Monday, August 6, 2012

A Study in Lavender: Queering Sherlock Holmes introduction by Joseph R G DeMarco

What other characters from English literature have captivated hearts and minds as thoroughly as Sherlock Holmes and his loyal companion John Watson? Many fans imagine the relationship between these men is deep and more than platonic. In A Study in Lavender: Queering Sherlock Holmes edited by Joseph R G DeMarco, the Holmes universe is queered and authors have devised stories in which Holmes and Watson are lovers, or investigate mysteries of inverts hidden from the laws and cultures of the Victorian era; even the indomitable Lestrade has his turn at love; and eerie apparitions in the night sky, reminiscent of Jules Verne, draw Holmes to Cleveland Street, home to an infamous scandal.

A Study in Lavender
Lethe Press (June 6, 2011)
ISBN-10: 1590210387


Is Sherlock Holmes homosexual? Is Watson? Should we even be asking these questions?

Casual readers have wondered. So have scholars. Graham Robb, in his engaging and informative study of gay history, Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century, does not fail to consider the queerness of the Great Detective. Robb seems to believe that anyone thinking Holmes and Watson are not lovers is obtuse if not daft.

Ever since the Great Detective made his first appearance in A Study in Scarlet in Beeton’s Christmas Annual in 1887, fans have been speculating about Holmes and his life. His popularity with the general public grew with the publication of stories in The Strand starting in 1891 and it was that series of stories that really got the guessing game going. Pastiches and parodies began to appear and the world of Holmes expanded beyond Arthur Conan Doyle’s writings. In a way, the stories lent themselves to speculation through the trail of clues Doyle embedded in them. A trail that a discerning, well-informed reader could immediately follow. The material is clearly there in the Holmes canon, if a reader looks carefully enough.

Someone with knowledge of nineteenth-century British history will catch references others might miss. A more detailed knowledge of the sexual habits and scandals of that era will allow a reader to find even more clues woven into the text. With those facts in hand, other, less obtrusive, more seemingly innocent passages will jump out at you. Perhaps some things will even make sense for the first time. The oblique nature of some of the references almost forces a reader

To think that Doyle had either placed these hints so that only those in the know would understand, or that he was setting out clues for inveterate readers to collect and decipher.

For example, in Victorian London, the Embankment was a notorious homosexual cruising area near the Thames. In “Five Orange Pips,” one of Holmes’s clients is killed walking on the Embankment and Holmes admits to knowledge of the area, its denizens, and how it is used, though he is never explicit and never explains how he knows of this secret cruising ground.

Other, similar casually inserted references litter the Holmes tales. In “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” his adopting a young “telegraph boy” to help him certainly recalls the Cleveland Street scandals. A brothel located in Cleveland Street, which served aristocratic men and in which boys who worked as telegraph messengers were also prostitutes, came to the attention of the police. The ensuing scandal threatened to out many of England’s aristocrats, including, it is said, Prince Albert Victor, son of the Prince of Wales and second in line to the throne. Needless to say, the scandal was covered up, the aristocrats receiving no penalty, the boys getting off with light sentences (the world never changes).

But the fact that Doyle places a telegraph boy in the service of Holmes, and depicts their relationship as a very strong bond, serves as more than just a stray reference from the times.

Holmes and Watson also have a relationship that Doyle does little to disguise. They not only share rooms on Baker Street, they find their lives intertwined in such a way that one cannot function perfectly without the other. Even when Watson marries (twice and both times without children), he continues visiting and staying with Holmes. Though his second wife is a bit more possessive of his time, he manages weekend visits with Holmes until she’s out of the picture and he is “single” once again. Holmes and Watson often exchange intimate looks and words, or profess the depth of their feelings or need for each other. There are other clues. In “The Final Problem,” Holmes, after a particularly nasty incident, asks Watson to go with him to “the continent” where they can avoid certain matters. As anyone familiar with the era knows, the rich and the lucky were able to evade prosecution in England for the crime of homosexuality by fleeing to the continent. After certain arrests, waves of aristocrats and others were found, by whatever means they could secure, leaving England for Italy or France. That’s quite a large clue which Doyle hides in plain sight.

Of course, there are the obvious things about Holmes: he never marries or shows interest in the opposite sex and he and Watson live together in close quarters. But read more carefully and you find that the regard which Holmes and Watson have for each other goes beyond mere friendship. A good example is in “The Adventure of the Three Garridebs.”

