Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Sherlock Holmes and the case of living by one’s wits

with 6 comments

“But I understand, Holmes, that you are turning to practical ends those powers with which you used to amaze us?”
“Yes,” said I, “I have taken to living by my wits.”

The first speaker in the passage above is Reginald Musgrave, a much wealthier college acquaintance of Sherlock Holmes, and the story is “The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual,” an account of one of Holmes’s earliest cases. It’s easily one of my ten favorite Holmes stories, and I especially love this exchange, which gives us a window both into Holmes’s early career and into how he was regarded by his friends. It could almost be taken as a conversation between two contemporary college classmates, one of whom has gone profitably into consulting or investment banking, while the other is pursuing something vaguely absurd, like writing or performance art, in an outer-borough neighborhood. (We sometimes forget that the Holmes depicted in the original stories is dangerously close to a Bohemian—no, not that kind—and that the rooms in Baker Street, which since have been so lovingly recreated, wouldn’t be out of place in a ratty brownstone in Williamsburg.)

Musgrave seems amused to hear that Holmes is trying to make a living from his powers of observation, and in this portrayal, it isn’t hard to sense Conan Doyle’s own feelings toward those who looked with skepticism at his early literary aspirations. Anyone who decides to make a living in the arts is looking for support from skills that we tend to think of as diversions, hobbies, or parlor tricks—acting, singing, storytelling. When Holmes was in college, it’s possible that he regarded his own gifts in much the same light, the way some of us might have dabbled in undergraduate theater, and only later began to consider turning them toward more practical applications. And while working as a consulting detective may seem more interesting than, say, being a writer, in practice, they were equally exotic professions: the first true freelance writers in England, the denizens of Grub Street, had emerged just over a century before.

And Holmes’s response to Musgrave is revealing as well. “Living by one’s wits” has always had a rather sinister connotation, as if you’re surviving through cunning rather than hard work. As W.H. Auden memorably writes:

All those whose success in life depends neither upon a job which satisfies some specific and unchanging social need, like a farmer’s, nor, like a surgeon’s, upon some craft which he can be taught by others and improve by practice, but upon “inspiration,” the lucky hazard of ideas, live by their wits, a phrase which carries a slightly pejorative meaning. Every “original” genius, be he an artist or a scientist, has something a bit shady about him, like a gambler or madman.

By phrasing it the way he does, Holmes is putting himself in with the card sharps, the buskers, the fortune-tellers, and the writers. And this gives us another glimpse of his creator. Conan Doyle may have claimed that he disliked the Holmes stories, and that he was more interested in his painstaking historical fictions and, later, his investigations into spiritualism, but at heart, he was one of the greatest of all working writers, turning out mysteries, science fiction, Napoleonic tales, ghost stories, and more with the sort of invention and productivity that can only arise from the peculiar life of a freelancer, living, like Holmes, by his wits.

And some of that same disreputability still clings to any kind of artistic freelancing. When you’re just starting out, in particular, it’s hard for others to take you seriously—and they aren’t necessary wrong in this—and even later, there’s a sense of incredulity, as if they suspect that you’re secretly engaged in something more shady. (I’m always amazed by how candidly people will ask about my sales figures and advances, when they wouldn’t dream of asking about someone else’s salary—but what they’re really doing, I think, is trying to verify that this is a real job at all.) But such a life has its own satisfactions. Holmes was famously willing to take on cases for free, but he also took great relish in being paid for his work—”I am a poor man,” he says at the end of “The Priory School,” affectionately patting his check—and that’s something that any freelancer can appreciate. The result is, undeniably, a rather strange, unconventional existence. But if it’s good enough for Holmes, it’s good enough for me.

(Note: If you’re in the East Bay, don’t forget to come see me read at 7:00 pm tonight at the Hayward Area Historical Society. More details here.)

Written by nevalalee

May 9, 2012 at 9:50 am

6 Responses

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  1. I’ve no need to ask about your sales figures – amazon tells me.


    May 9, 2012 at 8:22 pm

  2. This was truly a fascinating article. I am a absolute huge fan of Sherlock Holmes and I greatly found viewing his choice of occupation in such a different manner(& from the perspective of those in the Holmesian universe) really interesting and refreshing. It honestly is a shame the way most people perceive the arts as if it is not a true profession & I hope with time that this distorted view is able to improve.

    P.S. attended the event at Hayward tonight & had a lovely time. Thank you so much for taking the time to come all the way out here :D. Best wishes and good luck on your new books!


    May 10, 2012 at 12:41 am

  3. @Nat: Don’t believe their lies.

    @gzhao06: Glad you liked it! It was great meeting you tonight. Hope you’ll stick around the blog…


    May 10, 2012 at 12:54 am

  4. haha, I most definitely will, simply wanted to wish you luck also :D . Hope you are enjoy your time in the east bay :)


    May 10, 2012 at 10:16 pm

  5. Loved the article. It’s a good thing I stumbled upon your blog; had a riveting half-an-hour reading your posts. You are a great writer.


    May 15, 2012 at 11:03 am

  6. Thanks so much! Hope to see you around… :)


    May 15, 2012 at 11:38 am

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