Apr 212014

Lucy Munro

I’ve been re-reading Sherlock Holmes. Not in the doorstopper collection with almost see-through paper that I bought when I was about thirteen and lugged to school and back for a blissful fortnight, immersed in its foggy miasma and gleefully drinking in the details of Holmes’ not-so-secret drug habit. No, this time I’m encountering Holmes in a £1.99 Wordsworth paperback comprising The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, and the two preceding novellas, A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four – everything up to Holmes’ demise at the Reichenbach Falls, a death from which he was never intended to return. The virtue of this volume is probably a by-product of its cheapness: rather than paying someone to re-set the texts, they’ve simply produced reduced-size facsimiles of the originals, as printed in Beeton’s Christmas Annual, Lippincott’s Monthly and Strand magazine. The text appears in two columns, in minuscule print and, in the case of the Adventures, it’s accompanied by the gloomy chiaroscuro of Sidney Paget’s illustrations.

I keep saying “Holmes” – “re-reading Holmes”, “encountering Holmes” – and I realise that I’ve not even mentioned Arthur Conan Doyle. I’m not the only one to fall into this habit. After all, Holmes is one of the very few fictional characters to receive post in the “real” world, even though his address (221B Baker Street) used to be as fictional as him. Doyle’s presentation of London demonstrates a similar clash between fact and fiction. If A Study in Scarlet gives the impression that the only part of London Doyle knew well was the Strand itself, that impression is quickly corrected. In a memorable passage in The Sign of Four, Holmes and Watson, having met their client outside the Lyceum Theatre, rattle through a foggy south London in pursuit of a mysterious legacy. Watson is (as usual) soon lost and confused, but Holmes imperturbably keeps track of their progress in an almost lyrical recitation: “Rochester Row,” said he. “Now Vincent Square. Now we come out on the Vauxhall Bridge Road… Wandsworth Road… Priory Road. Larkhall Lane. Stockwell Place. Robert Street. Coldharbour Lane.” Contrasting with this accidental poetry, Watson’s own description is equally evocative in its rather different way: Long lines of dull brick houses were only relieved by the coarse glare and tawdry brilliancy of public houses at the corners. Then came rows of two-storied villas, each with a frontage of miniature gardens, and then again interminable lines of new, staring brick building – the monster tentacles which the giant city was throwing out into the country. These different descriptions of London convey something of the difference between the two characters. While Holmes dispassionately logs the passing streets, Watson is emotive and moralistic, his essential conservativism contrasting with Holmes’ iconoclasm.

The Sign of Four is one of a surprising number of stories that locate part or all of their action in the south London suburbs of Camberwell, Brixton, Streatham, Beckenham, Norwood, Kennington, Norbury, Sydenham and, more rarely, Lewisham and Blackheath. In The Sign of Four itself, one of the eccentric Sholto twins lives near Coldharbour Lane, the other in Pondicherry Lodge, a detached villa standing in its own grounds in Upper Norwood. This story is also one of the most detailed in its evocation of the late nineteenth-century streets. Hot on the trail of the criminals, Holmes and Watson again traverse south London, led by the sensitive nose of an ugly dog called Toby: Streatham, Brixton, Camberwell, Oval, Kennington Lane, Miles Street, Knights Place, Nine Elms, Belmont Place, Prince’s Street, Broad Street and, finally, a small wooden wharf in the shadow of Vauxhall Bridge.

These locations would have had precise social and cultural significance for the stories’ original readers, and they would have known – as we now cannot – which of the street names are real and which are thinly-veiled fictions. Their prominence in the stories is explained in part by the fact that Doyle lived at 12 Tennison Road, South Norwood, between 1891 and 1894, the period during which many of the stories in the Adventures and Memoirs were written and published. But he is clearly also intrigued by the middle-class enclaves emerging on the southern edge of London, and by the commercialisation of some of the inner regions.

