["Opposite (Milverton's desk) was a large bookcase, with a marble bust of Athene on the top"] Charles Augustus Milverton.
I have long cautioned myself that it is a capital mistake to read every Sherlock Holmes story through the same literary lens. Not all by any means may securely be pigeon-holed in the detective genre. To do so is to undervalue the work and limit response. These are the Adventures of a detective and, as such, varied and the more interesting for it. Search "The Adventure of the Engineer's Thumb" in vain for classic passages of brilliant deduction, impressive action and triumphant solution. Holmes is, throughout, more akin to the dog who did nothing in the night.
Watson and Holmes are fully aware of this. The former prefaces the tale with what amounts to a signpost indicating how it should be read:
(The problem of Mr. Hatherley's thumb) "was so strange in its inception and so dramatic in its details that it may be ... worthy of being placed upon record, even if it gave my friend fewer openings for those deductive methods of reasoning by which he achieved such remarkable results."
Almost the entire narrative is taken up with Victor Hatherley's retrospective account of his ordeal and escape. The counterfeiters escape scot-free. Watson does not trouble to detail, still less dramatise, the detective's (failed) "ingenuity" in belated attempts to track down Stark & co. Why? Because this is not the central focus of the story.
That we have read a cautionary tale (rather than a detective case) is patent in the story's final exchange. In reply to Hatherley's rueful comment: "I have lost my thumb and I have lost a fifty-guinea fee, and what have I gained?" Holmes, in a word, points the moral: "Experience". He can afford to make light of the matter, suggesting the hydraulic engineer may dine out on this story, because, in truth, it has been a lucky escape. The severed thumb haunts the imagination, symbolic of a far more gruesome outcome, fortuitously escaped. Thus, often, is the way with our apparently 'ordinary' lives.
- 0 -
"Charles Augustus Milverton" is another adventure in which pure detection plays second violin to a more compelling theme. The treatment, however, could not be more different. The inaction of ENGR is replaced by near-comic hyperactivity on the part of Holmes & Watson - to the same vain end as they are rendered bystanders to a main event.
Herein lies what I value in a recent essay on CHAS by Lyndsay Faye, whose interpretation rightly highlights what I below describe as The Wrath of Athene". Please read Faye's commentary HERE as I'll proceed to draw attention to complementary, supportive details in Doyle's text.
I would draw the reader's attention to three matters: the serio-comic nature of our heroes' exertions with regard to Milverton, the theme of fate, and the creation that is the anonymous, female deus ex machina who kills "the worst man in London."
1. "a creeping, shrinking sensation".
A trait central to Conan Doyle's chosen profession is his utter seriousness with regard to the craft of writing, whatever the genre. By virtue of this he is ready and able to re-calibrate Sherlock Holmes, his iconic recurrent character, in the service of a good story. If Holmes can 'fail' in 1891's "A Scandal in Bohemia", there is certainly no artistic risk in the spring of 1904: the"Return" stories are flying off the magazine stands, feeding a readership fresh from "The Hound of the Baskervilles" and William Gillette's stage success.Thus it is that the reader of CHAS is presented with a series of incidents and descriptions that subtly diminish the Great Detective.
The brushwork is melodramatic, with Dickensian echoes, throughout the opening scene, from Holmes' florid expressions of revulsion to a Milverton who looks like Mr. Pickwick but is all Quilp. And, as often with Dickens, we find ourselves in surreal, fairy tale country (as, more to the point, does an unusually emotional Holmes) where this "serpent", "The Evil One" threatens the Lady Eva, the most beautiful debutante of last season". We shall later recall wryly (as does Ms. Faye) condemnation here of "genteel ruffians who have gained the confidence and affection of trusting women" (Think Escott).
There's no doubt that Milverton wins Round One. Holmes is discountenanced: "grey with anger and mortification". The encounter ends with a lame ploy to corner the blackmailer who is more than ready to resist.
We move now to "a wild, tempestuous evening, when the rain screamed and rattled against the windows". On such a Gothic night, Holmes seems back in his comfort zone (himself, if you will) as he gleefully regales his comrade-in-arms with the first example we shall encounter of his going to extraordinary lengths which will ultimately prove utterly irrelevant. The twin motives are clearly stated: the chivalrous defence of a lady by a gentleman and the restoration of Holmes' self-respect and reputation after Milverton "had, as you saw,the best of the first exchanges". Above all, it's a sporting duel mano a mano.
There is too, in this conversation, a ribbon of moral ambivalence (concerning the 'engagement' and breaking the law) that feels as surreal in its justifications as does the all-too professional burglary kit Holmes purrs over. The black silk masks they don to assault the towers of Appledore are as flimsily theatrical as any Hereditary King of Bohemia ever wore. And (let us not forget) 'Agatha' (the duped maid) means 'good woman' and Holmes did her wrong.
Even as Holmes is being consciously undermined, Conan Doyle ensures there's plenty of suspenseful action to hold attention. Witness the expert 'entry', the hushed narration as our knights penetrate to the inner sanctum. All is as planned. Clockwork. Doyle deliberately prolongs and minutely details, lays on Watson's reflections on chivalry with a trowel.
All this will be undercut just as surely as von Bork's smugness in "His Last Bow". Twice the unexpected will yank the carpet from under this mock-heroic scene. The lesser, first, is, of course, the surprise apparition of a very awake Milverton. The pair take refuge behind the curtain and, effectively, for the rest of the story, are reduced to helpless spectators. That Holmes eventually manages to burn the stash of letters does not amount here to a redeemed reputation. That is, in this story, an irrelevance.
For me, there is some comedy in the whisperings and hand-holding of our heroes, preparatory, I'd say (in much the way one finds in Shakespeare) for the contrasting, ultra-serious realism of the ensuing murder; a comedy resumed in the pair's flight and subsequent conversation with Lestrade.
