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Sherlock Holmes and the 19th Century

Updated on June 1, 2018
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There are many types of Genres in books, such as Romance, Sci-fi, Horror, Comedy, and there are also Detective stories. Detective stories involve, obviously a detective for one thing. The detective is someone who is searching for clues in a particular crime that has been committed, for example, a murder or a robbery. Typical features of detective stories are having a crime (e.g. Murder), a victim (e.g. Julia Stoner), a motive (e.g. money), an eccentric detective (e.g. Sherlock Holmes), a side kick (e.g. Watson), a solution at the end of the investigation, and the crimes often take place in a mansion where there is high society (e.g. ‘The Speckled Band’).

Examples of detective stories are Agatha Christie’s ‘Miss Marple’ and ‘Hercule Poirot’. There are also others such as ‘Mid-Sommer Murders’, ‘A Touch of Frost’, ‘Inspector Morse’, and less common ones such as ‘The X-Files’ and ‘Scooby-doo’.

The first ever detective story was written by Edgar Allan Poe, he was an American author. He wrote three detective stories; the first one was ‘Murders In The Rue Morgue,’ in 1841. He wrote his second detective story in 1845 called the ‘The Purloined Letter’, and his last one was in 1850 called ‘The Mystery of Marie Roget’. This was the sequel to the first story he wrote. Edgar Allan Poe was most well known for his horror stories, which he wrote much of. Some of these stories are ‘locked room mysteries’, like Sherlock Holmes in ‘The Speckled Band’. A ‘locked room mystery’ is when a murder happens in a room that is locked from the inside with no possible means of entrance or escape.

Another example of an early detective story was written by William Wilkie Collins; in 1859, he wrote a story that gave him great popularity called ‘The Woman in White’. The story starts off by a man finding a disoriented woman. He helps her and in return she warns him about a Baronet. Its first appearance was in Charles Dickens’s magazine ‘All the Year Round’. This most likely happened because the two men were friends.

The first account of the metropolitan police being set up is in 1829. This was called the ‘Peel’s Metropolitan Police Act and was passed by Wellington’s government, but it only applied to London. The Act required that the police had the responsibility of keeping London in order. One thousand men were given jobs to help out the already recruited four hundred other men. As you can see, there were not many actual police forces in this time, so detectives were usually vigilantes like Sherlock Holmes.

The first private detective agency was founded in the United States, Chicago in 1852 by Allan Pinkerton, and they solved a series of robberies on trains. In 1861, they were given the major job of protecting Abraham Lincoln. Pinkerton Agency is still up and running, recently celebrating its hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary. Pinkerton not only set up a detective agency, but also wrote detective stories. An example is ‘Private Eye’. This was around the time that some of the Sherlock Holmes stories were written.

The first detective department that was set up was in 1842 in Britain, but it only had two detectives. The problem with this is that it was very corrupt. The detectives took bribes to hide the truth of the crime or criminal, so in 1878 another one was set up, called ‘New Criminal Investigation Department’ with the objective of changing its reputation.

Agatha Christie’s (1890-1976) stories are quite similar to some Sherlock Holmes stories, mainly because they were around in similar times, (although Christie’s books were written later), so there is similar knowledge of the world. The stories are similar in the way that Both Miss Marple and Sherlock Holmes are a little eccentric. They both are very intuitive, as if they have a sixth sense, and they are both vigilantes; neither of them were with the police force of FBI, but are still authoritive figures, solving these murders as a hobby more than anything else. The crimes in the set of stories they are never too gory or filled with gruesome scenes as they are today. This is because it was not accepted as much in the nineteenth century and the story was more about solving the crime than the crime itself. You never learn too much about these detectives, and they both seem fairly distant from all their cases, where as in modern type detective stories, the whole idea is based on the detective’s personality and is very important to the plot. An example of this is ‘The X-Files’. Agent Mulder’s abduction of his sister, Samantha is the whole reason for the series. He is on a mission to find the truth about alien existence and it is all fuelled by his missing sister. ‘The X-Files’, though holding some of the typical features of a detective story, is slightly different because the crime is not always solved and quite often the criminal gets away. The motive in most stories is for money, this is usually the case with Sherlock Homes stories – This is especially the case in the nineteenth century – but in ‘The X-Files’ the motive is usually something completely different and supernatural.

The Sherlock Holmes detective stories were written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle was born on the 22nd of May 1859 in Edinburgh, Scotland. He often wrote about his family; in 1885, Doyle wrote a book called ‘The Surgeon of Gaster Fell’, which talked about his father and how he was admitted to a lunatic asylum.

