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Sherlock Holmes the Victorian gentleman

Sherlock Holmes, the Victorian gentleman

Author: Revati

This article tries to collect all the attributions proving that the famous detective was a real gentleman. Sadly some modern adaptations (for example the movies starring Robert Downey, Jr.) show a false image of the tenant of Baker Street, what became the breeding ground of several misbeliefs (Link: The most common misbeliefs about Sherlock Holmes). The BBC series and House, M.D. also contributed to the negative portrayal. The sleuth was a model for the main character of the latter, but Gregory House was placed in a totally different environment and his life was a far cry from Sherlock’s (Link: House, M. D. And Sherlock Holmes). Fortunately there are lots of adaptations where the detective is a good-hearted, kind man (the Granada series, Elementary or Murder by Decree with the great Christopher Plummer jumps into our minds).

The period between 1837 and 1901 is called the Victorian era in British history, after Queen Victoria who reigned during those years. According to the estimation of Sherlockians, Holmes was born in 1854 – so he is a man of the aforementioned era.

1. Financial and social status

In the Victorian era the term gentleman was used for men who owned some land and lived a convenient life from their incomes. These lands were so prosperous that gentlemen did not need to do any kind of work at all, and they neither had to have a profession. The famous sleuth tells Watson in The Greek Interpreter that Vernet, the renowned painter was the brother of his grandmother, and his ancestors were country squires. He owns no land and he is just a lodger in Baker Street - and meets his later chronicler to persuade him to move in for sharing the rent, as we can read in A Study in Scarlet. At that time he only begun his spectacular career, but as he becomes more and more famous and has lots of cases, he has a significant amount of income that allows him to lead a comfortable life. Maybe he wouldn’t be able to do nothing, as a ’true’ gentleman – remember what he said: ’My mind rebels at stagnation.’

2. Appearance, dressing

A Victorian gentleman is always immaculate in his appearance. His clothes are clean and made of quality materials and fit him perfectly. Most of his clothes are dark. Wearing a coat, a waistcoat and a hat is a basic requirement. Etiquette ordered to wear different types of hats for different occasions. They wore several accessories as well, for example ties, pocket watches, walking sticks and gloves.

We can say that Sherlock’s dressing befits a Victorian gentleman. He’s always clean and elegant, the only exceptions are the occasions when he wears some disguise in favor of his investigation. Even when he welcomes clients at his home, his appearance is perfect. He changes his coat to his dressing-gown when he doesn’t expect any guests. We learn from the stories that he wears his deerstalker in the country, his bowler-hat in the city, and a top hat for the theatre or for the opera.

His hairdo also follows the fashion and customs of his time. Yet his face is clean-shaven, in contrast with the so-called Regency-style that was popular among men during the Victorian era. That meant the growing of moustache and/or beard, which had to be of course perfectly groomed. Maybe the detective chose to be clean-shaven because it was more convenient for him – or it was easier to have a moustache or beard just temporarily, for a disguise.

3. Pastimes, leisure activities

Gentlemen went regularly to the theatre and to the opera, and they also did some sports. Naturally each leisure activity had its own proper and required clothing. According to the Canon Holmes is a huge fan of music, let it be opera or some concert. He often chooses to hear some music to relax his mind.

Most gentlemen knew how to ride a horse, and many of them had one or more horses – hunting was a popular sport. Sherlock Holmes is a good horseman, and he can also drive a carriage. He likes horses and dogs. Jeremy Brett, who played the detective in the Granada series, was fond of horses and was a great rider. Crew members recalled that the actor often went to the stables during shootings and always took some treats for the horses. He also loved dogs, and always enjoyed having them onscreen (Link: Dogs in the Granada Sherlock Holmes series).

4. Education, literacy

Upper-class children received good education, they learned in private schools. In these institutions parents had to pay huge sums, so lower-class people couldn’t afford them. The aim of the private schools was to train children how to be perfect gentlemen. Sports, religion and leadership were at the centre of education, and the school also taught the pupils to have confidence. In essence, school prepared young boys to take their place in the elite society.

Holmes is a very literate man who has extensive knowledge of many subjects. He reads a lot and is an expert of several branches of science. But he earned this knowledge to be outstanding in his chosen profession – he is a consulting detective, and the things he had learnt help him solving cases. We can say that in his own way he is much more skilled and cultured than an ordinary gentleman. As Watson describes him in A Study in Scarlet:

’(…) yet his zeal for certain studies was remarkable, and within eccentric limits his knowledge was so extraordinarily ample and minute that his observations have fairly astounded me. Surely no man would work so hard or attain such precise information unless he had some definite end in view. (…) His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing.’

Though he only cares about the things that have a practical beneficial effect on his job. Talking about the Solar System, he remarks:

’(…) you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.’

