Sherlock Holmes - Background to a Phenomenon (Header)
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3. Sherlock Holmes – Rooted in Reality

3.1. The Historical Background – an Outline

An outline of the historical background of A.C. Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes narratives. A quick review of Holme’s time, accompanied by a critical reading of selected sources.

Although it is rather irritating to refer to Holmes and Watson as “two eminent Victorians”  (1), the Canon is deeply rooted in that ‘Golden Age of British History’.
A clearer view of the époque will therefore open up many new ways to look at the Canon as it reveals the origin of many details the modern reader subconsciously registers as unusual. What can, in short, be said about the historical frame of the stories?

A vivid age of rapid change (2), the Victorian Age - and especially its flourishing big cities (3) – provided an ideal background for all kinds of mysteries .(4) With his own biography full of curious twists and turns, Conan Doyle could easily capitalise on that in his stories. In addition, many details about Victorian lifestyle added greatly to the beauty of the setting – in the eyes of contemporaries as well as for the modern reader (5) .
The trust in progress and science is by far not only Victorian attitude that had a formative influence on the Canon. In various ways, but mainly through the character of their two famous protagonists, the texts advocate typical values of the époque (6) such as “‘character’, ‘duty’, ‘will’, ‘earnestness’, ‘hard work’, respectable comportment […] and thrift.” – values, indeed, of “widespread appeal” (7).
Holmes even combines two positive male stereotypes: as he created a unique profession for himself (8), he is undoubtedly a ‘self-made man’, while his comportment renders him an exemplary gentleman. By all accounts, Conan Doyle upheld these values not only in his works but also in his own live.
Furthermore, Victorian class distinctions are essential to the Canon. In an ‘individualistic’ society like our own, even a genius like Holmes might not have been able to read a person's appearance accurately enough to come to profound conclusion: the reliability of his method would inevitably decrease (9).

Paradoxically, a certain sense of assurance is a last important factor to the Canon: Holmes and Watson inhibit a “universe in which certainty is a commonplace: the motivations of criminals […] are certain; Sherlock himself is certain of his powers and of moral values.” (10). Obviously, Victorians felt relatively save – despite all the epochal upheavals – because they could rely on “various kinds of balance” as the Encyclopaedia states. Because of all these factors, the World of  Sherlock  Holmes owes some of its fascinating features to the dubious glamour of the time when it originated.

After this rough outline, I'd like to draw the readers' attention to two issues that struck me on my first acquaintance with Sherlock Holmes: “The Issue of Justice” [3.3.] and “Gender Roles” [3.2.].

J. R. Wright: “They Were the Very Models of the Modern Information Age”, p.16, in: 
C. R. Putney et al.: Sherlock Holmes, 1996. [Text]
“[To] the British people living at the time, it seemed as if the world they knew had vanished almost overnight”
from: David Newsome: The Victorian World Picture, p.20, (among others), 1997. [Text]
confer: David Newsome (‘Wold Picture’), pp.21. [Text]
Holmes:“If we could […] hover over this great city, […] , and peep in at the queer things which are going on, the strange coincidences, the plannings, the cross-purposes, the wonderful chains of events, […], and leading to the most outré results, it would make all fiction […] most stale and unprofitable.”
(from: “A Case of Identity”)
. [Text]
see also Chapter 4.2.  [Text]
Many traces can, indeed, be found in Watson's side-remarks. [Text]
Encyclopaedia Britannica (CD-ROM, Standard Edition 2002) “Mid-Victorian society and culture”. Online : [Text]
Holmes: “[…] I have chosen my own particular profession, or rather created it […].” (from: The Sign of Four I/1) [Text]
Considering the diversity of live-styles, could a trained observer still be as confident as Holmes if he was “clapped down in a third-class carriage on the Underground, and asked to give the trades of all his fellow-travellers” ? (from: A Study in Scarlet, I/2). [Text]
Author's Logo · Author: Paul - Christoph Trüper, 2004  - 2006.
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