Version classiqueVersion mobile
OpenEdition Books

Sherlock Holmes, un nouveau limier pour le XXIe siècle

 | 
Hélène Machinal
, 
Gilles Menegaldo
, 
Jean-Pierre Naugrette

Première partie. Genèse, origines et contexte

Sherlock Holmes’s Precursors: Eccentrics, Amateur Sleuths and Oriental Mysteries in Wilkie Collins

Mariaconcetta Costantini

Texte intégral

  • 1 Eliot Thomas Stearns, “Wilkie Collins and Dickens”, Selected Essays of T. S. Eliot, New York, Harc (...)
  • 2 Ashley Robert P., “Wilkie Collins and the Detective Story”, Nineteenth-Century Fiction, no 4, 1, J (...)

1Wilkie Collins is undeniably one of the initiators of the detective novel. The role he played in creating the new form was famously consecrated by T. S. Eliot, who defined The Moonstone (1868) as “the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels1”. In later decades of the twentieth century, scholars have widely assessed the contribution Collins gave to the launch and development of the detective genre. As Robert Ashley declared in 1960, Collins “should have to his credit so many firsts: the first lady detective, the first application of epistolary narrative to detective fiction, the first humorous detective story, the first British detective story, and the first full-length detective novel in English2”.

  • 3 Costantini Mariaconcetta, Sensation and Professionalism in the Victorian Novel, Bern, Peter Lang, (...)

2Even though he is better known as the inaugurator of the sensation novel, Collins produced significant antecedents of a genre that would be canonized later in the century. Novelists like Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon are, indeed, the precursors of a detective form that was “born through parthenogenesis” from their sensation novels, which included stock features of their future “offspring3”. Such a connection was perceived very early by Margaret Oliphant who, in a review published in 1862 complained about the sensational deployment of crime and the growing success of detective figures in mid-Victorian novels:

  • 4 Oliphant Margaret, “Sensation Novels”, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, no 91, January 1862, p. 564 (...)

We have already had specimens, as many as are desirable, of what the detective policeman can do for the enlivenment of literature: and it is into the hands of the literary Detective that this school of story-telling must inevitably fall at last. He is not a collaborator whom we welcome with any pleasure into the republic of letters. His appearance is neither favourable to taste nor morals4.

3While raising aesthetic and moral concerns, Oliphant anticipated that a genre wholly centred on crime investigation would take over the sensation form. Her prediction came true with the demise of sensationalism in the 1870s and the late-Victorian canonization of detective fiction, which developed into further typologies in the twentieth century.

4My aim is to explore Collins’s sensational fiction, and particularly The Moonstone, to find early traces of the characterization and detective plot-construction that would later mark the distinction of Sherlock Holmes’s figure and adventures. What exactly is the extent of Conan Doyle’s indebtedness to Wilkie Collins?

  • 5 Conan Doyle Arthur, A Study in Scarlet, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1981, p. 25. The same genealogy is (...)

5The detective paraphernalia of Collins’s fiction are not directly mentioned in the Holmes narratives, which instead include allusions to other early practitioners of the genre. More specifically, Edgar Allan Poe and Émile Gaboriau are both explicitly referred to in A Study in Scarlet (1887). “‘You remind me of Edgar Allan Poe’ s Dupin’”, Watson declares on first meeting Holmes, who arrogantly replies: “‘Now, in my opinion, Dupin was a very inferior fellow.’” In the same scene, the doctor’s question “‘Have you read Gaboriau’ s works?’[…] ‘Does Lecoq come up to your idea of a detective?’” is spitefully answered: “‘Lecoq was a miserable bungler,’ […]. ‘It might be made a text-book for detectives to teach them what to avoid5.’”

  • 6 Liebman Arthur and Galerstein David, “The Sign of the Moonstone”, The Baker Street Journal, no 44, (...)

6Unlike the two well-known writers and their creatures, Collins and his sleuths are not mentioned in the novel. Nonetheless, it seems that Conan Doyle knew Collins’s work well. He was especially keen on The Moonstone, which he “avid [ly]” read as a young man6, and certainly drew inspiration from the nascent detective form Collins contributed to developing. My intention is to trace significant elements in Collins’s work that validate this debt, and to ascertain how Conan Doyle reworked them into new characters and new plots of detection.

  • 7 James Clive, “Review of the Sherlock Holmes Collected Edition”, The New York Review of Books, Febr (...)
  • 8 Harrington Ellen, “Failed Detectives and Dangerous Females: Wilkie Collins, Arthur Conan Doyle, an (...)

7Collins’s influence on Conan Doyle was recognized by Graham Greene in his 1975 contribution to the Holmes Collection Edition published by Cape and Murray. In the Introduction to The Sign of Four (1890), Greene declares that “the subplot of [it] is far too like The Moonstone for comfort7”. Holmes scholars have also laid the focus on the inspiration that Conan Doyle drew from The Moonstone. This source was indicated by S. B Liljegren in a short study published in 1971, as well as by Arthur Liebman and David Galerstein, who co-authored an article in 1994. More recently, aspects of the intertextual dialogue between the two novelists have been explored, among others, by Ellen Harrington. In her comparative reading of “A Scandal in Bohemia” (1891) and two short stories by Collins, “The Biter Bit” (1858) and “The Policeman and the Cook” (1880), Harrington shows how both Collins and Conan Doyle expose the detective’s vulnerability by fictionalizing cases in which a dangerous woman poses a threat to the sleuth’s authority8.

8These studies demonstrate the significance of retracing the roots of Holmes’s genius and eccentricities in mid-Victorian narratives penned by Collins. Yet, there is still ample space for detecting and analysing the extent of Conan Doyle’s ‘dialogue’ with his predecessor. If it is undeniable that The Moonstone is an important source of the Holmes myth, there are still questions regarding the various stages of appropriation and reworking of the source-text that require full answers. How many narrative shoots included in the Holmes adventures sprouted from Collinsian roots? How different are they from the originals? What late-century ideologies are reflected in the changes Conan Doyle made to elements borrowed from Collins? And what are the two novelists’views of the detective genre they both contributed to developing?

