The Hounds of Baker Street: An investigation on the effects of historicizing fiction through a look into Sherlock Holmes’s flat

by Chara Kitsaki

The game is afoot. In the dimply lit room of a small flat in Baker Street, two men are sitting in silence. Through dark clouds of tobacco smoke and particles of dust, Dr. John Watson glances at the sceptical form of his fellow companion. Sherlock Holmes is sitting patiently at his chair reading through the last client post. The light from the window behind him reveals the postal code of the letter.

221B Baker Street.

A place which has become one of the most well-known addresses in the city of Westminster, London. Included in almost every tourist guide, advertised across airports and train stations and etched in the literary scenery of Marylebone, 221B has become a symbol of the most fascinating detectives in Victorian literature. However, with the opening of the ‘Sherlock Holmes Museum,’ in 1990, 221B Baker Street has shifted form a mere symbol of Conan Doyle’s work, to an artefact of historical representation. One might argue that in the case of Arthur Conan Doyle’s work, and through the nature 221B has come to assume the past couple of years, fiction has generated history. The consequences of what I call ‘historicising fiction,’ can be displayed through investigating the ways in which fiction turns to fact, and by looking at the edges between past and present, reality and fantasy, and history as a commodity.

One of the most prominent ways through which this intricate shift from fiction to history has taken place is reflected through the very nature of the building’s existence. Although the place is widely known and referred to as Sherlock Holmes’s flat, a look at the history of the house and its location will reveal a different story. Opening for the first time in 1990 as a museum, the building was first set up in 1815[1]. Interestingly, between the 1860’s and the 1930’s, when Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson were presumable residences of the flat, the apartment was, in reality, employed as a boarding house[2]. While we may have little to no surviving reports of the conditions of the house as a boarding school, it becomes evident that the boundaries of fact and fiction have been significantly altered favouring the fictional residence of Sherlock Holmes over the actual one of prior boarders.

When one tries to untangle the multiple strands surrounding the myth/reality dichotomy of 221B, one must turn to the intentions of Arthur Conan Doyle. When the Sherlock Holmes’ stories were published for the first time, the street numbers in Baker Street did not go as high as 221[3]. The section north of Marylebone Road, which now does include 221, in Conan Doyle’s time was instead referred to as Upper Baker Street. In ‘A Study in Scarlet,’ Conan Doyle locates Holmes’ house in the ‘end of Upper Baker Street[4]’. However, Nigel Morland, a British contemporary writer of Conan Doyle, claimed that later on in Conan Doyle’s life, he did in fact mention Baker Street in its own[5]. Thus, it becomes apparent that the author of the stories himself was not entirely clear as to where 221B should reside. He left it at the fate and hands of multiple generations to come to appropriate not only the historical significance of the building but also its location. When new numbers were allocated in Baker Street in the 1936, the assertion of odd numbers starting at 215 and ending at 229 was appointed to an Art Deco property then known as the Abbey National[6].

The ambivalent nature of the location generated a long dispute between the Abbey House and the Sherlock Holmes Museum, reflecting the instance of fiction and history in direct conflict. While it may sound bizarre, what now is known as 221B is not located in the real postal code of 221b. A blue plaque signifies the address of 221B Baker Street as officially belonging to the Museum, which is in fact located at 239. 221B was assigned not based on its geographical position, but rather based on the appropriation of a location that was needed to piece the puzzle of a believable setting for the fictional life of Sherlock Holmes. In essence, the council of Westminster arbitrarily renumbered the building where the museum is still located so it could coincide with the myth that it represents. As a result, the Sherlock Holmes Museum claimed ownership over post sent to the actual 221b postal code fuelling the conflict with the Abbey National. The main argument against the right of the Museum in receiving letters addressed to 221B, and subsequently being recognized as such, was that the number 221B was bestowed on the Museum by the Council albeit being clearly out of sequence with the other numbers of the street. Peculiarly enough, the blue plaque outside the Sherlock Holmes Museum reading ‘221b Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective 1881 – 1904,’ recognizes, in fact, 239 Baker Street as 221B.

Thus, the action of creating such a controversial establishment for a fictional character, not only reflects the extremes to which the museum went in its process of generating a believable history around Sherlock Holmes, but also further fractures the boundaries between what is real and what is not. The curators of the museum, accumulating approximately two-hundred-years worth of evidence, have gone the extra mile to blur the lines between fact and fiction. The pillow on Sherlock Holmes’ bed is creased and the bed looks used. There is tobacco ash on the Persian shoe and on the mantel lay stained letters from clients. Juxtaposed alongside these manufactured pieces of history, are real traces of life in Victorian England. If one glances at Sherlock Holmes’ library, amongst handwritten notes and manuscripts, one can discern Darwin’s 1859 book ‘On the Origin of Species,’ E. A. Ormerod’s 1890 essays ‘Manual of Injurious Inects and Methods of Prevention’ as well as a ‘London Times’ newspaper, dated July 12 1891. By placing the fictitious storyline created by Conan Doyle against the real backdrop of Victorian England through material indicators, the two conditions merge. History and fiction veer close to each other rendering the dichotomy between what is myth and what is real not only more difficult to perceive but also easy to produce.

