Of course, Holmes has been a cultural icon for well over a century, and I’ve been a fan for some years. As it happens, around the same time my girlfriend and I acquired the DVD box set of the 1980s-’90s TV series with Jeremy Brett as Holmes, and have been watching it from beginning to end. It offers more faithful adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories than any other filmed version before or since, in a style that’s a closer match for the original sensibilities of the material (i.e., fewer chase scenes, fistfights, and explosions)… and Brett does an uncanny job of capturing the persona of the Great Detective (although in some scenes he seems, perhaps, just a bit too caustic and antisocial), ably abetted by first David Burke and later Edward Hardwicke as Dr. Watson. It’s a fantastic series, well worth watching.
Even the best adaptation is a mere interpretation of the original, though, and I found myself moved to turn my attention back to “The Canon,” the original four novels and fifty-six short stories by Conan Doyle, published between 1887 and 1927. I’m fortunate enough to own both annotations of the complete works, William Baring-Gould’s classic Annotated Sherlock Holmes from 1967, and Leslie Klinger’s New Annotated edition from 2004-’05. Both offer not only the original texts but a fascinating treasure-trove of scholarly exegesis, analysis, background information, and speculation about the characters, settings, and myriad other details of the stories.
The Holmes canon has been peculiarly attractive to armchair scholars almost from the beginning, perhaps due to the natural appeal of applying the Master’s own analytical methods to the source material in which we discover them. And the exercise is more enjoyable for the distinctive rules of the game, the set of underlying premises observed with scholarly solemnity when possible and with tongue clamped firmly in cheek when necessary: namely, that the Canon represents a true and genuine (if tantalizingly far from complete) account of the life and career of Sherlock Holmes, the world’s first consulting detective, as recorded by his friend and colleague Dr. John H. Watson, published under the auspices and (for reasons lost to history) under the name of Watson’s literary agent (and occasional editor), Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle. I respect and observe these rules.
There are as many facets of Sherlockian scholarship as there are enthusiasts ready to undertake it, but one area of longstanding controversy that I find particularly engaging (given my own deep-seated and frankly self-evident interest in narrative chronology) is the matter of how to date the cases. I’m coming late to the game, of course; there have been well over a dozen books published on the matter of chronologizing the Canon. Nevertheless, I think I have some insights and observations worth exploring… and this is the first in a series of posts in which I’ll share that exploration.
Why is this necessary? What’s the controversy? Aren’t most of the cases completely freestanding, without relation to other events? And doesn’t Watson provide specific dates in the text in most of them, anyway? Well… in both cases, no, not really.
There is a pattern and a progression to the Canon. We have the earliest adventures from the 1880s, when cases were fewer and further between, Holmes was still establishing his reputation, and Watson was living in the Baker Street lodgings and first getting to know Holmes and his unique career path. Then Watson proposed to Mary Morstan (the client in The Sign of the Four), married and left Baker Street, and there are a number of cases specifically set in the period after his marriage. There’s Holmes’s presumed death in Switzerland in 1891, and his unexpected reappearance three years later. Watson’s wife had apparently passed on at this point, leading him to rejoin Holmes in Baker Street during the height of Holmes’s professional fame. Finally, shortly after the turn of the century, Watson once again married and moved out, and not long after that, c. 1903, Holmes himself retired and left London. (And through it all, Watson’s accounts are far less formulaic than some critics allege; many are linked to specific historical situations, and moreover we can and do see fascinating threads of personal development in both Holmes and Watson himself.)
All this, in its broad strokes, is fairly clear. It’s the details that are surprisingly elusive.
Watson does date a great many cases… but certainly not consistently. In some cases we get a precise calendar date; in others merely a year, month, and/or season; in some nothing at all. He’s also forthright about the fact that on some occasions, for the sake of Victorian circumspection or merely professional prudence, he deliberately obscures dates, places, and character names, making placement a true exercise in deduction.
Of course, that’s all part of the fun: reconciling the obscurities and apparent contradictions in the Canon to arrive at a cohesive whole.
