A Study of the Hollow Earth

Exploring forgotten realms of literature

Levels of Reality: Some Thoughts on the Metaverse of Sherlock Holmes

170px-A_Study_in_Scarlet_from_Beeton's_Christmas_Annual_1887There is an interesting pattern among scholars of literary philosophy to lay the character of Sherlock Holmes on the dissecting table and measure his reality. Why is this a common fictional figure for analysing the nature of literary realities? Part of the reason for doing this is that Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation has transcended the canonical literature, and in the last century, Sherlock Holmes has found his way onto the stage, into radio and television, films, comics, and into hundreds of other literary productions. Type ‘John H. Watson’ into Amazon, and you will get an author page with over 70 titles. Here is a fictional name from a fictional character, given a digital life as real as any other author on Amazon. The boundaries of fact and fiction in the metaficitonal world of Sherlock Holmes are among the most malleable in literature, given the extensive intertexuality of Holmes. This is what has allowed the name of Sherlock Holmes, bound up in a certain set of chronotopic and philosophic characteristics first defined by Conan Doyle, to escape the singular world of The Strand, and establish a veritable empire that assimilates the literary and historical figures of his particular chronotope, from late-Victorian and Edwardian England. For the sake of time and space, I will only focus on those instances of Holmes in prose, and leave the Holmes of drama to others. There are certain structures that must be adhered to in these narratives: Names, dates, and locations must adhere to what is known in our world, and fabrications made to account for these facts: Modern novels of Sherlock Holmes may therefore be judged on degrees of verisimilitude for their ability to not just account for these various data, but also the incorporation of contemporaneous details which provide further credentials for the author’s setting. These informative exhibits most often take the form of historical figures, both fact and fictive.

The trouble begins immediately in having to confront the variety of Holmes-simulacra perpetuated by the media, creating a hyperreality, a reality of Holmes that is more real than the canonical reality.[1] That is why it is necessary to step back into the original reality of Holmes and assess its temporal-contextual qualities, so that we are not led astray by the simulacra that have flooded the media for decades. The characteristics we derive from the text of the original stories, and how these are incorporated into the subsequent metatexts, become the foundations of judgement on a sliding scale of ‘this Holmes is more real than that Holmes.’ An intense study of history in what we would call the Sherlockian Era – rather than the Victorian or Edwardian – has led various Sherlock scholars to posit theories of case origins and timelines for a Sherlock Holmes alive and well, detecting malfeasances in this world, or as close to this world as we can get. They are writing fictions that may not be true in our primary universe, but they are intended to be true in the world of Sherlock. Many pull real figures of history into their narratives: Sigmund Freud, Harry Houdini, Bram Stoker. Others, narratives perhaps a little further out from an immediately recognisable reality, pull in historical literary characters, because if we are giving a semblance of substance to Holmes, then the same courtesy may be extended to Dr. Jekyll, Count Dracula, and Kimball O’Hara.

To understand this visually, think of a Venn diagram in three parts: the canonical, the historical, and the fictional. These are the three over-lapping universes of Sherlock Holmes. Arthur Conan Doyle begat the first universe, the canon of four novels and fifty-six short stories, and yet even this was not the end of his contributions: Doyle had occasion to write further plays, short stories and essays on Holmes, apocrypha that moved his most popular creation off the page of fiction and into a larger reality. Holmes was allowed to walk the same streets, attend the same music halls, eat at the same restaurants, and read the same papers as other dwellers of fin de siècle London. And for that reason, other writers who wish to enter the world of Sherlock Holmes must tread many of these same paths.