9While attempting to reply to some of these questions, I will show that Collinsian echoes are extensive and deserve attention. Their limited visibility is, in fact, a signal of Conan Doyle’s far-reaching reworking of a precursor that kindled his literary imagination but that, at the same time, needed to be adapted to the more anxious, more conservative reality of fin-de-siècle England.

10A commonly shared view of Collins’s influence on Conan Doyle is that there are significant analogies between Sherlock Holmes and Sergeant Richard Cuff, the Scotland Yard detective hired by the Verinder family in The Moonstone. Some parallels between the two fictional investigators can indeed be traced, especially with regard to their physiognomic traits, inquisitive manners and detective methodologies. A brief comparative analysis will confirm this view.

11On his first appearance in the novel, Cuff is described as a lean, angular man whose piercing eyes make people feel uneasy:

  • 9 Collins Wilkie, The Moonstone, ed. J. I. M. Stewart, London, Penguin, 1986, p. 133, emphasis mine.

A fly from the railway drove up as I reached the lodge; and out got a grizzled, elderly man, so miserably lean that he looked as if he had not got an ounce of flesh on his bones in any part of him. He was dressed all in decent black, with a white cravat round his neck. His face was as sharp as a hatchet, and the skin of it was as yellow and dry and withered as an autumn leaf. His eyes, of a steely light grey, had a very disconcerting trick, when they encountered your eyes, of looking as if they expected something more from you than you were aware of yourself9.

12Holmes’s physical description in A Study in Scarlet is strongly reminiscent of Cuff’s:

  • 10 Conan Doyle Arthur, A Study in Scarlet, op. cit., p. 18, emphasis mine.

In height he was rather over six feet, and so excessively lean that he seemed to be considerably taller. His eyes were sharp and piercing, save during those intervals of torpor to which I have alluded; and his thin, hawk-like nose gave his whole expression an air of alertness and decision. His chin, too, had the prominence and squareness which mark the man of determination10.

  • 11 On these parallels, see Liljegren Sten Bodvar, The Parentage of Sherlock Holmes, Stockholm, Almqvi (...)

13Other analogies between the two sleuths pertain to their professional life and endowments. Both characterized as geniuses, Cuff and Sherlock are very rational men who have developed an analytic method of investigation. In dealing with crime scenes and suspects, moreover, both attach the greatest importance to neglected details or “trifles” and consequently highlight the stupidity of ordinary police investigators by contrast11.

  • 12 Collins Wilkie, The Moonstone, op. cit., p. 136.
  • 13 Ibid., p. 150.

14“‘In all my experience along the dirtiest ways of this dirty little world I have never met with such a thing as a trifle yet’” exclaims Sergeant Cuff while discussing an apparently banal detail with Superintendent Seegrave, the policeman he is going to replace in the inquiry over the lost diamond12. This attention to detail is anticipated in other works by Collins, including the early story “The Diary of Anne Rodway” (1856), in which a clear-sighted low-class woman acts as amateur investigator. By discovering and analysing a little piece of evidence that escaped other people’s notice (i.e., the crumpled end of a cravat), Anne solves a case of murder, disproves the opinion of authorities (i.e., the jurors of the first law-suit) and demonstrates the efficacy of a process of induction based on the rational analysis of clues. A similar process is activated by Cuff when he notices a small “smear of painting” on Rachel Verinder’s door: “‘We must now try to solve the mystery of the smear on the door—which, you may take my word for it, means the mystery of the Diamond also—in some other way13.’”

  • 14 Conan Doyle Arthur, The Sign of Four, ed. S. Towheed, Peterborough, Ont., Broadview Press, 2010, p (...)

15For his part, Holmes is insistently equated to a bloodhound that sniffs all traces and looks for all sorts of small particulars when examining a crime scene. As Watson observes in The Sign of Four: “Twice as we ascended Holmes whipped his lens out of his pocket and carefully examined marks which appeared to me to be mere shapeless smudges of dust upon the cocoa-nut matting which served as a stair-carpet14.”

  • 15 See Liljegren Sten Bodvar, The Parentage of Sherlock Holmes, op. cit., p. 12-13 ; Liebman Arthur a (...)

16Like Collins, moreover, Conan Doyle attributes idiosyncrasies and strange passions to his detective, which somehow counterbalance his excessively rational characterization. While Cuff is fascinated by roses and decides to grow them as a hobby after his retirement, Holmes’s automaton-like nature is humanized by his penchant for violin playing15.

  • 16 Todorov Tzvetan, “The Typology of Detective Fiction”, The Poetics of Prose, trans. R. Howard, Itha (...)

17There are, however, relevant differences between the two sleuths that deserve attention. A main one can be found in the success they achieve in the detection plotlines of which they become the protagonists. Holmes is always victorious over criminals and competitors, and never fails to decipher his clues correctly. On the contrary, Cuff misinterprets the details he manages to discover, such as the smear of painting, and is consequently forced to abandon the case. On a structural level, Holmes is thus the vehicle through which Conan Doyle spins and connects the “two stories” typical of the whodunit novel16. His narrative-spinning role is contrasted with Cuff’s interpretative limits, which confirm the hermeneutic instability of a novel consisting of a multi-voice story of the investigation and an elliptical story of the crime.

  • 17 This idea is well expressed by David Miller: “Thus, the move to discard the role of the detective (...)
  • 18 Collins Wilkie, The Moonstone, op. cit., p. 491.
  • 19 An early admiration for police reforms and investigative procedures was expressed, in the 1850s, b (...)

