A Glimpse into the Sherlockian & Holmesian World
“Here dwell together still two men of note. Who never lived and so can never die…But still, the game’s afoot for those with ears attuned to catch the distant view-halloo: England is England yet, for all our fears—Only those things the heart believes are true…As night descends upon this fabled street: A lonely hansom splashes through the rain, the ghostly gas lamps fail at twenty feet. Here, though the world explode, these two survive, and it is always eighteen ninety-five.”–Vincent Starrett, 1942.
The photo above is of Jeremy Brett being honored by the Priory Scholars of New York City, 1985. Sherlockian and Holmesian Societies* encircle the globe, they’re found in the UK, Italy, France, Canada, India, Japan, Spain, Uruguay, Australia, USA, Brazil, Switzerland, Germany, Czech Republic, Sjaelland, Kyrgyzstan, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Hungary, Belgium, Austria, China, Denmark, Israel, Portugal, and Sweden. This is not a complete list. Surely there’s a Russian Sherlockian Society? Some dwell online and are international, like the John H. Watson Society. The UK hosts many, but there are a plethora thriving in the USA: Almost every State has one, and some more than one. California alone has more than all of Canada. New York City has three: the Baker Street Irregulars, the Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes and the Priory Scholars of New York City. Many of their names have a bit of Sherlockian humor about them; my favorite one of these is Colorado’s: “Dr. Watson’s Neglected Patients.”
Today there are over 400 active scion societies worldwide, and nearly 200 in the U.S. alone. What is a scion society? According to the late John Bennett Shaw, a distinguished Sherlockian, “It’s two Sherlockians, a copy of the Canon [the 60 stories], and a bottle. In a pinch, you can dispense with one of the Sherlockians.”
There are millions worldwide who play the Game. Basically, it is believed that Holmes and Watson lived, may still live, and that the Sherlock Holmes stories as Arthur Conan Doyle stated in the first Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet – were written by Doctor John H. Watson. Sir Arthur is seen as Watson’s literary agent. In the Game, the stories are real factual cases of Mr. Sherlock Holmes and everything in them is true. This is of course tongue in cheek to most and patterns itself after the infamous humor of the creator of these “sacred writings,” Doyle himself. And as Shakespeare said: “The game is afoot!”
I believe the first modern fandom began in 1893 when “The Adventure of the Final Problem” was published and Arthur Conan Doyle attempted to kill off Sherlock Holmes. The world, Strand Magazine, and Doyle discovered in a big way the Sherlock Holmes fan base. They were galvanized by this event. The public’s reaction to Holmes’ death was unlike anything previously seen for fictional events. It is said that men and women wore mourning black crepe in the streets of London. 20,000 people dropped their Strand subscriptions, and both the Strand and Doyle were flooded with angry fan letters (the magazine almost folded and they referred to Holmes’ death as “the dreadful event”.) Even Doyle’s Mum wanted Holmes back. Americans began what I think could be considered the first Societies: “Let’s Keep Holmes Alive” clubs. And the first Holmes’ pastiche’s began to appear in that year with Under The Clock, a satirical play of some notoriety. William Gillette’s thirty-year theatrical tour as Sherlock Holmes began in 1899. Conan Doyle’s Holmes’ stories returned in 1901, eight years after “The Final Problem” with The Hound of the Baskervilles and the Strand’s subscribers increased by 30,000.
And in 1911 Rev. Ronald Knox of Oxford wrote a series of “Studies” focusing on the Holmes stories. Thus began the Holmesian scholarship that continues throughout the world today. Doyle wrote a reply to Knox’s paper, I think mainly to dissuade any study of this sort. Yet to Sherlockians and Holmesians the fact that he replied verified the importance of it. Doyle was an adventurous gentleman with wide-ranging powers and a broad world view, yet, he seemed to be extremely short-sighted in this one area. It is ironic that these characters and stories, which he drew off in such haste, without much revision are the very ones to bring him the immortality he desired as an author.
That very night, I was introduced to an author, who when I asked about publishers, said: “MX in London is the publisher for you.” And so it proved to be, a year and a half later, my first Sherlock Holmes novel, “Sherlock Holmes: These Scattered Houses,” was published by MX Publishing. This support and joyous outreaching hand to writers is an essential aspect of Sherlockian Societies. After all, a writer created these incredible stories and writers brought Sherlockian Societies into being. Most publish journals filled with fiction and scholarly articles about our most perspicacious gentleman and his heroic Bozwell. For me, this is the best part. Yet many meet just for the singular companionship. Support and acknowledgment for new pastiche, scholarly treatises, theater productions, radio, podcasts, film, and more abound in these societies.
My second Sherlockian event, the Jan. 2018 Sherlock Holmes Birthday weekend in NY hosted by the Baker Street Irregulars, co-hosted by the Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes. The Baker Street Babes hosted a charity ball and the Beacon Society, hosted their annual meeting open to all. For me the week was also full of guerrilla theater opportunities. Every event brimmed with splendid food, good cheer, and toasts.