In those who followed Conan Doyle into the world of Sherlock Holmes, I think we find an assiduous cognition by many authors of trespassing in an orchard not their own, but nonetheless, in which they still hope to plant their own seedlings that will bear fruit and pass muster with the old trees. These hybrids – I do not like the term pastiche, which too often implies comedic parody, like several of the Holmes comedies released in the 1970s – often come from closely related heterogeneous sources, maintaining the unities of time and place. I disagree with these being pastiches composed of ‘incongruous materials’, because the effective recreation and interaction within the realm of Sherlock Holmes rejects the incorporation of incongruous sources. (By this, I mean the supernatural, data outside the Holmesian chronotope, and violations of the canonical without any explanation.) I prefer the more scientific term hybrid because though offspring may have different sources, there must be enough similar genetic material to allow for fertilisation at all. Some hybrids are infertile (such as mules) and cannot be continued, but others may be reproduced. The act of creating a hybrid is to express desired genetic – or in this case literary – characteristics. William Baring-Gould’s Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street from 1962, nominally a factual source rather than a fiction, drawing heavily on the ‘research’ and publications of The Baker Street Journal, is a source book for other authors, who employ its timeline and additional details (such as Sherlock’s affair with Irene Adler leading to birth of a son in 1892) in order to flesh out their own narratives so that it still conforms to an acknowledged reality. Sherlock Holmes does not aid MI6 in the Cold War; he does not wax despairingly on nuclear weapons, nor does he eye the moon landing with his traditional indifference toward non-criminal trivialities, because this is not the proper temporal situation for Holmes. (There are certainly works, such as the modern updates of Holmes, or one frozen and waking up in the future, that break the canonical chronotope, but these are then not Holmes, but hyperreal simulacra.) To write such a story is to break the reader’s faith in the author’s in situ world-building. It is not say that such stories do not exist – but those are the ones that we may more readily cast into the realms of the pastiche. For all of the flexibility extended to these novels in terms of literary and historical characterisation, there are in place very firm boundaries to the time and place of the orchard that Conan Doyle planted.

Doyle himself broke through his Watson-narratorial voice to write the preface to the last collection of short stories, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, directly addressing readers and the plurality of worlds which Holmes had filled: “I fear that Mr. Sherlock Holmes may have become like one of those popular tenors who, having outlived their time, are still tempted to make repeated farewell bows to their indulgent audiences. This must cease and he must go the way of all flesh, material or imaginary. One likes to think that there is some fantastic limbo for the children of imagination, some strange, impossible place…where Scott’s heroes still may strut, Dickens’s delightful cockney’s still raise a laugh, and Thackeray’s worldings continue to carry on their reprehensible careers. Perhaps in some humble corner of such a Valhalla, Sherlock and his Watson may for a time find a place, while some more astute sleuth with some even less astute comrade may fill the state which they have vacated. […] And so, reader, farewell to Sherlock Holmes!” In previous work, Doyle used Watson as his voice to address readers, but in this instance, Doyle has broken through what we can only call the fifth wall (if characters’ addresses to the audience are the fourth wall, then we may see authorial addresses to the audience as the fifth) to speak himself about the closing of the canonical Holmes universe. At the same time, Doyle is acknowledging that literary creations can take on a secondary life of their own, continuing in some other universe of imagination. This is indeed what has happened to Sherlock Holmes, and he has been given company so that he does not become too isolated or bored.

Bram Stoker was a contemporary of Doyle, and features as himself in Nicholas Meyer’s The West End Horror. In other works, such as Loren D. Estleman’s Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula, both Stoker and his literary creation of ‘Dracula’ feature. There is also the Janus-like Dr. Jekyll who has found his way into more than one piece of Holmsian hybrid. The same courtesy of continued life in the Holmes-verse, is extended to the authors of such works as well. More than just a literary contemporary, Robert Louis Stevenson was a friend of Conan Doyle’s and recognised Dr. Joseph Bell as the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes. The lines between literary creations and the creators themselves are often blurred. If Holmes can be real, and if Arthur Conan Doyle was real, than sure both Dr. Jekyll and Robert Louis Stevenson can be real. And if the authors can be made corporeal in the Holmes reality, then their creations can be real as well. We are looking at a dichotomous process of turning historical figures into fictions, and taking fictional figures into a different fictional reality where they might be more-real.

