The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes | Study Guide

Arthur Conan Doyle

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The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes | Context


The Victorian Era

Like his most famous literary creation Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle was a product of the Victorian era. Named for Queen Victoria, the British monarch who reigned from 1837 to 1901, the age coincided with a consolidation of British power and unprecedented advances in science, medicine, and the arts.

There were dramatic social changes as well. The growth of industry and train travel accelerated economic development, and cities—particularly London—became the center of British economic and cultural life. This new, globalized, increasingly urban order brought with it no small number of problems, and thinkers such as Herbert Spencer, John Stuart Mill, and Karl Marx, among others, devoted their time to writing books and essays advocating solutions, albeit drastically different ones.

Doyle was successful in developing many characters from different walks of Victorian British life. Some are more one-dimensional than others—in particular, people from the lower class and people of foreign origin—but many are remarkably lifelike.

The Rise of Empiricism

In 1859, the year Doyle was born, Charles Darwin published his landmark work on evolution, On the Origin of Species. The book laid the foundation for evolutionary biology and helped usher in a new era of scientific belief. It rejected supernatural or divine explanations, relying instead on observable evidence. This trend had a profound effect on public philosophy and medicine. For one, evolution challenged religious literalism, and it caused a crisis of faith among many Victorian writers, thinkers, and ordinary people. Darwin's deductive methodology paved the way for the advances in science, medicine, and public health in the coming years as well.

Holmes is the embodiment of the new Darwinian man. He has an obsessive reliance on "data" and has an exceptionally well-honed talent for observation. He is neither religious nor superstitious, and his default mode is skepticism—especially when confronted with suspects who seem obviously guilty in the eyes of Dr. John Watson and others.

The Rise of the City

London had been the largest city in the world since 1815, but between 1861 and 1920 its population exploded from three million people to more than seven million. By the early 20th century the city "formed an urban machine for living that was unprecedented in human history." This "urban machine" is the setting for most of the stories in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. In its pages the reader meets beggars, bankers, opium-den frequenters, lawyers, common thieves, gas fitters, engineers, ne'er-do-wells, administrative assistants, and many other modern creatures still present today.

While the city brought many ills—works such as Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, for example, illustrate them clearly—Victorian Britain also created a substantial middle class. In fact scholars have argued the Sherlock Holmes series reflects middle-class anxieties about social status and crime in the city. In a review of the book Holmes & Social Order, one critic writes that shifts in attitudes toward crime and other aspects of urban living "were due in the most part to the rise of the middle class and its desire to maintain public order, exalt the worth of work over inheritance, and claim social prestige for its accomplishments." With his sophisticated mind, solid upbringing, and Baker Street home, Sherlock Holmes is undoubtedly a member of the middle class, if not the urban elite.

This new middle class sharply increased the demand for newspapers and magazines. This is evident in Sherlock Holmes stories, as Holmes is constantly reading "the papers," and the detective keeps clippings of old crime sections in his archives. In real life this huge new market helped propel Doyle's success, as The Strand Magazine was the vehicle delivering the Holmes stories to a large audience.

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