Sherlock Holmes: the original fandom

The BBC's Sherlock has a legion of fans - but Sherlock Holmes has always been a cultural phenomenon...

After almost two years of waiting (which is almost as long as John Watson had to wait for the return of his supposedly dead best friend), the BBC chose to announce the series three premiere date for Sherlock… by driving a hearse around London during rush hour. Eschewing the traditional channels of interviews, Twitter, and the media, they chose to rely solely on the fans’ dedication to the show to find said car and spread the news.

It worked.

In fact, now that the third season of Sherlock has just passed, that’s probably old news, but it’s nevertheless telling of the hype that surrounds Sherlock. Fans turned up for the (albeit pre-announced) event, and the news went viral. For that kind of publicity, a show’s got to be popular.

And Sherlock is popular. It’s easy to write that off to a combination of excellent acting, excellent writing, and Steven Moffat’s large Doctor Who fan base. But, more than that, it’s the perennial popularity of Sherlock Holmes that’s responsible for the hype.

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Sherlock Holmes is – and has always been – nothing less than a phenomenon. The kind of hype surrounding Sherlock today very much resembles the hysteria around the time the stories were originally published; in fact, Sherlock Holmes is arguably responsible for much of fandom as we know it today. Long before the possibilities of today’s mediated world, he was one of the first characters to massively, irrevocably, step off the page and into the world, and refuse to get back on the page. To look back on the history of Sherlockianity (my word) is to look back on the emergence of a phenomenon and the formation of much of fandom as we know it today – and some of fandom as, perhaps, we haven’t conceived of it. It’s a fascinating history about what it means to love a story, to let it have power, and to be a fan (or a geek).

The hype over Sherlock Holmes began with the very publication of the stories themselves. Though Holmes first appeared in two novels that were not more than averagely popular, Doyle soon began writing about Holmes in short stories, and that’s where it all began. The stories were standalones, yet all included the same character – and people were hooked. Doyle began to receive massive amounts of fan mail – addressed to Mr. Sherlock Holmes, asking him to find their stolen purse or their lost dog. They asked for copies of the stories to be signed by “Sherlock Holmes.” Women wrote to Holmes asking to be their housekeeper. Letters were written to 221b Baker Street (which was a problem, since Baker Street numbers didn’t go up that high at the time).

And, while most people likely understood that Holmes was fictional and wrote such things tongue in cheek, some quite literally believed Holmes was real. There’s a lot of explanations particular to the time period that could answer for that: the spread of print media, the rise of celebrity culture, and the realistic style of the stories provided the fuel that allowed people to believe Holmes was real, or to wilfully suspend their disbelief.

So real was Holmes, in fact, that his “death” was perceived as that of a real person. When Doyle had the extremely unfortunate idea to push Sherlock Holmes off the edge of Reichenbach Falls and be rid of him for good, he was little prepared for the reaction that followed. British society dressed in mourning. Black armbands were worn to commemorate the great detective’s passing. People cancelled their subscriptions to The Strand (the newspaper that then published the Holmes stories), but not before sending piles of angry letters. Even more piles of pleas and petitions arrived on Doyle’s doorstep. Obituaries appeared in newspapers. Accusations of murder flew through the air.

Though Doyle had little fondness for his greatest literary creation, the public disagreed adamantly. Eventually, Doyle brought Holmes back from the dead, though whether he did this in response to fan enthusiasm or simply because he wanted the money is up for debate. It did take him ten years to do so, though, which makes the Sherlock hiatus look not quite as bad.

But, though Doyle did eventually resuscitate Holmes and seemingly come to terms with his popularity, the detective was never his favorite literary creation. Doyle had inadvertently created a world people wanted to inhabit, and he was a lot less interested in living there than his readers.

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So, what Doyle wouldn’t do, other writers did. The flood of sequels, pastiches, and imitations began even while Doyle was alive. We’d probably call it fan fiction today, though that word hadn’t been invented at the time either. Of course, authors borrowing characters from each other has happened since long before Virgil, but the influx of material surrounding one particular, very specific, character in an age when copyright and intellectual property laws were beginning to come into meaningful existence was quite remarkable. Besides, it didn’t seem like Doyle minded: when he found himself in need of money, he penned a play on Holmes. When asked whether said play could be changed – and if Holmes could be married off – Doyle famously replied “You may marry him, or murder or do what you like with him.” Of course, fans didn’t exactly need his permission, but Doyle’s apathy did little to discourage the flood of materials.

Soon, however, more stories were simply not enough. The boundaries of reality and fiction had already been crossed, and they needed to be crossed even more. 

Thus were born the Baker Street Irregulars and what we know today as the Great Game. Deriving its name from Holmes’ famous exclamation, “the game is on!”, whenever he encountered an exciting case, it is an endeavor that began somewhere around 1928, when the venerable scholar Ronald Knox published an article demonstrating that the serious academic attention given to the Bible could be equally well applied to the Sherlock Holmes stories. Though his elaborate scholarship and overwhelming attention to detail was intended as a parody of academic study, “Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes” took on a life of its own. People took it seriously, and it soon became the founding text of Sherlockian scholarship, and of the Game.

