Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Red-Headed League - A Note on Watson's Chronicling.


Unusually and helpfully, the opening sentence of this, the second published Adventure, explicitly places the events "in the Autumn of last year". We know from the dissolution notice that year is 1890. Given that the story appeared in The Strand in  August, 1891, publication and the imagined moment of recording coincide. We apply this synchronicity to all the stories for all are cast as reminiscences.

Before chronicling REDH Watson has therefore written & published THREE stories: STUD (Dec 1887), SIGN (Feb 1890) & SCAN (July 1891). SCAN's events happened well before those of REDH in chronology but only the two novels have knowingly happened and been chronicled before Autumn 1890: Watson cannot logically refer in REDH to the chronicling of a story not written up for publication until July '91.

In commenting on Watson's relish for the bizarre Holmes speaks of: “the enthusiasm which has prompted you to chronicle, and, if you will excuse my saying so, somewhat to embellish so many of my own little adventures.” Given that Watson will not have the current case to chronicle until it has happened, these “many...little adventures” amount to precisely TWO.

IDEN (chronicled/published Sept 1891) is placed in the Chronology (by Sherlock Peoria and SmartRemarks) in 1888, relying on refs to SCAN in IDEN and dismissing the evidence of REDH. Both scholars suggest REDH probably refers to a more recent additional problem brought to Holmes by Mary Sutherland when he says:

    “You will remember that I remarked the other day, just before we went into the very simple problem presented by Miss Mary Sutherland, that for strange effects and extraordinary combinations we must go to life itself, which is always far more daring than any effort of the imagination.”
    It seems to me these chronologists focus on the first part of this quotation and do not follow up the remark about life being stranger than fiction, which clearly refers to the opening of IDEN: “life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent. We would not dare to conceive the things which are really mere commonplaces of existence”.
    I take it the reference in IDEN to Bohemia's gift means that Holmes forgot to show a (typically) delayed present (after the SCAN case of March 1888) when he last saw Watson some weeks ago.
    Hence, if the IDEN case occurs but a day or two before REDH (the remark was made “the other day” before Mary's case appeared) it has to be in Autumn 1890 AND unless we are to imagine Watson swiftly writing it up in (unpublished) Mss. & Holmes reading it, we can't add IDEN to the 2 chronicles written before the events of REDH.
    One more point: SCAN was chronicled/published in July 1891. As he writes it, Watson knows Irene is dead : “the late Irene Adler”. I warm to the notion that it would be typical of the egocentric Bohemia to have marked the news of her death (in 1890 I'd guess) by sending a belated thankyou of relief to Sherlock Holmes as reported in IDEN. Which leaves two matters to resolve:
    a) how to account for Holmes' reference to “SO MANY” adventures.
    b) his reference in IDEN to Watson having been good enough to “chronicle one or two of my little problems.”
    Well, I detect two influences at work here – one internal and the other Conan Doyle.
    In REDH at this point he is introducing Watson to Wilson and keen to present them as a team. A little judicious exaggeration does the agency no harm and helps Wilson trust Watson. Holmes is also playing on Wilson's growing pride in having an especially interesting case – he will be more forthcoming with full details.
    I think equally we hear Conan Doyle already writing the first batch of 6 Strand stories & committing himself to an as yet unchronicled backlog of cases to be mined in future by Watson - “many” adventures as it transpires which occurred chronologically prior to Autumn 1890 (and many more mentioned in passing).
    In IDEN the apparently contradictory reference to “one or two of my little problems” is (as I have argued) the truth – Watson is chronicling in Sept. 1891 a remark made in Autumn 1890 when only TWO stories (the novels) have been published.
    I think also the phrasing to be typical of Holmes' understatement for effect – the central operative word is “little”.
    Ha! "Little"! - they are anything but...and their Timelines are positively Byzantine.
    key to abbreviations.
    REDH - The Red-Headed League
    SCAN - A Scandal in Bohemia
    IDEN - A Case of Identity
    STUD -A Study in Scarlet
    SIGN - The Sign of Four

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