I have benefited greatly in this exercise from the diligent work of others. Most notably, the attention Baring-Gould devoted to chronology in his Annotated Holmes is truly breathtaking, and often very enlightening… although he did seize on a few dubious premises that tempted him toward a certain confirmation bias in interpreting other cases, and resulted in him rearranging a great many of them in open contradiction of Watson’s dates. Klinger devotes less attention to chronology in his New Annotated, but does provide a few key insights, and also makes a yeoman effort to document the (often elusive) consensus of other chronologists. I also owe a debt of gratitude to several industrious Sherlockians on the Internet, including John McGowan (who compiled and compared dates on the alt.fan.holmes list); Peter Wood, for his overview of the difficulties at Sherlockian.net; Brad Kefauver, for his detailed case-by-case analyses at SherlockPeoria.net; and most especially to David Richardson, whose delightful essay “Some Chronological Crankiness” (the site is sadly defunct, but still available thanks to the Wayback Machine) pointed the way to the methodology I’ve employed here, even if I don’t share all of his conclusions.
The crux of that methodology is this: Trust Watson. His writings are the sole source we have to work from, after all. Even when he conceals certain details, he almost always gives us enough to work with. Let us not get bogged down, as some chronologists have, in questions of phases of the moon or railway timetables or weather patterns in southern England; Watson was not above indulging in some minor artistic license for dramatic effect (as Holmes himself more than once complained). Neither let us not stumble over the fact that his calendar dates and weekday references occasionally fail to match up; he was not immune to error, but the context of an adventure usually makes clear which detail trumps the other. Let us simply focus on arranging the Writings in a credible sequence, with at least a year and, ideally, a month to assign to each—based first and foremost on the data Watson provides. Obscurities notwithstanding, Watson has given us a great deal of very clear information to work with, and we contradict him at our peril. Disregard the plain meaning of what he wrote, after all, and one may as well dismiss the entire Canon as a work of fiction.
Before delving into the details of particular cases, we can also take note of an interesting pattern in the timing of how Watson chose to chronicle them. Only two cases appeared in print during the early years of Holmes’s career, prior to the Great Hiatus that began in 1891: the novels A Study In Scarlet (STUD) and The Sign of the Four (SIGN), published in 1887 and 1890 respectively. (Throughout, after the first use of the full title of a case, I will for the sake of brevity utilize the standard four-letter abbreviations introduced by Dr. Jay Finley Christ of the University of Chicago in 1947.) STUD chronicles how Watson met Holmes, and the first case on which they were engaged together. (It is subtitled “Being a Reprint from the Reminiscences of John Watson, M.D.,” suggesting the possibility of some earlier edition now lost, possibly privately printed.) SIGN chronicles the case in which Watson met his wife. There is no indication that he planned any further publications… until after Holmes’s presumed death in spring of 1891. At that time, perhaps with the intent to memorialize his friend, he began penning a series of shorter cases, which appeared in print between July ’91 and December ’93. Holmes returned to “life” and to London in spring of 1894, and Watson published no further adventures for the duration of Holmes’s active career, with the sole exception of the novel Hound of the Baskervilles (HOUN), a flashback to the pre-Hiatus period, which saw print starting in August of 1901. Watson apparently began reviewing his case-notes and preparing them for publication upon his new marriage in 1902, however, for practically as soon as Holmes retired in 1903, Watson arranged to have new stories in print, which appeared regularly from October ’03 through December ’04, then more sporadically for the next twenty-plus years.
Clearly (as many of the Writings themselves mention), Holmes was skeptical about the particular brand of publicity his friend’s writing brought him; he viewed it as sensationalized, and preferred to avoid new publications while he was in active practice. More significantly, however, this pattern is very helpful for any attempt to date the cases: the first 26 entries in the Canon, published before Holmes’s return from the Hiatus, can only have happened prior to his presumed death. The 34 later cases could conceivably have happened at any point in Holmes’s career, but as we will see, in fact, all but HOUN and four others (two of which Watson had very good reasons for not publishing earlier) do in fact belong to the post-Hiatus period.
With all the introductory context established, it’s time now to delve into the nitty-gritty of dating the cases, starting with the early years of the Holmes-Watson partnership. This post has already grown rather long, though… so I’ll save that for the next installment.