Wednesday, April 3, 2013

43. Punishment


“It is an error to argue in front of your data. You find yourself insensibly twisting them round to fit your theories.”
“The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge”

“The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge,” the first new Holmes tale to emerge from the briefer “hiatus” period of 1904 to 1908, would have to wait until 1917, three years after The Valley of Fear, to see publication in book form. The story has the distinction of advancing the canon into somewhat new stylistic territory while also being something of a return to form, plot-wise. Indeed, the story bears no small resemblance, structurally, to the very first Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet. One of the longer tales in the canon, “Wisteria Lodge,” like Scarlet, is divided into two nominal parts. “Wisteria Lodge,” as with Scarlet, uses these divisions to examine pieces of a larger mystery, but, unlike the novel, these puzzle pieces do not represent a chronological lapse, but rather a geographical shift from the familiar environs of the sitting room at 221B Baker Street, London to the titular estate, located in the Surrey countryside.

In addition to having a similar form, the thematic conceits of the story are no doubt familiar to any reader of A Study in Scarlet, or of the canon in general. Indeed, the theme, as we have written, is revenge, and Writing in the journal English Literature in Transition 1880-1920, Mary Frances Williams comments:

“Wisteria Lodge”… seems to be a straightforward mystery tale and the reader only gradually becomes aware (although forewarned at the very beginning by Sherlock Holmes’s remark that the story is “‘grotesque’”) that what seems to be an English manor house mystery is instead something much more sinister and violent. Conan Doyle draws upon the conventions of Jacobean and Renaissance revenge tragedy, and he signals this both by commenting that his tale has “‘some underlying suggestion of the tragic and the terrible’” and by revealing that the country house at which the villain resides is “Jacobean”—indications of the direction that his story will take. A number of references to revenge and vengeance provide additional clues.

Where this setting no doubt places the action of “Wisteria Lodge” on well-worn ground, another page taken from Scarlet sets out to expand the scope of the story to a more global scale, drawing again from Conan Doyle’s own experiences, and sociopolitical commentary, as well as upping the proverbial ante in terms of its exoticism and adventure, something not out of place with the direction that Conan Doyle would head with his Professor Challenger novels of 1912 and 1913.

As Williams noted, for Conan Doyle, an “important parallel is the political theme because of the inability to obtain justice from the legitimate authorities. In many revenge tragedies the politically powerful, e.g., kings, lords, generals, or cardinals, often behave unjustly and arouse a desire for revenge.” Just as with Scarlet, the revenge plot of “Wisteria Lodge” rests with the ability of those in power to punish those who question their authority, and the reprisals exacted by those who escape their grip. There can be no doubt that, returning Holmes to scenes of revenge and just (and unjust) punishments, Conan Doyle sought to again revitalize his character (and his interest in him, as it were) while giving his audience something of the familiar, as well. 

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