Tuesday, July 24, 2012

"The Letter Edged in Black" - Framing "The Final Problem".

An Illustrated Song of 1897 and An Illustrated Story of 1893...


In honour of SHERLOCK HOLMES WEEK and the campaign to save UNDERSHAW my next major post will be

“Some deep organizing power” – Professor Moriarty and Conan Doyle’s Imagination.
Because the post will focus on the presentation of Professor Moriarty in this crucially important moment for the Canon, a preface about the nature of the story seems useful.
So: please follow me through three movements as prelude to The Final Problem:
1. Hattie Nevada's song & Robert Hansford's slides.
2. Conan Doyle's letter edged in black.
3. Mementi Mori-arty.
1. Mrs. Harriet (Hattie) Nevada Hicks.
In 1897, Hattie Nevada, an unknown amateur songwriter of Kansas City, Mo., wrote a tear-jerking song that made her name. Tim Gracyk has a detailed blog post about her early recordings HERE . Listen first to the earliest available recording of her song  A Letter Edged in Black recorded in 1925 by Vernon Dalhart.
By coincidence there lived in Kansas City at that time the pioneer photographer, Robert B. Handsford who produced in 1897 probably the first series of handcoloured song slides ever made West of the Mississippi. They illustrated Hattie's song and may be viewed as pdf. in an excellent article of The Kansas Historical Quarterly HERE .

Evidently the good citizens of Kansas City, Mo. were (like the playwright, Webster) "much possess'd by death." As were those of the state of Kansas, itself on their Western border. Especially were they interested in post mortem photographs  of dead criminals. Witness the proof of a threat removed given by this shot of the infamous Dalton Gang taken in 1892.
2. Conan Doyle's letter edged in black.
Conan Doyle's readers also had what we may feel is a somewhat morbid fascination with the dear and not-so-dear departed.

The photograph above is one of many preserved on internet sites. I shall spare you any example of the most prevalent subject represented - children. Search the term "mementi mori on Google Images and you will find them soon enough.
Mementi Mori means literally 'remember you are to die' and such Victorian warnings of our universally common end came in various forms.  Cabinet photographs of loved ones taken before burial were supplemented by such objects as Gothic skull pendants and rings, hair from the departed incorporated in a brooch or needlework, all deriving from a practice going back centuries.
Mementi Mori on a Wall in Pompeii.

Before all this of course you must break the sad news. Conan Doyle's express purpose in shaping The Final Problem was to do just that.


The pictorial equivalent of The Final Problem.

This is a short story like no other.

 Every element is designed to bring closure to a fictional character with dignity, empathy for the reader and sterling literary pains. It is a 'letter' (from Doyle) with the blackest of borders.

In this case, the 'borders' are starkly, immediately apparent: no title in the Canon is less ambiguous than 'The Final Problem' ; no illustration better positioned than the Paget image located  first and before its narrative. Watson's funerial and eulogistic prologue and epilogue will intensify black already on the canvas.

Painfully aware of the devastating impact his story will have, Conan Doyle summons all his constructive powers to deliver the news without submitting the reader to real time or unexpected description of the Great Detective's demise.

Watson's reminiscence imparts a bearable distance (rather in the way today's undertakers dress and pose a corpse in semblance of life.)

Knowing Holmes is dead, our attention is turned to how and why. Doyle engineers the narrative in such a way to incorporate Holmes himself as central narrator of the most animated phase of the story which I see (fittingly) as Alpine in shape.

It is a veritable Eiger that Doyle, Watson and Holmes scale together...at whose peak looms from the summit mists arguably the greatest Arch villain in English Literature.

From the foothills of Watson's poignant, reminiscent prologue the reader climbs to the central massif of Holmes's account of Professor Moriarty whose apex is their momentous and unique meeting in 221b.

What follows is prosaic after the prose poetry of Holmes's record. The foregone conclusion is played out as we descend from the heights and return with Watson to contemplate "the best and wisest man I have ever known."

In the hands of a less skilful and less caring writer The Final Problem would exhibit sensationalist, cheap shock tactics, masking the fact of Holmes's death until it was enacted in bloody detail - thus pushing the reader off an emotional precipice not of his choosing.

This was never Doyle's way and, as if predicting the black arm bands worn in London streets upon publication of this final story, instead he buckled down and gave of his best, creating in the process He who is the subject of my forthcoming post.

