Shunga: sex and pleasure in Japanese art @ British Museum

Fear of sex in the Western tradition

The Positions (I Modi or The Sixteen Pleasures) a 16th century Italian book of engravings of various sexual positions, was for a long time notorious for being the most sexually explicit book in the tradition of European art. It was banned by the Pope in 1524 and its author, Raimondo, imprisoned. Discouraged by this example and the repressive laws of their various countries, few European artists made sexually explicit images until the dawn of the modern age – with notable pioneers including Aubrey Beardsley in the 1890s and Egon Schiele in the 1910s.

This wasn’t a consequence of one Pope’s diktat, but because fear of the body as one of the chief enemies of godliness, of holiness, of the individual’s hopes of getting to heaven, is deeply embedded in the Christian traditions which frame our culture. From the Church Fathers down to the 4th century theologian Augustine, the earliest Christian thinkers were repelled by the human body. They sought martyrdom as quickly as possible, or tried to starve and subjugate the bodies which they saw as the enemy of their immortal souls. The Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History (731) is a list of the holy men of Ireland and Britain, all of whom starved or scourged their bodies to achieve holiness.

The exhibition

This stunning exhibition at the British Museum is a comprehensive overview of the amazingly graphic and explicitly sexual imagery produced in Japan between 1650 and 1900, known as shunga art. Shunga are beautifully crafted paintings of sexually explicit images of great delicacy and refinement, usually created in sets of 12. During that period, virtually all artists in the Japanese tradition were expected to produce shunga.

The sequence of 12 varied scenes could be taken as a guide to lovemaking or as an aid to stimulation, for solitary readers or for couples. Over the centuries, hundreds of artists made shunga images and the genre spawned scores of variations, including the comic, the satirical, the grotesque and so on.

Shunga by an artist of the Seitei School

A shunga by an artist of the Seitei School

The floating world

The earliest surviving examples come from the period 1600 to 1650. The high quality materials used in their creation indicate the artists were commissioned and patornised by the very richest in society. It wad during t his period, with the growth of cities, especially Edo, that the Samurai government presided over the growth of a so-called ‘floating world’ of pleasure-seeking, brothels and the immensely popular kabuki theatre. From around 1650 cheaper woodblock-printed shunga were produced in large quantities for townspeople, showing more ordinary folk in a wide variety of sexual activity, alongside the continuation of high quality painted items for aristocrats.

The exhibition covers all this and more, reaching back to earlier periods. Among the myths of Japan’s religion, Shinto, is the story of the Japanese gods of creation Izanagi and Izanami who learn lovemaking from a wagtail (!) and whose lovemaking produces the island of Japan itself.

I was riveted to read that Japan’s creation myths are recorded in histories dating from the 700s ie exactly contemporary with the struggle to bring Christianity to the illiterate Germanic pagan tribes of these islands which the Venerable Bede’s History describes.

Poem of the Pillow

Poem of the Pillow

There are 100 or more images and each one is labelled with detailed notes and an explanation of the artist, the date, the precise sub-tradition they were working in, the ways in which they were manipulating the genre. It is a lot to read and take in, a whole new world, an entirely new tradition.

Health, equality and homosexuality

The cumulative impression is that there was no Shame. Sex was for pleasure and for health. Some of the texts which accompany the images recommend sex as a vital part of a healthy lifestyle, to keep the heart and other organs functioning correctly, or as the key to eternal youth. In one image a man is stimulating a woman and catching the waterfall of her juices in a jar which he will later drink as the elixir of eternal youth.

And the Equality of Pleasure. Women are depicted as enjoying sex, as achieving climax, as being just as cheeky and naughty as the men. In some scenarios one or more women trick a visiting man to have sex with her or them. A man is conned into a sack from which his dangling penis protrudes so he can have sex with a succession of women, all shown with their very hairy vulvas exposed and without any hint of Western concealment or embarrassment.

Man with seven women

Man with seven women

And there’s a large amount of homosexuality – some lesbianism, but mostly a lot of men buggering each other. Again, despite our liberal times, I felt a frisson of concern or fear, at acts which in my lifetime were still completely illegal in Britain, being displayed so brazenly. But here they are, depicted openly, frankly and humorously. A scroll portrays with beautiful detail and humour, sex between Buddhist priests and their acolytes from the 1300s. Apparently it was known as the ‘way of youths’ or shudo.

The exhibition includes a medieval scroll in which a bathhouse full of men compare the sizes of their comically enlarged penises, which need tables to rest on. This is followed by a section where they compare farts in a contest. All reminiscent of Chaucer and Rabelais.


One of the most striking things throughout is the contrast between the perfectly white and perfectly unblemished skin of the Japanese figures, with their stylised eyes, noses and mouths, the cleanness and purity of line with which they are portrayed – and the exaggerated, donkey-size penises and violently red vulvas which they display. The figures are often shown in anatomically impossible poses to ensure the penis and vulva are blatant, the unmistakable core of the image.

Untitled shunga print by Kitagawa Utamaro (1752-1806)

Untitled shunga print by Kitagawa Utamaro (1752-1806)

After the initial shock wore off, after I became a little inured to so many penises and vulvas, I found myself noticing the beautiful kimonos and silk clothing of the protagonists, depicted in stylised folds and with loving attention to pattern and material. Also to the backdrops and settings, to the scrolls and wall hangings in the rooms, to the cherry trees outside with their immaculately rendered petals.

There was one whole type of books which started with sets of portraits of individuals, done with great elegance and solemnity, and which ended with big close-ups of their penis or vulva – the reader was expected to match the face with the genitals.

According to the wikipedia article on shunga ‘the genitalia is interpreted as a “second face,” expressing the primal passions that the everyday face is obligated by giri to conceal, and is therefore the same size as the head and placed unnaturally close to it by the awkward position.’

This is so far from Western ideas of decorum, or art, as to be quite bewildering, dazzling.

A brief history

Shunga existed in the Middle Ages, became widespread as high-class paintings in the 1600s, then as mass-produced woodcuts from the 1650s. There were attempts to ban them in the 1720s and periodically through the 1700s, but all indications are that they continued to circulate widely and be very popular. Only in the early 1900s, as Japan’s leaders embarked on a course of self-conscious modernisation, was shunga really systematically banned, and thereafter became a taboo genre for most of the 20th century.

