Electric Holmes

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.

6 thoughts on “Electric Holmes

  1. I like the idea that the invention of electric light could have affected perception, art, etc., in ways that we can only imagine, ways that ought to make us historicize our own techno-cultural moment (e.g. the immediacy with which we are suddenly in others’ living rooms/minds, the collapse of the time-lapse between conception and communication or mis-). I’m working on a presentation on shadows right now for the &NOW conference this week, and was just reading about the idea that until the invention of electric light, shadows were always moving, either flickering in firelight or subject to the movement of the sun. Now, suddenly, with the advent of electricity, shadows could be still, steady, static, persistent. Roberto Casati’s book The Shadow Club is the bible on this, incidentally. I’m curious to hear more about how you see the brilliance of electric light impacting our understanding of Holmes’s stories.

    • Tim, after over a century our reading of Sherlock Holmes is inevitably filtered through everything that has occurred since. For instance, the films, particularly the Basil Rathbone films, give an impression of a dim, murky, fog-bound world. (I think fog is mentioned in only one of the Holmes stories that I can recall, usually events occur in daylight. And we must remember that gaslight wasn’t dim. I’ve been in a gaslit pub, and the light is a bright as a lot of electric light, just softer.) The other filter is that they are detective stories, and we know that detective stories are essentially conservative in nature, and so the Holmes stories must be conservative.

      What I’m beginning to understand is that this is not how they would have been seen at the time.

      There are all sorts of examples. Among the lesser stories in The Return of Sherlock Holmes, for instance, there is one in which an abusive husband is killed. Holmes solves the murder, but lets the murderer go: a shocking thing within the moral world of late Victorian Britain. Another story has the wife of a cabinet minister steal vital state papers to give them to a blackmailer. The blackmailer is killed by a jealous mistress, Holmes recovers the papers, both the mistress and the wife get off scot free. This is a new morality that Conan Doyle is laying out.

      Then there are all the other signs of modernity that recur throughout the fictions. Holmes and Watson are forever going to concerts and art exhibitions, yet the first concerts and art exhibitions open to the general public had only started early in the 19th century, and only became commonplace around mid-century. Most of the investigations do not take place in London but outside in what would become the suburbs but which were, at the time, still country towns and villages. This is only possible because of the great innovation of mid-century England, the railway, (which features in more than half of the Holmes stories), and at the time Doyle was writing the general public were only just becoming aware how accessible the railways made those towns around London that would become the suburbs.

      Then there is ‘The Solitary Cyclist’, written less than 20 years after cycling was invented, let alone became popular, and when a woman cyclist, let alone a lone woman cyclist, was still considered risque.

      Sir Henry Baskerville’s plans to bring electric light to Baskerville Hall is on a par with this: brash, modern, rather outre.

      And that is not to mention the role of the empire. At a time when so many authors (Rider Haggard) were extolling the role of the Englishman out in the benighted colonies, Doyle’s stories were full of Europeans committing crimes in India or America, which came to haunt them when they returned to England (‘The Crooked Man’). And Sir Henry is one of many colonials bringing energy and the modern back to England.

      So what I realised when I came upon the electric lights at Baskerville Hall was that the Sherlock Holmes stories are not the safe, conservative, foggy things we now read them as. They were actually brash and bright and challenging and modern. Modern both in their engagement with technology and in their view of morality.

  2. Paul,

    Have you seen any of the new BBC “Sherlock” series? It tries to do exactly what you are talking about by setting the Holmes & Watson mysteries in the 21st century. Really good show too.

    • David, I saw the first three and really enjoyed them (Benedict Cumberbach is an actor I really like watching). And yes, they show how readily the stories can be updated to the modern world. Though I’m not sure there is the same shock of the new that I suspect was in the original stories.

      Still, I’m looking forward to the new series, which apparently will consist of A Scandal in Bohemia, The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Final Problem. Due in the UK in the New Year.

  3. Pingback: Review of 2011: Reading « Through the dark labyrinth

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