Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Great Hiatus (2) Sherlock Holmes in Shangri-La

This cover of Collier's Magazine, dated September, 1903, provides the first image of a renascent Holmes after 'The Great Hiatus'.  The Strand would commence publication of The Return of Sherlock Holmes a month later, with seven illustrations by Sidney Paget. The American magazine ( and its illustrator, Frederic Dorr Steele) would, however, now take permanent pole position in publishing the new adventures, having been instrumental in persuading Conan Doyle to bring his popular detective fully back to life after the success of The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901), which, though welcome, pre-dates Holmes's disappearance in The Final Problem (1891).

They paid dearly and happily for this privilege: Conan Doyle was offered $45.000 in 1903 (the equivalent of over $2 million today) for thirteen short stories.

Both illustrators have their devotees. I incline to Paget. Steele takes inspiration from his William Gillette image of Holmes, while Paget is more subtly inspired by the story in hand. The pivotal Return episode of The Empty House exemplifies this.

His first image (of seven) delights in re-introducing the detective in disguise, reflecting the story's gradual re-materialisation of Holmes (see my EMPT blog posts).

The second is deliciously metaphoric as Holmes reveals himself to a Watson wittily reminiscent of Conan Doyle.

There follows a quartet of dark Camden House images, culminating in the capture of Colonel Moran.

Finally, Paget may, at last, present us with his embodiment of Holmes fully restored to 221b where he has always belonged.

By contrast, Steele's approach is more direct, that cover image restoring Holmes immediately illustrating as it does the very start of The Great Hiatus, when he watched Moriarty plunge to his death. In its way, this is just as effective. We are given a clean-cut, intact,  living Holmes against a background that suggests both the local Alpine setting and, in the remote distance, the Himalayan years to come.

It is sobering to reflect that none of these illustrations (nor the notion of a hiatus) would have been imagined had Doyle not decided to abandon his creation. Moreover, my next major post (on The Final Problem) will highlight the crucial importance of that decision in the genesis of Professor Moriarty himself.

For the moment  I want to focus on the creation of a  story to fill the hiatus in retrospect (for, of course, Doyle did not imagine Holmes's activities until the late Spring of 1903.) 

A reminder of the dates relevant to what follows:

May 4, 1891 Holmes disappears, presumed dead, at Reichenbach Falls.

July, 1891 A Scandal in Bohemia (Ist Adventure) published.

April, 1893 Conan Doyle writes The Final Problem.

December 1893 date of Watson's reminiscence of Holmes's 'death' (i.e. publication of The Final Problem in the Strand.)

April 1st, 1894 Holmes restored to Dr. Watson.

late Spring, 1903 Conan Doyle writes The Empty House.

Sept/Oct, 1903 date of Watson's reminiscence of late March/early April 1894 (1.e. publication of The Empty House.

Length of Holmes's absence  almost 3 years.

Time elapsed between writing the two stories 10 years.

Holmes's activities May 91 to March 94

"As to Mycroft, I had to confide in him in order to obtain the money which I needed. The course of events in London did not run so well as I had hoped, for the trial of the Moriarty gang left two of its most dangerous members, my own most vindictive enemies, at liberty. I travelled for two years in Tibet, therefore, and amused myself by visiting Lhassa, and spending some days with the head lama. You may have read of the remarkable explorations of a Norwegian named Sigerson, but I am sure that it never occurred to you that you were receiving news of your friend. I then passed through Persia, looked in at Mecca, and paid a short but interesting visit to the Khalifa at Khartoum, the results of which I have communicated to the Foreign Office. Returning to France, I spent some months in a research into the coal-tar derivatives, which I conducted in a laboratory at Montpellier, in the south of France. Having concluded this to my satisfaction and learning that only one of my enemies was now left in London, I was about to return when my movements were hastened by the news of this very remarkable Park Lane Mystery, which not only appealed to me by its own merits, but which seemed to offer some most peculiar personal opportunities. I came over at once to London, called in my own person at Baker Street, threw Mrs. Hudson into violent hysterics, and found that Mycroft had preserved my rooms and my papers exactly as they had always been. So it was, my dear Watson, that at two o’clock to-day I found myself in my old armchair in my own old room, and only wishing that I could have seen my old friend Watson in the other chair which he has so often adorned.”

Thus, with his customary succinctness, Holmes condenses three years' on the run from 'my most vindictive enemies'.

Conan Doyle makes artistic choices designed to underpin the central task of this story - the re-establishment of Holmes as the public saw him. A lesser writer might (reasonably) have engineered an escape across the Atlantic to 'safe-house' Pinkerton protection.

But that is not Holmes's way nor Conan Doyle's.

As a true-born Englishman he must be about useful business, perilous as it may be. Exploration is honourable adventure; scientific research into coal-tar derivatives keeps the romance firmly grounded...and two years in Tibet elevates Holmes to an inviolable, mythic status. 
Tibetans in 1892.

And we must conclude all this has been achieved under cover.The strange old book collector is but the last in a series of disguises whose duration (notably as Norwegian explorer, Sigerson) far outstrips even Holmes's expertise in sustaining a character (see my posts on SCAND).