Areas such as Streatham, Norbury and Norwood had been little more than villages before the arrival of the railways in the mid-nineteenth century. In Streatham, for instance, a population of well under 3,000 in 1811 had grown to 70,000 by the turn of the century. These were affluent middle-class quarters, occupied by successful businessmen and city workers lured by the easy journey to central London. In The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet, the wealthy banker Alexander Holder lives in Fairbanks, described by Watson as a good-sized square house of white stone, standing back a little from the road; it has a thicket and a stables, and Holder’s household includes a groom, a page, and three maidservants. Grant Munro, the client in The Yellow Face, lives with his wife in a £80-a-year villa in Norbury, telling Holmes, Our little place was very countrified, considering that it is so close to town. We had an inn and two houses a little above us, and a single cottage at the other side of the field which faces us, and except those there were no houses until you got halfway to the station. Norbury’s station had opened in 1878, but by the 1890s the area still had few houses – as few as thirty by the time of Queen Victoria’s death. South Norwood, Doyle’s home and later location for The Adventure of the Norwood Builder, was still semi-rural in the early 1890s. A stone’s throw away, the scene of the “Upper Norwood Tragedy” in The Sign of Four was already more urban. A small suburb in the 1820s – in 1849 there was apparently still enough wilderness for an amateur naturalist to disappear during a ramble – Upper Norwood expanded rapidly in the wake of the relocation of the Crystal Palace to Sydenham in 1854 and the opening of the Crystal Palace and West End Railway Line in 1856. Beckenham, site of The Myrtles, where a brother and sister are held captive in The Greek Interpreter, was another Victorian development. Like the American suburbs of Desperate Housewives or the films of David Lynch, the Streathams, Norwoods, Norburies and Beckenhams form an outwardly respectable and bourgeois backdrop, their wide streets and neat villas throwing the tales of conspiracy and violence into sharp relief.

Doyle also seems fascinated by the contrast between the half-rural villa-lined roads of Norwood, Norbury and Beckenham and the more urban areas of Brixton and Kennington. Kennington’s genteel eighteenth-century squares had become surrounded by commercial concerns and some light industry; the area’s attempts to retain Victorian respectability can be seen in the transformation in 1854 of Kennington Common, the scene of the 1848 Chartist demonstrations, into Kennington Park. Kennington features in Doyle’s stories usually as a site of commerce. The early part of The Six Napoleons, for instance, concerns the baffling theft and destruction of three plaster busts of the emperor: one smashed in Morse Hudson’s place for the sale of pictures and statues on Kennington Road, the others in the two surgeries of Dr Barnicot: his principal surgery on Kennington Road, and his branch surgery on Lower Brixton Road.

Brixton, like Kennington, had a past. The grand 1850s villas of Angell Town had been superseded in the 1860s by smaller houses built for city clerks and skilled artisans. Further transformations came in the 1880s and 1890s. Electric Avenue opened in 1888, and by the turn of the century the grand older houses were being subdivided for use as lodging houses. Many of the new tenants were involved in the entertainment industries – Dan Leno lived in Akerman Road, and Fred Karno on Southwell Road. Doyle’s characterisation of Brixton in the 1890s and early twentieth century fits this slightly raffish profile. South Brixton is the location of the humble but retired lodging house occupied by The Veiled Lodger, a mysterious woman who turns out to be a retired circus performer with a murderous past; the goose that conceals a stolen jewel in its crop in The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle is bred by Mrs Oakshott at 117 Brixton Road. In Lady Frances Carfax, the unfortunate Lady Frances falls foul of the disreputable Henry Peters, of Adelaide, late the Rev. Dr. Shlessinger, of Baden and South America, who with his wife brings her to 36 Poultney Square, Brixton, and attempts to bury her alive in the false bottom of an occupied coffin.

Visiting Thaddeus Sholto in Coldharbour Lane in The Sign of Four, Holmes comments to Watson, Our quest does not appear to take us to very fashionable regions; the owner himself refers to his house as an oasis of art in the howling desert of South London. The lack of obvious bohemian culture in the south London suburbs – the object of Sholto’s scorn – is part of what makes such locations appealing to Doyle. Whether commercial or countrified, they are home alike to the reputable middle-classes and the déclassé criminals who pray on them: a perfect backdrop, indeed, for intrigue, confidence trickery and murder most foul.

[This piece originally appeared in Smoke 9.]

About the author