“What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable. But what end? There is the great standing perennial problem to which human reason is as far from an answer as ever.”
—“The Adventure of the Cardboard Box”
What follows has less to do with “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box”—that is to say, its plot, pacing, style, or characters—or its relevance to the Sherlock Holmes canon, than to the fact that it exists at all. Suffice it to say that “Cardboard Box” is a well written, tightly paced thriller of a case and serves as a good vehicle for both Holmes’s powers of observation and a bit more abstract, almost philosophical, commentary about the macabre nature of their investigations into the murky waters of human misery than previous stories. Despite all of this, “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box” has the distinction of almost disappearing without a trace, potentially being eliminated from the canon (albeit after its 1892 publication in The Strand) by the author himself. It is the mystery of this curious act of self-censorship that we explore here.
Shortly before the publication of the Memoirs in 1894, Conan Doyle had "The Adventure of the Cardboard Box" struck from the first British edition. While the story was published in the first American edition, it was quickly removed in a revised second printing of the book within the year and the earlier edition destroyed. As a result, the story remained unpublished in America for over twenty years, appearing again in the first edition of His Last Bow in 1917, and continues to be printed in that book to the present day. At some point between 1894 and 1917, the story was replaced in British editions of the Memoirs, thus creating the following quandary: depending on where you are in the world, and what edition of the Memoirs you read, you may or may not encounter “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box.” This begs the question: Why would Conan Doyle do such a thing?
Writing the introduction for the new edition of the Memoirs, Christopher Roden recalls that Conan Doyle gave various reasons for the censorship of “Cardboard Box,” namely that he considered it “inappropriate for young boys” given its subject matter (i.e., adultery), that it was ‘too sensational’ and ‘a weak story’. Roden dismisses the former given that, although younger boys were an emerging demographic for the Sherlock Holmes stories, particularly in America, it certainly wasn’t the sole or implied readership. It also seems odd that the incidents of “Cardboard Box” would be considered by Conan Doyle as inappropriate, when earlier stories in the canon, like “A Scandal in Bohemia,” and "The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor” contain similar plot points, were not censored, nor accused of being obscene or immoral. Concerns about propriety also didn’t seem to impact Conan Doyle’s writing style, since later stories, like "The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton," from 1904, while just as scandalous in their topics, did not suffer a similar fate at their time of publication.
As to Conan Doyle’s estimation of the story’s relative sensationalism and “weakness,” Roden dismisses these based on evidence from the author’s own hand. Pointing to the revised edition published in America, Roden notes that Conan Doyle moves much of the beginning of “Cardboard Box” to the beginning of “The Adventure of the Resident Patient”—ostensibly, something one doesn’t do with writing considered “weak.” As for charges of sensationalism, the plot of “Cardboard Box” seems anything but sensational when compared to earlier stories like “The Man with the Twisted Lip” or “A Case of Identity.” In fact, the interactions between Holmes, Watson and Lestrade seem much more realistic in “Cardboard Box,” with Holmes’s consultation much more indicative of providing specialized training than otherworldly perceptions or theatrical heroics.
A closer look at “Cardboard Box,” casts no small amount of doubt on Conan Doyle’s statements, but the story itself offers up two alternative theories, one which supports Conan Doyle’s own reasons, and one which looks to Conan Doyle’s own life as offering a possible solution to the mystery surrounding his self-censorship. The first theory suggests that Conan Doyle, rather than trying to protect young boys, was more concerned about offending the sensibilities of the American book buying public through an offhand comment in the story about Watson’s admiration for Henry Ward Beecher. Beecher, a reform-minded Calvinist preacher and public intellectual had been at the center of one of the largest American public scandals up to that point, and was put on trial for adultery for having an ongoing affair with a married woman. Although the scandal took place nearly twenty years before “Cardboard Box” was first published, Beecher had died only seven years prior, and Conan Doyle may have been concerned about perceived similarities between Beecher’s predicament and the plot of the story and their potential impact on the book’s American reception. A second, perhaps more plausible and certainly more personal theory is that, in writing “Cardboard Box,” Doyle again drew on his own life—particularly his father, Charles Doyle, and the legacy of violence and alcoholism that hounded him—for inspiration. Fearing the autobiographical elements of the story would become a public scandal of its own following his father’s death in 1893; Conan Doyle took steps to curtail its publication. This last point easily augurs why only the publications after Charles Doyle’s death (i.e., the 1894 editions) were censored, as no attempt was ever made to stop the 1892 Strand publication. Supporting this theory is a 2005 interview with The Scotsman newspaper in which screenwriter and novelist David Pirie mentioned the strong influence of Charles Doyle on his son’s life and work:
In many ways, his childhood years spent in Edinburgh had a profound effect on the creation of Sherlock Holmes...[his father] Charles was an excellent painter but his working life was cut short when he started drinking. At that time in Edinburgh, having a violent alcoholic in the family would have brought shame upon you. Doyle was sent to boarding school in Stonyhurst [a Jesuit school in Lancashire] from the age of nine - possibly to protect him from the drunken rages of his father at home - but he was fully aware when his father was put in a nursing facility, and later a mental asylum, to be treated. And of course, it was hushed up back at home so that the family did not suffer any more shame. It must have had a huge effect on Doyle and it certainly caused him a lot of pain as he felt that they were locking his father away from the world.
Whatever Arthur Conan Doyle’s intent, Roden, Pirie and other critics continue to see a strange case of fiction offering up a curious mirror to the author’s past. Thus, whether it was an attempt to curry favor with the more high minded moral authorities of the day, not offend members of his American audience, or to do away with a work that conjured up too many painful memories, “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box”—and Conan Doyle’s strange act of self-censorship, remains a mystery that continues to puzzle readers on both sides of the Atlantic to this day.