"What is it that we love in Sherlock Holmes?"
Edgar W. Smith asked that question at the beginning of a much cited editorial bit in the April 1946 issue of The Baker Street Journal, and it is a question worth revisiting every now and again. Edgar Smith answered soundly and well for 1946 Sherlockians, but his thoughts, were they a human being, would be now well past retirement age. Many generations of Sherlockians have been born since, and as well-phrased as Smith's words were then, the question he asked must still be answered anew every now and again.
Take for example, the first half of Smith's answering essay: Victorian England. Even though other Sherlocks made it to their own modern day, as Basil Rathbone did, fighting those Nazis, every fan of Sherlock Holmes knew his true home was Victorian England . . . until recently. Television Sherlock has now broken the time barrier, and massive numbers of fans of the great detective now feel as comfortable with him in a modern 221B as ever did with him in the 1880s. And while one might feel a bit of nostalgia for the old Victorian period and love the source material deeply, the good side of Holmes breaking the time barrier cannot be denied -- solid proof that there is something eternal in Sherlock Holmes. Time and technology don't matter to him.
Well, that is where we come to the second half of Smith's essay, the part that gives it its title, "The Implicit Holmes."
We love Sherlock Holmes because we are, to some degree, narcissists.
Smith wrote it much kindlier and more diplomatically than that, but basically, we love Sherlock Holmes because we see something of ourselves in him. We see a part of ourselves that knows there are truths to this world we would like to freely expose. We see a part of ourselves that is smarter than the Scotland Yarders who so often surround us. We see a part of ourselves that we know could rise above it all and set the world's wrongs to right . . . if we just had a little more of Sherlock Holmes in us.
And we love that part of ourselves, that part that is Sherlock Holmes.
Edgar Smith waxed warmly about it all, invoking hearth-fires and sitting rooms, but have you ever noticed how many serious narcissists do pop up in the Sherlockian world? Those who love Sherlock Holmes a little too much, and their own point of view even more? (Yes, yes, I am including those who blog far too much about matters Sherlockian. But I'm a self-aware narcissist -- that makes me less nasty, right? Sure, it does . . .) One wonders if we're now getting more of "jerk Sherlock" and "addict Sherlock" because our view of ourselves has changed . . . or maybe we're seeing Sherlock as something outside ourselves . . . as our partners.
When Edgar Smith wrote his answer to "What is it that we love in Sherlock Holmes?" he was writing as a man for an audience of male Sherlockians. He didn't think of it that way, I'm sure, and some women did read him, but in the culture of the day, let's be frank -- pretty darn male-dominated. Watson, like a wife of the Victorian era, was not Holmes's equal back then. Friend, yes. Trusted companion, yes. Much love between them, yes. And even though we saw Holmes through Watson's eyes, Watson wasn't allowed to be the protagonist. And that came through in films, as film-makers felt a need to include this vital character from the stories, but didn't know what to do with him in a movie format.
Now, we're getting John H. Watson more often as his own man in dramatic productions. A rich and complex character all his own, as he was at first. And sometimes that character overtakes us in the tale, becoming the protagonist and making Sherlock Holmes this strange other thing that has to be dealt with. We are suddenly the wife of this very unusual husband, so to speak.
And what is it that we love in Sherlock Holmes then? Or do we?
These days, with so many Sherlocks to choose from, that question becomes well worth considering. Because we don't have to love every Sherlock. Only those that touch something in ourselves or something we'd like to see in a partner.
It's not as easy a question to answer these days, as it was in Edgar Smith's time, unless one is completely Doyle-Canon-centered. And why would we want easy questions anyway?
We're fans of Sherlock Holmes. The game is afoot.