Watson is wounded by a miscreant and Holmes is aghast. He rushes to Watson’s side and begs him to say he is not wounded. Then the narrative continues in Watson’s words:

It was worth a wound – it was worth many          wounds – to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask. The clear, hard eyes were dimmed for a moment, and the firm lips were shaking. For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain. All my years of humble but single-minded service culminated in that moment of revelation.

“It’s nothing, Holmes. It’s a mere scratch.”

He had ripped up my trousers with his pocket-knife.

“You are right,” he cried with an immense sigh of relief. “It is quite superficial.” His face set like flint as he glared at our prisoner, who was sitting up with a dazed face. “By the Lord, it is as well for you. If you had killed Watson, you would not have got out of this room alive. Now, sir, what have you to say for yourself?”

This is no mere friendship. There is love here…on both sides. True, it’s also a symbiotic relationship, with Holmes bringing adventure and Watson bringing a kind of domesticity to the pairing, but there is an undeniable love, as well. Other stories rounding out the canon contain plenty of clues, hints, and subtextual references leading to the inescapable conclusion that Holmes and Watson are more than just roommates.

Writers and fans of Sherlock Holmes have always speculated on every aspect of the Great Detective’s life. His sexual nature was no less a matter of interest than his cocaine use. And, right from the start, writers of every stripe produced parodies of Holmes and Watson. Writers such as Twain, Barrie, and Wodehouse all took their turn at getting in on the fun.

As far as anyone knows, the idea that Holmes might be gay didn’t work its way into the literature until the late twentieth century. One of the earliest books, from 1971, The Sexual Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Larry Townsend), is an erotic work concentrating heavily on sex scenes, though it exhibits grounding in the Holmes canon. Motion pictures took up the pursuit of Holmes’s personal life and sexual tastes in more than a few films, such as The Seven Percent Solution (1976) and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) (which takes the view that Holmes might be straight, though at one point in the film he does “pretend” to be gay in order to escape from a woman who wants to bed him).

It is not until Sherlock Holmes (2009), with Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law, that the idea of Holmes and Watson being gay makes it into the mainstream consciousness. Following closely on its heels, the BBC TV production, Sherlock (2010), with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, more or less flat out says Holmes is gay. Watson, who knows?

That cat has finally left the bag. The idea that Holmes is gay is ready to take centre stage for a while. Though some might find the notion a bit much to tolerate, even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had no objections to what might be done with his most famous creation. The American stage actor William Gillette wrote a play about Holmes in the late 1890s with Doyle’s blessing. Called variously: Sherlock Holmes, then The Strange Case of Miss Faulkner, then Sherlock Holmes – A Drama in Four Acts, it was an immensely popular show though not a critically acclaimed piece of theatre.

During the writing of the play, Gillette, who’d stitched together elements from different Holmes stories, wanted to spice up his work. He cabled Doyle and asked if he could marry off Holmes in the play. Doyle responded, “You may marry him, or murder him, or do whatever you like with him.”

That seems like the definitive permission slip.

This brings us to the collection you hold in your hands. A Study in Lavender considers not only the idea that Holmes might be gay, or Watson, or others in the Holmes mythos, but also that the detective might have taken cases which involved gay or lesbian or transgendered clients and handled them with the delicacy, discretion, and intelligence he brought to every other case Watson chronicled. Most of the tales in this collection take place in the Holmesian/Victorian setting. Most feature Holmes and Watson. Some use other characters as protagonists and merely mention Holmes. Each story will introduce you to new situations and characters, to cases Watson never before even alluded to, and to a Holmesian world that is similar yet different.

We hope all of these adventures will bring a smile to your face, give you some hours of reading pleasure, or make you think about Holmes, or Watson, or even Lestrade in a new way.

A Study in Lavender is meant to entertain and to open the door on a new approach to Holmes and the world in which he lived.


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Mykola ( Mick) Dementiuk said...

When I used to sit and read books in the NY Public Library on 42nd St and Fifth Ave I quickly found out I'd go nowhere reading Nietzche or Kierkegaard, curious men would stroll past and not even look back at me. But strangely, Sherlock Holmes was in easy introduction, every one eagerly wanted to know which story I was reading and how I liked it. Needless to say, that required a little more investigating, which I readily let them pursue by taking me wherever they wanted to. Ah, Sherlock, Elementary, isn't it?

Victor J Banis said...

I've run into the theory before (that Holmes was gay) and I do like the new BBC version, though I supposed Watson was gay too - of course, they aren't real, only fictional characters. One wonders about Conan Doyle...those Victorians could be very sly.

Very intriquing, Joe, thanks. Sorry I'm slow getting to this, internet problems

Joe DeMarco said...

Thanks for the comments Victor.