18Although he provides a good guess on his final reappearance on the scene, Collins’s detective mainly fails to accomplish his professional task and, for this very reason, becomes a target of the author’s irony. Instead of incarnating the role of rational hero, Cuff is superseded by a multitude of pseudo-detectives, whose agency decreases the authority and competence he is initially ascribed. His professional failure and the dispersal of his detective function among numerous amateurs17 (a lawyer, a doctor assistant, and so on) contribute to debunking the myth of the new detective police that some writers and journalists, including Charles Dickens, were creating around the mid-century. Such a view is validated by a confession made by Cuff himself towards the end of the novel: “I own that I made a mess of it. Not the first mess, Mr Blake, which has distinguished my professional career! It’s only in books that the officers of the detective force are superior to the weakness of making a mistake18.” Strongly self-critical, this assertion also deconstructs a literary phenomenon that was gaining strength at the time, a phenomenon that had the scope of attaching a mythicized aura to the new detective police19.

19The contrast with Conan Doyle’s novels is evident here. It is indisputable that Holmes questions the ability of Scotland Yard detectives, since he often makes the stupidity of police officers come to the fore. Still, the success he achieves in his investigations creates a new myth: that of a consulting detective genius who comes to embody the role of the ingenious sleuth previously played by police officers. Unlike him, Cuff’s fallibility and self-disparagement raise thorny questions about the power and desirability of the whole system of law and order, which around the mid-century, was being reorganized to protect citizens’ lives.

  • 20 Conan Doyle Arthur, “The Story of the Lost Special”, The Final Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, op. (...)
  • 21 This opinion was expressed in 1936 by Christopher Morley. Quoted in Haining Peter, Introduction to (...)

20These divergences are partly reproduced in a short story by Conan Doyle, “The Story of the Lost Special” (1898), in which the inspector summoned to solve a tragic enigma (the disappearance of a train and its passengers) fails his objective and is dismissed from the case. Ironically named Collins, the official detective reveals some analytical abilities but ultimately proves unable to decipher the complexity of the crime. More acute is, instead, the explanation supplied by an anonymous amateur, “a reasoner of some celebrity at that date20” whose theory is validated by the criminal’s confession in the tale’s conclusion. A possible identification of the amateur with Holmes is suggested by their common deductive skills as well as by their success in deciphering the mysteries surrounding the crime—two elements which, as some critics have noticed, make the story a “suppressed” Holmes tale21. In this view, the name chosen for the dismissed detective might be interpreted as an ironic hint at Collins’s prototype, the fallible Cuff, whom Conan Doyle refashions into the eccentric but infallible Holmes.

21More light upon the differences between the two detectives is shed by a close comparison between The Moonstone and two early Holmes novels—A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four. A first thing to consider is the divergence existing between Sergeant Cuff and Sherlock Holmes. Although he is a progenitor of the Baker Street detective, the Scotland Yard sleuth portrayed by Collins is also a vehicle for anxieties and ideas that were no longer prominent at the fin de siècle or, if so, were differently articulated within the late-century cultural milieu.

22Secondly, in creating his own set of protagonists, Conan Doyle disassembles various characters of The Moonstone and combines their features anew in completely different ways. The dissemination of their peculiarities within the Holmes narratives provides significant clues to the new cultural meanings acquired by professional figures in late-Victorian England, particularly by those characters that were associated with the world of law and order.

23Thirdly, Conan Doyle appropriates and recasts a variety of objects and symbolic elements that, in The Moonstone, are meant to render the growing tensions pervading the heart of English civilization. This set of objects/symbols are given new shapes and are well concealed within the Holmes narratives; if properly detected and examined, however, they reveal how some discursive skeins skilfully woven by Collins are reworked by his successor to suit a new ideological framework. Particularly interesting, in this regard, are the discourses on colonialism and class disparities interknit in The Moonstone, which are differently entwined and semanticized in the Holmes novels.

24Some examples from the texts will clarify these points. A first aspect to take into account is the difference in professional status between mid-century and late-century detectives, which are represented in literary works composed in the two periods. With regard to Cuff, for example, we should consider that the failure of his detection is not only the result of a deductive mistake. It is also shown to be a consequence of class tensions that were at work in mid-Victorian society. More specifically, Cuff’s investigation into the life of the Verinder family and servants is felt as a domestic intrusion and, as such, is resented by all the inhabitants of the country-house. In addition to concealing important details, the family members and their servants adopt various means to prevent the Sergeant’s inquiry into the house’s secrets. Their course of action is partly justified by Cuff’s mistaken interpretation of Rachel Verinder’s reticence as a sign of guilt (he is convinced that she is hiding her gem with the intention of selling it). On the basis of his previous experiences, Cuff misinterprets the young woman’s behaviour and, instead of thinking she might be protecting the man she loves, he reads her secretiveness as a proof of foul play.

25The hostility with which Cuff is met stems from his controversial position in the novel’s web of class relations. First of all, it is important to consider that the Sergeant is a representative of the rising class of detectives, who were fighting for social and professional recognition around the mid-century. Like other investigators, Cuff is presumably of lower-class origins, shows familiarity with servants and is perceived as a violator of the quiet life of landowners, whose household is upset by his prying actions. Moreover, by suspecting the young mistress of the house who is known to be honest by all the insiders, Cuff upsets the family and the servants alike. Little refined, intrusive and conceptually assimilated with the rising lower classes, the Scotland Yard detective embodies a metropolitan power which is felt as alien, since it threatens to disrupt the conservative lifestyle and class hierarchy of old England.

26By depicting the resistance of the old world against the emergent group of detectives, Collins records a crucial moment of development of social relations in Victorian England—a moment in which the upper classes were still fighting to protect their long-established status. In comparison with The Moonstone, the Holmes novels describe a changed social reality—one in which the detective is entitled to higher professional status and more freely interacts with the members of the upper classes. Both Holmes and Watson, moreover, have good manners and are perceived as gentlemen by their clients—a clear sign of the social and professional changes occurred in the second half of the century. Unlike Cuff, furthermore, Watson and Holmes are truly urban subjects. Whereas the Sergeant aspires to live in the countryside, the two Conan Doyle protagonists enjoy living in London, and incarnate the dynamism and upwardly mobility of the late-century metropolis.

