BAKER STREET STUDIES
The Diversions of Scholarship
By DESMOND MacCARTHY
The Sunday Times (London, England), Sunday, Augustus, 26, 1934; pg. 6; Issue 5811.
I PERUSED this work of careful research and wild conjecture with mixed feelings: resentment, envy, uneasiness. With resentment, because I am only mentioned in it once, and then merely as one who had been puzzled! With envy, because the investigations of Vernon Rendall, Roberts, Starrett, Bell, Macdonnel and Knox, of Dorothy Sayers and Helen Simpson—their thoroughness and their daring—have made my own earlier researches and conjectures appear perfunctory and tame in comparison. With uneasiness, because there are, alas, signs that public patience on this subject is nearly exhausted. Any day a cry may start, “Let us rid the country of these Holmes-cum-Watson bores who are saping the common-sense of our race.” A “clean-up” of Baker Street investigations is by no means impossible. Even in a most respectful review of this book in a literary journal there sounded a warning, and in at least one notice of Starrett’s book, “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes,” which immediately preceded the publication of this one, there was something far more ominous—an unmistakable note of hostile fanaticism.
The brilliant young man who wrote that notice (though to judge from his former writings you might have supposed him over-indulgent to the weaker sides of human nature) revealed suddenly a moral and intellectual exasperation, an utter lack of sympathy with elderly childishness—and especially with this form of it—which bodes ill to all of us. “The Watson cult,” he wrote, “now combines an intellectual with an emotional escape.” He evidently thinks “escapes” evil, forbidden. “Back to Baker Street,” he continues scornfully, “Back to Baker Street, where there are muffins still for tea, a settled income for the middle classes, no danger of getting run over, and Mother Watson, the goddess of Mediocrity triumphant, of Not having to make up one’s mind, there to welcome us; and back to the common-room, the metaphysical limericks, the acrostics (‘Can anyone think of a main besides the Spanish main?’) and the homeliness of exact knowledge.”
Mr. Cyril Connolly calls the sphere of our study “the paradise of the soft-boiled,” and I am only thankful he did not add, “and of the half-baked.” “Paradise,” I protest, is too strong a term, but I see what he means. He won’t allow the panting fox even a little temporary whimsical bolt-hole. We must never, not even at weaker moments, distract ourselves from Realities by contemplating the charm of a civilisation which did allow us “a settled income”; we must never nestle down in “the homeliness of exact knowledge.” No more elaborate notes to the classics of any period. What are such pursuits but “escapes”? We are not allowed to “escape.” Henceforth we must never allow our imagination to play round Horace on his Sabine farm, Mr. Woodhouse taking a little gruel in the bosom of his family, Montaigne in his tower room, Robinson Crusoe behind his pallisade once he has drawn his ladder up, Watson and Holmes by their fireside, when fog is at the window and the crash and clatter of an arrested hansom announces some fresh adventure. I see what he means, but his meaning is harsh to the middle-aged who crave a little cosiness. The times are against us, and in reviewing this latest addition to Baker Street researches it behoves me, out of caution, to be brief.
Holmes’ College Career
Speaking as one impenitently childish in this respect, and as a Cambridge man, I am grateful to Miss Dorothy Sayers for having gone so far towards proving that Sherlock Holmes was educated at Cambridge, though it is mistake to say educated—no curriculum made him what he became. The main passage on which all conjectures on this point rest occurs in the adventure of “The Gloria Scott.”
[Victor Trevor] was the only friend I made during the two years that I was at college. I was never a very sociable fellow, Watson, always rather fond of moping in my rooms and working out my own little methods of thought, so that I never mixed much with the men of my year. Bar fencing and boxing, I had few athletic tastes, and then my line of study was quite distinct from that of the other fellows, so that we had no points of contact at all. Trevor was the only man I knew, and that only through the accident of his bull-terrier freezing on to my ankle one morning as I went down to chapel.
You would think that this established the fact that Sherlock Holmes went down without taking a degree—and, in my opinion, it does. But there is another passage in “The Musgrave Ritual” which renders it apparently uncertain, for there Holmes speaks of his “last years at the university.” This, I maintain, is a slip on the part of Watson who reports the words. No one speaks of his “last years” at Cambridge, where three is the normal period, unless he stayed up after taking a degree. The probability that what Holmes said was, during “my last year at the University” is to my mind overwhelming, and it is therefore with regret that I declare all Miss Sayers’ ingenuity in reconciling the two passages to be wasted. On the other hand, I consider her argument that he was at Cambridge, not Oxford, irrefutable. Read the passage again. Holmes was bitten by a dog on his way to chapel; dogs are not allowed in college; Holmes must therefore have been in “digs” in the town; it is only at Cambridge that undergraduates go into lodgings when they first come up; at Oxford it is the other way round; Holmes was his first or second year when he was bitten, therefore he was a Cambridge man. Bravo, Miss Sayers!
A Trinity Man
On the other hand, her argument that he was at one of the smaller colleges has this weakness. Most of them in the seventies had ample room for their undergraduates. It was the large colleges which overflowed, and as John’s had greatly extended its buildings before Holmes came up, probability points to his having been a Trinity man. Again, his sole acquaintances among undergraduates, the rich young Trevor and the aristocratic young Musgrave (whom Holmes could never look at without associating him with the grey archways and mullioned windows), are more likely to have been at Trinity than, as Miss Sayers conjectures, Sidney Sussex.
If the above discussion strikes you as unspeakably boring you will not enjoy this book. No: I am wrong, you may still be amused by the fantastications of Father Knox, who writes on “The Mystery of Mycroft”—at any rate, with his picture of the two brothers in their boyhood.
A call on the Holmes family must have been an unnerving business; you could be sure that you would be turned inside out the moment you had left. “Mummy,” little Sherlock would say, “Who was that man who came to luncheon? I mean the victim of chronicle alcoholism with the dirty finger-nails? I could see, of course, that he has trouble with his wife, and that his gas bill for the last quarter remains unpaid; that he is thriftless, absent-minded, and Eurasian by descent; but I couldn’t quite make out whether he was a company promoter or just a common black-mailer?” Then from the heart-rug: “Don’t make such an unnecessary ass of yourself, you blighter; do you mean to say you can’t tell a publisher from the way he licks his finger before turning over a page of manuscript?”
“My dears,” Mrs. Holmes would expostulate, crushing down a Sempronia’s pride in the interest of manners, “you really must not say such things.”
The rest of the essay in which an attempt is made to show that Mycroft was implicated with Professor Moriarty seems to me a regrettable piece of Verrallian ingenuity calculated to darken counsel. But I must be brief. I dare not expatiate on the solid scholarship of Rendall who writes a masterly essay “The Limitations of Sherlock Holmes,” in which admiration is nevertheless well maintained, or on Roberts’s handling of his relations to “the fair sex,” or on Bell’s important contribution to the problem of the date of “The Sign of Four,” which is the pivot on which the whole of Watson’s chronology turns—I dare not for fear of precipitating that exasperation of which I spoke at the beginning.