Wednesday, February 1, 2017

It's not always 1895. Once it was 1914.

I've seen a few posts of late where Sherlockians bring up that over-used classic of Sherlockian poetry, "221B" by Vincent Starrett. We only have one classic Sherlockian poem, so it's not like they have much choice, really.

One thing that's always bothered me about "221B" from the first time I heard it was it's final line:

"And it is always 1895."

In the world of Sherlock Holmes, it's not always 1895. If you had to only read stories that occur in a particular year for the rest of your days, scant few Sherlockians would pick 1895. The 1880s were the fun times. Basically, Starrett used it because it rhymed.

And I get what he's conveying, too: Sherlock Holmes and John Watson are classic characters who live in a timeless fictional realm that we can always go back to. That's cool.

Right now, however? Not so cool.

Some are using it to express their displeasure over the latest BBC Sherlock episodes. And others are using it to convey that we have the handy laudanum of Doylean fiction to dose ourselves with when the strife of a rising authoritarian regime gets too much to bear. Or maybe, "Well, everything else sucks, but we still have Sherlock Holmes!"

But if the worldwide popularity of BBC Sherlock told us anything, it was that it doesn't always have to be 1895. It can be 2010 and Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John H. Watson, M.D. both work perfectly find. They can deal with cell phones and helicopters and all sorts of modernities and still be just who they've always been. And whether you're talking Basil Rathbone or the writings of Conan Doyle himself, they've pulled this off before.

Once it was 1914, and Sherlock protected England as a spy in "His Last Bow." And once, when he had to come to Washington in the aptly titled "Sherlock Holmes in Washington," Sherlock Holmes fought Nazis.

When a threat to the world rose in the past, Sherlock Holmes was there. He wasn't hiding in 221B Baker Street, puffing at a comfort-pipe. No, Sherlock Holmes got out into the thick of it.

Self-care is important, and we all need to take breaks as needed. But retreating into the Canon to avoid reality completely is probably not going to be a helpful model when things get tense. Better to use Sherlock Holmes as he has always been used best: As an inspiration to look closer at things, as an inspiration to rationally work out answers, and as beacon of justice on a fog-shrouded moor.

Because it's not always 1895. Sometimes it's 1914.


  1. Though it is not a poem, I have always found the ending to "The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes" to be poetic. (Last page, beginning 'My task is done...') wherein Watson states 'for awhile the past rises up to obscure the present and I see before me the yellow fogs of Baker Street...'
    Now, Watson is not avoiding his 'present time' but only obscuring it for 'awhile'. He is still ready for any 'threat to his world' in his 'present.' If it's good enough for Watson, it's good enough for me.

    1. Though in 1914, the non-pastiche Watson was right there, ready to join in with "his old service." Not only ready, but acting.