Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes has become so much a part of our lives that no one can deny he is practically a historical figure. Fans of SH would be shocked to hear that he might be… fictional.
In the same vein, so much has been said about Sherlock Holmes’s London that it would be presumptuous of me to claim that my take is new or different – it’s all been said, and said by the best writers. What I have done is write about what excites me the most and why.
Apart from the consulting detective himself, the “great wilderness that is London” is the omniscient presence in the stories of Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock himself had a vast understanding of the city, apart from an intimate knowledge of its opium dens, the Opera House, Simpson’s and Pall Mall.
When Watson first returns to London, he calls it “that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of Europe are irresistibly drained” Holmes disagrees, pointing out that the most dangerous alleys of London do not present a “more dreadful record of sin than the smiling and beautiful countryside.”
London was his canvas, his home and his turf. And what better backdrop do we need for the world’s most famous detective stories to unfold, twist and turn than London, where the weather enthusiastically pitches in to mirror the darkness that lies in the souls of men. Stormy, blustery windy nights, icy cold pavements echoing the footfalls of Holmes and Watson as they push their way through oily yellow fogs, clattering hansom cabs that bring the prospect of pure adventure to 221B Baker Street.
When Holmes began his illustrious career in 1878, London was Dickensian – a constant jostling drama with chimney sweeps, dustmen, costermongers, ice barrow men, flower girls, footpads and Italian street singers rubbing shoulders with each other. The metropolis was slowly undergoing the metamorphosis into the great city it would become. Interestingly, Holmes’ love for disguise reflects these multiple characters that made up the texture of London.
One emerging trend in this Victorian England was the inter-mingling of different classes due to the surge of immigrants into the metropolis. 221B offers an interesting tableau in this regard. Holmes is clearly a member of the gentry, the son of an English country squire, Watson a member of the professional middles class, a doctor who also served in the army while Mrs. Hudson belongs to what they would call the lower middle classes. She is his landlady, not a housekeeper, keeps a maid and cook and also shows in his colourful clients.
Adding to this mélange are the Baker Street Irregulars — Holmes’ eyes and ears of the streets — homeless urchins who keep an ear to the ground and form the “Baker Street division of the detective police force”
The relationships are complex yet clearly defined. The close camaraderie between Holmes and Watson with the latter being his sounding board, biographer, friend and guide; Mrs. Hudson’s devotion to Holmes and his deep regard and affection for her (a closely guarded secret though!) and Holmes’ admiration for the tough, street-smart Irregulars whom he pays handsomely. Experts note that while Holmes admires their resourcefulness, the fact that he accepts their un-parented and homeless state reflects the general attitude to street urchins.
Moving on. We know that Sherlock’s brother Mycroft’s haunt, the Diogenes was on Pall Mall — which has always been the home of all the gentleman’s clubs that best exemplify the English sensibility, the Athenaeum, The Army and Navy Club, the United Services club, the Oxford and Cambridge club. The Diogenes was the club that housed the “most unsociable and unclubable” men in London. The number one rule was that there should be no talking and members could be invited to leave for coughing. It is here that we see Mycroft in — The Bruce Partington Plans (in the Stranger’s Room of course) and wonder if the club is a front for the Secret Service perhaps?
And finally Simpson’s in the Strand. Simpson’s opened in 1828 as a chess club and coffee house, The Grand Cigar Divan. It soon became known as the “home of chess”. The official website explains that the habit of wheeling large joints of meat on silver-domed trolleys to guests’ tables first began to avoid disturbing the progress of chess games — a practice Simpson’s still continues today. I was delighted to see that the official Simpson’s website proudly boasts of their famous patrons — Vincent Van Gogh, Charles Dickens, George Bernard Shaw, Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone and Sherlock Holmes.
It was here that Holmes sat with Watson in The Illustrious Client watching the “rushing stream of life in the Strand.” (“She waved us into our respective chairs like a reverend abbess greeting two rather leprous mendicants…. if your head is inclined to swell my dear Watson, take a course of Miss Violet de Merville.”)
My London will always be the London of Sherlock Holmes where Watson would be shaken awake on a “bitterly cold night and frosty morning” to hear the immortal words: “Come Watson, come, the game’s afoot.” The London where Holmes and Watson clatter through the silent streets to Charing Cross Station, the figure of a workman faintly visible in the “opalescent reek.”
The magic begins…
(this was a guest post by Achala Srivatsa)
Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle KGStJ, DL (22 May 1859 – 7 July 1930) was a British writer and physician, most noted for his fictional stories about the detective Sherlock Holmes, which are generally considered milestones in the field of crime fiction. He is also known for writing the fictional adventures of a second character he invented, Professor Challenger, and for popularising the mystery of the Mary Celeste. He was a prolific writer whose other works include fantasy and science fiction stories, plays, romances, poetry, non-fiction and historical novels.
Achala Srivatsa is a market researcher by profession who observes the madness of the world and occasionally musters up the energy to comment on it. Her love for all things Sherlockian started at the age of 9 when she read the Speckled Band and it continues today.