Doyle started writing Sherlock Holmes books in 1887; he also did continuous stories about Sherlock Holmes for Strand magazines. He would leave each story at a loose end, so readers would queue up early in the morning to find out what happens. He did not however create the image of the famously known persona of Sherlock Holmes; his looks and clothes were illustrated by a man called Sidney Paget.

Doyle signed up for the Boer war; he felt that he had written many stories of war and wanted to put his knowledge of what he’d written in books and use it in real life. Arthur Doyle finally died on the 7th of July 1930 at the age of seventy-one.

During his life, Doyle wrote many Sherlock Holmes, short stories, including: ‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ (1892), ‘The Memories of Sherlock Holmes’ (1894), ‘The Return of Sherlock Homes’ (1905), ‘His Last Bow’ (1917), ‘The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes’ (1927), and ‘The Complete Sherlock Holmes short stories’ (1928). He also wrote four Holmes novels. These include: ‘A Study in Scarlet’ (1887), ‘The Sign of Four’, (1890), and ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ (1902’).

Many fans of the books believe that Sherlock Holmes is real, and some even claim to have met him. This is because they have got so engrossed in the book that they began to believe that Holmes was a real historical person. According to the stories, Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson lived at 221b Baker Street between 1881 and 1904.

The Holmes stories are based around the time that Queen Victoria was on the throne (1837-1901). In this time the social classes of England were changing, this is shown in ‘The Twisted Lip’, in which the different social classes are shown such as a beggar, or someone disfigured. There was an increase in the number of middle class people, and the upper class then not only included aristocrats, but also other nobility as well; this is shown in ‘The Speckled Band’, where the murder is committed in a mansion, which is high in society as it shows that the family are rich. The conditions of the working class were still bad, but they were improving. All men over the age of twenty-one were now allowed to vote and children under nine were not allowed to work in textile mills, (although this did not include other industries.)

In this time women were not considered equal to men and were usually uneducated. This is shown in many detective stories in the nineteenth century (although not particularly Sherlock Holmes, since ‘The Engineer’s Thumb’ had a man as the victim – there was however Julia and Helen Stoner in ‘The Speckled Band’), when the victim is often a vulnerable woman. Most women’s jobs were to stay at home and look after the children, but there were women who worked in textile mills, often from a young age. In some cases women were not allowed to work due to the excuse that men had ‘animal urges’ and it wasn’t fair to have women about the work place distracting them.

It was a time where great discoveries were being made, and science was becoming more advanced. There were people such as Sigmund Feud, who developed ideas on psychiatry and Kyle Marx made some economic developments.

In the Victorian era, the fashion style was much the same as it was in the Georgian period. Women wore corsets, which were worn to make their breasts stand out and bustles, which were used to make it look like they had larger backsides. Men on the other hand wore stove-pipe trousers, jackets, shirts, ties (or cravats). An example is in ‘The Engineer’s Thumb’, ‘He was quietly dressed in a heather weed with a soft cloth cap.’

Men would often have facial hair in the eighteen hundreds, often having beards moustaches and sideburns – like Watson.

Writers such as Charles Dickens, Jane Austin and Arthur Doyle were from this time and wrote brilliant works of literature.

Charles Dickens was born in 1812 on the 7th of February in Portsmouth. In 1827, Dickens decided that he wanted to be a journalist. His first book was published in 1833 called ‘Dinner at Popular walk’, but his first detective story was called ‘Hunted Down’. Like Sherlock Holmes stories, it was written in the first person. He also wrote the book ‘Bleak House’ in 1852 to 1853 (now a television series). The story has a murder where all the circumstantial evidence all leads to one person and this is also, often the case with Sherlock Holmes Stories and other typical nineteenth century detective stories.

Statue of Sherlock Holmes in Edinburgh
Statue of Sherlock Holmes in Edinburgh | Source

The basic outline of ‘The Speckled Band’ is that Helen Stoner comes to Sherlock Holmes for help to find out who killed her sister – and is trying to kill her. She tells the story of what happens, giving clues such as whistling, - ‘Are you sure about this whistling and metallic sound? ’ – The speckled band, - ‘Oh my God, Helen! It was the band! The speckled Band!’- The bell rope, - ‘Done about the same time as the bell rope,’ - and Holmes finds out about the ventilator, - ‘You saw the ventilator too?’- The milk and how the bed had been moved. - ‘The sight of the safe, the saucer of milk and the loop of whipcord were enough to finally dispel any doubts which may have remained.’ - He discovers who is the criminal and solves the case. This is a typical detective story. The criminal in this story was Dr Roylott. It is pretty obvious that he was the criminal from the very beginning, and the red herring about the gypsies were very convincing. The main reason for this story was to find out how the murder had been committed, not who committed the murder. Roylott was Julia and Helen Stoner’s step father. When their mother died, they had been promised to inherit a great some of money, however if something were to happen to them, then Roylott would get the money. This was the reason for his crime; he wanted the money all to himself.