It’s fascinating to see the influence of Western traditions intrude as Japan began opening up to the outside world from the 1860s onwards. Western Victorian gentleman begin to feature in the illustrations, with precisely the same engorged organs and hairy tufts as the Japanese, but wearing incongruously prim frock coats and hats.

The most regrettable western import is the total nude. All of the Japanese images portray their figures semi-dressed, with fabrics artfully falling away to reveal the genitalia, and the combination of lovingly depicted fabric with the raw genitals creates a wonderfully dreamy ‘floating world’ fantasy, a pornotopia of cost-free, riskless sexuality.

In the photographs which Westerners began to take in the late 19th century and which are exhibited here at the end of the exhibition, we see all too clearly the actual reality of Japanese women – prostitutes – stripped to the waist and exhibited like cattle. It’s impossible not to feel the heavy hand of Western sexual repression and its opposite – crude and exploitative pornography – crushing the delicacy and gorgeous detail of the native tradition.


Many of the images were carefully designed to accommodate texts – poems, moral advice, spiritual quotes or jokes. Some of the shunga artists were also masters of haikus, the famous short verse form. Among many more explicit examples, one relatively restrained one caught my eye:

Onto his silent lap
she lowers
her eloquent hips

The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife (Hokusai)

The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife (Hokusai)

Related links

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle (1902)

‘Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!’

Fed up with the difficulty of constructing the crossword-puzzle-like short stories, and keen to concentrate his energies on the historical yarns which he much preferred, Conan Doyle had killed off Sherlock Holmes in The Final Problem, published in the Strand magazine in December 1893 (one hundred and twenty years ago to the month).

But his other novels and stories (and plays) didn’t do nearly so well financially, the clamour from fans and publishers alike grew louder and, on board ship back from the Boer War where he had worked as a volunteer doctor at Bloemfontein, he struck up a friendship with one Fletcher Robinson who knew a story about a legendary monster hound – and so the seed of his most popular story was sown.

The Hound of the Baskervilles was serialised in the Strand from August 1901 to April 1902 before being published in book form later the same year.


As usual the text is itself made out of a tissue of other subsidiary texts which are, in effect, pasted together to make up the master text. Thus in the first few pages Watson looks up details of Dr Mortimer in a medical register, Dr Mortimer presents H&D with a manuscript from the 1730s which tells the legend of the Baskervilles, before reading out the newspaper report of the death of Sir Charles Baskerville, there is the mysterious letter made from words cut & pasted from the Times newspaper, a number of telegrams and, of course, most of the events down in Devon are described in the letters the faithful Watson posts to Holmes, before he uses diary form, and before he reverts to traditional 3rd-party narrative.

So the texts themselves enact the problem or challenge of assembling disparate evidence into an orderly narrative.


I’ve made up this word to describe the way every Holmes text mentions a sizable number of other Holmes cases/texts, thus creating the impression of a potentially endless universe of stories. Thus increasing the plausibility of the fictional context or universe in which the fictional character can operate. Hence the many people who write letters to 221b believing Holmes is an actual person. Thus the crossover fictions which involve him with Jack the Ripper or the Great War. Bigging up Holmes’s reputation.

One wonders whether Conan Doyle, exasperated at having to revive his fictional puppet, wrote some of these ones tongue in cheek:

I was exceedingly preoccupied by that little affair of the Vatican cameos, and in my anxiety to oblige the Pope I lost touch with several interesting English cases. (Chapter 2)

In chapter five Holmes claims to have dealt with ‘five hundred cases of capital importance’, quite an inflation since the 70 or so Watson mentioned in the previous volume. In the epilogue a few other quick cases have been solved before Holmes has time to tie up all the loose ends: the card scandal of the Nonpareil Club and mystery of Mlle Carère.


As Holmes lays the situation before him the young Sir Henry Holmes, barely returned from the colonies to claim the cursed title and house, exclaims: ‘I seem to have walked right into the thick of a dime novel’. But making a character point out that he is appearing in a cheap melodrama doesn’t in any way prevent him from actually appearing in a cheap melodrama.

Not only the Gothic atmospherics laid on heavily in the gloomy and accursed ancestral home in the middle of the bleak and ominous Dartmoor, but the characters have a wonderful Edwardian cheesiness:

There he sat, with his tweed suit and his American accent, in the corner of a prosaic railway-carriage, and yet as I looked at his dark and expressive face I felt more than ever how true a descendant he was of that long line of high-blooded, fiery, and masterful men. There were pride, valour, and strength in his thick brows, his sensitive nostrils and his large hazel eyes. If on that forbidding moor a difficult and dangerous quest should lie before us, this was at least a comrade for whom one might venture to take a risk with the certainty that he would bravely share it. (Chapter 6)

Or the description of the fine specimen of Edwardian womanhood, Miss Stapleton:

She was darker than any brunette whom I have seen in England—slim, elegant, and tall. She had a proud, finely-cut face, so regular that it might have seemed impassive were it not for the sensitive mouth and the beautiful dark, eager eyes. With her perfect figure and elegant dress she was, indeed, a strange apparition upon a lonely moorland path. (Chapter 7)

And her subsequent realisation that her husband was a bounder:

‘Thank God! Thank God! Oh, this villain! See how he has treated me!’ She shot her arms out from her sleeves, and we saw with horror that they were all mottled with bruises. ‘But this is nothing—nothing! It is my mind and soul that he has tortured and defiled. I could endure it all, ill-usage, solitude, a life of deception, everything, as long as I could still cling to the hope that I had his love, but now I know that in this also I have been his dupe and his tool.’ She broke into passionate sobbing as she spoke. (Chapter 14)

Only the figure of Holmes the calculating machine lifts these fictions above the pulp melodrama which so many of their situations consist of. That and the soundness of Conan Doyle’s sentences. They are beautifully grammatical. Even when describing the most overwrought emotions Conan Doyle’s prose remains clear and sound. (Contrast him in this with Kipling’s horrible prose style, infected with archaisms and biblicalisms and tags of argot.) They are the textual equivalent of Mrs Hudson and the bachelor rooms, they are anchors of safety and security, a measure of the man’s bluff Edwardian hearty good cheer.

