Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“Knowledge of Politics—Feeble”

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Illustration by Sidney Paget for "The Five Orange Pips"

In A Study in Scarlet, the first Sherlock Holmes adventure, there’s a celebrated passage in which Watson tries to figure out his mystifying roommate. At this point in their relationship, he doesn’t even know what Holmes does for a living, and he’s bewildered by the gaps in his new friend’s knowledge, such as his ignorance of the Copernican model of the solar system. When Watson informs him that the earth goes around the sun, Holmes says: “Now that I do know it, I shall do my best to forget it.” He tells Watson that the human brain is like “a little empty attic,” and that it’s a mistake to assume that the room has elastic walls, concluding: “If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.” In fact, it’s clear that he’s gently pulling Watson’s leg: Holmes certainly shows plenty of practical astronomical knowledge in stories like “The Musgrave Ritual,” and he later refers casually to making “allowance for the personal equation, as the astronomers put it.” At the time, Watson wasn’t in on the joke, and he took it all at face value when he made his famous list of Holmes’s limitations. Knowledge of literature, philosophy, and astronomy was estimated as “nil,” while botany was “variable,” geology was “practical, but limited,” chemistry was “profound,” and anatomy—in an expression that I’ve always loved—was “accurate, but unsystematic.”

But the evaluation that has probably inspired the most commentary is “Knowledge of Politics—Feeble.” Ever since, commentators have striven mightily to reconcile this with their conception of Holmes, which usually means forcing him into the image of their own politics. In Sherlock Holmes: Fact or Fiction?, T.S. Blakeney observes that Holmes takes no interest, in “The Bruce-Partington Plans,” in “the news of a revolution, of a possible war, and of an impending change of government,” and he concludes:

It is hard to believe that Holmes, who had so close a grip on realities, could ever have taken much interest in the pettiness of party politics, nor could so strong an individualist have anything but contempt for the equalitarian ideals of much modern sociological theory.

S.C. Roberts, in “The Personality of Sherlock Holmes,” objected to the latter point, arguing that Holmes’s speech in “The Naval Treaty” on English boarding schools—“Capsules with hundreds of bright little seeds in each, out of which will spring the wiser, better England of the future”—is an expression of Victorian liberalism at its finest. Roberts writes:

It is perfectly true that the clash of political opinions and of political parties does not seem to have aroused great interest in Holmes’s mind. But, fundamentally, there can be no doubt that Holmes believed in democracy and progress.

Sidney Paget illustration of Mycroft Holmes

In reality, Holmes’s politics are far from a mystery. As the descendant of “country squires,” he rarely displayed anything less than a High Tory respect for the rights of landed gentry, and he remained loyal to the end to Queen Victoria, the “certain gracious lady in whose interests he had once been fortunate enough to carry out a small commission.” He was obviously an individualist in his personal habits, in the venerable tradition of British eccentrics, which doesn’t mean that his political views—as some have contended—were essentially libertarian. Holmes had a very low regard for the freedom of action of the average human being, and with good reason. The entire series was predicated on the notion that men and women are totally predictable, moving within their established courses so reliably that a trained detective can see into the past and forecast the future. As someone once noted, Holmes’s deductions are based on a chain of perfectly logical inferences that would have been spoiled by a single mistake on the part of the murderer. Holmes didn’t particularly want the world to change, because it was the familiar canvas on which he practiced his art. (His brother Mycroft, after all, was the British government.) The only individuals who break out of the pattern are criminals, and even then, it’s a temporary disruption. You could say that the entire mystery genre is inherently conservative: it’s all about the restoration of order, and in the case of Holmes, it means the order of a world, in Vincent Starrett’s words, “where it is always 1895.”

I love Sherlock Holmes, and in a large part, it’s the nostalgia for that era—especially by those who never had to live with it or its consequences—that makes the stories so appealing. But it’s worth remembering what life was really like at the end of the nineteenth century for those who weren’t as fortunate. (Arthur Conan Doyle identified, incidentally, as a Liberal Unionist, a forgotten political party that was so muddled in its views that it inspired a joke in The Importance of Being Earnest: “What are your politics?” “Well, I am afraid I really have none. I am a Liberal Unionist.” And there’s no question that Conan Doyle believed wholeheartedly in the British Empire and all it represented.) Over the last few months, there have been times when I’ve thought approvingly of what Whitfield J. Bell says in “Holmes and History”:

Holmes’s knowledge of politics was anything but weak or partial. Of the hurly-burly of the machines, the petty trade for office and advantage, it is perhaps true that Holmes knew little. But of politics on the highest level, in the grand manner, particularly international politics, no one was better informed.

I can barely stand to look at a newspaper these days, so it’s tempting to take a page from Holmes and ignore “the petty trade for office and advantage.” And I often do. But deep down, it implies an acceptance of the way things are now. And it seems a little feeble.

2 Responses

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  1. Excellent post. I agree with your points about Conan-Doyle’s world view, and certainly about current politics both in the US and in the UK. The current populist cry of “Let’s make (insert country of choice here) great again harks back to days of Empire and domination. If the British public understood that the Great in Great Britain simply refers to its size compared to Brittany, or Lesser Britain as the Rimans named it, then perhaps we would be less driven by the delusion that things in the last were better.

    Having said all that, The Hound of the Baskervilles is a fabulous novel.

    Martin

    December 17, 2016 at 3:47 am

  2. @Martin: Apparently Conan Doyle once stood for a seat in Parliament as the Liberal Unionist candidate, and he was accosted by hecklers who called him “Sherlock Holmes.”

    nevalalee

    December 22, 2016 at 9:18 pm


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