The others are not quite as typical. In ‘The Engineer’s Thumb’, a man comes to Watson’s surgery and shows him that his thumb had been cut off. ‘It had been hacked or torn off, right from its roots.’ He then tells the story to Holmes and when they go to the scene of the crime, it’s too late as the criminals have already fled. Holmes was not doing much in this story and the end wasn’t very satisfying, because although the case is solved, the criminals get away. The criminals in this story were two Germans called Lysander Stark and Elise. Lysander is a colonel, which is rather unusual, because he is an authoritive figure, so would think he was one of the good guys. Elise is not talked about much in the book; she is presumed to be either Stark’s wife or sister. Elise, although a criminal, is compassionate, as she tried to help Mr Hatherley escape. ‘Come! Come! They will be here any moment.’

‘The Man With The Twisted Lip’ starts off with a man who is begging for money to buy opium and has a twisted lip (disguise). He doesn’t want his family to know this, so he runs away. His wife tells Holmes, thinking he’s been kidnapped, ‘Do you think that Neville is alive?’ But in the end Sherlock Holmes finds out that he was only hiding because he was ashamed that he was begging and lowering his social status, ‘Spent the time begging in the City.’ In most detective stories, there is a crime, but in this case there was no crime, so it is a very atypical detective story in that sense. However, Holmes does a lot in the story, trying to find clues like any regular case. Mr Neville St Claire is both the victim and the criminal in this. He is wearing a disguise, so people won’t recognise him; because people don’t recognise him, his wife thinks he’s been kidnapped. Holmes believes that St Claire is the criminal until he realises that it is St Claire in a disguise.

These stories had a similar structure, in the way they were written; for instance, in each story, Dr. Watson is the narrator; he gives an account of the stories by going over case notes, but it shows that the character has a very good memory and eye for detail because he seems to remember everything word for word. In ‘The Engineer’s Thumb’, Watson starts off the story by saying, ‘Of all the problems which have been submitted to my friend Sherlock Holmes,’ He also starts off saying how Holmes is his friend in ‘The Speckled Band’, this tells the reader who is narrating the story, because Watson is the only know friend associating with Holmes that we know of. Although Watson is the narrator in all these stories, there are many layers of narration/dictation, for example, in ‘The Speckle Band’ Watson is quoting Helen Stoner’s narration, who is sometimes quoting Julia Stoner’s or her father-in-law’s narration. This is the same with ‘The Engineer’s Thumb’, where Watson is narrating, but also quoting Victor Heatherly’s narration, who is sometimes quoting Lysander Stark’s or Elise’s narration and with ‘The Man With The Twisted Lip’ Watson is narrating, also quoting Mr Neville St. Claire. This makes the story complex and often complicated to read, which is one of the reasons it is not as popular now as it was in the nineteenth century. Another reason is because books are often now written to suit the style of a TV series in case it is turned into one in the future and it isn’t very easy to make a TV series with quotes within quotes.

The main difference between ‘Speckled Band’, ‘The Man With The Twisted Lip’ and ‘The Engineer’s Thumb’ is that ‘The Speckled Band’ is written in real time, where as ‘The Engineer’s Thumb’ is written in the past, where the engineer is explaining what happened, until the very end, when the story catches up to real time. ‘The Man With The Twisted Lip’ starts off in real time, but near the end of the story, when they find Mr. Neville St Claire, it goes into a past tense, while he explains what happened. Some times these layers of narration are broken up, for example, in ‘The Engineer’s Thumb,’ Sherlock Holmes breaks up the narration by Mr Heatherly to ask a question. ‘“One horse” interjected Holmes.’ This gives the reader a break from the past and brings them into real time.

In each story the details are told in chronological order; this is because you are being drip fed the clues that are being used to solve the crime. If it wasn’t done in chronological order then the plot would have been given away because we would know all the clues too early and understand what is happening, ruining the point of a detective story.