The horror

I was standing in front of him, when I saw his eyes fix themselves over my shoulder and stare past me with an expression of the most dreadful horror. (Chapter 2)

Something brown was rolling and tossing among the green sedges. Then a long, agonized, writhing neck shot upward and a dreadful cry echoed over the moor. It turned me cold with horror. (Chapter 7)

Barrymore sprang up from the window with a sharp hiss of his breath and stood, livid and trembling, before us. His dark eyes, glaring out of the white mask of his face, were full of horror and astonishment. (Chapter 9)

A terrible scream—a prolonged yell of horror and anguish—burst out of the silence of the moor. That frightful cry turned the blood to ice in my veins. (Chapter 12)

Holmes laid his hand upon him and held it up again with an exclamation of horror. (Chapter 12)

You only have to compare the liberal use of ‘horror’ in Conan Doyle’s penny-dreadful melodramas with Joseph Conrad’s famous use of it in Heart of Darkness, to realise how thin and superficial the Conan Doyle is. There is pretty much no psychology at all in them. Gentlemen have a hereditary nobility, ladies are dignified and beautiful, criminals are stunted and coarse, the baddy is a cunning fiend! We are barely dealing with people but ciphers in a game of Cluedo.

In the Holmes texts we can see Victorian melodrama, a strand in Dickens and a central concern of Wilkie Collins, giving birth to its offspring, the American dimestore novel which mutates into the pulp fiction of the 1920s and 30s, and in its country of birth gives rise to the Golden Age of Detectives between the wars, Lord Peter Wimsey, Hercules Poirot et al.

The British Empire

As in all the previous stories there is a strong colonial connection: the previous Baskerville, Sir Charles, had made his fortune in South African gold and the new tenant, Sir Henry, has to be recalled from adventures in the States and Canada where he had lived a manly outdoor life.

As in the previous two novels and many of the short stories there is a strong sense of the interconnectedness of, the easy travel to and from, the Anglo-Saxon colonies – America, Canada, Australia, South Africa – and that these are places where a man goes off to make his fortune, to forge a new personality, to return transformed. Kipling is the great embodiment of this moment, carrying his Indian heritage with him to the South Africa of the Boer War or the Vermont of Teddy Roosevelt, an ideology of supreme confidence in the White Man’s destiny to rule and triumph.

Though both Conan Doyle and Kipling are concerned at the rise of Germany or our unpreparedness to defend the Empire, neither of them begins to doubt that the ideology is itself fatally flawed, unlike the bitter fatalism of Conrad for whom the entire project is a savage farce.

No, after all the twopenny ‘horror’, Holmes and Watson are home again by the fireside in 221b Baker Street, as Holmes ties up the last outstanding loose ends of his latest and greatest triumph.

Holmes and the Boer War

See also my analysis of Holmes and the Boer War ie the war revealed the shocking malnutrition and stuntedness of English conscripts, crystallising late-Victorian anxiety about the degeneration of the race. The Hound of the Baskervilles is, at bottom, a cautionary tale about degeneration within one family: in which the degenerate, dastardly, half-Spanish Stapleton/Baskerville who has inherited the degraded blood of the libertine Hugo, mistreats his lovely wife and tries to murder the fine, upstanding Sir Henry, not only the heir to the noble blood of the family, but steeled and hardened in the tough, manly world of the Anglo-Saxon colonies. Pure blood versus impure blood. Nobility and pure breeding versus half-breed mongrel. Sincerity and honesty versus criminal concealment. Anglo-Saxon morals versus low, half-hispanic treachery!

Read The Hound of the Baskervilles on Project Gutenberg

Illustration for the Hound of the Baskervilles by Sidney Paget (Wikimedia Commons)

Illustration for the Hound of the Baskervilles by Sidney Paget (Wikimedia Commons)

Art under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm @ Tate Britain

I read a slighting review of this saying it was incoherent and a classic example of bad – ie highfalutin’, over-intellectual – curatorship. Certainly, if you went expecting an exhibition of art you’d be disappointed; the exhibition includes few if any complete works of art. I quickly realised the best way to think about it is as an essay about art – or about an aspect of art history, namely the ability of art to inspire the urge to destroy.

The exhibition is divided into three sections: Religion, Politics, Aesthetics (which should be an immediate warning that we’re dealing with something more like an article or a thesis than a display):

Rooms 1-4 Religious iconoclasm

The exhibition dated the word iconoclasm to Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries 1536-40. This surprised me since, as I’ve just been reading in The Conversion of Europe, iconoclasm was a major religious movement in the Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire in the 8th and 9th centuries, as its etymology suggests: iconoclasm stems from the Medieval Latin iconoclastes, from Late Greek eikonoklastes, from eikon (genitive eikonos) meaning ‘image’ + klastes, ‘breaker’, from klas- past tense stem of klan, ‘to break’.

The first few rooms contained examples of statuary, stained glass and religious architecture from Rievaulx and Fountains abbeys which had been destroyed by Henry’s forces. Henry VIII decided to break with the authority of the Pope in Rome when the Pope refused to allow him to divorce Catherine of Aragon. Henry made himself head of a new Church of England and allowed the zealous reformers to implement the policies of the European or German Reformation begun by Martin Luther in the 1510s. This meant closing all Catholic shrines – particularly the world-famous one to Thomas à Beckett in Canterbury – and taking the Second Commandment at face value:

You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I The Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate Me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love Me and keep My Commandments. (Exodus 20:4-6 RSV)

Worshiping images was held to be the sin of idolatry and, in more modern interpretations, pagan superstition. This gave the reformers and the King’s ministers carte blanche to destroy all Catholic monasteries and convents, to strip all gold and jewels from all shrines, paintings and altarpieces, to deface and smash all religious statues, to smash stained glass windows, melt down and sell of the lead.

There was a display case with some Christian books from the 1620s on every page of which a reformer had carefully gone through cutting out the image of God the father which had featured in scenes of the Creation etc. There was a very striking rood screen panel from Binham Priory in Norfolk which had featured paintings of Jesus as the Man of Sorrows, but which reformers had whitewashed over and then written on religious texts. The Catholic reliance on imagery and relics forcefully replaced by a Protestant insistence on the primacy of the Word. I know there are some historians who posit that this primacy of the Word over the Image explains why England’s literature is rich but our visual arts have generally lagged behind the Continent…

It must always be remembered that the Church of England which conservatives hold so dear and which the British went out to impose on native peoples all over its Empire, was founded on a truly vast act of corporate vandalism. And not just one:

The Civil Wars After a few rooms of ruined statues and defaced paintings, the exhibition skipped forward to the 1640s and the Civil Wars (or Great Rebellion) which overthrew Charles I. The Puritans unleashed a second great wave of state-sponsored vandalism, with widespread smashing of statues and stained glass etc, led by zealots like William Dowsing in heavily Puritan East Anglia.