27Another gap between precursor and descendant is produced by Conan Doyle’s recasting of other sleuths who appear in Collins’s novel. As mentioned above, Cuff is not the only investigator portrayed in The Moonstone, which features various professionals and amateurs. The most intriguing figure is Ezra Jennings, a mixed-blood doctor assistant who reactivates the detective plot after Cuff’s dismissal. On the basis of his medical knowledge and his personal absorption of laudanum, Jennings devises a bold experiment to find evidence of Franklin Blake’s opium-induced theft of the diamond. While conducting the experiment, moreover, the doctor assistant betrays a remarkable skill to combine induction and deduction. Such a skill is also evident in his word-to-word reconstruction of the sentences uttered by his protector, Dr Candy, during a serious illness. By transcribing Candy’s ravings and carefully filling-in their gaps with words and phrases, Jennings performs a similar analytical task as the one celebrated by Holmes in the last chapter of A Study in Scarlet: he observes details, collects them, fills in the gaps and reconstructs the train of events backwards. To put it in Holmes’s words, he accomplishes a function that most people are untrained to fulfil, that of “reasoning backwards, or analytically”:

  • 22 ConanDoyle Arthur, A Study in Scarlet, op. cit., p. 131.

Most people if you describe a train of events to them, will tell you what the result would be. […] There are few people, however, who, if you told them a result, would be able to evolve from their inner consciousness what the steps were which led up to that result. This power is what I mean when I talk of reasoning backwards, or analytically22.

28Endowed as he is with analytical abilities and a deep knowledge of mental processes, Jennings uses a Holmesque method to untangle a mystery connected with the disappearance of the diamond.

29The hypothesis that this uncommon figure inspired Conan Doyle is confirmed by the peculiar dissemination of his distinctive features within the Holmes novels. Jennings has similar mental faculties and a similar approach to reality as Holmes: he is a rational and acute observer of things, and he makes good use of specialized knowledge acquired through his private studies (he researches on the physiology of the human mind). Yet, he also has characteristics that are patently at odds with the Baker Street detective. An important difference can be found in their professional identity. Unlike Holmes, Jennings is a doctor by profession: he has received a proper medical training and, even though his career is ruined by social prejudices, he continues to assist his patients. In this regard, his figure is partly reworked into the character of Watson, whose medical conduct is associated with a care incompatible with Holmes’s scientific inhumanity.

30Another clue to Conan Doyle’s reshaping of Jennings can be found by examining the doctor’s link with the colonies. Half-English, half-Oriental, Jennings is symbolically associated with those margins of the Empire which were posing the first threats to the imperial centre around the middle of the century. His racial identity is strongly underlined in the text which represents both his physiognomy and his origins in terms of alterity and weirdness.

  • 23 Collins Wilkie, The Moonstone, op. cit., p. 371.

His complexion was of a gipsy darkness. […] His nose presented the fine shape and modelling so often found among the ancient people of the East, so seldom visible among the newer races of the West. […] Add to this a quantity of thick closely-curling hair, which, by some freak of Nature, had lost its colour in the most startlingly partial and capricious manner. Over the top of his head it was still of the deep black which was its natural colour. Round the sides of his head […] it had turned completely white. The line between the two colours preserved no sort of regularity23.

31Anglicized in manners and learned though he is, Jennings nonetheless bears the brand of his ethnic impurity inscribed on his physiognomy. His racialized figure is visibly at odds with the English identity of Holmes and Watson (the latter, in particular, comes to embody the imperial virtues of white Englishmen during his Afghan campaign). Whereas Collins’s detective-doctor incarnates diversity, the couple Holmes-Watson gives voice to dominant racial prejudices, as amply evidenced by their hyper-stigmatization of the inhabitants of the Andaman Islands in The Sign of Four:

  • 24 Conan Doyle Arthur, The Sign of Four, op. cit., p. 109, emphasis mine.

They are naturally hideous, having large, misshapen heads, small, fierce eyes, and distorted features. Their feet and hands, however, are remarkably small. So intractable and fierce are they that all the efforts of the British official have failed to win them over in any degree. They have always been a terror to shipwrecked crews, braining the survivors with their stone-headed clubs, or shooting them with their poisoned arrows. These massacres are invariably concluded by a cannibal feast24.

  • 25 Thomas Ronald R., Detective Fiction and the Rise of Forensic Science, Cambridge and New York, Camb (...)

32A complex tangle of colonial relations is also evoked by a range of symbols (objects and people) interspersed within The Moonstone which are peculiarly reworked by Conan Doyle. The most visible parallel between the colonial symbolism of The Moonstone and The Sign of Four is the striking centrality of Indian valuables—the diamond in Collins, the Agra treasure in Conan Doyle25. The two treasures, which originally belong to natives, are stolen by colonial officers, brought to England, turned into English possessions and finally lost by their new owners. Both novels, moreover, associate the search for the looted treasure with a trio of Indians who claim their ownership of it and pose a threat to the English thieves.

  • 26 Conan Doyle Arhtur, The Sign of Four, op. cit., p. 136.

33Another interesting Collinsian echo is the name Ablewhite, which Conan Doyle uses to configure a different network of colonial relations. Clearly ironic in its etymology, Ablewhite is the wilful thief of The Moonstone, who steals Rachel’s diamond from the unconscious Blake. Apparently a social benefactor, Ablewhite reduplicates the criminal deed committed by his military ancestor on Indian soil and is (presumably) killed by the Brahmins, who return the diamond to the Indian temple. In The Sign of Four the slightly different spelled Mr Abel White is, instead, a white indigo planter based in India, who undervalues the consequences of the Mutiny and becomes a victim of a group of Sepoys described as murderous “black fiends26”. Unlike Collins, who unmasks the pretensions of (able) white colonizers, Conan Doyle reveals a more jingoistic attitude since he identifies cruelty and danger with mutinous exotic subjects (i.e., the Sepoys).