 3. Mementi Mori-arty.

Finally, and briefly, I would remind the reader of two things:

a) The Final Problem communicates news of TWO deaths, and in neither case has any undertaker, in Doyle's own words, "pronounced on the body".

b) As I shall argue in my next post (see link below),  it is highly unlikely we should ever have heard of Professor Moriarty if Conan Doyle had not decided to kill Sherlock Holmes.
There would have been no Empty House; nor opportunity for a magnificent, illustrious band of screen actors to portray the Napoleon of Crime.
Just a reminder then to close - a memento mori-arty of the finest I have personally seen.

To go straight to Post 2 please click Some Deep Organising Power.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Sir George Newnes - A Philanthropic Lesson for our Time.

George Newnes MP. in Vanity Fair 1894.
August 1900. A year before the publication of Hound of the Baskervilles. Conan Doyle is in Devon as one of the celebrities attending the opening of Lynton Town Hall, the gift of his friend, Sir George Newnes, to the people of Lynmouth and Lynton.

The new hall was but one of a series of projects in the area paid for by the publisher of Titbits and The Strand Magazine.

Having fallen in love with Exmoor and these twin North Devon towns, Newnes masterminded the building of the Cliff Railway and the Lynton-Barnstaple Railway, bringing commercial success to the area.

A detailed history may be read on the excellent Lynton Cliff Railway website HERE

In 1893, Newnes built his grand residence on Hollerday Hill.

When Newnes died in 1910 Hollerday House was advertised for sale in The Times, June 24, 1911. It mysteriously burned down in a fire in 1913. The full story of Newnes's beloved cliff-top home may be read, with many fascinating images HERE

George Newnes's activities in Lynton are reminiscent of the later commitment made by the architect, Clough Williams-Ellis, to the Welsh village of Portmeirion.

Williams Clough-Ellis 1932.
In 1901, as Doyle's Hound began publication, the 18-year old Williams-Ellis was up at Trinity, Cambridge, before spending two years at the Architectural Association School in London. His wondrous legacy, the mock-Italianate village of Portmeirion was begun in 1925.

Portmeirion Village.

Whilst Hollerday House is no more, the legacies of George Newnes and Williams Clough-Ellis are, in 2012, jewels of the Exmoor and Gwyneth coasts. 

Initially as a Prisoner fan, I have holidayed in Portmeirion several times and observed the gratitude evinced by locals and tourists alike for the man who created this unique, magical place. He shared something I think with those two men of the previous generation, Doyle and Newnes, who were already successful, famous, rich and well-beloved by the time Clough-Ellis qualified as an architect.

Hulda Friederichs distils the essence of such men in The Life of George Newnes (1911) :

"Kind Sir George".

"It is with Lynton and its gracious influences
that the last page of the autobiographical notes
deals. He was very near the end when he
wrote the final sentence : " The charm of the
place has grown on me so much that a short
while ago I came here to reside permanently " ;
and it was at Hollerday where he died quietly
one morning when June threw all its glory
upon the enchanting scene.

As he lay dead in the silent house high up
on the hill, every day and almost every hour
brought additional proof of the strong hold
which Sir George Newnes had on the affection
of those who knew him. His winning person-
ality had gained him friends wherever he went
and whenever he came into personal touch with
others. The servants of his own household
were devoted to him, and even the two male
nurses who had been in attendance for some
weeks before the end, and knew him only in
the last stages of mortal disease, mourned him
as one who had grown dear to them. The
occasional labourers on the estate, the men and
lads who had seen him about in the village
and the district, and to whom he had sometimes
said a friendly word in fact, the whole country-  
side was in mourning for " kind Sir George."
As the wonderful floral gifts began to arrive,
and overflowed from room to room, they spread
around his simple coffin a living pall of roses
and lilies and palm and bay. Glancing at the
messages sent with these farewell tokens you
felt that there was hardly one but had in it
the unmistakable note which only comes with
the sense of personal loss.

The colleagues and co-workers of many years,
who were still working on : a little band of
men who had served him when he first set out
on his strenuous career; a late chauffeur who
far off had heard of his death, and sent his
wreath of purple iris to " a good and much-
loved master " ; a crowd of private friends in
every station of life; and many a man and
woman whom, in his own quiet way, he had
befriended they all put that into the words
wherewith they bade him the last good-bye,
which shows that the heart is stirred, and
which no amount of mere esteem or admiration
can ever call forth.

