Selasa, 20 Januari 2009

Tenancy Culture Studies: Sherlock Holmes

Welcome to the Brown Couch’s Institute of Tenancy Culture Studies, dedicated to research into representations of tenants, landlords, rental housing and tenancy in art, history and popular culture.

Our course of study begins with the perhaps most recognisable character in English literature, Sherlock Holmes. The great detective is also a tenant – or, more precisely, a boarder. His famous address, 221B Baker Street, London, is a rented flat.

(Sherlock Holmes, by Sidney Paget for The Strand Magazine)

What do we know of Sherlock Holmes, the tenant?

Mrs Hudson, the landlady of Sherlock Holmes, was a long-suffering woman. Not only was her first-floor flat invaded at all hours by throngs of singular and often undesirable characters but her remarkable lodger showed an eccentricity and irregularity in his life which must have sorely tried her patience. His incredible untidiness, his addiction to music at strange hours, his occasional revolver practice within doors, his weird and often malodorous scientific experiments, and the atmosphere of violence and danger which hung around him made him the very worst tenant in London. (The Dying Detective)

The description of Holmes as the very worst tenant in London comes from Dr John H Watson, who would know: in addition to being his chronicler and occasional assistant, Watson was, for most of Holmes’s career, also his flatmate at 221B Baker Street. As well as being an atrocious tenant, Holmes is not much of a flattie either. Here’s Watson again:

He was… in his personal habits one of the most untidy men that ever drove a fellow-lodger to distraction. Not that I am in the least conventional in that respect myself. The rough-and-tumble work in Afghanistan, coming on top of a natural Bohemianism of disposition, has made me rather more lax than befits a medical man. But with me there is a limit, and when I find a man who keeps his cigars in a coal-scuttle, his tobacco in the toe end of a Persian slipper, and his unanswered correspondence transfixed by a jackknife into the very centre of his wooden mantelpiece, then I begin to give myself virtuous airs. I have always held, too, that pistol practice should be distinctly an open-air pastime; and when Holmes, in one of his queer humours, would sit in an airchair with his hair-trigger and a hundred Boxer cartridges, and proceed to adorn the opposite wall with a patriotic V.R. done in bullet pocks, I felt strongly that neither the atmosphere nor the appearance of our room was improved by it. (The Musgrave Ritual)

Poor chap. He’s not done yet, either:

Our chambers were always full of chemicals and of criminal relics which had a way of wandering into unlikely positions, and of turning up in the butter-dish or in even less desirable places. But his papers were my great crux. He had a horror of destroying documents…. Thus month after month his papers accumulated, until every corner of the room was stacked with bundles of manuscript which were on no account to be burned, and which could not be put away save by their owner. (The Musgrave Ritual)

Further evidence of Holmes’s bad behaviour can be found throughout Watson’s record of their adventures, from which Holmes emerges as a truly appalling flatmate. Readers of the Brown Couch might recognise the type. Holmes smokes to poisonous excess. (‘“Caught cold, Watson?” said he. “No, it’s this poisonous atmosphere.” “It is pretty thick, now that you mention it.” “Thick! It is intolerable.”’ – The Hound of the Baskervilles.) He is also, infamously, a drug addict, and he attempts to induce the good doctor into the habit too. (‘“Which is it today,” I asked, “morphine or cocaine?” “It is cocaine,” he said, “a seven-per-cent solution. Would you care to try it?”’ – The Sign of the Four.) When Holmes is unemployed, ‘he would lie about with his violin and books, hardly moving from the sofa to the table’ (The Musgrave Ritual); when employed, Holmes commands the rooms at 221B so selfishly as to take over the place (when he takes on the case of The Hound of the Baskervilles, Holmes decides he needs some room to think, so poor Watson is ordered out and has to spend the day at the club). He’s at his worst in The Dying Detective, in which Holmes goes so far as to fake a debilitating terminal illness in order to deceive Watson into running an errand for him.

(Holmes feigns ignorance as to whom ate the last of Watson's wine gums)

Holmes may be a bad flatmate and a bad tenant, but it is significant that he is a tenant.

