A Great Detective’s Birthday
Today is the generally accepted birth date of Sherlock Holmes. And I have no argument there–but the year?
Was it 1854? That’s what most of the scholars assume. Mystery Scene is hosting a virtual birthday party for Holmes’ 166th anniversary. Well, not to argue with the experts (including my friend, the eminent Leslie S. Klinger) but no. I say that Holmes was born in 1861, making him not 166 today, but 159.
I go into the details in the e-book Laurie R. King’s Sherlock Holmes, but basically, it begins with the Conan Doyle story “Adventure of the Gloria Scott.”
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 the Study in Scarlet dates into account. If, however, one excuses Hudson’s “thirty years” as exaggeration, 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.
The birth date of Sherlock Holmes
Working backwards from those dates, we look for the birth date of Sherlock Holmes. Assuming that he began university at a reasonably early age—it was, and indeed still is, commonplace for bright students to enter at seventeen or even younger—then a date for the Gloria Scott adventure of 1885, with Holmes then 17, would present us with a birth date of 1868. If the tale takes place in 1880 and Holmes is, say, 19, then he was born in 1861. In this case, he is 54 when he meets Mary Russell on the Sussex Downs in 1915; if one takes the later birth date, he would be only 47.
Either chronology would mean that when Holmes “retired” from Baker Street in 1903 to keep bees on the Downs, he was not yet forty, so that his Baker Street career was that of a man in his twenties and thirties. That this perception jars with our image of the man is not because of any conflict with Conan Doyle’s words, but is rather due largely to the original Sidney Paget drawings, which invariably show a man in his middle years—being, after all, modeled on Paget’s older brother.
Unlike the Holmes who meets Miss Mary Russell on the Sussex Downs, in 1915, at the age of 54.