It is very rarely given that a 21st century reader can fully appreciate a 19th century novel. But I had an unexpected insight today.
This morning, as I was reading some more of Consuming Passions by Judith Flanders, I came upon an advertisement for Hearn’s Lamps dating from the very end of the 19th century. It is clearly advertising electric lights to be strung outside the house at Christmas.
This afternoon, re-reading The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle (serialised 1901-1902) I came upon the following passage, as Watson, Mortimer and Sir Henry Baskerville approach the gloomy Baskerville Hall for the first time. Sir Henry declares:
‘I’ll have a row of electric lamps up here inside of six months, and you won’t know it again, with a thousand candle-power Swan and Edison right here in front of the hall door.’
Read in the context of that advertisement, you suddenly get a sense of how that must have struck a reader at the very dawn of the 20th century. So far as I can recall, every other light mentioned throughout the Holmes canon is a gas light. Now, suddenly, there is the brilliance of electric light. And outside the house, not in. The reader might well have seen such a thing in that very same advertisement that Flanders displays, but it would have been a thing of aspiration, something shockingly new.
And, if you’ll pardon the pun, it casts The Hound of the Baskervilles, and indeed the entire Holmes canon, in a new light.