Sherlock Holmes stories give a lot of details of the nineteenth century; in ‘The Speckled Band’, we find out that Helen Stoner took a dog cart to get to Holmes. ‘Yet you had a good drive in a dog-cart,’ This is because cars were not around in this time; they were only just being invented so were not commonly used and not very reliable, so most people stuck with horse and cart. In the nineteenth century, drugs were not usually illegal, the character Holmes himself smokes opium everyday before breakfast, (told in ‘The Engineer’s Thumb’.) ‘Smoking his before-breakfast pipe.’ The story also shows that they used oil lamps, ‘A woman appeared with a lamp in her hand’. In ‘The Speckled Band’ the clues tell us a bit about what life was like in the nineteenth century. One of these clues is that Dr. Roylott had exotic animals like a cheetah and a baboon, which shows that they didn’t have animal rights because now, you would never be able to keep these wild animals at your house. There was also prejudice in this time; this is shown when the gypsies are thought to be the criminals just because they were gypsies.

Finding a criminal in the nineteenth century was mainly based on circumstantial evidence, such as the victim’s story, and the way people behave; unlike today where it is very difficult to convict anyone with actual proof, like identification, forensic evidence, fingers printing, etc. The reason you didn’t need this then was because forensic evidence did not yet exist. They did not have the technology to do DNA tests, etc. The stories didn’t even contain anything on finger printing until some of the later stories came out, because it only became possible in 1901. Scotland Yard were the first to start using it. Even though, Sherlock Holmes stories did not have forensic evidence or finger printing, Doyle made up a piece of evidence that didn’t exist yet. He got Sherlock Holmes to find footprints and use it as clue. Although this is basic knowledge now, it didn’t exist back then and Scotland Yard only used it after looking through Doyle’s stories and deciding it was a good idea; so in a matter of speaking, Doyle created the idea of using footprints as evidence.

The language in the nineteenth century is different from the style of language we use today. For example, when Watson is quoting someone who is finishing his or her sentence, he often ends if it with, ‘said he’, instead of ‘he said’ like we used today. There are also words they use that are not used today such as ‘fullers-earth’, which is soil, which is very rich in minerals. In Watson‘s narration of ‘The Engineer’s Thumb’ he recalls, ‘He was young, not more than five and twenty’. Now a days we would say ‘He was young, no older than twenty-five’. There are some quite sophisticated words that are still used today, but not very often, an example of this is in ‘The Man With The Twisted Lip’, where it says ‘She suddenly heard an ejaculation or a cry.’ The word ‘ejaculation has the same meaning but is used in a different context to that of this sentence.

In conclusion, Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories do have the characteristics of a detective story on most occasions; they tell you a lot about the nineteenth century and consist with a lot of the features of that time. This is because it was Doyle’s time. The Sherlock Holmes stories show how detective stories have evolved since the nineteenth century up to the present time. They have an interesting contrast, but still have their similarities and basic features.

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    • Billrrrr profile image

      Bill Russo 

      5 years ago from Cape Cod

      Sherlock Holmes is not really a story or a collection of stories. Holmes is much more. He is always the smartest person in the room. In 1897 or 2014, he would always be the one person to spot a hidden clue that would unravel even the most knotted yarn in history. He was always 100 per cent in. Just as a prizefighter puts his life on the line in the ring, Holmes always put his brain and body on the line with only one goal - to solve the case. Pills, banned substances, tobacco, spirits - he would use any and all of them as aids in criminal detection, just as some athletes used PEDS to go from good to elite status. No other detective has ever so fully immersed himself in his work. This intensity, I believe, is part of what has made Holmes so interesting to every single generation since his birth on the pages of a magazine in 1886. The more you read him, the more real he becomes. He's odd, smells badly of pipe & cigar stink, yet he is still the most fascinating man you could meet on paper, over the radio, in reel life, or in real life.

    • Vitallani profile imageAUTHOR

      Bryony Harrison 

      5 years ago from UK

      Holmes is certainly the most classical known detective in literature. There are so many adaptations on tv and film that even if you have not red the books, then you know exactly who he is.

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 

      5 years ago from The Beautiful South

      Wow, this was so very interesting and well done! I really didn'y get into mysteries until a few years ago and I do love them. Right now I would say maybe Sandra Brown is my favorite author. I like Barbara Michaels too, but maybe hers are more of a horror type. Of that type though those are my two favorites. Sherlock though Id say is our most famous detective. ^

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