The dates listed above are of central relevance in explaining just why Tibet provides the most resonant of imaginative landscapes for Holmes's 'lost years'.

It must be appreciated that even in 1903 (let alone 1891) reaching Tibet was difficult; entering the forbidden country was infinitely more dangerous than anything 'the Bagdad of the West' (London), in Stevenson's phrase, could threaten. Reaching the capital, Llasa, had never been achieved by an Englishman.

N.B. Please click for 1888 Tibet Map Here

So, to begin with, Holmes literally goes where no Briton has gone before.

He goes to a country so remote, so unknown to Doyle's readership that it is on a par with the far side of the moon. Any mapping has been done (as Kipling's Kim illustrates) in great danger from Tibetan bandits, Sino-Tibetan soldiers and Russian insurgents, by Tibetan-speaking Indians, prepared through crash courses in surveying and map-making; spying, disguise and the use of special James Bond-like prayer wheels and beads that double as scientific instruments (courtesy of Q's grandfather?)

Tibetans in 1903

As with all exotic lands 'beyond the pale' opposing stereo-types persisted side by side: Tibetans were savage, dirty, ignorant and backward; Tibet was the one place on earth unsullied by degenerate modern ways, a beacon of spiritual hope.

Those received perceptions may have remained undisturbed but for The Great Game. For much of the 19th Century Victoria's empire harboured suspicions that Russia had expansionist ambitions in the Himalayas. Britain viewed the range (and its political states) as the Northern bulwark buffering British India from the Tsarist empire.

In 1888, in a fever of suspicion, Britain invaded Tibet, with little success on the ground, securing only notional agreements to honour meaningless borders in the wilds of Northern Sikkim and Ladakh.

By the time Doyle came to write The Empty House this long-standing problem was coming to a head and it would be surprising if Doyle did not know Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, was giving Frances Younghusband the green light to mount a second invasion. Tibet was as important a matter as the state of the British Army and  the conduct of the Boer War, issues Doyle had taken to heart.

Through membership of the Author's Club and a shared interest in mysticism, Doyle and Younghusband would be well aware of each other.

As Holmes returned in September and October, 1903, Younghusband was poised for the December advance into Tibet...and eventually to Llasa itself.

Doyle has, in effect, beaten him to it in imagining what he himself would wish to have done.

William Woodville Rockhill.

Moreover, there is a satisfying synchronicity in locating Holmes in Llasa during the years 1891-3. This is precisely when the American, William Woodville Rockhill, completed not one but two expeditions into Tibet. Rockhill was turned back just before he could visit Llasa. As the reports of both Rockhill and Younghusband indicate, any information on this unknown land was geographically, militarily, culturally and politically gold dust.

We may assume therefore that Holmes's reports to the Foreign Office were not confined to those concerning the Khalifa at Khartoum. His actions throughout have been those of a loyal and consummately proficient spy.

Doyle's gift to his adoring readership was to return the hero from years of undercover work involving feats worthy of a Hero of the Empire. And this Holmes comes trailing clouds of mystical glory (precisely prophetic of the effect Tibet worked on Younghusband).

Jeremy Brett memorably and accurately draws upon this yogic, meditative dimension in the Great Detective's makeup. Sidney Paget had caught him thus in his parting illustration for The Final Problem. Doyle develops that capacity for total abstraction into the Tibetan scenario. In a sense, when Holmes reaches Tibet - he is going home

No wonder, we are left (as Doyle intends) feeling Sherlock Holmes has survived unscathed under holy protection in a land just out of reach, but connected by the finest of golden threads to Baker Street.

I have tried here to do two things:

1. To illustrate the artistic reasons for Doyle's choice of Tibet as Holmes's location during The Great Hiatus.

2. To provide the interested reader with further reading on perceptions of Tibet and the expeditions of Rockhill and Younghusband.

Further reading.

William Woodville Rockwell:

1. Wikipedia Biography Here

2.Explorations in Mongolia & Tibet (abstract) Here

3. Plan of Lhasa 1891 Here

Francis Younghusband:

1. Wikipedia Biography Here

2. Mail on Line first photos of 1903 Expedition Here

3. Field Force to Llasa 1903-4 Route Here

4. Field Force to Llasa 1903-4 Letters Here

Perceptions of Tibet:

1.British Perceptions of Tibet 19th/20th Centuries Here

2.Origin of the Mind's Tibet Here

3.Imagining Tibet Here

4. Photographs of Tibet 1900-1 Here

4. Correspondence Relating to the Anglo-Tibet War 1888 Here

Finally: video of The Lost World of Tibet (1930's) may be viewed via Youtube Here

1904 Llasa.

1 comment:

  1. Enjoyed this very much. The early perceptions of Tibetans by Westerners are quite interesting. As naive as Westerners' understanding of Tibet was then, Tibet remains not much more accessible today. The lives of the "common" people of Tibet were and still are very different then the lives of monastics. In that way, some of the old perceptions were correct. It is accepted by Tibetan Buddhists that the Buddha himself taught different methodologies for lay people versus the monastics. Then when we consider the "folk" religions also present in Tibet such as Bon, how utterly foreign and mystical the region must have appeared to early explorers.