It is worth reflecting that twice in the past 500 years, Britain’s rulers have given the people of Britain, at all levels, permission and encouragement to destroy and deface the most beautiful and holy works of art. It testifies to a deep-seated destructive and vandalistic urge in British, and particularly English, culture.

From my teens whenever I’ve seen a vandalised phone box or bus shelter I’ve thought, Yes; that is in a long and venerable tradition of destruction.

Relics But if there is a deep-seated urge to destroy which is just waiting for official permission to be unleashed, there is an equal and opposite urge to preserve relics and mementoes. In the early religious rooms ‘relic’ refers to the religious relics – fragments of the true cross, the crown of thorns, Jesus’ sandals, bits of saints bodies or clothes etc – which in the Dark Ages had been used to spread the healing power of the saints, and which fill the pages of, for example, the Venerable Bede. I was reminded of the British Museum’s great 2011 exhibition Treasures of Heaven which concluded, unexpectedly, with the pair of gloves which Charles I wore at the scaffold, with possible droplets of blood on them, and which were preserved to this day by devout Anglo-Catholics. And of course the weeping crowd at his execution surged forward uncontrollably to dip whatever rags they had into the blood of the martyr. Nothing John Milton or the other Parliamentary propagandists could do could budge the faith of a large part of the English population that Charles died a martyr. And this thought led into the next few rooms:

Room 5 – Politics and public space

The commentary made the point that one of the most characteristic art forms of the 18th and 19th centuries was the public statue, especially of royalty and military figures. It then looked in detail at how several high profile public statues were defaced and destroyed, namely Nelson’s column in Dublin – blown up by the IRA –  the equestrian statue of King William in Dublin – defaced, ridiculed and then demolished after independence – and a column with statue of Prince William, the Duke of Cumberland, the so-called Butcher of Culloden who led the British army which crushed the Jacobite Rising of 1745. His statue stood for a long time in the centre of Aberdeen until local Scottish soldiers asked for it to be removed in the 1920s.

The destruction of statues of the oppressor made me think of the iconic toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. What did it materially benefit anyone to pull it down? Instead the statue played a psychological role as a fetish or symbol of the regime and was not only pulled down but then liberally spanked with shoes, apparently an Arab sign of disrespect.

But the paradoxical wishes to destroy and to preserve made me think of the Berlin Wall. Yes, everyone rushed to have their photo taken with a pickaxe demolishing a section in 1989 – but they also rushed to grab a piece of the wall and many thousands of people hold on to this memento of a historic moment, just like people held on to their rags dipped in Charles I’s blood, or the monks on the Venerable Bede’s lifetime clung on to hairs or fragments of the clothes of holy men.

At the bottom of this exhibition lies the fundamental human ability to endow inanimate objects with tremendous psychological importance, good and bad (reminding me of the prehistoric decorated objects in the British Museum’s fascinating Ice Age art exhibition). Iconoclasm, the destruction of venerated objects, is obviously the dark side of our ability to venerate and value found or made objects.

Room 6 Suffragettes

Deeds not words was their motto and the suffragettes defaced and damaged an impressive roster of art works. It was simple but striking to see how many of them were paintings of women, such as the Rokeby Venus.

Why, the suffragettes raged, did men raise idealised images of women onto pedestals but treat real women as inferiors or even imprison them and torture them (with force feeding)?

Photo of the Rokeby Venus showing the slashes made in it by suffragette Mary Richardson in 1914

Photo of the Rokeby Venus showing the slashes made in it by suffragette Mary Richardson in 1914

Rooms 7-9 Iconoclasm in Art

Suddenly it’s the 1960s and we’re into conceptual and performance art, a wing of which enjoyed smashing things up. Hence the organisation known as the Destruction In Art Symposium or Raphael Montañez smashing up pianos and chairs, recording the process and exhibiting the results, or Douglas Gordon burning Andy Warhol silks or the Chapman brothers defacing cartoons or mark Wallinger making a video of the Zefferelli’s Jesus of Nazareth with almost all the frame blocked by a black rectangle. Ho ho ho, those subversive artists 🙂 But nothing is subversive in Art anymore, so these last rooms had almost no impact on me; apart from learning that the Taliban established a kind of genre or routine display by unspooling videotapes and handing them from lamp-posts etc, thus creating a kind of waterfall of black tape which blows in the wind, which was here recreated by an artist.

I also saw three photo-montages by John Stezaker who I’d never heard of before. Here’s a selection of images he creates by defacing standard portraits.


It would be easy to dismiss the exhibition as incoherently making giant leaps between vastly different periods of history, only superficially examining any of them, before skating on to the next superficial moment.

But I bought into its cherrypicking approach from the start and therefore enjoyed it as a compilation tape, a kind of Now That’s What I Call Iconoclasm CD, yanking together different ‘works’ and moments and meanings to create a fascinating and thought-provoking exhibition.

Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle (1894)

Being the second set of a dozen short stories which appeared in The Strand magazine December 1892 – November 1893, and took Holmes to still greater fame.

Holmes and Freud (England versus Europe)

In the Adventure of the Yellow Face Holmes tells Grant Munro:

‘…my friend and I have listened to a good many strange secrets in this room, and … have had the good fortune to bring peace to many troubled souls.’

which makes me think straightaway of Freud: Sherlock and Sigmund both being freelance consultants hired to solve puzzles which more traditional doctors/policemen cannot treat. Freud’s fearless and epoch-making investigations of the psyche and its origins in sex and violence couldn’t make be a bigger contrast with Conan Doyle’s cosy crimes – a bit of horse-stealing or treasure-finding or bank-robbing or counterfeiting all sorted in time to be home at Mrs Hudson’s for tea and crumpets. They may both clearly date from the same fin-de-siècle culture with its fascination for the decadent, for the criminal and transgressive, but Holmes is jolly good chap English nursery games compared to the terrifying investigations Freud made and which embarrass our culture to this day.

