“I assure you that the most winning woman I ever knew was hanged for poisoning three little children for their insurance-money.”
—Sherlock Holmes in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of the Four (1890)
I am absolutely delighted with the explosion of all things Sherlock Holmes. I’ve previously mentioned my love for Holmes before, but it’s only the rumblings of the intense BBC Sherlock fandom that has made it all chic again.
Inspired by some obscure side comments on Ghost Bees & Consulting Detectives—my favorite Sherlock Holmes tumblr—I picked up the incredibly influential William S. Baring-Gould biography from the Berkeley Public Library.
A little bit on the Baring-Gould and Holmes connection first, though. There existed a real person by the name of Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould. He was an amateur antiquarian, novelist, and folklorist. In Laurie R. King’s The Moor (1998), he is portrayed as a crusty old invalid who sends his godson, Sherlock Holmes, to investigate the death of a Dartmoor man.
Aside from this fictional appearance, Sabine Baring-Gould’s real and interesting childhood—as detailed in the first volume of his autobiography—is freely used by his grandson, the aforementioned William S. Baring-Gould, as the basis for Sherlock Holmes’s childhood.
So: fiction intruded upon a life, then life intruded upon fiction. Then the dance continued.
For a reader like myself, it’s almost impossible not to think of the Baring-Gould name without Holmes, and vise versa. While the old reverend was accomplished in his lifetime and still marginally remembered for his own contributions, I wonder if his ghost is bothered that younger generations think of him as “Sherlock’s godfather.”
But I digress.
What I think about his grandson’s biography is a different matter altogether!
I can only describe William S. Baring-Gould’s Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street: A Life of The World’s First Consulting Detective (1960) as a seminal piece of fanfiction. It’s an unintentionally hilarious piece of work, with most of the giggles and teeth-gnashing coming from the serious tone coupled with the author’s unbelievable flights of fancy.
This is not the work of a fool uploading half-finished first drafts on fanfiction.net, folks. In 1967, William Baring-Gould published the two-volume Annotated Sherlock Holmes, which is still a definitive piece of Holmes scholarship. He is one of the first to fix the internal chronology of the stories (which is something Sir Arthur Conan Doyle seriously screwed up.) Baring-Gould’s many scholarly contributions are mentioned in The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes (2005), and he’s supposed to be someone to take seriously.
Knowing these things only made Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street an even more infuriating experience for me!
First off, Baring-Gould names Holmes’ parents and endows him without another older brother, Sherrinfold. With Sherrinfold as the heir of the family estate and with Mycroft as the spare, this makes third son Sherlock rather superfluous (in terms of succession or the entail.)
Holmes’s position as a third son enables him to rebel against his father’s choice of profession for him (engineering!) which in turn gets him disinherited. It makes sense in terms of characterization, given that Holmes only reluctantly mentions his family to Watson.
What doesn’t make sense, however, is all the other stuff Baring-Gould insisted on.
It amuses me that Baring-Gould went through extreme lengths to explain how Holmes attended both Oxford and Cambridge. (I understand that both universities claim him.) Among his other youthful exploits, Holmes meets Karl Marx and some anarchists, he hangs out with Lewis Carroll, and he embarks on an acting career (?!) in the United States. Seriously.
As a hilarious clincher to these goings-on, Baring-Gould has Holmes dressing up as a blonde streetwalker trying to entrap Jack the Ripper. Of course a struggle ensues when he is found out to be a man, and of course Watson comes along to save the day. Seriously.
It was at this point in the book where I felt the chapter could so easily devolve into a BBC Sherlock yaoi fanfic.
Instead of that scenario (perhaps he found himself unable to write that scene?) Baring-Gould falls back on that old heterosexual standby, “The Woman.” Unable to collapse gently into Watson’s arms, during his great hiatus Holmes instead has a passionate affair with a recently divorced Irene Adler. Ms. Adler abandons Holmes once she realizes she’s pregnant. She flees Europe and later gives birth to Nero Wolfe.
I won’t bother with commenting on the rest of it, aside from mentioning that the ending is pure schmaltz. I just refuse to believe that Holmes spends his last day alive surveying his life’s work while sitting by the sea, whispering “Irene, Irene” to himself like a lovesick fool.
If this was supposed to be the secret life of the great detective, I’d rather he had died at Reichenbach. At least Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wanted him to go out with a heroic bang. Too bad the reading public wouldn’t let him.
Holmes surely deserves more than this piteous whimper.
I’m not sure why I’m getting all riled up over a fifty-two year old piece of fanfiction (back in the day, it would have been called a pastiche), but seriously! It gets my goat. I don’t mind bad fanfiction on the internet. That’s easy enough to dismiss out of hand. What I do mind, however, is bad fanfiction somehow made legitimate with its hardbound cover and staid dust jacket, sitting decorously on the shelves of the Berkeley Public Library, merely waiting to pounce on unsuspecting readers like myself. The nerve!
Tonight, I think I will retreat back into the welcoming arms of the canon, sniffling for this great blow to Holmes’s dignity.