conversation has to take into account the fact that Holmes is a character who has very much grown beyond his original source. I’m not going to claim that Doyle’s stories aren’t paramount, but if people are responding to the “difficult genius” aspect of the character, then doesn’t that become a valid lens through which to interpret him?

    I know we’re all annoyed at the modern Sherlock series and this is something that’s probably colouring the discussion, but it seems to me this is as much about interpretations as it is objective analysis (if it’s even possible to have an objective analysis of fiction) and as such I’m hesitant to write off the statement above. Can we firmly say that a story isn’t “about” something? I mean, maybe we can, I’m genuinely asking. But if so surely there’s still such a thing as a “reading” of a character–for example, the not-uncommon queer reading of Holmes, which almost certainly wasn’t intended by Doyle but becomes a particularly interesting lens for the character, to the point where I wouldn’t dismiss someone saying “Sherlock Holmes is about a gay man in Victorian England” out of hand.

    All of which is to say: the fact that you’re right doesn’t mean that Lewis is wrong, necessarily.

    • prankster36 says:

      Also, and this is somewhat tangental, but while there’s been a lot of valid criticism of the “difficult genius” archetype lately, I think there *is* something valid in interpreting Holmes that way for the modern era–because Holmes was in some ways the consummate Victorian, placing him into a modern context becomes an acknowledgement and implied critique of the arrogance and emotional frigidity of VIctorian culture.

    • Mary Lea says:

      ‘All of which is to say: the fact that you’re right doesn’t mean that Lewis is wrong, necessarily.’

      That is a brilliant insight.

  6. Mike Taylor says:

    It seems perfectly clear that Helen Lewis meant to make that statement about Greg House, but mistyped his name.

    • rmc28 says:

      House is very blatantly “Sherlock Holmes – as a doctor!”

      • Mike Taylor says:

        Well. The genesis of House was certainly Sherlock Holmes As A Doctor, as the show’s creators quite happily admit — hence the Holmes/House pun, and the Watson/Wilson similarity. But the tone, character and shape of the show is a hundred miles away from that of the Holmes stories. As Andrew says, those are very much not character based, whereas House is all about the characters. I literally can’t remember one medical case from another, often within an hour or two of watching an episode, but what’s happening with the characters remains on the radar.

        (Although the real reason to watch House is just Hugh Laurie’s absolutely perfect performances.)

  7. Author’s intentions don’t determine meanings, but that doesn’t mean that anything goes. I think every text has a wide range of possible meanings, and a wide range of impossible meanings. The debates above are all about whether certain meanings are possible or impossible – I don’t think anyone in this thread needs to rely on or refute intentionalism.

    It’s hard to apply this to Lewis because she’s making a generalisation about a character, not offering a reading of a specific text. But that doesn’t get her off the hook at all. She explicitly makes a claim about “the story of Sherlock Holmes” (my italics), but there isn’t one story of Sherlock Holmes. Doyle wrote lots of Holmes stories that aren’t entirely compatible with each other, and lots of other people have adapted them and written new ones. Lewis’s argument seems to depend on an essence of Holmes that determines the true meaning of every Holmes story regardless of who wrote it and what meanings other people found in it. If anything, that’s worse than intentionalism. Really Holmes stories are very diverse, mostly as a result of the characters not being exclusively controlled by Doyle and his intentions. So trying to impose a master narrative on Holmes stories is a particularly bad mis-step in an article that is mostly making good arguments in favour of diversity.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Just want to say that Gavin’s comment is absolutely spot-on, and it’s this essentialism I wanted to challenge most.
      But *all* the comments here have been exceptionally interesting, and I wish I’d been less busy the last couple of days so I could respond properly. This is the best discussion I’ve seen in my blog’s comments in a long time, and I’m lucky to have such thoughtful friends/readers…

  8. Mary Lea says:

    Well, wow. I hate my mobile phone sometimes! I typed up an enthusiastic reply to this with two thumbs at about four in the morning, and as far as I can tell, the internet ate it.

    Anyway, just to say again, THANK YOU. One of the things that I dislike about the BBC Sherlock series (compared with the books upon which it is based) is that it’s so damn… what’s the word… ’emo.’ I am not saying that it’s not well done – very clearly it is – well written, well produced and well acted – but it’s just not ‘Holmes’ as I think of it.

