Thursday, June 14, 2018

The shipping office

Sometimes I just take out a copy of The Complete Sherlock Holmes, open it randomly, and plant a finger on a phrase, then just ponder the result. In a work so rich with detail, I'm never disappointed.

This morning (and why I don't do this every morning, I don't know), I gave it a shot and found a Canonical character who was into shipping . . . well, not that kind of shipping, sadly.

Dr. James Mortimer makes his first appearance at 221B Baker Street, having left his walking stick behind on a previous attempt to meet Holmes and Watson, and says this:

"I was not sure whether I had left it here or in the Shipping Office. I would not lost that stick for the world."

If Mortimer is absently leaving his cane behind places, it would seem he doesn't really depend upon it too badly, nor actually value it too highly, since he lets his dog chew on it.(A curly-haired spaniel that he's dragging about London, yet apparently leaves tied up on the street when coming up to visit detectives.) But back to that Shipping Office.

"The Shipping Office" would be the perfect name for a fanzine, but if we get past that distraction, our first question has to be, "What was Dr. Mortimer doing there? What was he shipping?"

Mortimer wasn't shipping anything -- and this detail gives you a view of how rich Conan Doyle's mental image of his characters' world was -- Mortimer was surely at the shipping office inquiring about Sir Henry's possessions that were coming over from Canada. Mortimer won't meet Mortimer at Waterloo Station for over an hour yet.

We spend much of our time in the early chapters of The Hound of the Baskervilles watching Holmes and Watson deal with the mystery of Sir Charles's death and then the mysterious figure who shows up to follow Sir Henry. We focus on cabmen and boots, maps and manuscripts, but not what Sir Henry and Dr. Mortimer are doing in London before heading out to Baskerville Hall. Which is, basically, all the bits that have to do with moving one's entire life from Canada to England.

What possessions had Sir Henry accumulated that he felt dear enough to bring across the Atlantic with him? What did he leave behind? How did a shipping office of the 1880s work, being so long before UPS or Fedex? Royal Mail Canada was founded in 1867, but was probably not up to shipping anything too large at that point. We read of "shipping agents" a few times in the Canon, and an Aberdeen Shipping Company in "The Man with the Twisted Lip," but the snapshot Watson/Doyle gives us is not at all detailed, and why should it be? "Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Shipping Agent" would have been a very different set of stories. (And yet, might still have worked!)

As with all things Canonical, I'm sure some enterprising Sherlockian could unearth enough material about shipping of the Victorian era to fill a twenty-minute talk at some Saturday symposium and entertain the usual suspects for that amount of time. But such an obscure specialization is the kind of thing you would only get to if you were currently a proud professional shipper yourself . . . or just randomly poking your finger into a copy of the Complete.

The Canon never disappoints, though, which is, apart from Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, another reason why it's stayed with us so long.

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