Spitfire: Top five things you didn’t know about Sherlock Holmes

Spitfire: Top five things you didn’t know about Sherlock Holmes

Did you know that today is commonly accepted as Sherlock Holmes’ birthday? Although the exact details and circumstances of his fictional birth are unknown, we know that Sherlock was born on 6th January 1854 making him one hundred and sixty eight years old today.

I am a big fan of Sherlock in almost all of his different incarnations and I have read all of Doyle’s original fifty six short stories and four novels about the Great Detective. It’s easy to see why Sherlock has maintained his popularity, his method of deduction is astonishing yet plausiable and although Victorian London is his home, the character can be placed in any location and time period. Because Sherlock has been around for such a long time several misconceptions have grown about him and because I find the character fascinating (and I need a website post to test the new website theme) here are five facts you properly didn’t know about Sherlock Holmes.

The original Sherlock Holmes
  1. Sherlock Holmes and John Watson are often mistaken for real people

At first glance, this fact is surprising and somewhat laughable. Sherlock Holmes is known as one of the most popular fictional characters of all time. The name of his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is printed on the front cover of every Sherlock story. It would be very implausible, bordering on impossible, for one individual to have so many adventures during their lifetime.

This mistake is often made by foreign readers who are not as familiar with the character as the British public. Doyle set Sherlock in the Victorian era and used London as the backdrop to Sherlock’s adventures, he used accurate geography and transport routes available to the Victorians at the time, many of which still exist today. If you visit London you can practically follow in Sherlock’s footsteps. When you combine this fact with the countless academic essays written about the character, the framing device of each story (Watson recounting each tale as though they are facts) and the blue plaque outside 221B Baker Street it becomes easier to see how this mistake is made. It is also worth noting that Victorian readers also mistook Sherlock for a real person. When the character died in The Final Problem there was public outcry, readers of The Strand, where Doyle published his stories, cancelled their subscriptions and city workers were said to wear black armbands to show their grief over Sherlock’s death. We are not sure how much of this story is true but Sherlock is said to be the first character to create, what we would call, a fandom.

Due to the great detail that Doyle wrote into his stories, self dubbed Holmes aficionados or Sherlockians have dedicated their time to plotting out Sherlock’s life. They work on the assumption that Sherlock Holmes, John Watson and the rest of the cast were real people in Victorian London and that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was either Watson’s literacy agent or Watson himself. These fans attempt to place the four novels and fifty six short stories into chronological order to track Sherlock from his birth in 1854 to his death at some during during the First World War. Although Doyle supplied a wealth of details about the detective he was elusive on the date of each adventure. The task of tracking Sherlock is deliciously complicated as you need to establish when each story was published, when each story is set, when Watson wrote the stories and at what age each character is during the adventure.

Sherlock’s blue Plaque outside his home on Baker Street

2) 221B Baker Street did not exist until the 1930’s.

The address 221B Baker Street is almost as synonymous as Sherlock himself. Aside from his family home (and possibly a boarding school in the British countryside) we know that Sherlock had one other home before moving into 221B Baker Street in the year 1881. In the Final Problem Sherlock faked his death so between this story and The Adventure of the Empty House his fixed abode is unknown. Sherlock returned to Baker Street 1894 but retired 1904 and moved to the South Downs in a unknown village near Groomsbridge. He remained here till his death at least ten year later.

While 221B Baker Street remains Sherlock’s most popular address when Doyle wrote the first Sherlock story, A Study in Scarlet (published in 1887 but set in 1881) number 221B did not exist. The house numbers on Baker Street only went up to number eighty five. This confused a great many Victorian readers and it wasn’t until 1930 that the house numbers on Baker Street were extended up to two hundred and thirty. The properties between two hundred and fifteen and two hundred and twenty nine were given to the Abbey National Building Society, now known as Santander. The bank received so many fan letters to Sherlock Holmes that they hired one dedicated worker to respond to the fan mail. Interestingly the 221B Baker Street Museum is located between numbers two hundred and thirty seven and two hundred and forty one although the address 221B is plastered everywhere.

But where does this leave Sherlock? If 221B wasn’t built until 1930 where did Sherlock supposedly live? There are numerous guesses. Author Nigel Morland claims that Sherlock actually lived on the junction of Baker Street and George Street, based of hints in the stories. The Sherlockians place Sherlock’s home further up Baker Street opposite a Hanson cab stop that Sherlock frequently made use of. In Ian McKellen’s Mr Holmes, Sherlock admits that he actually lives opposite 221B and likes to look down at his fans while in the BBC’s adaptation, Sherlock lives above a café.

A 1890’s map of Baker Street contrasted to a 2010’s version.

3) Sherlock’s Mind Palace is a real skill anyone can learn.

One of Sherlock’s greatest skills is his power of deduction, the ability to reach correct assumptions about people or objects by simply glancing at them. Although this ability has often been described as a superpower it was based off the ability of a real man. While studying as a Doctor in Scotland Sir Arthur Conon Doyle worked under Dr Joseph Bell who played a fun game with his nurses. As his patients entered the office, Dr Bell would diagnose their condition based on their appearance and gait. He would then mentally cross reference their symptoms with all known ailments and announce their diagnoses before they spoke. Doyle was so amazed by this ability that he gifted Sherlock with this skill.

