“A Little Amusement at His Expense: Conan Doyle’s Sly Subversion of English Society,” Part 2 (by Dr. Kenneth Wishnia)

See last week’s post for Part 1 of Kenneth Wishnia’s discussion: “Barbaric Kings and Plodding Imbeciles: Conan Doyle’s Sly Subversion of English Society,” Part 1.

The French author Honoré de Balzac once wrote that “behind every fortune lies a great crime,” and his words are borne out in “The Blue Carbuncle.” Belonging to a countess and worth at least £20,000, the precious stone brings nothing but trouble to whoever possesses it. Holmes dismisses the fetishization of such objects in a famous passage:

In the larger and older jewels every facet may stand for a bloody deed. This stone is not yet twenty years old . . . In spite of its youth, it has already a sinister history. There have been two murders, a vitriol-throwing, a suicide, and several robberies brought about for the sake of this forty-grain weight of crystallized charcoal.

Dismissing the immense wealth of an aristocratic countess as a piece of “crystallized charcoal” represents a fairly overt critique of the culturally constructed relationship between wealth and class.

In “The Noble Bachelor,” Holmes once again expresses his distaste for cases dealing with the nobility, “which call upon a man either to be bored or to lie,” while “the humbler are usually the more interesting.” Holmes even yawns as Watson first describes the case to him, and shows further contempt for the British class system, noting that “the status of my client is a matter of less moment to me than the interest of his case.”

This is one of many characteristics that make Holmes such a beloved archetypal hero. Money, class, status—none of it matters to him. But it mattered very much to the Victorians.

Lord St. Simon, whom Watson describes as “a man whose pleasant lot it had ever been to command and to be obeyed,” comes off as a condescending fool in his first exchange with the great detective:

     [Lord St. Simon:] “I understand the you have already managed several delicate cases of this sort, sir, though I presume that they were hardly from the came class of society.”

[Holmes:] “No, I am descending.”

“I beg pardon?”

“My last client of the sort was a king.”

“Oh, really! I had no idea. And which king?”

Lord St. Simon also believes that his fiancé ran off because marrying into such a fabulously prominent family was simply too much for her. Needless to say, Holmes rejects this self-aggrandizing assertion.

This issue of wealth and class turns up again in “The Beryl Coronet,” in which one of “the highest, noblest, most exalted names in England” refers to £50,000 as a “trifling” sum before entrusting the coronet in question to a banker who is understandably hesitant to assume responsibility for such a priceless and irreplaceable object. That the nobleman makes this unorthodox arrangement in order to cover up some potentially embarrassing indiscretion goes without saying, of course.

Too much wealth concentrated in one place has a poisonous effect on human relations, and in this story we see it trickle down from the aristocracy to the bourgeoisie: The banker is awfully quick to presume his son’s guilt when a piece of the coronet goes missing, and when the jewels are returned, he hugs “his recovered gems to his bosom,” a display of affection he has not shown to his own family. Like Mr. Jabez Wilson in “The Red-Headed League,” the banker is another “portly” figure who resembles John Bull in the Paget illustrations, and who therefore could be said to symbolize English society in general.

In contrast to the “vacuous” Miss Mary Southerland in “A Case of Identity,” Holmes is “favorably impressed” by Miss Violet Hunter in “The Copper Beeches.” She is humble, brave, and above all, intelligent: Her story provides Holmes with all the details he needs, and unlike the petulant and privileged aristocrats who typically engage Holmes’s services, she is “a woman who has had her own way to make in the world.”

This time, the bourgeoisie take it directly on the chin: Mr. Rucastle is “a prodigiously stout man” who rubs his hands with glee as he ogles the prospective governesses for his child, a nasty little boy who enjoys trapping animals and “giving pain to any creature weaker than himself.” Oh, and Mr. Rucastle also keeps his own daughter locked in an upstairs room so he can keep all her money for himself.

Once again, he resembles John Bull in the Paget illustrations, and an academic might be tempted to suggest that if Mr. Rucastle represents England, his false good humor masking a homicidal coldness and greed, then his sins are visited upon his children: his son represents the cruelty that a system of such extreme economic inequality produces—the violence needed to enforce imperialism abroad and repressive values at home—while his daughter represents those who suffer from their vulnerability to the forces symbolized by the two male figures. But that might be going a bit far for some of you.*

Fortunately, a member of the working class, “a persevering man, as a good seaman should be,” in Holmes’s words, wins the girl’s heart and spirits her away.