34Other differences can be detected by exploring the two novelists’representation of drugs. Both of exotic origins, the morphine and cocaine consumed by Holmes in his moments of inactivity are explicitly connoted as vices indulged in to fight against taedium vitae. Quite different is Collins’s description of opium primarily as medicine. In addition to being himself a laudanum-consumer owing to his physical ailments, Collins attaches ambivalent connotations to opium, which is represented both as a painkiller and a potential vehicle for crime. Decidedly negative is, instead, the depiction of Holmes’s recreational use of drugs, whose stigmatization is reinforced by the opinion of a medical man like Watson. In ways similar to other exotic symbols, drugs are thus associated by both novelists with the Orientalized, alien territories of the colonies; as such, however, they also reflect the authors’ clashing views about imperial policies and ideologies.

  • 27 Towheed Shafquat, Introduction to Conan Doyle A., The Sign of Four, op. cit., p. 34.
  • 28 Siddiqi Yumna, Anxieties of Empire and the Fiction of Intrigue, New York, Columbia University Pres (...)

35Even though it is “a narrative replete with subalterns, both literal and metaphorical27 », The Sign of Four (and Conan Doyle’s fiction at large) reflects circulating racial prejudices which were reinforced by late-century anthropology and criminology. Despite his exposure of misdeeds committed by Englishmen, Conan Doyle implicitly justifies colonial rule by espousing racial and cultural stereotypes that configure the natives in terms of savagery. Such stereotypes are also applied to nativized Englishmen like Jonathan Small in The Sign of Four, as well as to those groups who adopt uncivilized habits, such as the polygamous Mormons featured in A Study in Scarlet. As Yumna Siddiqi observes, “the category of ‘colonial subject’” created by Conan Doyle is “ambiguous in that it can include both Europeans and native inhabitants of the colonies”. The Europeans belonging to this category are, however, members of an “imperial lumpenproletariat” and differ from returned colonials like Watson, who are instead “rehabilitated and reabsorbed into the bourgeoisie after [their] return to London28”.

  • 29 Haining Peter, Introduction to Conan Doyle A., The Final Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, op. cit., (...)
  • 30 For an interesting reading of imperial anxieties in “The Mystery of Uncle Jeremy’s Household», as (...)
  • 31 “The Mystery of Uncle Jeremy’s Household”, Conan Doyle Arthur, The Final Adventures of Sherlock Ho (...)

36A similar attitude to the racial Other is manifested in Conan Doyle’s “The Mystery of Uncle Jeremy’s Household” (1887), a story which, though not overtly featuring Holmes and Watson, contains early hints at their peculiar characterization. As Peter Haining argues, “[Holmes and Watson] made their first bow in prototype in [this] tale”, more specifically in the portrayal of Hugh Laurence, the narrator, and his friend John H. Thurston29. Set in an English country-house and pivoting around two violent crimes (one planned and one real murders), “The Mystery of Uncle Jeremy’s Household” ends, like The Moonstone, with a partial resolution of the criminal deeds which are disclosed to the reader, but remain officially unresolved. Another parallel with Collins’s novel can be found in the lingering mysteries concerning Indian cults and beliefs which, in both texts, are associated with figures of exotic intruders. Instead of the Brahmins, who represent Hindu spirituality, Conan Doyle depicts a female member of an Indian sect devoted to frightful esoteric practices, Miss Warrender, the mixed-blood daughter of an Indian chieftain initiated into the mysteries of Thuggee30. Not differently from The Moonstone, moreover, Conan Doyle’s tale ends with the mysterious disappearance of the Oriental intruder (presumably returned to her native land) and with a letter written by a man “well versed in Indian manners and customs”, who tries to fill in some cultural gaps concerning her upsetting behaviour31.

  • 32 Ibid., p. 54.

37Unlike Collins, though, Conan Doyle insists on the dangerous nativism of Miss Warrender, whose character is visibly racialized. Whereas the Brahmins combine fierceness with a dignity that is praised by the Verinders’ solicitor, Mr Bruff, the hybrid governess employed at Uncle Jeremy’s household is obsessively described as a primitive and violent creature that infects the quiet countryside with her dangerous presence. Never described as a girl to fall in love with, despite her physical attractiveness, Miss Warrender repeatedly shows her bestial sides in the narration. Besides revealing “the old predatory instinct of the savage” when she wounds a rabbit32, she exhibits homicidal tendencies on many occasions and is eventually suspected of being the instigator of her blackmailer’s murder. The latter crime is, significantly, committed by another Oriental figure, a Thug who travels to England presumably to bring Miss Warrender back to her land.

  • 33 For a theorization of how these stereotypes conceal “a certain will or intention to understand, in (...)

38If compared with Conan Doyle’s, Collins’s Orientalist construction of the Other33 appears thus more controversial and thought-provoking. Written in the aftermath of the Indian Mutiny and the Morant Bay revolt in Jamaica, The Moonstone undoubtedly fleshes out the anxieties assailing mid-Victorian colonizers who felt increasingly menaced by the natives’ revenge. But it also, and notably so, gives voice to the sufferings and the justifiable demands of those submitted to the colonial yoke.

39The detective plotline of The Moonstone is indeed functional to the critical discourse Collins weaves around colonialism. A main effect of the investigation is, in fact, that of unveiling an embarrassing truth: the guilt of two apparently genteel Englishmen, Blake and Ablewhite, who are responsible for reduplicating the colonial crime committed by their common ancestor in India. This exposure is primarily achieved through the experiment conducted by the racialized Jennings who performs a symbolic act of counter-imperialistic vengeance by unmasking the involvement of a white gentleman in the theft.

  • 34 See, among others, Reed John R., “English Imperialism and the Unacknowledged Crime of The Moonston (...)

40A second embarrassing effect of the detection is the fact that the wilful thieves of the diamond—Mr Godfrey Ablewhite and the Brahmins—escape punishment through death or disappearance, while the gem is never recovered by its English owners. An anthropologist’s report from India briefly informs the reader that the diamond has been returned to the Hindu statue to which it originally belonged and has thus regained its sacred value. This piece of information questions the lawfulness of the English control and exploitation of the colonies. By connoting the Indians’ regaining of the diamond as an act of cultural re-appropriation34, Collins suggests the inherent justice of the act, even though the three Hindu priests are guilty of multiple crimes according to the English law.