Compare the English writers of the day (Stevenson, Kipling, Wells, Conan Doyle, Haggard) and their ripping tales of derring-do, or Wilde’s sparkling fairy tales, with the psychological depth of Europeans like Freud, Chekhov, Maupassant or Mallarmé, Ibsen or Strindberg. Compare Elgar to Mahler. Or Sir Edward Burne-Jones’s dark-eyed Arthurian maidens to the sophisticated psychology of Klimt or Munch.

The return of the repressed

In Freud it is repressed drives and instincts which return in dreams and neurotic symptoms. In Holmes it is peoples’ past lives which catch up with them, so often from adventures abroad: the Australian convict, the black America child, the rival soldiers during the Indian Mutiny. Abroad is seen as more primitive, primal, a place where men commit crimes and make huge fortunes, a place where more instinctive drives can flourish. Upon returning to Blighty, names must be changed and past liberties repressed, hushed, silenced. Half of these cases aren’t about crimes at all, they’re about people petrified their squeaky clean Anglo reputations will be damaged.


Again, Conan Doyle uses the old technique of making throwaway references to numerous other cases to build up the sense of Holmes’s vast achievements and far-flung fame. Watson breezily refers to: the Tarleton murders, the case of Vamberry the wine merchant, the adventure of the old Russian woman, the singular affair of the aliminium crutch, Ricoletti of the club foot and his abominable wife (in The Musgrave Ritual, p.97) or the adventure of the Second Stain and the adventure of the Tired Captain (in The Naval Treaty, 199).

This has the effect of making Holmes seem famous even as his real-life fame increased, a kind of echo.

The stories

  • Silver Blaze – clients: none. The prizewinning racehorse goes missing and it turns out was being led into the moor to be hobbled by its own trainer John Straker who owed money to support a fancy woman. King’s Pyland, Devon.
  • “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box” (Omitted from English editions because it eals with adultery! This story is in His Last Bow in American editions of the canon) Client: Susan Cushing.
  • The Adventure of the Yellow Face – client: Grant Munro. A strange yellow face at the window of the cottage across the fields and his wife mysteriously disappearing. It is to see her black child from her first, American, husband. Norbury, south London.
  • The Adventure of the Stockbroker’s Clerk – client: Hall Pycroft is puzzled to be offered a job in Birmingham days after accepting one in London. He goes and meets the badly disguised same man who interview him in London. Holmes realises they’ve decoyed Pycroft so the crooked brother can go take his place at a big merchant bank in the City. Indeed, they see in the papers that a massive robbery was foiled though the interviewer had murdered the bank’s nightwatchman. In a melodramatic twist the Birmingham brother tries to hang himself.
  • The Adventure of the Gloria ScottHolmes’s first case – client: Victor Trevor was a friend of the generally anti-social Holmes at college and invited him to his home in the Norfolk Broads where he met old Trevor a landowner and JP. It emerges OT has been living in fear and Victor tells him about a good-for-nothing chav named Hudson who came to stay and terrorised the household. Old Trevor dies of apoplexy after receiving a letter from an old colleague, Beddoes, Hudson has gone to stay with. In a letter to his son he explains he and Beddoes were convicts involved in the mutiny on the prison ship Gloria Scott which is blown up. They are picked up and taken on to Australia, make their fortunes, change their names and return to decent lives in Britain. But Hudson knows the true story and returns to haunt them.
  • The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual – client: Reginald Musgrave. An old family tradition turns out to be disguised instructions as to how to find King Charles I’s crown. Musgrave’s butler had realised as much but, having gained entry to the cellar where it was, had the heavy stone flagstone slammed shut on him by the wronged housemaid who fled. Hurlstone.
  • The Adventure of the Reigate Squires – clients: none. Recovering from a big case, Holmes and Watson go for a rest cure near Reigate where a spate of burglaries climax in the murder of the butler to the Cunninghams, found with a tear of paper in his hand. Holmes is able to show there was no burglary, and the Cunninghams murdered their own servant who had discovered it was they who’d burgled their neighbour Major Acton in an effort to settle a land dispute between them. They try to strangle Holmes but are arrested on the spot.
  • The Adventure of the Crooked Man – client: Major Murphy. ‘Excellent!’ I cried. ‘Elementary,’ said he. Colonel Barclay is heard arguing with his wife in a locked room at his villa near Aldershot, there is a piercing scream, and he is found dead. Goes back 30 years to the Indian Mutiny when he and handsome Henry Wood, in the same regiment, were both in love with Nancy. The town was besieged. Barclay arranged for handsome Henry to go for help but betrayed him into the hands of the waiting mutineers who horribly tortured him and sold him into slavery. Thirty years later the twisted wreck Wood reappears, along with the scampering mongoose he does tricks with, and his mere appearance gives Barclay a fatal heart attack.
  • The Adventure of the Resident Patient – client: Arguably Dr Percy Trevelyan (Trevelyan was sent to Sherlock Holmes by Mr. Blessington). Trevelyan is a poor doctor whom a mysterious man approaches and offers to invest in his career; he sets him up in rooms and all he wants is 3/4 of the doctor’s income in return. After years of success Trevelyan is visited by a Russian count and his son; while he consults the father the son goes snooping, then both disappear. The next day, surprisingly, they return. It turns out to be an elaborate scam by the great Worthingden bank robbers – climaxes with Blessington apparently committing suicide, as usual all the signs of a great horror and fear on  his face. Harley Street, London.
  • The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter – client: Mr. Melas. First mention and appearance of Mycroft Holmes, fat and slothful and founder member of the Diogenes Club for the terminally anti-social. Mr Melas was kidnapped by a creepy small man with pointy moustache and scary giggle, taken in a sealed coach to a house in grounds where he has to translate for a walking skeleton of a man his face bound with bandages. He is dropped back on Wandsworth Common. He goes to the police then Mycroft. Someone replies to a newspaper advert revealing the house is in Beckenham, south London, where they arrive to find the two baddies and the woman they’re holding hostage long gone, and the skinny man and Mr Melas dying in a sealed room with a charcoal fire.
  • The Adventure of the Naval Treaty – client: Percy Phelps is a promising young diplomat asked by his uncle the Foreign Secretary to copy out a naval treaty with Italy. He leaves  his room to go get coffee and is talking to the commissionaire when the bell in his room rings, he returns to the room to find the treaty gone. Panic and a mental collapse, he returns to the family home in Woking where he is nursed by his sweetheart for 10 weeks until Holmes arrives. Turns out it was the fiancee’s brother who is in debt due to gambling on the Stock Exchange. Holmes confronts him as he removes the treaty from where he’d hidden it in the sick man’s room.
  • The Final Problem – clients: none. Holmes appears in Watson’s rooms saying he has finally uncovered the mastermind behind most of London’s crimes, the Napoleon of Crime, Professor Moriarty. He will die happy if he has eliminated Moriarty. He describes a vivid encounter where the two cleverest men in England realise they are set on collision course. If he can just stay safe till the following Monday, the trap will be sprung, Moriarty and his accomplices arrested. So Holmes flees with Watson to the Continent and moves about. But at a walk near the Reichenbach Falls Watson is called back to the hotel by what turns out to be a fake medical emergency, leaving Moriarty to trap Holmes on the cul-de-sac path to the Falls. Here he allows him, conveniently, to write a last message to Watson, before the two fight and both fall into the raging waters.


Some fatefulness in Conan Doyle’s intentions, or some magic in his touch, that even when he tries to get rid of Holmes as an albatross round his neck, tired and fed up with the character, he comes up with an out-of-the-blue, jimmy-rigged plot contraption of an evil mastermind of crime to provide a fitting end to his master detective, even then he hits fictional gold and Moriarty – in reality little more than a plot device – has himself become a fictional icon.

Read the stories

Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes at Project Gutenberg

Cover of 'The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes', 1894 (Wikimedia Commons)

Cover of ‘The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes’, 1894 (Wikimedia Commons)


A Study in Scarlet (1887, in Beeton’s Christmas Annual)
The Sign of the Four (1890, Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine)
The Hound of the Baskervilles (serialised 1901–1902 in The Strand)
The Valley of Fear (serialised 1914–1915 in The Strand)

Short story collections

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1891–1892 in The Strand)
The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1892–1893 in The Strand)
The Return of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1903–1904 in The Strand)
His Last Bow: Some Later Reminiscences of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1908–1917)
The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1921–1927)

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle (1892)

The first two Holmes novellas, first published in magazines then in book form, weren’t particularly successful. But the editor of The Strand magazine, George Newnes, saw the potential and commissioned Conan Doyle to write 12 short stories using the Holmes and Watson characters, publishing one a month from July 1891 to June 1892. It was these monthly instalments which began Holmes’s rise to global fame.

  • A Scandal in Bohemia – client: The King of Bohemia calls to say he is engaged to an eligible aristocrat but has had an affair with Irene Adler who has photos of them together. Holmes disguises himself as a groom to get the lie of the land, visits her and arranges an elaborate ruse whereby a fire cracker is thrown into the living room and her startled glance at the wall shows Holmes where the safe is. But the next day when he calls to claim them, she has decamped. She is always The Woman
  • The Adventure of the Red-Headed League – client: Jabez Wilson. Jabez is invited to join a league established by an American philanthropist; he is paid to go sit in a room and transcribe the Encyclopedia Britannica. It is an elaborate ruse to get access to his cellar and tunnel into the bank next door.
  • A Case of Identity – client: Mary Sutherland a quiet legatee of a will becomes engaged to Hosmer Angel at a dance but he mysteriously disappears. Turns out it is none other than her mother’s young second husband trying to swindle her out of her inheritance.
  • The Boscombe Valley Mystery – client: Alice Turner. In Herefordshire a landowner has been murdered by Boscombe pool and his son found bloodied and with the weapon. Eventually the richer neighbouring landowner reveals the back story where one was a bandit and one a security guard in Australia. The bandit, John Turner, came back to Blighty to go straight but was haunted by the blackmailing McCarthy who was determined to marry his son to Turner’s daughter, Alice.
  • The Five Orange Pips – client: John Openshaw, his uncle Elias returned from the States in the 1860s but has been nervous since receiving an envelope containing 5 orange pips, becoming drunk and paranoid until he is found dead in a pool. Then his brother receives a letter containing five orange pips and instructions to leave ‘the papers’ on the sundial… It is leaders of the Ku Klux Klan coming and going to Britain on sailing ships, posting threats and murdering the unfortunate recipients of the pips.
  • The Man with the Twisted Lip – client: Mrs. St. Clair. She glimpses her husband at the window of an opium den, runs upstairs, there is no-one but a raddled addict. The addict is her husband, ashamed to be a City beggar.
  • The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle – no client. A goose contains a vast blue jewel. It was stolen by James Ryder in league with a serving girl to the Countess of Morcar, smuggled across London then, in a panic, stuffed down the crop of one of his sister’s geese at her goose farm in Brixton, but then the wrong goose is despatched in a job lot to a pub where it is bought by a man who, drunk, is beset by toughs and drops the goose, which is rescued by a hotel commissionaire who brings it to Holmes!
  • The Adventure of the Speckled Band – client: Miss Helen Stoner. Impoverished Dr. Roylott forces Helen Stoner, an heiress, to move into a particular bedroom of his heavily mortgaged ancestral home, Stoke Moran where her sister had mysteriously died, her last words being, ‘The speckled band’. It is a poisonous snake brought back by Roylott from India.
  • The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb – client: Victor Hatherley. Victor is hired by a German-speaking man to fix a powerful hydraulic device in the country. He quickly realises it is not mining but counterfeiting equipment and makes his escape with the help of a sweet anguished lady but not before the swinish German has hacked off his thumb with a cleaver! He makes his way to Watson who brings him to Holmes…
  • The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor – client: Lord Robert St. Simon marries Miss Hatty Doran of San Francisco in a very high society wedding but she disappears from the wedding breakfast. Holmes establishes she has been contacted by her first, American, husband, long thought to be dead and has returned to him.
  • The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet – client: Alexander Holder of Streatham, a banker, brings home a priceless coronet but awakes in the night to find his son wrestling with it, half of it snapped off and stolen, his son refuses to say more and is charged. Holmes to the rescue!
  • The Adventure of the Copper Beeches – client: Violet Hunter is mysteriously offered a job at very high pay to be a governess, to have her hair cut, wear a blue dress and sit in a window just so every day. She realises there is a locked wing of the house and suspects someone is incarcerated there, and asks Holmes’s advice…

The Sherlock Universe

From the get-go Conan Doyle deploys the simple strategy of having Dr Watson refer to innumerable cases which Holmes has investigated, most of them never written up in his case notes or stories. He mentions that in 1887 Holmes was involved in the Adventure of the Paradol Chamber, the Amateur Mendicant Society, the loss of the Sophy Anderson, the adventures of the Grice Patersons, the Camberwell Poisoning, the Tankerville Club Scandal and so on. In The Speckled Band he says that Holmes was involved in some 70 cases between 1882 and the time of writing (1891).

