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It's elementary

A new statue commemorating Sherlock Holmes has just been erected outside London’s Baker Street Underground Station. Almost three metres high, the landmark is bound to become a tourist attraction in its own right. Now, as visitors emerge from the station, they are immediately greeted by the figure of the world’s most famous detective, complete with his obligatory pipe. You might wonder whether Sherlock’s creator has a statue too. The answer is no–it’s a classic case of a fictional character outgrowing the writer in popularity. Good news for those who like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, though: he is also to be honoured. His own statue is currently in progress in the studio of sculptor David Cornell.

A recent survey has revealed that an astounding 95% of all visitors to London are familiar with the name of the great detective! Few other fictional characters may boast such recognition. Sherlock Holmes has for over a century been widely regarded not only as a literary figure, but also a true British institution and an important part of world’s literary heritage. As Sherlockians claim, he has been “real in the hearts and minds of readers since 1887, and fictional in the sense that he was created by one of the most remarkable authors of all time.”

The Sherlock Holmes Museum, also known as “the world’s most famous address”, is situated–where else–at 221b Baker Street in London. There are several unusual things about the place. First off, it’s probably the only house on the planet showing the lodgings and memorabilia of a man who never really existed. OK, Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson did live there between 1881-1904, but only in the pages of Conan Doyle’s classics. Most visitors seem totally oblivious to this fact and treat this carefully-preserved Victorian room with respect, as if the detective left his famous armchair just a moment ago. Once inside, Sherlock’s fans from all over the world are allowed to sit by the fireplace and look around the room, which indeed looks just like it was described by Conan Doyle. It seems the same untidy room of the first floor in Baker Street, with the scientific charts upon the wall, the acid-charred bench of chemicals and the violin-case leaning in the corner (from “The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone”).

Interestingly, the magic of the literary character and the world-famous London address is so compelling that the museum’s curators still receive their share of letters from people asking Sherlock Holmes to solve their problems! The fact that each visitor receives Sherlock’s personal business card may well contribute to the illusion of authenticity.

Today, the simple door to the lodgings in Baker Street, easily seen from each passing bus, is mobbed by tourists. There is a policeman in Victorian outfit “guarding” the door–an ideal and simply unmissable photo opportunity for Japanese tourists. They don’t seem to be bothered by the fact that such a figure would be totally out of place in front of the detective’s home as Holmes was notoriously at loggerheads with the London Police! Neither do the visitors mind the fact that the gentleman sporting the historic uniform, supposedly an all-English bobby, is in fact from Wrocław. At least the guy on duty when I last visited the place was. We had a chat in Polish and then he was nice enough to let a Japanese gentleman with a matchbox-sized digital camera wear his police cap for a snapshot. A Pole in a 19thcentury London police uniform posing next to an Asian in a helmet at 221b Baker Street? So much for the most English of English places.

One thing is for sure–Arthur Conan Doyle was a man of surprises. But rather than saying what the writer WAS and what he DID, let me just tell you what he WASN’T and DIDN’T. Might be fun. Was Conan Doyle English? He wasn’t. He was Scottish, born in Edinburgh in 1895. Was he a writer? Not really. He was a doctor by profession and wrote his medical degree thesis on the effects of… syphilis. Did Dr Doyle open his own medical practice after graduating? He did not. He chose to serve on a whaling ship in the Arctic instead. Was the first story he published about Sherlock Holmes? It wasn’t. It was called “J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement” and didn’t yet feature his most famous character. Was his first Holmes novel published as a book? No, it wasn’t. It appeared in a periodical, Beeton’s Christmas Annual. Did Conan Doyle consider his Sherlock Holmes stories serious work? By no means. He even “killed” the detective in 1893 in “The Final Problem” in order to devote time to his “more serious” writings, including books on military history. (By popular demand, he revived Holmes eight years later.) Was Conan Doyle knighted because of his contribution to British literature? No, he became Sir Arthur in 1902 because of his work on Boer War propaganda. Was he really a drug addict, as some claim? Ehm, not technically. Doyle used cocaine, but it was legal in his time. Do you want more? Didn’t think so.

How much of Arthur Conan Doyle is to be found in the character of detective Sherlock Holmes? Not much at first glance. Physically, the author was chubby and jovial, the detective– thin and ascetic. But in real life Sir Arthur was, e.g., a genuine expert in criminal justice, taking a personal role in at least two famous court cases. He was also a man of many talents just like Holmes. Apart from being an amateur detective, Sherlock is described as a skilled chemist, violin player, boxer and swordsman, whereas his creator was also a keen sportsman, crusader for social reforms and public health, politician, astrocartographer and spiritualist.

However, it is often claimed that the detective’s helper, John H. Watson, M.D., is closer to Conan Doyle’s alter ego. Not only did he look more like the writer himself, but also a doctor by profession, Sherlock’s friend may at moments seem a bit slow on the uptake in the presence of the genius of deduction. In fact, Dr Watson is an important figure in the detective’s adventures. Providing clues and asking questions, he offers a fresh outlook and it is thanks to him that we, the readers, are able to follow Holmes’ reasoning. As the detective himself puts it at one point, Watson is not luminous, but a good conductor of light. Light being Sherlock’s own genius, in case you were wondering.

Sherlock Holmes is without doubt one of the most beloved figures in the history of fiction. Conan Doyle’s works have been made into countless stage plays and feature films. The name of his detective has become synonymous with brilliant thinking that leads to solving the most complicated mysteries. Similarly, lots of Conan Doyle’s quips put in the mouth of Holmes have entered everyday English and are among the most-quoted lines to this day (see insert). Knowing how wellwritten the 36 short stories and four novels are, you don’t have to be a Sherlock to solve the mystery of Conan Doyle’s popularity. But it helps if you come and see the famous door at 211b Baker Street when you next visit London, no matter whether the greatest detective of all time ever really touched its doorknob or not.

Jerzy Chyb

 

GLOSSARY
it’s elementary to dziecinnie proste
to commemorate upamiętniać
to outgrow przerosnąć
survey sondaż, ankieta
astounding zaskakujące, niespodziewane
lodgings wynajmowane mieszkanie, kwatera
to be oblivious zapominać
compelling nieodparty, przekonujący
acid-charred przeżarta kwasami
curator kustosz
business card wizytówka
to contribute przyczynić się
mobbed oblegany
outfit ubiór z ekwipunkiem
to be at loggerheads mieć na pieńku
bobby tu: angielski policjant
snapshot fotka
thesis praca dyplomowa
whaling ship statek wielorybniczy
by no means w żadnym wypadku
by popular demand na skutek nalegań czytelników
to knight nadać tytuł szlachecki
Boer War wojna burska (1899-1902)
swordsman szermierz
slow on the uptake wolno kojarzący
clue wskazówka
luminous wybitny, dosł. świecący
conductor of light przewodnik światła
quip powiedzonko
 
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Ten Famous Holmes Quotes

  • It’s elementary, my dear Watson.
  • Eliminate all which is impossible and whatever remains must be the truth.
  • Come, Watson, the curtain rings up for the last act.
  • Genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains.
  • Facts are facts, Watson.
  • Shall I demonstrate your ignorance, Watson?
  • My name is Sherlock Holmes. It is my business to know what other people don’t know.
  • Work is the best antidote to sorrow.
  • It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have the facts.
  • There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.
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