  • 35 Conan Doyle Arthur, The Sign of Four, op. cit., p. 134.
  • 36 Ibid., p. 144.

41Whereas Collins associates detection with a polemical discourse on colonialism, Conan Doyle never questions the legitimacy of the police and legal system. In The Sign of Four, when the question of “justice” is raised by the nativized Jonathan Small, Holmes encourages the convict to prove his claims by telling the story of the Agra treasure: “‘We have not heard your story, and we cannot tell how far justice may originally have been on your side35.’” Small’s interpolated narration is, however, interrupted by a censorious comment on a crime he has committed—the murder of merchant Achmet. The comment, made by Watson in the role of main narrator, is reinforced by the “disgust” expressed by Holmes and detective Athelney Jones, who represent the law in their roles of private and public investigators: “Whatever punishment was in store, for him, I felt that he might expect no sympathy from me. Sherlock Holmes and Jones sat with their hands upon their knees, deeply interested in the story but with the same disgust written upon their faces36.”

  • 37 Conan Doyle Arthur, A Study in Scarlet, op. cit., p. 128.
  • 38 Ibid., p. 130.

42An analogous confirmation of the superiority of the English law can be found in A Study in Scarlet, in which the idea of individually pursued justice is connoted in terms of savagery. Painful though it is to hear, the story of persecution told by Jefferson Hope is considered as no excuse for his long-pursued revenge plans. By murdering the Mormons who have kidnapped and caused the death of his betrothed, Hope violates the law and is therefore destined to face a pitiless judgment. “‘You may consider me to be a murderer; but I hold that I am just as much an officer of justice as you are37’” exclaims the American. Yet, Hope is chased by Holmes and arrested by the police despite his self-appointment as justice-maker. His death by aneurism before the trial does not save him from a higher form of punishment, which is imparted by a God compared to English judges: “A higher Judge had taken the matter in hand, and Jefferson Hope had been summoned before a tribunal where strict justice would be meted out to him38.”

43Although Conan Doyle demonizes Hope’s antagonists and insists on their cruelty, he never offers full justification for the cold-blooded revenge pursued by the American who is stigmatized as guilty by human and divine authorities alike.

44Quite different is Collins’s view of the law expressed in The Moonstone. Structured as a series of narratives that imitate legal testimonies given in a court, the novel actually mocks the efficacy and integrity of the machinery of the law, which fails to recover the stolen gem and to punish the transgressors. The doubts here raised on the police and legal system reinforce similar uncertainties Collins had expressed in his previous masterpiece, The Woman in White (1859-60). The latter is also structured as a collection of testimonies that are meant to unravel the mysteries surrounding a criminal case. Edited by the novel’s protagonist, who takes his personal revenge on two arch-villains, the interpolated narratives of The Woman in White are explicitly presented as a truth-seeking means that should compensate for the inefficiency of the English law:

  • 39 Collins Wilkie, The Woman in White, ed. J. Symons, London, Penguin, 1985, p. 33.

If the machinery of the Law could be depended on to fathom every case of suspicion, and to conduct every process of inquiry, with moderate assistance only from the lubricating influences of oil of gold, the events which fill these pages might have claimed their share of the public attention in a Court of Justice.
But the Law is still, in certain inevitable cases, the pre-engaged servant of the long purse; and the story is left to be told, for the first time, in this place. As the Judge might once have heard it, so the Reader shall hear it now39.

  • 40 As Anthea Trodd observes, the contradictions of Cuff’s professionalism are visible in the episode (...)

45Instead of trusting the reliability of the law, Collins raises suspicions on the corruptibility of the legal system and anticipates the need for forms of self-made justice that badly accord with legal norms. A similar distrust is expressed against the deontological code of detectives (both amateurs and professionals). If the protagonist of The Woman in White uses the same Machiavellian tricks of his antagonists to achieve his revenge, the characterization of Cuff in The Moonstone poses the problem of the ambivalent coexistence of public and private interests, since he is a Scotland Yard officer hired and paid by the very family on whom he investigates40.

46All these examples show that the influence Collins exerted on Conan Doyle was tempered by the latter’s response to anxieties emerging in the fin de siècle, which somehow encouraged a more conservative approach to scientific and legal matters. From a social perspective, moreover, Collins depicted the difficult rise of a professional class that would gain a higher status later in the century. If examined comparatively, the characterization and plotlines of the Holmes novels appear, thus, more conventional than those developed in The Moonstone and The Woman in White. While establishing some paraphernalia of detective fiction, Collins seems to question the very ideological foundations of the genre that would be later canonized by his successor. His deep irony, in particular, gives a paradoxical quality to the role he played as initiator of the genre. His fiction certainly inspired the creation of the Baker Street detective—a figure that would become an enduring myth. But Collins also reveals a sort of pre-postmodern awareness, since he somehow anticipates the ironic deconstruction of elements that would mark the distinction of the Holmes legend.

  • 41 Naugrette Jean-Pierre, The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, op. cit., p. 122, 56.

47Such modernity is confirmed by the hermeneutic openness of a novel like The Moonstone, which ends without offering incontrovertible solutions to some enigmas dramatized in its plotline (are the Brahmins the last thieves of the diamond? do they murder Ablewhite?). As Jean-Pierre Naugrette suggests, Collins’s best-known detective novel is “a work of art [that] never achieves closure”: it challenges the reader with its multiple narratives and truths, and in so doing seems to announce the less conclusive stories of detection penned by postmodern writers one century later41.

Bibliographie

Bibliographie

Ashley Robert P., “Wilkie Collins and the Detective Story”, Nineteenth-Century Fiction, no 4, 1, June 1951, p. 47-60.

Conan Doyle Arthur, The Final Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, ed. P. Haining, London, W. H. Allen, 1981.

Conan Doyle Arthur, A Study in Scarlet, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1981.

Conan Doyle Arthur, The Sign of Four, ed. S. Towheed, Peterborough, Ont., Broadview Press, 2010.