First, tenancy is the means by which we get to know Holmes and hear of his adventures. In making Holmes a tenant in a sharehouse, his creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, set up the basic narrative device used throughout all four novels and almost all of the 56 short stories about Sherlock Holmes: each is a study written and published by Watson who, as Holmes’s flatmate, is uniquely placed to report on the man and his methods. The first Holmes story, the novel A Study in Scarlet, begins with the establishment of this relationship. In its first pages (before it spins disconcertingly off into a tale of love and intrigue among the Mormons), it is a sharehousing story. Young Dr Watson is discharged from the army and left adrift in the private hotel rooms of late nineteenth century London; Holmes, busy establishing himself as a ‘consulting detective’, has found suitable rooms but cannot afford the rent; a mutual friend introduces them and together they take the rooms at 221B Baker Street. The reader is introduced to Holmes and his characteristic methods and eccentricities as Watson susses out his new flattie.

(It must be said, at this early point it looks like it is Holmes who is the unlucky one, and Watson the nightmare flatmate. Watson is, it must be said, decidedly creepy. Readers of the Brown Couch might recognise this type, too. The early Watson is, in his own words, ‘a lonely man’, leading ‘a comfortless, meaningless existence’. ‘My health forbade me from venturing out unless the weather was exceptionally genial, and I had no friends who would call upon me and break the monotony of my daily existence.’ He commences on an obsessive observation of Holmes (‘the reader may set me down as a hopeless busy-body, when I confess how much this man stimulated my curiosity’), to the extent that he compiles lists of the topics in which Holmes is interested. ‘I enumerated in my own mind all the various points upon which he had shown me he was exceptionally well informed. I even took a pencil and jotted them down. I could not help smiling at the document when I had completed it.’ This raises the question: is Holmes’s own awful behaviour retaliation against Watson’s? Further, are the numerous instances in which Holmes’s investigations lead Watson into real danger actually attempts by one flatmate to dispatch his other? Is the whole Holmesian canon actually the epic of a deadlocked sharehousing death-spiral?)

Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, Holmes’s tenancy is relevant to Holmes’s method, which is the centerpiece of the Holmes stories and the principal cause of the enduring fame of the character. Holmes’s method is to construct astonishing artifices of reasoning on the most tenuous of foundations: a mote of tobacco ash (A Study in Scarlet; The Hound of the Baskervilles); a smudge of chalk on a fingertip (from which he deduces Watson’s investment decisions – The Dancing Men); a fragment of handwriting (from which he discerns not only that the fragment has two authors, but that the authors are father and son – The Reigate Squires); the imprint of a bicycle tyre (‘“I am familiar with forty-two different impressions left by tyres. This, as you perceive, is a Dunlop”’ – The Priory School). Upon such an insubstantial thing as an old hat Holmes constructs – accurately - the case for its owner being intelligent but dissipated, recently wealthy but now poor, unfit and sedentary, unloved by his wife, and that he has not had the gas put on (The Blue Carbuncle). The manner in which he performs these feats of deduction and inference is one of ‘detachment’: above all of Holmes’s other characteristics, it is his ‘power of mental detachment’ (The Devil’s Foot) that Watson most impresses upon the reader. Both the method and the manner in which Holmes practices it are represented perfectly in his tenure: as a boarder, Holmes has made his home on the basis of a contractual right of occupation, without foundation in the law of real property; he depends instead on that most insubstantial legal figment, a mere license; and he is free from the old feudal doctrines that implicate the holder of an estate in fee simple.

In Sherlock Holmes Conan Doyle established what would become a number of tropes of the detective genre: for example, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot has, like Holmes, a strong, eccentric personality, a brilliant mind and a cerebral method, a less intelligent sidekick/chronicler (Captain Hastings), and is a tenant. The last of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories (The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place) was published in 1927, forty years after A Study in Scarlet, and seven years after Poirot’s first appearance in The Mysterious Affair at Styles – a passing of the torch or, perhaps, the housekeys, from the first to the next of the great tenant-detectives.