This multiplicity, this cornucopia of events and cases creates a universe around the adventures which are actually reported which helps to give them plausibility and also continually reinforces the sense of Holmes’s fame and superhuman abilities. It is also attractive to a certain type of mentality, a certain type of fan, who loves immersing themselves in the minutiae of the fictional universe – a mentality which in our day extends to a vast range of adaptation and merchandising – the Robert Downey Jnr movies, the Benedict Cumberbatch TV series, the new books and stories, the books about the historical background and wider context, quiz books, the board games and mugs and t-shirts and top trumps sets etc etc.

Literature and quotations

Early on in A Study Watson humorously summarises Holmes’s fields of knowledge and says ‘Literature: Nil’. In fact this is extensively refuted in the texts themselves where Holmes is very given to sententiously quoting from a wide range of literary sources:

  • In A Study he quotes Boileau: ‘Un sot trouve toujours un plus sot qui l’admire’. The very last words of the novella are a quote from Horace: ‘Populus me sibilat, at mihi plaudo / Ipse domi simul ac nummos contemplor in arca.’
  • Almost the last words of Sign of Four are a quote from Goethe: ‘Schade dass die Natur nur EINEN Mensch aus Dir schuf / Denn zum wuerdigen Mann war und zum Schelmen der Stoff.’
  • In Boscombe Valley, when bored, Holmes pulls out his pocket Petrarch.
  • In A Case of Identity he quotes the Persian poet Hafiz.
  • In the Red-Headed League he quotes Flaubert writing to George Sand.
  • In the Noble Bachelor he quotes Thoreau.

Apart from Watson getting it wrong, I think these literary quotations demonstrate two aspects of the texts:

  1. Their sententiousness: Holmes is an extremely didactic character. On one level the stories consist of Holmes endlessly lecturing, teaching and scolding Watson.
  2. Their multitextuality: they are made up of numerous other texts: newspaper reports and adverts, notes, police reports, Holmes’s own files and records, and so on. The stories are pieced together, stitched together like puzzles made of fragments of other texts.

The fin-de-siècle and Oscar Wilde

We’ve seen how The Sign of Four was commissioned by the same publisher who commissioned The Picture of Dorian Gray, an indication of how close the London literary scene was, and of the finances underlying the creation of short dramatic stories. But Holmes also has a lot in common with Wilde’s aristocratic protagonists, Lord Henry Wotton or Lord Arthur Saville. It’s true he is not an exquisite fainéant, a dandy, an aesthete. But he does display plenty of aristocratic disdain for convention, effortless superiority over the laughable bourgeois police detectives, a lordly indifference to how he is perceived, sang-froid and indifference to personal danger. He suffers from aristocratic ennui which drives the Wildean hero into dangerous moral territory:

‘My life is spent in one long effort to escape from the commonplaces of existence. These little problems help me to do so.’ (cf ‘I play the game for the game’s own sake.’ from The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans)

And he is much given to paradoxes: all his detective work reveals the strange and telling in the apparently innocent and mundane, and vice versa, and sometimes he summarises his attitude in witty paradoxes worthy of Wilde:

‘It is, of course, a trifle, but nothing is so important as trifles.’

London the cesspool of Empire

One of the many appealing things about the stories is how Doyle capitalises on London’s position as heart of the greatest empire the world has ever known to bring in characters with stories from all over the world:

  • The Red-Headed league claims to have been set up by an American millionaire
  • In Boscombe the two fathers made their money in the colonies, in Victoria state, Australia
  • The Five Orange pips is about the long reach of the sinister Ku Klux Klan from the American South
  • In the Speckled Band the ill-fated Dr. Grimesby Roylott has brought his snakes back from his time in India
  • The Noble Bachelor marries the daughter of an American who made his pile in the California Gold Rush

and so it goes on, creating a particularly quaint and dated vision of the world when half the map was painted red and the world was run by Anglo-Saxon chaps.


If the chaps are, for the most part, noble Anglo-Saxons, then the women are even more dated, fixed in amber from that period, as saintly, innocent, virginal helpmeets and dutiful daughters and damsels in distress. The image of the concerned and helpless young lady, flushed and panting, caught in a hapless plight and requiring help from Holmes the Master-Male, repeats again and again. Any grown-up would be repelled by this stereotyping, but Holmes isn’t for grown-ups.

Read the stories

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes at Project Gutenberg

Cover of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, First edition (Wikimedia Commons)

Cover of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, First edition (Wikimedia Commons)


A Study in Scarlet (1887, in Beeton’s Christmas Annual)
The Sign of the Four (1890, Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine)
The Hound of the Baskervilles (serialised 1901–1902 in The Strand)
The Valley of Fear (serialised 1914–1915 in The Strand)

Short story collections

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1891–1892 in The Strand)
The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1892–1893 in The Strand)
The Return of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1903–1904 in The Strand)
His Last Bow: Some Later Reminiscences of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1908–1917)
The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1921–1927)

The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle (1890)

The second Sherlock Holmes novel opens with the great man injecting himself with cocaine, a ‘seven per cent solution’, to stave off crushing boredom. Watson received his Afghan campaign wound in the shoulder in the first novel; in this one the wound has mysteriously moved to his leg (as it is in the first BBC TV episodes). Hmmm, inconsistencies. In this one Watson meets young Mary Morstan and they fall instantly in love.

London, cesspool of Empire

One of the many pleasures of these books is Conan Doyle’s evocative descriptions of a long-lost London.

