My Dear Watson . . .
The Times (London, England), Saturday, Oct 29, 1932; pg. 11; Issue 46277.
From a terrifyingly erudite article in this week’s Literary Supplement of The Times it may be learned that two additions have just been made to the higher criticism of the words and works of Sherlock Holmes. It was FATHER (then only Mr.) RONALD KNOX who began it all twenty-one years ago with a paper entitled “Studies in Sherlock Holmes,” written (so far as he could remember seventeen years later) for the Gryphon Club of Trinity College, Oxford. When the study of Sherlockholmitos (as one of the two new authors has found it called in South America) has been carried a good deal farther than it has been at present (and the Literary Supplement suggests that it has gone badly astray and ought to be begun all over again), it may tell us, among other important facts, whether the first paragraph of FATHER KNOX’s study, as it stands in the “Essays in Satire” of 1928, is exactly as it stood in the original lecture. No doubt in 1911—having, like Alice, to keep a Gryphon awake and to make it claim “What fun!”—he began by explaining that fun and nothing more it was, merely the fun of “finding out what we aren’t meant to find out”; but not until it is known how his first paragraph originally ended will it possible to decide whether this pioneer in the investigation did or did not then harbour the sinister aim of casting ridicule upon the Higher Criticism of other things besides the Sherlock Holmes canon. Be that as it may, the scholars who have followed him in the subject have been innocent of second meanings, of black obscurantism and red scepticism. MR. A. A. MILNE, MR. VERNON RENDALL, MR. DESMOND MacCARTHY, MR. S. C. ROBERTS (who, being an habitual Johnsonian, was not slow to see with FATHER KNOX that any studies in Sherlock Holmes must be, first and foremost, studies in his BOSWELL, Dr. Watson, and has written the standard life of the beloved and bowler-hatted physician), and now MR. T. S. BLAKENEY with his treatise, “Sherlock Holmes: Fact or Fiction?” and MR. H. W. BELL, who in “Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson” has tabulated and annotated the several series of adventures—about none of these is there a hint of the secret purpose of WHATELY’s “Historical Doubts relative to Napoleon Buonaparte,” or of “Erewhon Revisited.” It is only their fun—the single-minded fun of spiritually young Sherlockians all at play.
And never was there a better plaything for men of wit and acumen. Criticism has long pointed out how romance and realism meet in Sherlock Holmes as in no other CONAN DOYLE’s characters, and how the matter-of-fact and amiable fatuity of Dr. Watson makes Holmes at his stupidest seem brilliant. DOYLE wrote three or four books –“Rodney Stone,” “Micah Clarke,” “The White Company”—with more care and thoroughness than he gave to the stories of Sherlock Holmes; but none of the characters in them is so real as the extraordinary Holmes and the ordinary Watson, setting out from the commonplace of lodgings in Baker Street to the unknown, the awful, the absurd of their adventures. This reality, which delights the general reader, wets the appetite of the scholar for a precise dating of all events, a reconcilement of all contradictions, and a complete knowledge of all that he is “not meant to find out,” the dates, for instance, of Watson’s marriages and the names and number of his wives. All his game of editorial tamperings, forgeries, pseudo-this and Ur-that is based upon his author’s weak points as well as upon his strong—upon the little inconsistencies, slips, changes of mind, and downright mistakes of a writer whose aim was to tell some good stories, not to present a historical statement without gap or flaw. How long the game will go on there is no saying. No excavation can yield new manuscripts, no historical research suggest new theories. But the classical scholars seem able to carry on their disputes without such stimulus; and the present state of Shakespearian scholarship suggests that there need never be any lack of work to be done in “disintegrating” the canon of a master.
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The Times (London, England), Monday, Oct 31, 1932; pg. 15; Issue 46278.
TO THE EDITOR OF THE TIMES
Sir,—Honour where honour is due. In your leading article on Sherlockholmitos you say that it was an Oxford man, Father Ronald Knox, “who began it all twenty-one years ago,” and though, later, you pay deserved tribute to Mr. S.C. Roberts for his “standard life of Dr. Watson,” and by mere mention of my name do enough honour to my own modest work in this field, the injustice to Cambridge scholarship remains. Not 21 but 30 years ago, in the Cambridge Review, Mr. Frank Sidgwick was subjecting to the Higher Criticism the latest addition to the Sherlock Holmes saga, “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” To Cambridge, then, the recognition due to the pioneer; to Oxford the customary congratulations on the inevitability with which, sooner or later, she hits the trail. Yours, &c.,
A. A. MILNE.
13, Mallord Street, Chelsea, S.W.3.
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The Times (London, England), Thursday, Nov 03, 1932; pg. 13; Issue 46281.
TO THE EDITOR OF THE TIMES
Sir,—The letter from Mr. A. A. Milne on “Sherlockholmitos” errs (if an Oxonian may use such a harsh term in connexion with so charming a communication) on the side of modesty. Not only does Cambridge seem to have been the pioneer in the systematic study of Holmes’s life, but she is apparently his mother-university.
Such is the supposition of Mr. Thomas Blakeney in his recent book on the subject. Mr. Blakeney adduces as evidence of his theory Holmes’s exhaustive knowledge of chemistry. Anyone not quite disposed to regard this circumstance as conclusive proof of a Cambridge training may perhaps have his doubts removed by recalling other details of Holmes’s education, as given by Dr. J. H. Watson in “A Study in Scarlet,” where it is stated that Holmes’s attainments in regard to literature and philosophy were nil, and his knowledge of politics feeble.
I am yours, &c.,
Hermitage Court, Woodford Road, E.18, Nov. 1.