And you had but to glance at the faces of
those who followed the coffin as it was carried
by the volunteer bearers down the winding
road which he had cut out of the desolate and
barren rock, to see that genuine sorrow had
brought them out of their busy world to
accompany on his last journey the staunch
and loyal friend, the man to whom they were
drawn by the human bonds which outlast
all other ties. It was this which gave the
funeral in the hushed and mourning village
its unique and touching character, and which,
by those who were present, will ever be remem-
bered as something finely and tenderly human.
It was the best tribute to a man much honoured
and esteemed for the services he had done to the
public, who, from the beginning to the end of
his life, possessed in an extraordinary degree the
rare quality of drawing men to him through their
affections, and of keeping friends by reason of
his own goodness and kindness of heart."

(FROM P17 OF THE Pdf On-line Text).
The whole Life may be read on-line HERE

I make no apology for the length of this eulogy for it exemplifies my theme for this post.

Newnes and Doyle made each other very rich. The two were close friends (even in the years of The Great Hiatus during which Newnes must have longed for Holmes's return). My sense is that both men had an enduring sense of something greater they were about which eclipsed such issues. Meaner men may well have had a falling out.

As it is, they got on with their busy, productive and committed lives, giving as good as they got to the benefit of the nation. I look today for 21st Century examples of this generosity of public spirit. And find it all too rare.

There is right now an Empty House called Undershaw not so very different from the love- affair that was Hollerday House. The home Conan Doyle designed for himself and lived in from 1897 until 1907 could, in the right hands, with the right vision and business plan, contribute much to cultural life, nationally and globally.

I fancy, were Newnes alive today, he would conclude, in the words of Sherlock Holmes: "I'm afraid, Watson, I shall have to go...to Surrey. To Hindhead.
To Doyle's Undershaw."  

"Where are the benefactors of today?" said The Empty House.

Take the Untrodden Philanthropic Track to:
         The Undershaw Preservation Trust

Saturday, July 7, 2012

"THE EMPTY CHAIR" - In Memoriam Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (d. July 7, 1930).

Waiting for 'St. Paul'. Albert Hall, London. July 13, 1930.
The story that launched The Return of Sherlock Holmes in 1903 has, in 2012, provided a dramatic image in support of the campaign to save for the nation The Empty House of Undershaw, Conan Doyle's home in the decade preceding 1907, the year he moved to Little Windlesham Cottage.

It was, however, upon an Empty Chair, that thousands of eyes were focussed at a memorial service in the Albert Hall on Sunday, July 13, 1930, less than a week after the death of Conan Doyle - for they were waiting for the one they called St Paul".

Exhausted from a lecture tour of Scandinavia, Doyle had suffered a fatal heart attack in the bedroom next to his favourite writing study on the first floor. As his body gave up the ghost, he lay (by last request) propped up in a chair so he might see his favourite view of  Crowborough Common.

A few days later the family buried him next to his writing hut beneath a copper beech to the rear of Windlesham Cottage. Many national figures and local people attended the funeral. It took a large fleet of lorries to transport the floral tributes.
The Funeral of ACD.

Lady Conan Doyle would continue to live at Windlesham until her death in 1940, when she too was interred there.

In 1955 the estate was sold, at which point both bodies were exhumed and re-interred where they rest together today - at All Saints Church, Minstead in the New Forest, close to Bignall Wood, a country retreat Doyle purchased as a love-gift for his wife in 1925.
All Saints, Minstead.

Conan Doyle was 71. His Obituary in The New York Times (and countless other World newspapers) may be read HERE 

For the memorial service, the chair upon the stage normally occupied by Doyle when he chaired Spiritualist meetings there was left unoccupied  - save for a cardboard placard saying simply 'Sir Arthur Conan Doyle'. In that vast gathering, his was the only empty seat.

Between six and ten thousand people had gained entry with hundreds more trying to access the Hall. The reason was simple: everyone (especially Doyle's family) was expecting Doyle to address them from 'Summerland' (his own name for 'the undiscovered country'.

BUT these were no sceptical Georgian Hamlets - this 'traveller' had promised to return.

"The completeness of the silence," wrote one journalist, "was unforgettable."

Time Magazine (July 21, 1930) and others carried detailed (and varying) reports of precisely what took place in the Albert Hall that day.

Two of these accounts are available on-line and may be read (well worth the read!), courtesy Spiritualism Link HERE

I leave the reader of this special post in memory of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with his or her own conclusions on the religious and spiritual validity of a cause dear to the author, which became his sole mission in later life.

On a personal note, I am convinced of one thing for sure - that the motto on Doyle's grave precisely and movingly describes the man interred there - a Great Soul remembered this day.


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.