Thursday, April 12, 2012

" I Turn My Glass..." - The Empty House (1).

"The Park Lane Mystery"
"The Murder of Ronald Adair"


The Empty House.
"The Empty House."

As with The Resident Patient, Holmes himself provides the title for an adventure which is crucial to The Return of Sherlock Holmes just as A Scandal in Bohemia launched the whole Canon of short stories.

. As devotees of the BBC Sherlock await and debate 'The Empty House' of series 3, its creators find themselves (deliciously!) walking in the footsteps of Conan Doyle himself, pacing the unfurnished rooms of imagination



It seems logical therefore to follow my posts on SCAND with a timely examination of this story's literary merits. The focus will be on the original 1903 story as a work of art, with reference to the cultural background of the period and the BBC Sherlock.

Time Frames.

Two foundational time frames inform every story in the Canon: the date of publication in The Strand (which marks the moment of the narrator's reminiscence) and that of the history recalled.
From the first Adventure to The Naval Treaty this would have seemed a simple but effective scheme to the original readers of The Strand, fulfilling the task Watson outlines retrospectively in The Final Problem:

" I have endeavoured to give some account of my strange experiences in (Holmes's) company from the chance which first brought us together at the period of the 'Study in Scarlet', up to the time of his interference in the matter of the 'Naval Treaty'."

A few sentences later, Doyle undercuts all Watson has written thus far, introducing a third, much more complex and poignant time frame:

"It was my intention to have stopped there, and to have said nothing of that event which has created a void in my life which the lapse of two years has done little to fill."

To read this in December, 1893, recalling as it does the death of Holmes on May 4, 1891, is to realise with a jolt that the events detailed in The Final Problem pre-date the publication of even A Scandal in Bohemia (July, 1891).

At a stroke, the whole series of Adventures and Memoirs transform into poignant records of a dead friend written from the abyss of bereavement.

Thus does Conan Doyle skilfully re-engineer the Canon he means to abandon.

No wonder sales of The Strand peak in the months from August, 1901, when serialization of HOUND begins. Doyle's readership has suffered a seven year gap and if Doyle is but testing the waters with a story set in 1889, he could be in no doubt about the public's thirst for resurrection.

One year more...and the miracle is worked. The Empty House rushes to fill the void, and, from October, 1903, the early Canon is restored to joyous technicolour from the sombre monochrome wash of The Final Problem. Now the complex time frame still applies, but is turned to happier implication: Watson is recalling ,from 1903, that which happened in May of '91 via Holmes's narrative of events consequent on the Reichenbach episode given to Watson in his rooms as March becomes April in 1894 . With such blithe economy does Conan Doyle close the tear in Time's fabric, banish the abyss.

It is not fanciful to recall the words of another who rose from the dead:


The Empty Sepulchre.


"Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen." Matthew 28:20

And here we are...in 2012. We hear of Sherlock everywhere, and Twitter resounds with the cry, 'Do you believe in Sherlock?'
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The Empty House reanimates a few days as March becomes April in 1894 from the standpoint of October '03. The public had suffered The Final Problem in December, '93...and it is as if a brief cold Winter has given natural place to resurgent Spring.
As with SCAND, Doyle imparts depth and consciousness of a broader time scale within the overall narrative, employing Holmes as secondary narrator.
Ronald Adair is murdered 'between the hours of ten and eleven-twenty on the night of March 30th, 1894,' and it is an April evening by the time Watson is drawn to reconnoitre 427, Park Lane and experience its 'inconceivable sequel.'

Actual description of that event 'which afforded me the greatest shock and surprise of any event in my adventurous life' is the subject of suspense, delayed by Watson's prosaic account of 'the facts'. In recording these (and his own investigations) the narrator conjures the spirit of the dead detective. Thus does Doyle pre-figure and heighten the moment when Holmes is restored to his friend. March 30 fell on a Friday in 1894, and I like to think it is Sunday, April 1st ( a week after Easter that year) when Holmes's resurrection is confirmed.