2. The Theme of Fate.
Superficially, the story's late twist parallels that of "A Scandal in Bohemia": in both, a woman acts independently beyond Holmes' knowledge or foresight. The difference with CHAS lies in its underlying notions of destiny. Holmes believes Lady Eva's destiny to be in his hands alone: "I must therefore abandon my client to her fate or I must play this last card." Moreover, the detective insists to Watson: "I can't get out of doing business with him." This belief informs and justifies every action taken henceforth. Thus playing fast and loose with Agatha's affections was "a necessary step", "You must play your cards as best you can".
There's irony and wryness as Watson talks himself into abetting his friend's crime. Holmes may need the Doctor as "You can't tell what may happen". Meanwhile Holmes seems blithely resigned to this apparent path of destiny, welcoming "the chance of my lifetime" to flaunt his criminal efficiency. Most forebodingly (and comically) is Watson's involuntary reaction to the notion of burgling Milverton's house:
"As a flash of lightning in the night shows up in an instant every detail of a wide landscape, so at one glance I seemed to see every possible result of such an action - the detection, the capture, the honoured career ending in irreparable failure and disgrace, my friend himself lying at the mercy of the odious Milverton."
Thus do we mortals so blindly imagine we see. Both Holmes and Watson are caught in illusions of their own making. Meanwhile, fate waits patiently.
One wonders for how long the bust of Athene has sat atop Milverton's bookcase and, indeed, why he placed it there. As it is, Athene is mute witness to all the blackmailer's secrets and all that unfolds this night. The goddess of Wisdom, of War, Courage, Inspiration and Justice (most relevantly) is located by Conan Doyle directly opposite Milverton's desk and "turning chair of shining red leather". It is a marble bust, with (therefore) as marble a heart as that Holmes attributes to Milverton. Implacable fate, I'd say. Biding time.
Let me be clear. It seems to me that Conan Doyle has spun false notions of destiny in the three men who dominate the narrative. Milverton thinks himself invulnerable; Holmes and Watson believe themselves to be the last court of chivalrous appeal. All place themselves, as a direct consequence, outside the law. Their respective illusions blind them even to imagine other worlds. We are in a Human Comedy.
3. The Wrath of Athene.
"No interference on our part could have saved the man from his fate."
Watson's observation directly after "the avenger was gone" makes explicit the limitations both of Holmes' expert exertions and Milverton's cunning machinations. The Gordian knot of their macho entanglement is summarily cut by a woman wronged, with a righteous, implacable directness stunning in its awesome, blunt reality. In a moment, he is cut down to size: no longer "Augustus" she names him "Charles Milverton" in prelude to a death deserved. The narrator's language is now sober and unflinchingly realistic: "She...emptied barrel after barrel into Milverton's body". One last shot to finish him and then:
The woman looked at him intently and ground her heel into his upturned face".
This is not Lady Eva. Holmes would recognise her. The epilogue would be superfluous. No, at the time, the nemesis of Charles Augustus Milverton is an anonymous woman who gains entrance in disguise. That anonymity frees this literary creation to be as representative of womankind as the goddess Athene. She attests to this in the words Watson records:
"You will ruin no more lives as you ruined mine. You will wring no more hearts as you wrung mine. I will free the world of a poisonous thing. Take that, you hound, and that! - and that! - and that!"
As narrator, Watson knows the description he is to record in the concluding scene at a shop window but avoids any reference to the woman's regality as he chronicles her appearance in Milverton's study. She is "veiled" with "a mantle over her chin". "Every lithe inch" of this "tall, slim, dark woman" is "quivering with emotion". The veil removed, "It was a dark, handsome, clear-cut face...with a curved nose, strong, dark eyebrows shading hard, glittering eyes, and a straight, thin-lipped mouth set in a dangerous smile."
Athene personified. The bust come to life. Dea ex machina. And all wronged womankind behind the gathered resolve that pulls the trigger.
To Holmes and Watson some credit: their subsequent silence on the matter. As in some other cases, the great detective and the good doctor conspire to allow the guilty to go free, deemed more sinned against than sinning. Neither, furthermore, considers murdering Milverton even as a last card. Perhaps in time these naively chivalrous gentlemen would realise the logic here and learn from this experience that,if push comes to shove, Athene can, will and has the right to take care of herself. As Watson put it in the story's first paragraph: "the principal person concerned is now beyond the reach of human law". Such righteous wrath always is.
4. In Conclusion.
I like this illustration drawn by Sidney Paget for The Strand printing of CHAS.
The artist perceptively mirrors the reality I have noted above: that Holmes and Watson, despite all their good (and questionable) intentions, feverous activity, and moral ruminations, have in fact stood on the outside looking in.
I like to fancy that through those grimy panes they see not just one regal and stately lady but a vibrant gallery of past and future women standing tall.
[My sincere gratitude to Lyndsay Faye for an inspiring essay and to the Baker Street Babes for sharing it through their website.]
July 2021 Addition: Conan Doyle's Nod to Edgar Allan Poe in CHAS.
Behind Doyle's prose story lies a poem: Poe's "The Raven". Both scenarios are acted out under the implacable gaze of Pallas Athene, goddess of Wisdom, Warfare, Justice and Fate. The poem's climactic, indelible image is of her and the inescapable raven - a composite, horrifying sculpture:
"And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door."
Here is Édouard Manet's illustration for Mallarmé's 1875 French translation:
Illustrating precisely the same moment in the text for their respective 1904 magazine publications, it is, perhaps, understandable that the American, Frederic Dorr Steele, was more readily attuned to the presence of Poe and made sure to incorporate the bust quite overlooked by Sidney Paget.