The Game treats Holmes and Watson as real people, the events of the stories as true, and Doyle as Watson’s literary executor (please don’t inform the Sherlockians that I suggested otherwise. I might end up having an unfortunate encounter with the Giant Rat of Sumatra). Since the stories were true, any anomalies or omissions in them can be explained away by Watson’s forgetfulness or intentional obfuscation, and the purpose of the Game is to apply Holmes’ own detective methods to resolve these mysteries. It is a Game of detection and of scholarship, applied to the Canon or the Sacred Writings (as the Holmes stories are called, true to the Game’s roots in Biblical scholarship). Most importantly, this Game must be played “as solemnly as a county cricket match at Lord’s; the slightest touch of extravagance or burlesque ruins the atmosphere” (Dorothy L. Sayers).

However, the Game is best played communally, and a handful of years after Knox’s article, the first – and, today, still the most prestigious Sherlock Holmes society was founded: the Baker Street Irregulars. Named after the homeless urchins who served as Holmes’ own spy and intelligence network, this exclusive, by-invitation-only society is one of the highest honors in the Sherlockian world. The society’s members have included such notable figures as Isaac Asimov, F.D. Roosevelt, and Neil Gaiman. Yes, they, too, believed Holmes was real.

This legacy lives on today: the Irregulars still induct new members and publish the Baker Street Journal, the foremost publication of Sherlockian scholarship, which dedicates itself to playing the Game most seriously (yours truly recently had the honour of an article published in the latest issue). They still gather every year in New York for the Baker Street Irregulars Weekend, centered around January 6th (according to scholarship of the Canon, that is the date of Holmes’ birthday) to hold their mysterious, by-invitation-only dinner, where, presumably, they toast the Master and engage in revelry (I cannot vouch for the details, as they’re bigger secrets than some of the cases Watson refused to write up).

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Back on the other side of the Atlantic, Sherlock Holmes’ legacy naturally also lives strong. In London, his presence continues to be felt, from the Sherlock Holmes pub with its replica of the sitting room of 221b, to the Baker Street Tube station. Most impressive, perhaps, is 221b Baker Street itself. When Doyle was writing, Baker Street did not go up to the number 221- that was likely why Doyle chose it in the first place. This, of course, was a travesty – clearly, Doyle lied or Watson obfuscated details, but the rooms in Baker Street did exist, and Sherlockians set out to find them, coming up with numerous theories for which house was really the one Holmes lived in.

Heedless of their efforts, the city of London renumbered Baker Street, and 221 had the honor of going to the Abbey National Building Society, which promptly began to receive so much mail addressed to Sherlock Holmes that they had to hire a secretary to deal with it. When the Sherlock Holmes museum opened up in 1990, it was forced to occupy number 239 on the street – which led to a lengthy dispute with the Building Society and the Royal Mail about who really got to receive mail addressed to Sherlock Holmes.

It’s a testament to the significance of Sherlock Holmes that when the Building Society was closed down, the Museum was able to successfully appeal to the City of Westminster – and today, the Sherlock Holmes Museum is indeed located at 221 Baker Street, between 237 and 239 Baker Street, because Sherlock Holmes is totally worth the incongruous numbering of a London street. Plus, the Royal Mail has finally recognized their right to receive mail addressed to Sherlock Holmes, which just goes to show where perseverance will get you. The museum still operates today, showing visitors an exact replica of Holmes and Watson’s home, down to the tobacco hidden in a Persian slipper and bullet marks in the wall spelling out “Victoria Regina.”

But that kind of enthusiasm was not simply limited to Holmes’ homeland; Sherlockians took their mania abroad, in the form of literary travel. Of course, it’s not exactly a new idea to travel seeking out the dwelling-places and inspirations of famous authors, but Sherlockians brought a whole new meaning to the word in 1968. That’s when the Sherlock Holmes Society of London undertook a famous pilgrimage to Reichenbach Falls (that fateful cliff where Holmes “died”). They assigned roles from the Canon to members of the expedition, dressed in Victorian garb, chartered an airplane, stopped by the University of Lausanne to address the students as Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty, and then climbed the famous cliffs to stage Holmes and Moriarty’s struggle. The trip drew the attention of newspapers the world over.

Today, the popularity of Sherlock Holmes is, well, a cultural given. Adaptations pop up left and right, and everyone knows who that silhouette with the pipe is. “Elementary, my dear Watson,” is a catchphrase that needs no citation (never mind that it was never actually uttered by Holmes). Yet despite those things, it’s sometimes unclear just how much of a phenomenon Sherlock Holmes really is, how unique the manifestations of his popularity are, how wide-ranging the various forms of fan activity are, and how far they go beyond the conventional limits of a marketed, commercial world. Adaptations of the stories have seen a particularly great upsurge in recent years, and today’s mass media makes it easy to spread the word – but let’s not forget all the various fantastic and unusual ways in which enthusiasm for the stories manifested itself, long before marketing and conceptions of mass media even arose.

With that in mind, it’s more than fitting to finish up by quoting from a famous poem by Vincent Starrett, one recited at the close of every single Sherlockian society meeting. Entitled 221b, the poem nostalgically reminisces that

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“Here dwell together still two men of noteWho never lived and so can never die.”

Attempts on Holmes’ life have been many – from the dastardly Moriarty to the unappreciative Holmes, with many criminals and naysayers in between. And yet, for all we know, Sherlock Holmes still lives on in the Sussex Downs, keeping bees. It is likely he will live on for centuries yet – perhaps forever.

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