Wednesday, November 7, 2012

24. Family

“He will not even go out of his way to verify his own solutions, and would rather be considered wrong than take the trouble to prove himself right.”
"The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter"

Though it is the topic of some of the most far-flung speculation, we know almost nothing about the life of Sherlock Holmes. One can surmise that Conan Doyle kept details of his detective-hero to a minimum, knowing that the aura of mystery cast on his character would draw readers in, and a tantalizing detail dropped in a story would no doubt increase both interest and demand. By comparison, other characters in the canon seem almost lavished with biographical details. For example, we know where John H. Watson was educated and trained in the medical profession and the exact date he completed his studies. We know where he received military training, where he was deployed, and the regiment he served under. Furthermore, we know the last military operation he served in, when (if not altogether where) he was wounded, the affliction that led to his discharge, and the name of the ship that carried him back to England. By contrast, as shown previously, the reader is never even told definitively where Holmes went to college.

Surprisingly, what is known about the family life of Sherlock Holmes is attributed to the sudden mention and meeting with his elder (by seven years) brother, Mycroft, in “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter” who appears or is mentioned again in three later stories. The detective remarks to Watson, who, understandably, is still a little stunned that Holmes has a brother: “My ancestors were country squires... my grandmother... was the sister of Vernet, the French artist.” While it is difficult to reconcile a landed family descended from Émile Jean-Horace Vernet, a renowned historical portraitist who produced commissions for King Louie-Phillipe and many among the French aristocracy, with the more modest accoutrements of the urbane siblings, it is not outside the realm of possibility that any family holdings were gone long before the gifted brothers stood to inherit them. This is given further credence by the fact that, whether by lack of funds, lack of legacy, or lack of tolerance for his idiosyncratic ways, Mycroft does not belong to any of the traditional social clubs popular at the time but rather has co-founded one of his own, the Diogenes Club, providing exactly the kind of acceptance—and discretion—someone of his intellect craves. Moreover, Mycroft works for a living as what might be described in today’s language as a ‘policy analyst,’ but is articulated with greater significance by Holmes himself when he states (in “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans”) that Mycroft “occasionally…is the British government [...] the most indispensable man in the country”  

As we have contended throughout our discussions of the stories comprising the Memoirs, there emerges a definite pattern in Conan Doyle’s attempt to “humanize” Holmes, either by showcasing where the detective may have erred in his deductions, shown compassion for others, reminisced about his earlier exploits, or, as with “The Greek Interpreter,” discussed and allowed access into his family life. Although appearing only briefly in the canon, Mycroft, like Irene Adler, has become a ubiquitous part of the popular conception of Holmes, including film and television adaptations, but also scholarly pursuits and pastiches. The character of Mycroft’s influence not only by instigates discussions of family history, sibling rivalry and the like, but also appears as a sort of “mirror” for Holmes. As an older sibling, it allows Watson and even Holmes himself to conjecture on what the fate of a gifted man such as Holmes would end up if it were not for his friendship and consultancy keeping him “in the world,” as it were, and out of the hermetic, closed-off confines of the Diogenes Club. Corpulent where Holmes is lean, and abstract where Holmes is practical, the Mycroft of “The Greek Interpreter” is great intelligence run off its social rails, and, as in the intricate con scheme of “The Greek Interpreter,” it is this social remove that almost results in grave consequences. Thus, the contrast of the siblings serves to uphold Sherlock’s unusual hero status while also giving him what every reader, young and old, can claim in common: a family. 

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