Let’s face it: The most handsome iteration

I started reading before I started school, and have been an avid reader ever since. I very much enjoy rereading my favorites both from childhood (eg Louisa May Alcott or Johanna Spry) and my teen and young adult years (an inordinate amount of science fiction and some fantasy). I suppose I’m not much different from a lot of habitual readers in that; it’s not unlike rewatching favorite films or TV shows. It’s just something readers do.

It is a trope that people—men in particular—get more “conservative” as they age. (The scare quotes are because the terms “conservative” and “liberal” have been so abused in the last 30-40 years, and especially the last 20, as to have lost all meaning.) I don’t think that’s the case in general, which I addressed in another post, and it is absolutely not the case with me. I have only become more and more radicalized as I’ve aged, and as a proud Banana Slug and graduate of UC Santa Cruz, I started out pretty well out on the left to begin with.

I mention this because it figures into my reactions and perceptions as I reread fiction that I loved as a kid and young adult. Like everything else in the world, fiction seems to obey Sturgeon’s Law, and 95% of it is crap, and time is the filter that helps us determine what is crap, and what is Good Stuff™. And yet even some of the Good Stuff ™is, with the passage of time, changes to the world and society, and improved knowledge of history, at best problematic, and at worst…well, pretty bad. I want to take a few posts and examine some of my favorite reads in this light. Today, it’s Sherlock Holmes.

I’ll be blunt: I love Sherlock Holmes stories. I love the pastiches, the homages, the dramatizations. Despite his height, I thought Robert Downey, Jr’s portrayal was quite faithful to the spirit of Holmes. I was a huge early supporter of Benedict Cumberbatch’s modern take in the TV show “Sherlock”. I watched quite a few episodes of the show “Elementary”, although its police procedural nature eventually got tiresome to me. I was a massive fan of Tony Shalhoub’s “Monk”. And…well, you get the picture. I love Holmes in almost all of his forms.

I love Tony Shalhoub

Recently I went back and started rereading (and listening to Stephen Fry’s excellent audiobook version) the original stories again. Aside from the four “novels”—A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of Four, The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Valley of Fear (which are all pretty short by modern novel standards)—they’re short enough to read in one quick gulp. You get through them quite rapidly, if you have a mind.

And what I’ve found is it was sometimes quite hard to reread the stories with a modern, “3rd decade of the 21st Century” eye.

The racism woven throughout the stories is, of course, appalling. Interestingly to an American reader, hardly any of this is focused on people of African descent. I don’t know enough of British Victorian history to say whether this is because there simply weren’t a lot of Black Britons in those days, or that Doyle simply didn’t see Blacks as any different, or what. Indeed, Doyle has a story that is still surprisingly racially enlightened for its day, and was probably shocking in its time: “The Yellow Face.” If you haven’t read it, I don’t want to spoil it, but it is both delightful in it’s ending, and in how Doyle pokes racists right in the eye.

What I do know about Victorian attitudes is, if you weren’t European, you were inferior.

Indians, unsurprisingly, take the worst hit. They are ungrateful for Britain bringing them “civilization” (ignoring that India has been civilized an awfully long time before Europeans came marching in); they are back-stabbers; they are superstitious; and on and on. None of this is stated baldly—according to what I’ve read, Doyle was quite broad-minded…for his era. And therein lies the rub.

Koh-I-noor diamond, ripped off from India and inserted in the literal British crown

Related is the inherent imperialism that is clear throughout (and which Downey impishly referred to in his first Holmes film; “What a busy little Empire!”). Britons were of course unapologetically imperialist during the Victorian era, and Victorian England became one of the largest empires in the history of the world by the end of Victoria’s reign. And to a modern reader, knowing what we do about colonization, slavery, cultural repression, religious persecution, and on and on, eliding all the Imperial references in the Holmes stories can be…a bit difficult.

In my view the best example of this is the Andaman Island native Tonga in Sign of the Four. The nature of the language characters use to describe Tonga makes it quite clear he’s viewed as somewhere between a wild animal and a pet. He was “venomous as a young snake”; “he was devoted to me and would do anything to serve me”; “we earned a living at this time by my exhibiting poorTonga at fairs and other such places as the Black cannibal”; etc. It’s clear Mr. Small cares for Tonga; it’s equally clear he doesn’t consider him quite human.

And of course the sexism is pretty bad. Yes, Doyle created one of the great female characters of fiction in Irene Adler, who I adore. And yet even Irene makes her way through the world by…well, to put it bluntly, marrying up. One could reasonably argue that there simply weren’t that many options for advancement during the Victorian era—”You will inherit your fortune; we cannot even earn ours,” notes Elinor Dashwood in Sense & Sensibility, only a few decades prior to the Victorians—and I would not dispute it. I will simply point out the number of women who are said to be suffering from “brain fever” and other female-specific “maladies” is enough that practically make it an epidemic.

Then there’s the classism. Even today, the classism in the UK can be problematic; in the Victorian era, it was probably at its height, and most entrenched. All of the upper class are assumed to be “gentlemen”, while all the lower class are, almost by definition, suspect and sketchy. And before someone complains yes, I am well aware that Doyle sometimes turns this presumption on its head. This doesn’t change the baseline assumption that, if you are a member of the upper class, you are trustworthy unless proven otherwise, and if you are a member of the lower, suspicion falls on you immediately. This attitude tends to drag on me after too many pages.

They had classism diagrams, FFS

It should be said that Doyle does regularly subvert this trope by having Holmes work closely with “the lower classes”; boatmen, factory workers, boxers, and most famously the street urchins “the Baker Street Irregulars”. This is definitely to Doyle’s credit. And it still doesn’t change the entrenched classism displayed in the stories.

Very much related is the absolutely appalling state of working class. There’s no minimum wage, of course; no weekends off; very little job mobility. Servants can be dismissed by the nobility immediately and on a whim, regardless of years (or even decades and, in Hound of the Baskervilles, a full century!) of loyal service. This is bad enough, but in many cases this not only deprives the servants of their livelihood, but also their home, as many live with “the master”. And several times the nobleman threatens to give them bad references, dooming them to joblessness and homelessness for heaven’s knows how long. This is…well, it’s disgusting.

(And yup, I’m well aware we have similar problems today. At least we have weekends, overtime pay, healthcare, 40 hour work weeks, no child labor…I could go on, but you get the point.)

Finally, there is a terrible tendency for Holmes and Watson (and other “experts” with whom Holmes consults) to rely on what we know today to be pseudo-science. Phrenology—ie the idea that the shape of a person’s skull, face, the bumps on their head, etc.—is in my view the worst, but there are quite a few other examples. Assuming someone is a criminal just because they have a particular shape to their face is a terrible form of prejudice. This is especially ironic given Holmes is one of the very first “scientific detectives”.

Many would argue that we have to take into account the era in which Doyle wrote. Yes, we do; but the whole point of this post is that I’m reading it in my era, and we currently don’t believe a few bumps on the skull indicate criminal intent. Indeed, this kind of toxic thinking is part of the reason policing is still so informed by prejudice.

In conclusion I want to say that yes, I still love the Holmes stories, I always will, and I will no doubt reread them in the future. Which absolutely does not preclude me from noticing their many built-in prejudices.

Next: Mote in God’s Eye.