At the Gaslight Gala, my first time out, I was asked to toast the master, himself, Sherlock Holmes. It was a tremendous honor and I, of course, leaped at the chance to deliver a satirical piece in Holmes’ voice. Because I can never resist a touch of the dramatic, one perk for me is dressing in Victorian style. And since it was 12 degrees, I was gratefully warm in my floor-length men’s overcoat. Just the pockets alone are to die for and one could easily slip their service revolver, handle out into the inner pocket (not that I would.) Just walking down Vanderbilt Avenue or across 45th was street-theater. Walking sticks are an extension of one’s arm, good for pointing, hailing cabs, pushing elevator buttons, waving from a balcony, etc. Jeremy Brett was a master at it. Victorian Men’s clothing is just so much fun. Irene Adler (The Woman) called it her walking clothes.
The enormous BSI luncheon event is open to everybody, (contrasting their annual dinner which is not.) I was late and alone, got lost in the Yale Club and couldn’t find the luncheon. It was supposed to be on the roof, but that event was finished, tables filled with used linen. I freaked, afraid I had missed it and jumped back into the elevator pushing buttons, the next place it took me was the balcony overlooking the event (approx. 200 people.) I had planned on making a Jeremy Brett style entrance with a bit of theater. This was my first appearance or my introduction per se, at a BSI event and I wanted it to be a good one. My costume portrayed one iconic humorous moment in a Sherlock Holmes film. Brett as Holmes enters his and Watson’s holiday cottage in Cornwall after disposing of his cocaine bottle and syringe at the beach, once and for all. He is bundled up in an unusual way, with his scarf wrapped around his homburg. A comical addition in Brett’s own style, I knew they would get it immediately. But here I was on the balcony. Fool that I am, I leaned over the edge, waved my chrome-handled walking stick and called out, “Hello, are there any Baker Street Irregulars here?” No one called back Brett’s line: “This is a matter of some emergency.” But lots of lunch filled smiles and waves came my way, instead. The next minute I joined them in the dining room and wandered around the tables in costume shaking hands, they all said: “The Devil’s Foot!” As I became one of the many quizzes that happen at these events. I then found my new friend’s table and enjoyed my lunch, while a BSI member took the mic and lead the first toast of the afternoon.
For the final event, in Watson’s tweeds and bowler, I joined friends at Sunday’s ASH brunch. I used to be shy in this type of open-ended event, yet, all I had to do was shake hands and a conversation started. I joined the JHWS photo, too. Throughout the week, I had hoped to find an editor for my fledgling Sherlock Holmes book and had so much fun that I forgot to search. After the brunch, I jumped into a cab with others going back to the Roosevelt Hotel, and found myself crammed into the back seat with an editor on my right and a publisher on my left! If you are interested, find a local group or go online, you won’t regret it. And if you are a writer with leanings towards Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, this is Nirvana.
This only scratches the surface of the good these societies do in the world. The Beacon Society sponsors young people’s involvement in Sherlock Holmes. The Baker Street Babes raise funds to support wounded veterans (ala Watson.) Another example: Jeremy Brett heroically portrayed Sherlock Holmes for ten years and studied each story like the Shakespearean actor he was and Holmesian he would become. We know what an incredible job he did as Holmes on screen. But his off-screen work was just as important. He took on the shirts, writers, adapters, and producers at the first production meeting of every film to keep the script as true as possible to Doyle’s words. And if that failed, he asked for one more take so he could do the scene the way it was originally written. It was a fight only a dedicated Holmesian would have taken on. This battle greatly contributed to the substance of this series in ways Holmes fans appreciated. He wasn’t honored by BAFTA, or Oscar, or Buckingham Palace. It was the Sherlockian and Holmesian Societies that acknowledged his dedication, and welcomed him in as one of their own, and knighted him as the definitive Sherlock Holmes.
I happen to be a hopeful person with a great deal of imagination and believe that world peace could come about through Sherlockian and Holmesian Societies. Certainly, they reach every corner of the planet. They all speak the same language yet with many tongues. I think the next time a serious breach of international security looms on anyone’s horizon, that before any military action is taken, the Sherlockians, Holmesians, Doyleians, and Watsonians of those countries ought to be brought to the negotiating table. With enough toasts behind them, peace is a natural consequence.
Knox, Monsignor Ronald A. Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes-1st Paper. Oxford, England, 1911.
“From Holmes to Sherlock” by Mattias Bostrom. Much of the historical information presented here is from this brilliant book.
“A Scintillation of Scions” is an annual symposium of fans of Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Sponsored by Watson’s Tin Box of Ellicott City, MD, USA, the event is held on the second Saturday of June near Baltimore, MD.https://www.scintillation.org/about.html
The Sherlock Holmes Society of London
The Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes
Gretchen Altabef is an MX author of Sherlock Holmes novels. Mondadori Publishing has contracted to translate her novels into Italian. Ms. Altabef strives to emulate Dr. John Watson’s and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s literary style. The first, These Scattered Houses, is in Holmes’ own voice and resourcefully chronicles the last two months of his ‘great hiatus’. The second in the series is, Remarkable Power of Stimulus. After 3 years away, Holmes finds London awash in murders, No. 221B under siege, anarchists threatening Paris, and the return of Irene Adler. Fully aware he is being watched by Moriarty’s men, Holmes steps out of the cab into Baker Street knowing he will find Watson’s friendship and unerring aim are as dependable as the British Rail.