Collins Wilkie, The Woman in White, ed. J. Symons, London, Penguin, 1985.

Collins Wilkie, The Moonstone, ed. J. I. M. Stewart, London, Penguin, 1986.

Costantini Mariaconcetta, Venturing into Unknown Waters. Wilkie Collins and the Challenge of Modernity, Pescara, Edizioni Tracce, 2008.

Costantini Mariaconcetta, Sensation and Professionalism in the Victorian Novel, Bern, Peter Lang, 2015.

Eliot Thomas Stearns, “Wilkie Collins and Dickens”, Selected Essays of T. S. Eliot, New York, Harcourt, Brace and World, 1960, p. 409-418.

James Clive, “Review of the Sherlock Holmes Collected Edition”, The New York Review of Books, February 20, 1975, p. 15-18.

Liebman Arthur and Galerstein David, “The Sign of the Moonstone”, The Baker Street Journal, no 44, 2, June 1994, p. 71-74.

Liljegren Sten Bodvar, The Parentage of Sherlock Holmes, Stockholm, Almqvist and Wiksell, 1971.

Mccuskey Brian W., “The Kitchen Police: Servant Surveillance and Middle-Class Transgression”, Victorian Literature and Culture, no 28, 2, 2000, p. 359-375.

Mehta Jaya, “English Romance; Indian Violence”, Centennial Review, no 39, 3, Fall 1995, p. 611-657.

Miller D. A., The Novel and the Police, Berkeley, CA, University of California Press, 1988.

Naugrette Jean-Pierre, The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, Paris, Didier Érudition, 1995.

Nayder Lilian, “Robinson Crusoe and Friday in Victorian Britain: ‘Discipline’, ‘Dialogue’, and Collins’s Critique of Empire in The Moonstone”, Dickens Studies Annual, no 21, 1992, p. 213-231.

Oliphant Margaret, “Sensation Novels”, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, no 91, January 1862, p. 564-584.

Ousby Ian, Bloodhounds of Heaven. The Detective in English Fiction from Godwin to Doyle, Cambridge, MA, and London, Harvard University Press, 1976.

Reed John R., “English Imperialism and the Unacknowledged Crime of The Moonstone”, Clio, no 2 (June 1973), p. 281-290.

Said Edward, Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient (1978), London, Penguin, 1991.

Siddiqi Yumna, Anxieties of Empire and the Fiction of Intrigue, New York, Columbia University Press, 2007.

Thomas Ronald R., Detective Fiction and the Rise of Forensic Science, Cambridge and New York, Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Todorov Tzvetan, “The Typology of Detective Fiction”, The Poetics of Prose, trans. R. Howard, Ithaca, NY, Cornell University Press, 1977, p. 42-52.

Trodd Anthea, Domestic Crime in the Victorian Novel, Basingstoke and London, Macmillan, 1989, p. 18-19.

Notes

1 Eliot Thomas Stearns, “Wilkie Collins and Dickens”, Selected Essays of T. S. Eliot, New York, Harcourt, Brace and World, 1960, p. 409-418, here p. 413.

2 Ashley Robert P., “Wilkie Collins and the Detective Story”, Nineteenth-Century Fiction, no 4, 1, June 1951, p. 47-60, here p. 60.

3 Costantini Mariaconcetta, Sensation and Professionalism in the Victorian Novel, Bern, Peter Lang, 2015, p. 257.

4 Oliphant Margaret, “Sensation Novels”, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, no 91, January 1862, p. 564-584, here p. 568.

5 Conan Doyle Arthur, A Study in Scarlet, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1981, p. 25. The same genealogy is indicated by Conan Doyle in the commentary “The Truth about Sherlock Holmes”, in which he expresses his attraction for Gaboriau and Poe. ConanDoyle Arthur, The Final Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, ed. P. Haining, London, W. H. Allen, 1981, p. 30.

6 Liebman Arthur and Galerstein David, “The Sign of the Moonstone”, The Baker Street Journal, no 44, 2, June 1994, p. 71-74, here p. 71.

7 James Clive, “Review of the Sherlock Holmes Collected Edition”, The New York Review of Books, February 20, 1975, p. 15-18, here p. 15.

8 Harrington Ellen, “Failed Detectives and Dangerous Females: Wilkie Collins, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the Detective Short Story”, Journal of the Short Story in English, no 45, Autumn 2005, p. 13-27. Some parallels with «A Scandal in Bohemia” might also be found in another story by Collins, “A Stolen Letter” (1854), in which a letter (replaced by a bunch of letters and a photo in Conan Doyle’s story) is used to blackmail the detective’s wealthy client. Both stories, moreover, were most likely inspired by E. A. Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” (1844).

9 Collins Wilkie, The Moonstone, ed. J. I. M. Stewart, London, Penguin, 1986, p. 133, emphasis mine.

10 Conan Doyle Arthur, A Study in Scarlet, op. cit., p. 18, emphasis mine.

11 On these parallels, see Liljegren Sten Bodvar, The Parentage of Sherlock Holmes, Stockholm, Almqvist and Wiksell, 1971, p. 10-12; and Naugrette Jean-Pierre, The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, Paris, Didier Érudition, 1995, p. 61-62.

12 Collins Wilkie, The Moonstone, op. cit., p. 136.

13 Ibid., p. 150.

14 Conan Doyle Arthur, The Sign of Four, ed. S. Towheed, Peterborough, Ont., Broadview Press, 2010, p. 80, emphasis mine.

15 See Liljegren Sten Bodvar, The Parentage of Sherlock Holmes, op. cit., p. 12-13 ; Liebman Arthur and Galerstein David, « The Sign of the Moonstone”, art. cité, p. 72.

16 Todorov Tzvetan, “The Typology of Detective Fiction”, The Poetics of Prose, trans. R. Howard, Ithaca, NY, Cornell University Press, 1977, p. 42-52.

