A Young Mr Holmes
Two weeks from today, the newest (and…last?) Russell memoir comes out. Since The Murder of Mary Russell reaches back into the Victorian era for portions of its tale, at a point we’re going to encounter a fairly young Sherlock Holmes.
No, I’m not talking Spielberg, here
but rather, the apparent undergraduate Dr Watson encounters in the Bart’s Hospital laboratories, in the first Conan Doyle Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet.
There was only one student in the room, who was bending over a distant table absorbed in his work. At the sound of our steps he glanced round and sprang to his feet with a cry of pleasure. “I’ve found it! I’ve found it,” he shouted to my companion, running towards us with a test-tube in his hand. “I have found a re-agent which is precipitated by haemoglobin, and by nothing else.” Had he discovered a gold mine, greater delight could not have shone upon his features.
Unfortunately, Conan Doyle never gets around to revealing this young man’s actual age. Sir Arthur might have been writing deliberately to frustrate future generations of Holmes biographers with his contradictory habits regarding internal dates, the number of wives possessed by poor Dr Watson, the color of Holmes’ dressing gown, and indeed, all matters Sherlockian.
Christopher Morley, a founder of the men’s drinking society known as the Baker Street Irregulars, claimed a birth year of 1854, which was enthusiastically embraced (and just as enthusiastically repudiated) by fellow imbibers. The date has stuck, despite a number if internal problems, largely because in “His Last Bow” (set in 1914) Holmes is described as a man of 60—even though Holmes is in disguise at the time, acting the part of a traitorous Irish-American mechanic named Altamont.
I, however, in my Laurie R. King’s Sherlock Holmes chronology, set matters straight: Holmes was born in the year 1861. I base my analysis on the Conan Doyle story that lies at the heart of The Murder of Mary Russell (and which is being discussed this month on the Book Club)—“The Adventure of the Gloria Scott.” (Feel free to skip down to the end of the boxed quote, if you want to take my word for it.)
This is a tale narrated to Watson by Holmes himself, concerning his first real case. It opens during Holmes’ university career (the year is not given), when he goes to visit the house of one of his few friends, Victor Trevor, and meets the young man’s father. There he shocks the older man into a dead faint with a demonstration of his skills in observation and logical deduction. Some weeks later, at the end of the long vacation, Holmes is called again to the Trevor house, to find that the father is dying.
The man’s history comes out as follows. Born James Armitage, Trevor was convicted of making use of funds that were not his and transported to Australia on the barque Gloria Scott—“leaving Falmouth on the 8th October 1855”—only to have the ship taken over by his fellow convicts and sunk. Armitage participates unwillingly, is put off the boat carrying the mutineers, and eventually finds rescue and is taken to Australia, a free man.
In Australia, it is said, “we prospered, we travelled, [and] we came back as rich Colonials to England,” after which “for more than twenty years we have led peaceful and useful lives.” Until, that is, one of the murderous prisoners tracks down Trevor/Armitage, and addresses him, saying “it is thirty years and more since I saw you last.” The man, whose name interestingly enough is Hudson, blackmails the elder Trevor into an early death, at which point both younger men learn the story.
If we take all the story’s internal dates at face value, we must add “thirty years or more” to the date of the Gloria Scott’s wreckage in November of 1855, which would mean that Holmes was finishing his university career in 1885—clearly problematic when one takes into account the Study in Scarlet meeting date of 1881. If, however, one excuses Hudson’s “thirty years” as the inexactitude one may expect from a hardened criminal, and takes Trevor’s twenty years as closer to the facts, adding a brisk five to make a success of the gold fields in Australia and return home rich, then we are looking at 1880 as the second year of university for our detective, much closer to the facts of Watson’s introductory tale.
So there you have it: a firm date for the birth of the Sherlock Holmes universe.
Unless, of course, you’re speaking with someone other than Laurie King.
The Murder of Mary Russell, which publishes April 5, may be pre-ordered as: