A post-colonial canonical and cultural revision of Conan Doyle's Holmes narratives

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A post-colonial canonical and cultural revision of Conan Doyle's Holmes narratives

Redefining the British literary canon as imperial construct and influence
'A canon,' Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffiin argue, 'is not a body of texts per se, but rather a set of reading practices....' (189). They define 'reading practices' as 'the enactment of innumerable individual and community assumptions, for example about genre, about literature, and even about writing....' (189). The purpose of the following discussion is to investigate the link between the British literary canon and its attendant culture. That culture, Said argues, was one which imperial and colonial ideology had infiltrated. "Imperialism", in this discussion, will be defined in Said's words as 'the practice, the theory, and the attitudes of a dominating metropolitan centre ruling a distant territory....'(Culture 8). "Colonialism", likewise, will be noted as representing 'the implanting of settlements on distant territory....'(Culture 8). Increased imperialism and colonialism between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries resulted in the creation of a 'socially desirable, empowered space in metropolitan England....[which was] connected by design, motive and development to distant or peripheral worlds....conceived of as desirable but subordinate....' (Culture 61). England viewed itself as the powerful economic, academic and military centre of its empire: the colonised native was reduced by 'the authority of the [Western] observer, and of European geographical centrality' to occupy 'a secondary racial, cultural, ontological status....' (Culture 70). The oppression of the native cultures of the colonized territories maintained the fantasy of the centrality and superiority of British culture.

Said's argument, when combined with Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin's canon moulded by 'reading practices' which include 'community assumptions' (189), suggests that the bias toward priviliging its own imperial and colonial status in Britsh culture would logically lead that culture to accept texts which affirmed its imperial centrality and primacy. Said affirms this when he argues that the culture of imperial Britain encouraged 'canonical inclusion and exclusion....' (Culture 70).

The first stage of questioning the canon and canonical texts as constructs of imperial ideology entails identifying 'unspoken subjects [i.e. marginalised, distorted representations of colonised cultures and individuals]' in texts accepted by their contemporary British culture. Said argues that the critical reappraisal of such texts 'entails reading the canon as a polyphonic accompaniment to the expansion of Europe, giving a revised direction and valence to such writers as Conrad and Kipling who have always been read as sports, not as writers whose manifestly imperialist subject matter has a long subterranean or implicit and proleptic life' in the works of preceeding generations of writers (Culture 71).

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Said notes that imperial ideology is present in the work of writers including Spenser, Defoe and Austen (71).

With the aim of linking texts from the British literary canon to imperial ideologies present in their contemporary culture, Conan Doyle's The Sign of Four and "The Speckled Band" will be discussed. This discussion will investigate how canon, culture and text were formed by imperial ideology, and how they perpetuated that ideology within their own ranks. By so doing, the first aim of post-colonial criticism (which seeks to de-centre the centre) as expressed by Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin will be validised. They describe this aim as 'serv[ing]....to describe the features and projects of the substantial body of texts which exist in [imperial and colonised] societies and the ways in which these have appropriated the practice of writing from the centre....' (194).

What emerges is a hermetically sealed British imperial culture lasting until the collapse of the empire in the mid-twentieth century. The imperial drive becomes an approved presence in the fictions of British authors: these fictions permeate their contemporary and formative future cultures. Culture then affirms and dictates the content of the literary canon according to its ideological principles, and vice versa. Loomba emphaises this point when she writes that texts condoning colonialism and imperialism are 'crucial to the formation of colonial discourses precisely because they work imaginatively and upon people as individuals....'(74). Therefore, '[l]anguage and literature are together implicated in constructing the binary of a European self and a non-European other, which is part of colonial authority....'(73).

Conan Doyle, Said notes, like other authors of the late Victorian period such as Kipling, presented in their texts 'a scattering of editorial asides on the immutable nature of the Oriental world as distinguished from the whole world, no less immutable....' (Culture 181). This reflected, in the sense detailed above, the equal presence of such 'asides' within non-literary culture, and the perpetuation of an ideology privileging England as "centre," enabling all forms of British imperial culture to affirm each other and strengthen the superstructure of empire: as Said argues,

[t]he most cursory survey of late nineteenth-century Western culture reveals an immense reservoir of popular wisdom of this [imperial ideology]....manipulative devices from cigarette cards, postcards, sheet music, almanacs, and manuals to music-hall entertainments, toy soldiers, brass band concerts and board games extolled the empire and stressed its necessity to England's strategic, moral and economic well being, at the same time characterizing the dark or inferior races as unregenerate, in need of suppression, severe rule, indefinite subjugation....'(Culture 181).

The Sign of Four:Doyle's imperially compatible text

Doyle's Holmes texts are of particular interest, occupying as they do a position at the interface between popular culture and canonical literature. By the time of the publication of the second Holmes' text, The Sign of Four, Dr Watson had already been marked as the narrator of the Holmes tales in A Study in Scarlet. Studyportrays Watson as a doctor who had served with the British army in India, 'deep in the enemy's country....', against the 'murderous Ghazis', from whom he was rescued by hus dutiful orderly (Study15). The first Holmes text establishes a biographical backdrop for its narrator that embodies a simple opposition between heroic British military strength and an oppositional, primitive colonised populace. Furthermore, Watson is a figure who has actively suppressed the native figure in India. Considering Said's comment that the 'cult of the military personality was prominent [in late Victorian British culture], usually because such personalities had managed to bash a few dark heads....'(Culture 181), Watson can be seen as signifying an element desiged by Doyle to fuse his Holmes texts with the contemporary British cultural outlook.

In Study, Watson treats anything originating in India as the rightful property of England. Consider his contracting 'enteric fever,' which he describes as 'the curse of all our English possessions....'(15). This view of the colonies as British property continues in The Sign of Four. The narrative of Sign centres around a box of Indian treasure brought to England by the father of the twins Bartholomew and Thaddeus Sholto. The box, in the estimation of Thaddeus Sholto, is the rightful property of Mary Morstan: however, an ex-soldier convict, Jonathan Small, and his native Indian accomplice, are seeking the treasure. Small, in collusion with native Indian Sikhs and the Morstan's father had stolen the treasure after the 1857 uprising.

Immediately upon hearing of the treasure, Watson conceives of it through the filter of the British economy. Its status as a part of Indian heritage is suppressed and it is taken to be the rightful propert of Mary Morstan. Thaddeus Sholto muses that '"the value of the jewels [is]....not less than half a million pounds sterling...."' (105). Doyle links Sign not only to non-literary British culture but also to the contemporary body of English literature via inserting the presence of the Indian Mutiny in Jonathan Small's narrative (145 - 51). Patrick Bratlinger notes that mid to late Victorian fiction contained an imense amount of writing about the Indian Mutiny: Doyle intersects with these texts when he mentions the Indian mutineer Nana Sahib (151), who became a widely used paradigm in English fictions of the time, to embody the perceived treacherous nature of the colonised Indian populace (Bratlinger 205).

'After the Mutiny,' Bratlinger writes, 'India is portrayed as mired in changeless patterns of superstition and violence which can be dominated but not necessarily altered for the better....' (200). Such a view is embodied, as noted above, in the character and outlook of Watson. Bratlinger continues that 'Victorian writing about the Mutiny expresses in concentrated form the racist ideology that Edward Said calls Orientalism....' (199). Said defines Orientalism as being comprised of both the study of the East by the West, and any ideological outlook held and expressed by the West which serves to create and affirm 'ontological and epistemological distinction[s]' between the Orient and the Occident....' (Orientalism 2-3).

Doyle treats the distinction between East and West as objective fact. Watson, once the imperial dominator abroad, functions in the same capacity at home, continuing to suppress the Indian figure in England as in India. Doyle uses Watson as a device to oppress and eradicate the native Indian islander Tonga, Small's accomplice, whom he shoots as he stands on a barge on the River Thames (138-9).

Jonathan Small is highly distrustful of Tonga, viewing him through a Christian ethnocentric perspective as a '"hell-hound'".(138) The native Indian in Doyle's text is associated with the English criminal underground: however, if anything, Doyle gives the Indian native a status below that of his accomplice. Thaddeus Sholto's butler Lal Rao portrayed in the same way. He leads Holmes, Watson and Morstan down 'a sordid and common passage....'(100) It is unsurprising that Doyle elects to reveal Lal Rao as another of Small's accomplices (158).

In associating the native Indian with the criminal and undesirable, Doyle's text can be seen to belong to Said's conept of 'latent Orientalism' (Orientalism 207). Anything conforming to this concept promotes an unchanging, immutable polarity between East and West, with the West the superior force. Said writes of 'latent Orientalism' that 'the Orientals were viewed in a framework constructed out of biological determinism and moral and political admonishment. The Oriental was linked thus to elements in Western society [such as the above example of the criminal which]....hav[e]....in common an identity best described as lamentably alien....' (208).

If Watson is the military oppressor of the marginalised colonised figure, Holmes represents the Orientalist, the Westerner who utilises European study of the Orient with the result of revealing and outwitting the criminally linked "Other". By so doing he justifies Watson's actions and validates Orientalist research as the key to understanding, controlling, and remaining superior to the colonised populaces. Whilst Watson is solidly "English", and is confused by objects from other cultures, Holmes can identify such "anomalies" and use them to his own advantage. Consider the example of the poisoned thorn found in Bartholomew Sholto's neck (109). Holmes, unlike Watson, begins to understand what has happened. Utilising scientific and anthropological writings on the Orient (127), Holmes "taps" into the large framework of Western biased knowledge of the East, and identifies the thorn as belonging to a native Indian islander. This islander is Small's accomplice Tonga. However, Ania Loomba notes that such "scientific" study as used by Holmes was 'far from being an objective, ideologically free domain,....[and] was deeply implicated in the construction of racist ways of thinking about human beings and the differences between them....' (61). It is unsurprising that scientific knowledge grounded on a racist premise should reduce the figure of Tonga to that of a 'stereotype' embodying qualities perceived as primitive and uncivilised. Loomba defines a 'stereotype' as 'a reduction of images to a simple and manageable form [with the effect of] perpetuat[ing]....an artificial sense of difference between "self" [i.e. the British imperial "centre"] and "other" [the Indian native]....'(59-60).

The presence of 'latent Orientalism' in The Sign of Four extends to the metonymic function of untranslated words. Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin note that the use of 'untranslated words' in post-colonial texts is a means of expressing native cultural identity on the part of an author writing in a colony or ex-colony infiltrated by imperial ideology (64). Interestingly, if this concept is inverted, the reader can interpret Doyle's use of untranslated words as a means of activating the sense of polarity between British culture and the native presence which is already present in the mind of a reader entrenched in the ideology of the imperial centre. Consider Thaddeus Sholto's use of the word '"khitmugar"' to his servant. Baring-Gould's annotation accompanying this word notes that it is 'Hindu for butler or man-servant' (624). The metonym, as defined by Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin, signifies 'the part that stands for the whole....' (53). In the context of Doyle's text, and in the imperially conditioned mind of its contemporary reader, '"khitmugar"' signifies the presence and "alien" status of the Indian figure and culture in relation to British society. Openly and covertly, The Sign of Four makes itself acceptable to the imperialist ideology in late Victorian culture and its attendant literary canon. In turn, as has been noted, all these elements are offshoots which sprout from and return to nourish the ideology Said terms Orientalism.

"The Speckled Band": Doyle's fear and rejection of inter-cultural experience
Complimenting the Orientalism present in the two Holmes novels discussed above are the themes contained within "The Speckled Band". This text, one of fifty-six Holmes short stories, was originally published in the popular magazine The Strand(Dickson-Carr 84 - 91). Its narrative reinforces Holmes' use of Orientalism by an Englishman from an English perspective, by contrasting the detective's approach with that of Dr Grimsby Roylott, who ceases to study the Orient from the outside and becomes subsumed within it. The result of Roylott's immersion in this "alien" culture is madness, disorder, and inverted colonialism within the grounds of the ancestral home of the Stoner family, Stoke Moran. Helen Stoner, Roylott's step-daughter, seeks Holmes' help when her sister dies in bed, deliriously babbling of '"the speckled band"'(260). Stoner provides a simple biographical sketch of her family and of Roylott, who belongs to '"one of the oldest Saxon families in England...."' (259). Roylott, she recounts, attempted to counter the family's ailing finances by '"obtain[ing] an advance from a relative, which enabled him to take a medical degree and [go]....out to Calcutta, where, by his professional skill and his force of character, he established a large practice"'(259-60). The colonies, in this instance India, are once more portrayed as resources to boost and sustain the economy of the imperial centre and those individuals emanating from it. Simultaneously, Doyle excuses Roylott's looming madness and return to England in two ways. His return to England is caused by his harsh beating to death of his '"native butler"', after '"some robberies which had been perpetrated in the house...."' (260). Marrying Stoner's widowed mother in India, Roylott came back to Stoke Moran. However, Roylott who in Holmes estimation is '"a clever and ruthless man who has had an Eastern training"', lets '"Indian animals"' roam the confines of his estate, and travels with '"wandering gypsies...for weeks on end...."'(260). The impossibility of a harmonious mixing of East and West is fused with the stern fear of the consequences of studying the culture of the colonies from a position which is not anchored to the ideology of the imperial centre.

Doyle's second excuse for Roylott is now initiated. Roylott, as Helen Stoner recounts, is not a rational man. '"Violence of temper approaching to mania,"' she states, '" has been hereditary in the men of the family, and in my stepfather's case it had, I believe, been intensified by his long residence in the tropics...."'(260). No sane individual, Doyle infers, would leave the rationally ordered imperial centre for the chaos of the Orient. Roylott's insanity infers that the Orient, too, is unbalanced and by moving back to England, Roylott turns the grounds of his estate into a chaotic inverted colony where the irrational world of the Orient (as perceived by Doyle) commands.

Holmes, again via the use of Orientalist scientific research for imperial ends, deduces that Roylott is sending an Indian '"swamp adder"' into the bedroom of his step-daughters, with the intent of killing them both. Hiding in Stoner's bedroom, Holmes and Watson lash out at the snake. The creature turns on Roylott, fatally poisoning him (272). There can be no greater crime against the imperial centre, in its agents' estimations, than turning its knowledge against it: by attempting to kill his step-daughters, Doyle presents Roylott as insanely pursuing the goal of eradicating the English presence within England, whilst accentuating the authority of Oriental cultures in its place. '"When a doctor goes wrong,"' Holmes muses, '"he is the worst of criminals"' (270). The rational Holmes and his partner Watson ensure that the "correct" eradication occurs: that of the other, for there can be no intermingling of the cultures of East and West without insanity ensuing. Doyle again silences the voice of the colonised native culture, or portrays it as a stereotype in the sense outlined above by Loomba.

"Distortion" is perhaps a better word than "stereotype", particularly when applied to the figure of the snake in the text. Baring-Gould notes that 'no known species of snake fully satisfies all the requirements of "the speckled band"....[it would have to be] a....compendium of the Mexican Gila monster....and the....Indian cobra....' (266). The snake in the text is a non-existant creature constructed from a mingled collection of scientific sources, used to symbolize and present not only the perceived polarity between coloniser and colonised, but also the incompatibility of one to the other and, in the triumph of the former over the latter, its self-bestowed superiority. Doyle's Holmes texts provide not only his own views but what those individuals who collectively made up the contemporary British reading public would find acceptable and compatible with the imperial ideology instilled within them. This reinforces Said's argument that narratives written in imperial cultures were accepted or rejected on the grounds of whether they conformed to the authority of that culture. That authority 'places emphasis not so much on how to read, but [on] what is read and where is written about and represented....' (Culture70).

"The Speckled Band", and Doyle's other Holmes fictions, illustrate the ties between imperial ideology, and its contemporary culture and literary canon. In them it has been possible to perceive, in their absence, 'unspoken subjects', that is, the silenced voice of native cultures in the colonies (Ashcroft et al., 193).Doyle's texts, and those of other authors privileging the centre, can be critically re-evaluated as texts which are not, in the words of Loomba, '"above" historical and political processes"(75). These texts, she continues, 'in what [they] say, and in the process of their writing, are central to colonial history, and in that can help us to a nuanced analysis of that history....'(75). The literary canon can be extended to include contemporary native colonial writers, accentuating a view embracing, in Said's words, 'overlapping territories....and intertwined histories....' (Culture72).

Links to related web-sites

Conan Doyle sites and texts:

221b Baker Street

An e-text of A Study In Scarlet

An e-text of The Sign of Four

An e-text of "The Speckled Band"

Works cited

Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and practice in post-colonial literatures.London: Routledge, 1989.

Baring-Gould, William S.,ed. The Annotated Sherlock Holmes.Vol.1. London: John Murray, 1968.

Bratlinger, Patrick. Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 1830 - 1914. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1988.

Carr, John Dickson. The Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.London: John Murray, 1949.

Doyle, Arthur Conan.The Penguin Complete Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. London: Penguin, 1984.

---. The Sign of Four. Doyle, Penguin Complete Adventures, 87-158.

---. "The Speckled Band". Doyle, Penguin Complete Adventures, 257-73.

---. A Study in Scarlet.Doyle, Penguin Complete Adventures, 13-86.

Loomba, Ania.Colonialism/Postcolonialism. London: Routledge, 1998.

Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism.London: Vintage, 1994.

---. Orientalism. London: Routledge; Keegan Paul, 1978.

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