17 This idea is well expressed by David Miller: “Thus, the move to discard the role of the detective is at the same time a move to disperse the function of detection.” Miller D. A., The Novel and the Police, Berkeley, CA, University of California Press, 1988, p. 42, emphasis mine. Similarly, Brian McCuskey observes that, in The Moonstone, the investigative role is dispersed “in subtle, nearly microscopic ways” throughout the novel. Mccuskey B. W., “The Kitchen Police: Servant Surveillance and Middle-Class Transgression”, Victorian Literature and Culture, no 28, 2, 2000, p. 359-375, here p. 363.

18 Collins Wilkie, The Moonstone, op. cit., p. 491.

19 An early admiration for police reforms and investigative procedures was expressed, in the 1850s, by Charles Dickens, whose journalistic articles testify to the mid-century attempts to mythologize police investigators. For details on this journalistic campaign see, among others, Ousby Ian, Bloodhounds of Heaven. The Detective in English Fiction from Godwin to Doyle, Cambridge, MA, and London, Harvard University Press, 1976, p. 87-88.

20 Conan Doyle Arthur, “The Story of the Lost Special”, The Final Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, op. cit., p. 106. I am grateful to Jean-Pierre Naugrette for drawing my attention to this short story.

21 This opinion was expressed in 1936 by Christopher Morley. Quoted in Haining Peter, Introduction to Conan Doyle A., The Final Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, op. cit., p. 14.

22 ConanDoyle Arthur, A Study in Scarlet, op. cit., p. 131.

23 Collins Wilkie, The Moonstone, op. cit., p. 371.

24 Conan Doyle Arthur, The Sign of Four, op. cit., p. 109, emphasis mine.

25 Thomas Ronald R., Detective Fiction and the Rise of Forensic Science, Cambridge and New York, Cambridge University Press, 1999, p. 232. Ronald Thomas also offers interesting considerations about Conan Doyle’s tendency to justify British colonial policies. Unlike Collins, he argues, Conan Doyle used the authority of three professional figures—“the detective, the anthropologist, or the criminologist” to stigmatize colonial subjects (both white coming from the colonies and aborigines) as “born criminals” thereby validating the British enforcement of “law and order in the unruly colonies”. Ibid., p. 231-239.

26 Conan Doyle Arhtur, The Sign of Four, op. cit., p. 136.

27 Towheed Shafquat, Introduction to Conan Doyle A., The Sign of Four, op. cit., p. 34.

28 Siddiqi Yumna, Anxieties of Empire and the Fiction of Intrigue, New York, Columbia University Press, 2007, p. 84, 82.

29 Haining Peter, Introduction to Conan Doyle A., The Final Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, op. cit., p. 12-13.

30 For an interesting reading of imperial anxieties in “The Mystery of Uncle Jeremy’s Household», as well as for some similarities between this story and The Moonstone, see Siddiqi Yumna, Anxieties of Empire and the Fiction of Intrigue, op. cit., p. 34-62.

31 “The Mystery of Uncle Jeremy’s Household”, Conan Doyle Arthur, The Final Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, op. cit., p. 78. In The Moonstone, the role of learned Orientalist is played by anthropologist Mr Murthwaite, whose letter from India offers the only clue to the diamond’s restoration to its original sacred place (i.e., the forehead of a Hindu deity).

32 Ibid., p. 54.

33 For a theorization of how these stereotypes conceal “a certain will or intention to understand, in some cases to control, manipulate, even incorporate, what is a manifestly different world”, see Said Edward, Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient (1978), London, Penguin, 1991, p. 12 ff.

34 See, among others, Reed John R., “English Imperialism and the Unacknowledged Crime of The Moonstone”, Clio, no 2, June 1973, p. 281-290; Nayder Lilian, “Robinson Crusoe and Friday in Victorian Britain: ‘Discipline’, ‘Dialogue’, and Collins’s Critique of Empire in The Moonstone”, Dickens Studies Annual, no 21, 1992, p. 213-231; Mehta Jaya, “English Romance; Indian Violence”, Centennial Review, no 39, 3, Fall 1995, p. 611-657; and Costantini Mariaconcetta, Venturing into Unknown Waters. Wilkie Collins and the Challenge of Modernity, Pescara, Edizioni Tracce, 2008, Chapter 8.

35 Conan Doyle Arthur, The Sign of Four, op. cit., p. 134.

36 Ibid., p. 144.

37 Conan Doyle Arthur, A Study in Scarlet, op. cit., p. 128.

38 Ibid., p. 130.

39 Collins Wilkie, The Woman in White, ed. J. Symons, London, Penguin, 1985, p. 33.

40 As Anthea Trodd observes, the contradictions of Cuff’s professionalism are visible in the episode in which he “is dismissed from the unsolved case with a generous check”. Trodd Anthea, Domestic Crime in the Victorian Novel, Basingstoke and London, Macmillan, 1989, p. 18-19. On the unreliability of the law and the questionable deontology of Collins’s detectives, see also Costantini Mariaconcetta, Sensation and Professionalism in the Victorian Novel, op. cit., Chapter Seven.

41 Naugrette Jean-Pierre, The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, op. cit., p. 122, 56.

Auteur

Professeure de littérature anglaise à l’université G. d’Annunzio de Chieti-Pescara, Italie. Elle est l’auteure de 4 monographies, a dirigé plusieurs ouvrages collectifs sur la littérature et la culture victoriennes et publié de nombreux articles et chapitres d’ouvrage en Italie et à l’étranger. Elle a récemment travaillé sur le roman à sensation victorien et néo-victorien. Elle a publié deux ouvrages sur Wilkie Collins : Venturing Into Unknown Waters. Wilkie Collins and the Challenge of Modernity, 2008, et Sensation and Professionalism in the Victorian Novel, 2015. Elle a également dirigé un ouvrage collectif sur Collins : Armadale, Wilkie Collins and the Dark Threads of Life, 2009. Sa recherche porte aussi sur le postmodernisme et le post-colonialisme.

© Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2016

Conditions d’utilisation : http://www.openedition.org/6540

Lire

Accès exclusif

open access

Offert par L’éditeur de ce site