The plot is fashioned also to delay the eagerly anticipated resumption of normality in Baker St. Granada TV's version opens with a moving (if fictitious) sequence in which a sombre Watson passes the closed door of 221b with a heavy heart. Doyle reserves that re-introduction to the detective's residence, engineering twin climaxes in the drama of Holmes's Return - first the preserved man (revealed in Watson's consulting rooms); then the equally preserved rooms (after a serpentine tour of 'the byways of London' few but Sherlock Holmes could navigate...and Camden House).

The reader is as much in the hands of Holmes as Watson is. The first glimpse of that house thought to be forevcr bereft of its famous tenant will be by invitation - to look with Watson from the vacant property opposite and see 'if my three years of absence have entirely taken away my powers to surprise you'.
It is as if Doyle's method is to gradually materialize Sherlock Holmes in all his glory, mirroring Watson's radical emotional re-adjustment. A study in bereavement reversed.

The Dark before the Dawn.


Thus, the thrill of the chase, the call to action (even the dank Stygian gloom of Camden House) feed the need for confirmation just as much as the cold touch of Holmes's thin fingers on Watson's wrist and the latter's instinctive grip testing the palpable reality of a body still in disguise.

And, while the wax bust of Holmes may be, on one level, the fitting 'stratagem (to) deceive so old a shikari', it fulfils a symbolic purpose: Holmes is back in Baker St.

Leontes before the Statue of Hermione by William Hamilton 1790.
I have noted before in my posts on SCAND Shakespearian echoes that add profundity. Watson's response to the life-like bust is reminiscent of Leontes' reaction to the statue of his 'dead' Hermione (in another tale of Winter). Both images are described as sculpted by master craftsmen ...and for both witnesses they spring to life:

"newly performed by that rare Italian master, Julio Romano, who, had he himself
eternity and could put breath into his work, would
beguile Nature of her custom, so perfectly he is her
ape: he so near to Hermione hath done Hermione that
they say one would speak to her and stand in hope of
answer." The Winter's Tale Act V.


Watson's narration of the snaring of Col. Sebastian Moran is preceded by Holmes's account of events that transport the reader back to Meiringen and fast-forward to the present. Following the arrest of Moran, the timing feels right that 221b should finally assume its customary status at the very centre of Holmes's benign web.

"Our old chambers had been left unchanged through the supervision of Mycroft Holmes and the immediate care of Mrs. Hudson. As I entered I saw, it is true, an unwonted tidiness, but the old landmarks were all in their place. There were the chemical corner and the acid-stained, deal-topped table. There upon a shelf was the row of formidable scrap-books and books of reference which many of our fellow-citizens would have been so glad to burn. The diagrams, the violin-case, and the pipe-rack-even the Persian slipper which contained the tobacco -- all met my eyes as I glanced round me."



I set out here to lay bare Doyle's skill in layering different frames of time and in timing the experiences of both Watson and the reader in the most natural-feeling and dramatic ways.
My next post will address the various implications of the story's title which, whatever the choice, we are happily assured heralds only a Winter's tale.

I leave the reader with Shakespeare's equivalent moment from the great opening of Act IV to The Winter's Tale:
Time (as Chorus):

I, that please some, try all, both joy and terror
Of good and bad, that makes and unfolds error,
Now take upon me, in the name of Time,
To use my wings. Impute it not a crime
To me or my swift passage, that I slide
O'er sixteen years and leave the growth untried
Of that wide gap, since it is in my power
To o'erthrow law and in one self-born hour
To plant and o'erwhelm custom. Let me pass
The same I am, ere ancient'st order was
Or what is now received: I witness to
The times that brought them in; so shall I do
To the freshest things now reigning and make stale
The glistering of this present, as my tale
Now seems to it. Your patience this allowing,
I turn my glass and give my scene such growing
As you had slept between.

To go straight to The Empty House (2) click HERE