21 Jul 2015

Sherlock Holmes, Conservative

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SherlockHolmes
Sherlock Holmes lecturing Dr. Watson, drawn by Sidney Paget

Christopher Sandford, writing in The (always dubiously conservative) American Conservative, concludes perfectly correctly that Sherlock Holmes was everything The American Conservative is not “a Victorian libertarian—and imperial conservative,” i.e. essentially an older version of that now vanishing American species, the Goldwater Conservative.

Holmes is an individualist. In the best sense of the words, he’s a confirmed loner and an inveterate free-thinker. Holmes is often the only man in the room with a contrary opinion, whether about someone’s character or a set of circumstances. Even in his latest BBC manifestation, it’s hard to imagine him carrying a sign or joining a picket line. Instead, the tell-tale signs of the libertarian are everywhere, from Holmes’s dress-code—essentially respectable but with just that touch of the haphazard to eschew the orthodox—to his famously bohemian lodgings, and erratic but long work hours.

He’s the epitome of the sort of self-sufficient, small-state, freelance operator Margaret Thatcher surely had in mind when she said that there was no such thing as “society” in Britain, merely millions of innately free-willed and aspirational men and women.

Holmes is also a precursor to James Bond—surely another neo-Thatcherite—in enjoying some of life’s more luxurious consumer goodies. He frequently accepts expensive presents from grateful clients in high places, invariably travels first-class, smokes custom-blended tobacco, and takes hits from a jewel-encrusted snuff box, one of numerous gifts from the nobility. …

Here’s how Holmes sets the scene of his retirement in The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane:

    [The case] occurred after my withdrawal to my little Sussex home, when I had given myself up entirely to that soothing life of Nature for which I had so often yearned during the long years spent amid the gloom of London. … My villa is situated upon the southern slope of the downs, commanding a great view of the Channel. … My house is lonely. I, my old housekeeper, and my bees have the estate all to ourselves.

Surely this retreat to the heart, then as now, of Tory England speaks to the deep vein of traditionalism that lies under Holmes’s bohemian façade. The final stories may include some of the most outlandish plots of the entire series, but alongside all the veiled lodgers and creeping professors, the obsessive moral theme becomes more than ever the urgent need to maintain a social order under threat both from within and without. There’s no need to look further for proof of Holmes’s profound sense of disquiet than when he’s left in old age with a feeling of having “failed both my clients and myself,” or when he contemplates the coming ruin of the “quiet, ordered, harmonious, well balanced” Britain personified by Queen Victoria and the rise of the “brash, smug, self-regarding generation” yapping impatiently at the old nation’s heels.

“Is not all life pathetic and futile?” Holmes inquires in his 60th and final appearance, The Adventure of the Retired Colourman. “We reach. We grasp. And what is left in our hands at the end? A shadow. Or worse than a shadow—misery.” There speaks the true voice of the British conservative.

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