(*And if you really want to go off the deep end, one might suggest that in “The Engineer’s Thumb,” the loss of Hatherly’s opposable thumb—a crucial characteristic of our development as a tool-making species—to an ax-wielding assailant in a room that has been converted into a giant hydraulic press represents how industrialization and its accompanying greed robs us of our humanity. [Warning: This is extreme literary analysis performed by a trained professional. Don’t try this at home.] Hatherly is another Doyle-like figure, most notably when he describes the troubles facing a newly minted engineer: “I suppose that everyone finds his first independent start in business a dreary experience. To me it has been exceptionally so. During two years I have had three consultations and one small job,” he laments, in words that could be describing Doyle’s own early struggles.)

Another arrogant bourgeois gets a taste of Holmes’s unique brand of justice in “Silver Blaze,” when Holmes notes, “The Colonel’s manner has been just a trifle cavalier to me. I am inclined now to have a little amusement at his expense.” Presumably Doyle’s audience lapped this up, just as we do today. (We still love to see arrogant rich people get their comeuppance, don’t we?)

Finally, we come to “The Yellow Face.” Though by no means one of the great Sherlock Holmes stories—and perhaps because of it—this story contains a number of references to cultural tensions between the English and the Scots, and seriously challenges the presumed moral superiority of the imperious English.

Though unstated in the story, Mr. Grant Munro is very likely Scottish (Leslie Klinger informs us in the New Annotated Sherlock Holmes that “both Grant and Munro are common Scottish names”). English popular culture of the time typically caricatured the Scots as backward country folk with thick accents who were ignorant of big city ways and, above all, cheap. (The Scots would counter that their characteristic frugality is a result of having their country’s wealth plundered by the English, but that’s another story.)

Munro has called while Holmes was out, leaving behind a pipe that Holmes examines closely and identifies as a well-made but relatively inexpensive model that has been “twice mended.” Doyle’s target audience was presumably expected to jump to the conclusion that this is a sign of cheapness, until Holmes points out that the repairs have been made with silver bands that “must have cost more than the pipe did originally.”

So instead of labeling Munro a cheapskate, Holmes deduces that he is a man who would rather repair something that has emotional significance for him than “buy a new one with the same money.” Munro is loyal to the things he loves, which has important ramifications later in the story.

We are soon told that Munro didn’t want his wife to sign her money over to him, even though she has “a capital of about four thousand five hundred pounds,” because he already has an income of “seven or eight hundred.” Again, there is a difference between appreciating what you have and being “cheap.” Munro (“a muscular man . . . with an excellent set of teeth”) compares quite favorably with the portly, overfed Englishmen in the other stories who are willing to abuse and imprison their family members for the sake of money.

Munro fears the worst—that his wife’s first husband has come back to haunt them, perhaps—and is greatly relieved when he learns that the big secret his wife has been keeping from him is that her first husband was black, and that they have a black child.

“It was a long two minutes before Grant Munro broke the silence,” we are told. Munro’s silence is apparently due to him processing the unpleasant revelation that his wife didn’t have enough faith to confide in him from the beginning. Thus the story suggests that the Scots may be more tolerant of racial difference than the English, perhaps because they identify more readily with oppressed minorities.

In his final speech, Munro can be seen as representing all of Scotland addressing their English neighbors to the south when he says: “I am not a very good man, Effie, but I think that I am a better one than you have given me credit for being.”

And just in case you start feeling superior to all those smug Victorians, Klinger points out that the first American publication of “The Yellow Face” lengthened Munro’s silence to ten minutes, suggesting that Munro is confronting the unpleasant revelation that his wife had a child with a black man—a very different emotional moment, to be sure.

There are many more examples of such implicit critiques of Victorian society in the Holmes canon, but I think that’s enough for now.

Thanks to E.J. Wagner for her helpful comments on an early draft of this material.

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1 Response to “A Little Amusement at His Expense: Conan Doyle’s Sly Subversion of English Society,” Part 2 (by Dr. Kenneth Wishnia)

  1. Pingback: Sherlock by Wishnia-Part 2 | EJDissectingRoom

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