Friday, March 1, 2013

Timing The Solitary Cyclist.

Exhibit in The Sherlock Holmes Museum (Wikicommons).
Establishing the timeline of a Conan Doyle short story is often rather like trying to ascertain the intended order of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Neither pursuit leads to certainty but the process has its rewards.

Preparing, as I am, to write about The Solitary Cyclist, this deceptively simple exercise throws into relief not merely the progression of plot but more subtly the substantial breadth,complexity and depth Doyle imparts to short stories that characteristically feel longer and richer in texture than brevity suggests. 

These qualities are often apparent from the outset in the author's deliberately opaque choice of titles, tending to the ambiguous and outre. I've not read or attempted a systematic study, but the clarity of The Hound of the Baskervilles is surely exceptional. Detective stories are mysteries and a Sphinx of a title is apt. Doyle sought typically to display with one hand and hide with the other. 

Granada TV immortalised my point in their inspired (non-Canonical) coda to The Resident Patient. David Burke's Watson makes several abortive (and very comical) attempts to name his new story before realising Holmes' title is the perfect choice. Conan Doyle must have done this countless times.We now know from the SOLI Mss. that The Solitary 'Man' was rejected in favour of 'Cyclist', rendering the title applicable to both Violet Smith and Bob Carruthers.

As the Museum exhibit above, Paget's illustrations and the Granada episode's emphasis show, Violet is generally taken as the title's subject, in spite of the published textual ambiguity. Even so, one is still left pondering the precise import of the adjective. Doyle is inviting us to think, drawing us in.

The Three Time Frames.

As I have noted in earlier posts, all the short stories exhibit three distinct time periods that give each narrative its variety, sense of history, complexity and depth. They may be termed The time of reminiscence, the narrative present of the story, and its narrative past.


The decision to cast every story as reminiscence was inspired. All but three of the short stories are cast as records in the first person of Dr. Watson providing his version of each Sherlock Holmes case. This is fiction and the reader willingly suspends disbelief in the good doctor's apparent ability to take detailed verbatim notes because the narrative is much enlivened by frequent recourse to dialogue and the use of sub-narrators, such as the client and Holmes himself. At such moments Watson is always there but his voice is muted while we attend to others.

I locate the date of reminiscence at the date of each story's first publication. This matters. Even (especially) does it matter with the third person narrative story His Last Bow. You could not read this story set in 1914 until its 1917 creation and publication. The voice you hear knows all the horror you as reader have lived through and the notion that even as war broke out the Empire was already on the alert and striking back would fall on ready, demoralised ears.

Written by May, 1903, SOLI was first read in America in December and by Strand readers in January '04. Doyle writes and Watson reminisces of 1895.

Narrative Present.

Watson clearly states that the narrative of events begins on the day of Violet Smith's visit to Baker Street, Saturday, April 23, 1895. The events of that and succeeding days to the end of the case constitute the narrative present.

Narrative Past.

All that is subsequently revealed of events preceding the Saturday of Violet Smith's visit belongs in the narrative past.

In a moment I shall present all the events both past and present in chronological order.

A Note about 23 April 1895.

As the reader may be aware, there is a long history of debate arising from the fact that this date did not fall on a Saturday that year.

My Timeline corrects this to Saturday, April 27 based on the following reasoning.

- A Saturday is required by the story.
- There seems no reason to question the choice of month.
- According to Watson the case falls in the years 1894 to 1901 inclusive. Thus 1892 (when April 23 was a Saturday) is out of the question. 1898 (the only possible candidate) has been suggested by some, but would not solve the insoluble problem of Violet's reference to her late father's conducting the orchestra of 'the old Imperial Theatre'.

By 1895, the Imperial was but 19 years old, erected at one end of the Royal Aquarium in 1876. On two occasions only was the theatre altered: in 1898 Walter Emden made some modifications to meet safety requirements (but this must have been after April as he was still completing a South coast project then.)

Only in 1901 when all but the dressing rooms was demolished for a new Imperial Theatre (owned by Lily Langtry) could one realistically refer to 'The Old Imperial'. Watson (or rather Doyle) knows this in 1903/4 and mistakenly places the phrase in the mouth of Violet Smith, speaking in 1895.

- Some commentators suggest the typist misread the Mss. either '23' instead of '13' or '27'. Until I see the original Mss and assess the likelihood of either explanation, I accept 27 for a different (equally likely) reason. If Doyle was like me, there are occasions where, on consulting a diary or calendar, inadvertently I look at the month before or after the one I want. Doyle can get it right (in DEVI for example) and like all of us he can err. I think he went to 1895 and looked at March by mistake - the 23 April was a Saturday.

Timeline for The Solitary Cyclist.
1870: Uncle Ralph Smith went to South Africa.
1893 or 4: assume a fairly recent death of James Smith.
by December 1894: Carruthers & Woodley arrived from Africa
December 1894: Violet has interview and probably starts work for Carruthers.
Earlier than Saturday 13 April 1895: Woodley forced his attentions on Violet and had not been seen again before her visit to Baker St. Probably assaulted just prior to March 29 as this is the approximate date Charlington Hall is rented.
Woodley hooked up with Williamson at this time.

Sat 13 April 1895: Violet first followed as she cycled to catch the 12.22 from Farnham to Waterloo and her mother's.
Mon 15 April: returned by the 9.50 from Waterloo and is followed.
Saturday 20 and Monday 22: a repeat of the previous week.

Saturday 27: (no horse & trap despite Carruthers' promise) so she bikes to the station for the 9.50, is followed the six miles, and late evening calls on Sherlock Holmes for guidance.
(NB: Granada show her parking her bike outside 221b. - the text does not say she takes it on the train.)

Monday 29 April: Watson catches the 9.13 to Farnham so he can be in position when Violet cycles the route after catching the 9.50.
Watson proceeds to a local house agent, thence back to London and a Pall Mall agent, thence (that evening) to Baker Street to report.

Tuesday 30 April: a note from Violet saying Carruthers has proposed marriage.
Holmes to Farnham, returning that evening after a fight with Woodley in the inn.

Thursday 2 May: a note from Violet that she is leaving through strain because of Carruthers' attentions and Woodley's reappearance. The trap has arrived so she will travel in it to the station on Saturday 4 May.
It is on 2 May the cable arrives with news that Uncle Ralph has really died - hence the urgency.

Sat 4 May: Holmes & Watson catch (we assume) the 9.50 to Farnham and regret not getting the earlier train. They walk the 6 miles from the station but are too late (even allowing a half hour) as Violet would appear to have come for the train before the 12.22.

Empty dog cart..injured groom...the solitary man...the bowling alley...shooting and citizen's arrest...groom goes for the police.

The police arrive. The groom is recovered. Holmes and Watson prepare to take Violet to her mother's; Holmes gives Carruthers his card.

In Epilogue: we knew Violet and  Cyril Morton hoped to marry in Summer 1895. Watson knows at the time of writing that they did so; that she is wealthy and they have a thriving, well-known electrical business in London.
Williamson was jailed for 7 years (out in 1902). Woodley is still in jail serving 10 yrs for abduction and assault.
With Holmes' help Carruthers served a light sentence of a few months.


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