    From the very first episode the BBC Holmes was strikingly different from Doyle’s – torturing a dying man for information, for one thing. Victorian Holmes wouldn’t have done such a thing. For one thing, he would have worked out the answer for himself by that point, for another he’s not a raging lunatic. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes is charismatic, yes, but he’s – how can I put this without sounding judgemental? Damn it, I’ll just say it. He’s evil. He’s cruel, he does deliberately malicious things – not just for the sake of solving a case, but sometimes just because it amuses him. His treatment of Molly (a very badly written character, more pity for the actress) is reprehensible. (Her continued attraction to him despite his behaviour is simply bewildering.)

    Quite apart from the fact that the BBC Holmes is (to say the least) morally objectionable (if not outright repugnant at times) I do like some of the ’emo’ stuff. I like the fact that the writer can say ‘Holmes is asexual,’ and the actor can say ‘Holmes is homesexual’ and there isn’t in fact a conflict. I like the fact that Holmes is clearly in love with his best friend, regardless of whether there is a sexual element in it or not. On the other hand his sexuality simply shouldn’t matter – not to the actual plot. It doesn’t matter in the original series of books, and I have to say that the plots and mysteries are a hell of a lot stronger in Doyle’s universe.

    Also that Doyle is surprisingly less sexist than the current series – though I suppose that argument has been made all over the internet, so I maybe shouldn’t revisit it here.

    Simply put, I do like the acting, directing, and much of the writing in the BBC series, but it devolves into melodrama at the expense of the plot too often. Sometimes it’s self indulgent – seriously, Mycroft? Gah, he’s more of an OC than an incarnation from the books. Other times it’s interesting in and of itself. But it is not what I think of when I think of Holmes.

    On the other hand, it might be hard for a modern TV show to find an audience for a show which was all about intellectual puzzles and mysteries but didn’t have an emotional story arc for the characters.

    Though so far on Sherlock the emotional story arcs seem to be – well, Holmes does horrible things and gets away with it, because he is so much more intelligent than everyone else. Watson is in awe of him. They may or may not fancy each other, but they’re obsessed with each other.

    Which is fine – they are both great actors, Freeman is wonderfully expressive, Cumberbatch has a ridiculously sexy voice (hence his ability to get away with saying nasty things to people) and London is more of a character than either one of them.

    But I do regret the fact that most Sherlock fans of my acquaintance have no idea what they are missing in the original books.

    And I HATE the Irene Adler episode. With such a passion…

    But that’s not for this blog entry. Just… had to say it.

    It’s a strange thing to religiously watch a series as I do Sherlock, even owning it on DVD, while getting irritated EVERY SINGLE TIME by the way the titular characters are so unlike their Doylian ancestors, and so annoyed with the author’s for their smug white maleness.

    Okay. Stop me.

    But yes, just saying thank you for this post. I AGREE!!!

  9. Mary Lea says:

    (Oh dear. I hate typoes – I meant ‘homosexual,’ not ‘homessexual,’ which is obviously what John is in a lot of the slasfic about this series. D’oh!)

  10. When I first read the Sherlock Holmes stories as a schoolboy, it was the Holmes persona that attracted me: it was the bits with Holmes and Watson in Baker Street smoking pipes, playing violins and taking drugs which I looked forward to. In a lot of ways “Study in Scarlet” was the best because it was about Watson finding out about Holmes and Holmes being…Holmsian. But obviously a whole book of that would have been dull. For Holmes to be Holmsian, he had to go out and solve a crime. (I felt much the same way about, er, The Shadow, which I had a brief love affair with at the same time. It was the black gloves and radio show and network of agents and disappearing ink that I loved: the mobsters and evil chinese people were just the stuff that happens.) The stories aren’t stories of character, that’s for sure, but it’s the characters who made me want to read it. Does that makes sense?

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      It absolutely makes sense — but one of the things I’m going to get to in this series of posts is that that particular kind of character only works so long as he’s not forced into the mould of being a hero who goes through changes and so on. Holmes and the Doctor are two of my favourite fictional characters, along with Bugs Bunny, Groucho Marx, and Bertie Wooster, and if any of them come out of a story significantly different from the way they came in, there’s probably something wrong with the story…

  11. andrewrilstone says:

    ” it seemed to go from thinking Holmes and Watson existed as a means to tell Holmes-and-Watson stories to telling Holmes-and-Watson stories as a means to talk about Holmes and Watson.”

    Thank goodness nothing like that has happened to Doctor Who!

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