MUSE 32.3 FEATURED ARTICLE
FUN WITH SHERLOCK HOLMES
Sherlockian dinners and parties are fun, Sherlockian friendships are fun, and even Sherlockian scholarship is fun in its way. Heather Owen of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London once described Sherlockian travel in Victorian costume as “the best fun in the world.” But when we have such fun, are we truly living in the Canonical spirit? Did Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson and their associates ever have, well, fun?
Yes and no. Certainly they never admit to such a thing. The word “fun” appears just three times in the Canon. In VALL, the context is the activity of those merry guys, the Scowrers, heading off to kill a mine foreman, and “quite determined to be present at what they called ‘the fun’.” In STUD, Holmes foresees “some fun over this case if [Lestrade and Gregson] are both put upon the scent,” and before long Gregson is echoing him: “The fun of it is that that fool Lestrade, who thinks himself so smart, has gone off upon the wrong track altogether.”
This is “fun” in a bitter sense, akin to the sense of humor that Watson in LADY calls “strange and occasionally offensive.” One thinks of the “gibe and a sneer” that were Holmes’s attitude to affairs of the heart (before SCAN at any rate) and the “wry irony or outright sarcasm” that Jack Tracy’s valuable character sketch attributes to him in some nine cases. “And yet I live and keep bees upon the South Downs,” he says to a vanquished opponent in LAST and there is every reason to think he enjoyed saying it. But is it fun?
Holmes was a bit of a practical joker, as Percy Phelps discovered, though his dramatic gestures had more purpose than the drawing-pins-on-the-chairs foolishness favored by the Bertie Wooster crowd. Practical jokes were a staple of Victorian fun: John Scott Eccles in WIST thought he might have been the victim of one and so did Jabez Wilson in REDH. Threatening letters in FIVE and ominous messages in DANC were passed off as practical jokes, and Jonas Oldacre of NORW tried to explain away his deadly trick as nothing more than a joke.
One expects to find fun mostly in the company of other people, sharing a laugh or a shout of excitement. Holmes’s pleasures were almost always more solitary. We see him “gently waving his long, thin fingers in time to the music” in a concert-hall, we wonder whether he may have beguiled some time with the cryptograms he mentions in SIGN, and we avert our eyes from the seven-per-cent solution of cocaine. He was, to be sure, “an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman,” pursuits that require the involvement of another person, but one doubts that Holmes engaged in such combat for social reasons. After his university years, at any rate, Watson was—Holmes insists—his only friend.
Watson, of course, was more social—a member of a club (HOUN)—and played billiards, albeit only with Thurston. A rugby player, he also admitted to experience of women on three continents, something a young military doctor must surely have found fun even if there was also heartbreak once or twice. But he too spent much time in solitary pursuits, enjoying Clark Russell’s sea stories, which may have been gratifying (though they are tough reading nowadays) but hardly rise to the level of fun.
Other characters in the Canon have social interactions as well. Holmes attributes “cronies” to Mrs. Hudson, Violet Smith and Helen Stoner get engaged to be married, and even such rogues as Woodley and Carruthers form a friendship. For that matter, Josiah Amberley played chess with Ray Ernest, though perhaps in the same solitary spirit in which Holmes practiced his singlestick.
But love and friendship are not quite the same thing as fun either. That requires a quota of excitement or foolishness—or, perhaps, liquor, as it seems fair to say that Sir Hugo Baskerville’s companions were having fun until the devil showed up. There are not many outright parties in the Canon, though a children’s party makes a cameo appearance in BRUC, Henry Baker of BLUE was involved in some small jollification, and, of course, there was the memorable gasfitters’ ball. Dinner parties do make an appearance, including the one hosted by a retired brewer called Melville at whose table Scott Eccles met the good-looking Garcia. (Fun does not have to be entirely heterosexual.)
A characteristic Victorian social activity, one that surfaces repeatedly in the Canon, was card-playing. “It is the first Saturday night for seven-and-twenty years that I have not had my rubber,” the pompous Mr. Merryweather complains in REDH—did he find his invariable Saturday night game of whist to be fun? Similarly, one wonders about the gentlemen at the Tankerville Club, who played for money, or those at the Bagatelle Club, where Ronald Adair played just before he was shot to death. Was it fun or was it in deadly earnest?
Colonel Moran, who killed Adair, was a big-game hunter as well as a card-player. There are other hunters in the Canon, including Leon Sterndale of DEVI and Count Negretto Sylvius of MAZA. It seems clear that the latter, at least, found his sport to be fun:
“You used to shoot lions in Algeria.”
“Why? The sport — the excitement — the danger!”
Sounds like fun. It must have been fun, too, listening to Jephro Rucastle of COPP tell jokes. “I laughed until I was quite weary,” says Violet Hunter. But it was a fun-loving family, fond of killing cockroaches and locking up inconvenient daughters.
If there is one activity that epitomizes the Victorian idea of fun, it is parlor games. Such activities could be delicate and refined or somewhat boisterous, and it was not unusual for more emphasis to be put on the “forfeits” paid by the losers than on the game itself. Victorians played charades, blind-man’s-buff, Sardines (which was still sufficiently in fashion to be played by a mixed party of Baker Street Irregulars in 1934), and—starting sometime after 1893, anyway—“Are You There, Moriarty?”, a game that involves two blindfolded players trying to hit each other with rolled-up newspapers. It is not easy to imagine Sherlock Holmes taking part in any of these diversions.
He was, however, well aware of parlor games. Everyone was. “Well, Watson, what do you think of it?” Holmes asks his companion after they interview the three students. “Quite a little parlor game — sort of three-card trick, is it not? There are your three men. It must be one of them. You take your choice. Which is yours?”
Are we having fun yet?
The Serpentine Muse, 32:3, 2016