Saturday, September 21, 2019

Ronald Knox, the most important man in Sherlockiana? Yeah.

There's no denying that Ronald Knox wrote the cornerstone work for Sherlock Holmes fans in 1912, "Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes." Published in July of 1912 in Oxford's The Blue Book,  again in 1920 by Oxford's Blackfriars magazine, and in Knox's own collection of essays in 1928 in both London and New York, the Sherlockian world was quick add that book, Essays in Satire, to their collections.

In 1958, the sage Edgar Smith included it in his collection The Incunabular Sherlock Holmes on this side of the Atlantic, and James Edward Holroyd did the same in 1967 when he published Seventeen Steps to 221B. It got the nod again in 1984's The Baker Street Reader, and is currently available on the internet. And those are just the places I know about.

Knox's 1912 essay breaks all kinds of ground that would later by expanded upon by Sherlockians even after a century later, and I have yet to hear anyone decry its place in our culture.

So when Baker Street Crow highlighted a single sentence in a recent tweet, she was bringing some pretty high authority to her point.

"If there is anything pleasant in criticism, it is finding out what we aren't meant to find out. It is the method by which we treat as significant what the author did not mean to be significant, by which we single out essential what the author regarded as incidental."

And as far as Conan Doyle was concerned, the entire Sherlock Holmes Canon was pretty much not meant to be significant nor essential. And yet, here we are.

Crow was using that line to give a little slap to those who get worked up over LGBT readings of the Canon. Holmes and Watson being considered as lovers makes no less sense than Sherlock and Irene being considered lovers, or even Sherlock Holmes being considered as a golfer. We all bring to our readings whatever is in our own heads coming to the table, and Sherlock Holmes being gay, bi, or asexual is just as open to personal views as him being Church of England, Jewish, or Buddhist.

Where it can be taken too far, and Knox actually makes this point in the lines that follow, is taking an author's words and using them to make judgments on the author themselves. "Thus, if one brings out a book on turnips, the modern scholar tries to discover from it whether the author was on good terms with his wife." Knox's entire essay parodies the practice by looking at Watson as the author of the Canon -- he's not targeting Conan Doyle at all. Sherlockians, likewise, may have their fun in playing with the Watsonian authorship that way, but when it comes to putting thoughts in Conan Doyle's head based on some phrase or angle in the Sherlock Holmes stories . . . that's where Knox would be among the first to say we've gone wrong.

It's very tempting to occasionally play with Doyle as we play with Watson, and there can be fun in it, as with "Doyle's Rotary Coffin" and the idea that he would spin in his grave with outrage at some of what has been done with Sherlock Holmes since he last wrote. But at this point, so far removed from his actual lifetime, we're left taking him at his words. And he left us a lot of very specific words on a whole lot of subjects. We don't need to extrapolate about Doyle himself from the Sherlock Holmes stories.

But extrapolating about John H. Watson, as the one true author of our dearly loved Canon? Ronald Knox built us a lovely pool to dive into. And you can leap from as high a diving board as you choose, as the Canon is just that deep.

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