Monday, January 17, 2022

A defense of the first Sherlockian, Helen E. Wilson

 Since Vincent Wright published his findings about Helen Elizabeth Wilson in both blog form and video, there might have been a few naysayers to the thought that Ms. Wilson was our first recorded Sherlockian, as other college magazine have turned up writings about Sherlock Holmes that pre-date her 1898 essay in the October issue of Cornell Magazine. Even Vince himself turned up one tonight from September 1897. Yet I maintain my belief that Helen Wilson was our first Sherlockian. Why?

The most recent piece from 1897 started just as an earlier bit I read had, comparing Conan Doyle's work with that of Edgar Allan Poe. Having died in 1849, Poe had attained quite the fame by the 1890s. Baudelaire's translations of Poe's work helped make him very popular in Europe (and Baudelaire wasn't even the first translator). And being an American, you know that by the time Sherlock Holmes was rising in popularity, the old Poe fanboys were gonna have none of this Doyle upstart.

"The old wheel turns, and the same spoke comes up," as Sherlock Holmes said, and that applies to fan behavior as must as creators. Thus I question the qualifications of any writer about Sherlock Holmes who is talking about Poe's detective as much as Holmes in his piece.

Turning back to Helen Wilson, do you know how many mentions of Poe are in her "The Life of Sherlock Holmes?" Not a one. And let's take it a step further: How often does Helen Wilson mention Conan Doyle?

Well, when she gets to the third page of her essay, Helen Wilson does have to admit, "But his creator, Mr. Conan Doyle, was not thoroughly consistent." One can see that she didn't really want to mention him at all, focusing on "The Life of Sherlock Holmes," as the title of her essay proclaims. But as every other devout Sherlockian scholar has had to do once they cross a certain threshold of study, Ms. Wilson has to find someone to blame for one of the obvious errors in Watson's work.

That Helen Wilson pulled in Conan Doyle as creator in that moment of need is understandable. She was young, and had all the innocence we would expect of the first Sherlockian. She had not become as old and crafty as those of us who would come later. And giving Doyle at least that passing nod probably just seemed nice. In any case, there is just something of the true Sherlockian in every bit of her work.

Let the old school Poe fanboys have their shouts of "Doyle just copied our hero!" -- Holmes had already put their detective in his place on his first outing. They should be feeling a bit testy about it. But having gotten the name "Sherlock Holmes" in print doth not a Sherlockian make.

Should we discover an earlier work than Helen Wilson's that embodies the Sherlockian spirit even more than her little essay, I shall happily accept that -- we've always been glad of more Sherlockians -- but for now, the young lady is number one in my book!

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