In one of Sherlock’s most recent appearances, the BBC’s Sherlock, this power is shown in a slightly different way. Although Sherlock still has the power of deduction he also has a near perfect memory by using a technique called the Mind Palace. The Mind Palace is a method in which you place information along a certain route in your mind and walk the route to remember the information. For example, if you wanted to remember your shopping list you could remember each item in a different room of your house then when you’re at the shops imagine walking around your house to trigger the memory. This technique dates back to the Ancient Greeks, the poet Simonides of Ceos was attending a party when the roof of a villa collapsed killing everyone inside. Simonides was able to assist the rescuers by walking through the house in his mind and remembering where which guests was. Contestants on the Generation Game used this method to remember every item on the conveyer belt and I used the method to help with my revision at school and university.

4) The character of Sherlock Holmes (and any characters associated with him) are in the public domain.

Sherlock Holmes is one of the most adapted characters of all time. One source I found claims that Sherlock has appeared in two hundred and fifty four different adaptations and is the most commonly adapted human character of all time (with the most popular being Dracula who doesn’t technically count as human). One reason there are the so many different interactions of Sherlock is due to the fact that no-one technically owns him, he exists within the public domain. Nothing is stopping you from picking up pen and paper, writing your own Sherlock story and seeking publication. The only catch is that your version of Sherlock… mustn’t be too kind.

Let me explain with a quick lesson on copywrite law. Unless an author makes a prior agreement, all of their works and related characters will enter the public domain seventy years after their death. This is why the works of Shakespeare, Dickens and Wordsworth are readily available. Although the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Estate have asked the UK courts to extend their rights of the character several times, Sherlock entered the public domain in the year 2000. However this is just in the UK. In the US the rights of a character enter the public domain ninety five years after an author’s death. As the final collection of Sherlock Holmes stories,The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, was published in 1927 these stories are still owned by the Doyle estate in America. This means that any elements of the Sherlock mythos introduced in these stories can not be used without permission. These include the unseen death of Mary Watson, John Watson marrying his second wife and Sherlock’s retirement. It is also in these stories that Sherlock becomes less cold and calculating and more empathic. If Sherlock is seen as too kind on screen then the Doyle estate have a right to launch a lawsuit, as was the case with Netflix’s Enola Holmes. As Sherlock was seen as a supportive older brother to Enola and not the usual cold hearted detective, the Doyle estate launch a lawsuit although the case was thrown out of court.

Eagled eyed readers may have noticed that The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes expires later this year so future writers and producers won’t need to worry about how caring their Sherlock is.

A Poster for the Enola Holmes film

5) Many aspects of Sherlock’s universe were added after Doyle’s death

When you picture the original Victorian Sherlock, what do you see? A slim man wearing a deerstalker hat, smoking a pipe and uttering ‘Elementary, my dear Watson. The Game’s afoot!’ Most likely. However many elements that we associate with Sherlock are not present in the original texts. They were added throughout time and modern readers have become so accustomed to them that it is strange to think of Sherlock without them.

Let us start with what many consider Sherlock’s catch phrase, ‘elementary, my dear Watson.’ The quote is often referred to as one of the best known phrases that Sherlock Holmes never said. Although Doyle came close to this expression several times, elementary was said in The Crooked Man and “It was very superficial, my dear Watson, I assure you” in The Cardboard Box the full phrase first appeared in a Sherlock Holmes film although I have failed to identity which film this is.

Sherlock’s other catchphrase ‘the game is afoot’ was written by Doyle. The phrase appears in “The Adventure of the Abbey Grange,” in which Sherlock wakes Watson up. The full quote is as follows:

“Come, Watson, come. The game is afoot. Not a word! Into your clothes and come!”

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – 1904

It should be noted that Sherlock only says this once.

Sherlock’s famous deerstalker hat can not be found in any of Doyle’s stories. Although Doyle describes two of Sherlock’s hats, “a close-fitting cloth cap” in The Boscombe Valley Mystery and a “ear-flapped travelling cap” in The Adventure of Silver Blaze the word deerstalker does not appear. The illustrator, Sidney Paget, drew Sherlock with a deerstalker hat after reading Doyle’s descriptions. Since this point the hat has always been associated with Sherlock despite him never wearing it.

Although Holmes is recorded as smoking a clay pipe at several points throughout the series there is question over what sustance he smokes. The idea that Sherlock is a drug addict link backs to the original books. In “The Man with the Twisted Lip” Watson accidently discovers Holmes in an opium den. Holmes assures him that he does not smoke opium but is there to locate a missing person. In other stories Holmes admits to smoking cocaine and morphine for recreational use. You could argue that Doyle’s Sherlock has more of an addiction to work, a workaholic, than a drug addiction but the BBC’s Sherlock battles with his drug addiction through the series often relapsing back into drug use.

Although Mycroft Holmes is now a character in his own right he is only relevant in four of the original short stories as is Sherlock’s so called arch nemesis Professor Moriarty. Irene Adler only appears in “A Scandal in Bohemia” although out of the trio she is often given the most development. This may be because she is one of the few female characters in the Sherlock Mythos aside from Mrs Hudson.

The original depiction of Professor Moriarty.

What’s your favourite Sherlock fact? What adaptation of the Great Detective do you most enjoy? Let me know in the comments down below or on social media and I’ll see you next time.

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