Sherlock Holmes the Victorian gentleman

5. Behaviour

Each era has its own rules for behaviour. A Victorian gentleman is reserved, polite, respectful and he can restrain his temper. In The Final Problem Holmes asks Moriarty to allow him to leave a message for Watson. Just before their last encounter, when it is clear to him that maybe he’ll die, his text starts:

’My dear Watson, I write these few lines through the courtesy of Mr. Moriarty, who awaits my convenience for the final discussion of those questions which lie between us.’

As the good doctor says:

’It was characteristic of the man that the direction was as precise, and the writing as firm and clear, as though it had been written in his study.’

He even describes where Watson finds the evidences that are needed to convict the Professor’s gang.

A gentleman’s manner of speaking is well-chosen, and his demeanor is impeccable. He respects others. He is able to appraise and appreciate someone else’s merits. A good example for that can be found in Wisteria Lodge. In this adventure Holmes works with Inspector Baynes. When the latter delivers a very detailed analysis of a piece of paper, the detective states:

’I must compliment you, Mr. Baynes, upon your attention to detail in your examination of it.’

He isn’t sparing of praise either some time later:

’Your powers, if I may say so without offence, seem superior to your opportunities.’

When the case is finally solved, he remarks:

’You will rise high in your profession. You have instinct and intuition.’

A gentleman strives for not to cause any inconvenience. He’s ready for forgiveness – it is a characteristic of compassionate people (Link: The compassionate detective). Maybe it sounds surprising, but a true gentleman is neither selfish nor conceited. He is fully aware of his own merits and he expects others to behave according to these. He respects women and his attitude towards them is always beyond reproach. (Link: Sherlock Holmes and women)

The detective speaks politely and respectfully with all of his clients. For him the person is important, not the class he/she belongs to. At the same time he expects to be respected without being vain or self-satisfied. In most cases he is insisted not to be mentioned – he lets the authorized inspectors to have the credits. This happens in The Devil’s Foot as well:

’To his sombre and cynical spirit all popular applause was always abhorrent, and nothing amused him more at the end of a successful case than to hand over the actual exposure to some orthodox officer, and to listen with a mocking smile to the general chorus of misplaced congratulation.’

An important feature of his is discretion – it is characteristic of Victorian gentlemen too. For Sherlock, being discreet is no question – it accompanies his profession. His clients sometimes have to tell him embarrassing things or even secrets, and he also solves cases that would have had serious diplomatic consequences. His clients can trust him – Holmes keeps their secrets and he’s a man of his word.

The sleuth tries to remain a gentleman even in awkward situations. In The Solitary Cyclist, he ends up in a fistfight, but his behaviour is just perfect, even when his opponent is unfair. He explains it later to Watson:

’He ended a string of abuse by a vicious backhander, which I failed to entirely avoid. (…) It was a straght left against a slogging ruffian.’

6. Harmful habits

Sherlock’s most harmful habit is smoking. In the Victorian era people did not realize how damaging it was. Smoking a pipe, a cigar or a cigarette was typical in almost all classes. Holmes often smokes a pipe while he’s contemplating on a case. He’s got several different types of pipe, and he uses them according to his mood (Link: Jeremy Brett’s churchwarden pipe). The pipe became a ’compulsory’ accessory of portraying the detective, just like the magnifying glass and the deerstalker.

Several kinds of drugs were used in the Victorian era. Their harmful effects were not known or/and were underestimated. People turned to drugs even when they caught a cold, had a cough or an aching tooth. Opium, cannabis and coca were widely used. And when the hypodermic needle was invented in 1840, morphine and heroine were added to the list.

It is one of the most pertinent and most widespread misbelief that the sleuth is a drug addict. We denied it lots of times, and only those think that it’s true who have a superficial knowledge of the Canon. Conan Doyle wrote several times that Holmes uses drugs only when he has no new case from a longer period of time and he can’t occupy his mind (Link: Common misbeliefs about Sherlock Holmes.)

7. Further ’decisive’ factors

We can rightfully say that Sherlock Holmes is a gentleman. It is even more true to his brother, Mycroft. The older Holmes was among the founders of the Diogenes Club, which was exclusively created for really eccentric gentlemen – the Club does not allow anybody to enter. Sherlock can go there to visit his brother whenever he wants – this means Mycroft is fully aware of the fact that the detective behaves accurately.

You can read about another club of Mycroft Holmes here: Link: Intellectual Parasites of Diogenes Club

There are two real gentlemen living at Baker Street. One is the sleuth, and the other is his faithful friend, dr. Watson. The kind-hearted doctor knows that his flatmate is a good man, and that they can count on each other.

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Sherlock Holmes in the Victorian era

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Recommended site:

Sherlock Holmes

Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels and short stories

Jeremy Brett and the Granada series

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