Consider this line from Watson’s introduction to Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Holmes: “Holmes’s admonition to ‘be kind to Stevenson’ was unnecessary. Although it is true that Robert Louis Stevenson’s account of the singular circumstances surrounding the murder of Sir Danvers Carew contains numerous omissions, it is just as true that discretion, and not slovenliness, obliged him to withhold certain facts and to publish The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde under the guide of fiction. Victorian society simply would not have accepted it in any other form.”[2] Robert Louis Stevenson is being drawn into the fiction of Holmes, and into his own fiction, and being excused for writing a fiction under the guise that society would not understand it in any other way. We can of course dismiss this by claiming to know there is a difference between fact and fiction, but as David Davies explores in his Aesthetics and Literature: ‘authors have presented their fictions in the form of academic articles…or as works of literary scholarship’ – Borges is quite fond of this – ‘And…literary journalists such as Capote, Mailer, and Thompson employ the standard stylistic devices of literary fiction…’ Conan Doyle almost always presented Sherlock’s cases as a form of literary journalism, or autobiographic reminiscences delivered via Watson, giving them a tone of recognisable reality. Then we have those works which incorporate historical figures and tragedies that have graced our history books and lectures, such as Harry Houdini in The Ectoplasmic Man (also an allusion to Doyle’s own friendship with Houdini) or Theodore Roosevelt in The Stalwart Companions; we have Sherlock Holmes and The Titanic Tragedy, or the many, many versions of Sherlock Holmes facing down Jack the Ripper.

So the second aspect of the expanded universe of Sherlock Holmes to consider is the true-life historical figures assimilated into his world. The most metaficitonal character of all is the frequent incorporation of Arthur Conan Doyle himself into the narrative, to explain the relationship between himself, Holmes and Watson, and why his name came to appear on the stories published in The Strand when it was Dr. Watson doing the writing. Many authors have taken up the cause of explaining the literary and professional relationship between Watson and Doyle. Doyle himself, of course, never insinuated his persona into his own writings, but fans of Sherlock attempt to find ways to make the character more real by making his creator a part of his universe. This puts us into the position of judging the varying degrees of reality in a modern Holmes story, and this act of incorporation is the most popular technique. There is almost no modern Holmes novel that does not pull into its pages a literary-historical figure.

The works of Nicholas Meyer, most famously The Seven-per-cent Solution (1974), are peppered with contemporary figures, including Sigmund Freud, who treats Holmes’s cocaine addiction. At the end of the novel, having solves the case and dispelled his cravings, Holmes decides to disappear on a healing sabbatical, and when Watson asks what he is supposed to tell his readers, Holmes joking says ‘Tell them I was murdered by my mathematics tutor, if you like.’ (221) So the canonical story of ‘The Final Problem’ is revealed to be a fabrication on the part of Watson. But the rebuttal of canon with a figure we recognise to be historically true, Sigmund Freud, cushions the blow, shall we say. Filling those missing years of Holmes’s sabbatical from life provides fertile ground for authors to plant seedlings of adventures, but these still must fit within the canonical, and historical date of 1891 to 1894. Holmes must go by the name Sigerson in these tales, he must make his way to Mecca, and then back to France to study coal-tar derivative. Doyle gave us these details in ‘The Empty House’ upon Holmes’s return, and to fit within this universe, must be adhered to, and events within these regions during this time, historically, cannot be tampered. The world is not made to fit Sherlock Holmes: Holmes is made to fit our world. To do this, it means insinuating Holmes into real historical events to which readers can recognise, from the sinking of the Titanic to Jack the Ripper. No one can ignore their contemporaneous existence, even if separated by a thin-walled universe of the corporeal and ethereal.

The case of Jack the Ripper occupies a unique space in the historical and fictional spheres of Holmes. The reality of five women murdered in Whitechapel in the autumn 1888 is undisputable; however, to solve the crime, to unmask Jack, must be a fiction. As the greatest crime of the nineteenth century, it is all too tempting for those treading in the Sherlock universe to have England’s most clever detective stop its most infamous criminal. But history tells us that Jack was never brought to justice: now he is not a man but an idea, a series of actions and results, speculations and newspaper articles, but Jack the Ripper can never be real, or no more real than Sherlock Holmes himself. To pit these two characters against each other requires narrative acrobatics on the part of the author to explain why we have no identity for Jack the Ripper. To bring him to justice (whether Sherlock Holmes was the one to do it, or Detective Inspector Frederick Abberline) would be untrue to history.

[If you have made it this far, congratulations. My thinking is not even remotely close to finished, but it will hopefully get there. And hopefully you got this far without too much a headache.]


[1] Jef Burnham, ‘A Study in Simulacra’ in Sherlock Holmes and Philosophy, ed. By Josef Steiff (Chicago: Open Court, 2011), p. 321.

[2] Loren D. Estleman, Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula (London: Titan Books, 1978, 2012), p. 195.

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