If one listens to the conversations people are having while walking around the rooms of 221B, one will hear how ‘is’ and ‘was’ is employed interchangeably when referring to the presumable life of Sherlock Holmes. People ask ‘Is this the place he wrote?’ pointing at a worn out desk, but add laughingly ‘This is the hat he wears’ while trying on the Holmes’ trademark deer-stalker hat. This seemingly unintentional mingling of tenses, reveals the very nature of the conflict between the past and the present. While history is almost always referred in the past, as a way of magnifying its importance and signalling its boarders, fiction exists in an everlasting present. The inert ability of fiction to reproduce the present of the writing in every different century is what makes 221B a place of immersion to a different era and not the forced reproduction of the myth as to resemble fact.

One comes in contact with the most telling sign of the collapse of past into the present when visiting the museum’s gift shop. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes have been subject to multiple cinematic and television adaptations across the centuries. Each adaptation, providing the original story with a different cultural milieu and setting. From Basil Dean’s ‘The Return of Sherlock Holmes,’ to BBC’s ‘Sherlock,’ actors form different backgrounds have assumed the role of Conan Doyle’s famous detective. The figure of Holmes that illustrator Sidney Paget, in collaboration with Conan Doyle, imagined has now merged, and is sometimes even confused, with modern interpretations of Holmes. Apart from further obscuring the division between past and present, this intricate amalgamation of the real story with its modern adaptions, reveals one of the most startling complications of historicising fiction. While most of the museums around the city of London, such as the British, the Imperial and the Victoria and Albert are free for entrance, the Sherlock Holmes one requires from its attendants a fifteen-pound fee. In addition, the gift store located next to the entrance of the museum, can provide the Sherlock enthusiast with a disturbingly vast amount of miscellaneous items. Post-cards, tissues, bags and approximately fifty duplicates of Dr. Watson’s manuscripts and Sherlock Holmes’ pipe are displayed across the store in varying prices. Many of them, with the actors’ face instead of the original illustrations. This intricate brand that has now been created around Sherlock Holmes, not only illustrates the dangers of commodifying literature, but also the way fiction is ‘sold,’ literally and metaphorically, as a product.

The game is on. In the dimly lit room of a small flat in Baker Street, two met are sitting across from each other. Dr. John Watson glances at the sceptical form of Sherlock Holmes. He is sitting patiently at his chair reading through the last client post and the light from the window behind him reveals the postal code of the letter. 221B Baker Street. After enquiring into the ways fiction generates history, and its consequences in twenty-first century society, one question remains prevalent: does it matter? Does it really matter that this small apartment in Marylebone is not really located in the postal code of 221B? Does it really matter that this bed is not where Sherlock Holmes really slept, and this hat is not the one he really wore? Does it matter that Sherlock Holmes never existed and his character was a mere fragment of Conan Doyle’s imagination?

The answer to the latter questions can be only one: who knows! The liminal space between fiction and history will keep existing and until people get tired of reading, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, will keep occupying it. And maybe, past the conflicts of fiction, fact, past and present, this is the place it needs to remain. Maybe, this threshold between the wavering terms of fantasy and history, is the only place where one can fully immerse oneself in the world Arthur Conan Doyle created. After all, in the words of Steven Moffat, creator and writer of one of the most recent television adaptations of Sherlock Holmes, ‘who they really were, it doesn’t matter. It’s all about the legend, the stories, the adventures.[7]

[1] Jimmy Stamp, The Mystery of 221B Baker Street (2012) <http://www.smithsonianmag.com&gt; [accessed 26 February 2017].

[2] Jimmy Stamp, The Mystery of 221B Baker Street (2012) <http://www.smithsonianmag.com&gt; [accessed 26 February 2017].

[3] Jimmy Stamp, The Mystery of 221B Baker Street (2012) <http://www.smithsonianmag.com&gt; [accessed 26 February 2017].

[4] Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet: A Sherlock Holmes Adventure (London: Collins Classics, 2014), p. 12.

[5] Washington Post, Sherlock Holmes 101 (2004) <http://www.washingtonpost.com&gt; [accessed 25 February 2017].

[6] Washington Post, Sherlock Holmes 101 (2004) <http://www.washingtonpost.com&gt; [accessed 25 February 2017].

[7] Sherlock, dir. by Benjamin Carron (BBC, 2017).

 

 

 

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