It was a September evening and not yet seven o’clock, but the day had been a dreary one, and a dense drizzly fog lay low upon the great city. Mud-coloured clouds drooped sadly over the muddy streets. Down the Strand the lamps were but misty splotches of diffused light which threw a feeble circular glimmer upon the slimy pavement. The yellow glare from the shop-windows streamed out into the steamy, vaporous air and threw a murky, shifting radiance across the crowded thoroughfare. There was, to my mind, something eerie and ghostlike in the endless procession of faces which flitted across these narrow bars of light — sad faces and glad, haggard and merry. Like all humankind, they flitted from the gloom into the light and so back into the gloom once more. (Chapter 4)

Reminds me of the foggy cityscapes of Vaughan Williams’ 2nd (London) Symphony, with its use of market cries and the jingle of harnesses of waiting horses. (Scherzo from Vaughan Williams’ Second Symphony)

‘Wordsworth Road,’ said my companion. ‘Priory Road. Lark Hall Lane. Stockwell Place. Robert Street. Cold Harbour Lane. Our quest does not appear to take us to very fashionable regions.’ We had indeed reached a questionable and forbidding neighbourhood. Long lines of dull brick houses were only relieved by the coarse glare and tawdry brilliancy of public-houses at the corner. Then came rows of two-storied villas, each with a fronting of miniature garden, and then again interminable lines of new, staring brick buildings — the monster tentacles which the giant city was throwing out into the country. (Chapter 4)

Even its most vivid depictors have rarely loved London. It inspires horrified fascination.


The text is itself built from other texts, pretending to be a narrative account created by and in the voice of Dr Watson, which also includes newspaper reports, adverts, scribbled notes and messages, offers of reward and, of course, a True Account or Backstory which explains the bizarre goings-on in the present or foreground of the plot.

Plot and story

Plot  1888 Miss Mary Morstan arrives at 221b Baker Street. Tells a preliminary backstory: her father, Captain Arthur, disappeared abruptly in 1878; since 1882 she has received a pearl ear-ring in a box once a year. Now she has received an invitation to meet a stranger at the Lyceum. Holmes discovers one Major Sholto knew Morstan out in India and died in 1882. Holmes and Watson accompany her to the rendezvous, meet a servant who takes them to a dingy house in Brixton (again with Brixton, scene of the murder in A Study in Scarlet) where lives the dilettante Thaddeus Sholto. He explains his father and Morstan were in cahoots about a treasure from India, Morstan visited Sholto, they had a violent argument and Morstan dropped dead of heart failure. Sholto buried the body and the treasure. One day he received a letter form abroad and became a bag of nerves. He was about to reveal the whereabouts of the hidden treasure to Thaddeus and his brother Bartholomew when a face appears at the window and Sholto also drops dead. Holmes and Watson and Mary and Thaddeus set off to the brother’s mansion in Norbury only to find him dead, in a sealed room!!

Two chases

Chase 1 Bloodhound Toby leads H&W from Pondicherry House to the Oval, to a Thames cruiser for hire but the baddies have got away. H&W advertise for its whereabouts but are foxed.

Chase 2 Eventually tracking it down, H&W hire the fastest police launch on the river and give high speed pursuit to the Aurora as it heads from London Bridge downriver, finally overtaking it near Plumstead Marshes.

This high-speed boat chase reminded me of Dickens, in particular:

  • the exciting three-chapter-long pursuit of Lizzy Hexam’s father, the corpse-fisher, in Our Mutual Friend, in among the boats and wherries and tugs and cruisers moored around the Pool of London
  • the climax of Great Expectations where Pip is trying to get Magwitch safely out of England aboard a hired boat, but is pursued by a police boat
  • also of the strange death of Daniel Quilp in The Old Curiosity Shop, the wicked chandler who ends pursued downriver by the police, falls into the river and drowns, to be washed up on a muddy bank not dissimilar to the muddy shore of Plumstead Marshes where Jonathan Small gets his peg leg stuck, until lassooed free by Holmes & Watson

The strange story of Jonathan Small

The one legged man, Small, was in cahoots with three Indians who, during the Indian Mutiny, murdered a rajah’s servant and stole the treasure of Agra. they hid the treasure but were then arrested and convicted to penal servitude on the distant Andeman Islands. Here Sholto and Mary’s father both supervised prisoners. They discovered the secret of the treasure, dug it up and stole it for themselves but lived in fear of ‘the Four’.

Victorian womanhood

She was seated by the open window, dressed in some sort of white diaphanous material, with a little touch of scarlet at the neck and waist. The soft light of a shaded lamp fell upon her as she leaned back in the basket chair, playing over her sweet grave face, and tinting with a dull, metallic sparkle the rich coils of her luxuriant hair. One white arm and hand drooped over the side of the chair, and her whole pose and figure spoke of an absorbing melancholy. At the sound of my footfall she sprang to her feet, however, and a bright flush of surprise and of pleasure coloured her pale cheeks. (Chapter 11)

How pre-Raphaelite. Like a painting by Millais.

Victorian love

“The treasure is lost,” said Miss Morstan calmly.
As I listened to the words and realized what they meant, a great shadow seemed to pass from my soul. I did not know how this Agra treasure had weighed me down until now that it was finally removed. It was selfish, no doubt, disloyal, wrong, but I could realize nothing save that the golden barrier was gone from between us.
“Thank God!” I spoke from my very heart.
She looked at me with a quick, questioning smile.
“Why do you say that?” she asked.
“Because you are within my reach again,” I said, taking her hand. She did not withdraw it. “Because I love you, Mary, as truly as ever a man loved a woman. Because this treasure, these riches, sealed my lips. Now that they are gone I can tell you how I love you. That is why I said, ‘Thank God.’ ”
“Then I say ‘Thank God,’ too,” she whispered as I drew her to my side.
Whoever had lost a treasure, I knew that night that I had gained one. (Chapter 11)

Oscar Wilde

The Sign of Four was commissioned at a dinner hosted by Joseph M. Stoddart, managing editor of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, at the Langham Hotel in London on 30 August 1889. Stoddart wanted to produce an English version of the magazine. Also present was Oscar Wilde who, as a result, contributed The Picture of Dorian Gray to the July 1890 issue. Amazing times! And an indication that döppelgangers were in the air. Jeckyll and Hyde (1886), Dracula (1897), London was a place where unparalleled refinement and luxury coexisted with what the Victorians termed the most squalid vice, certainly with starving children, mass prostitution, opium dens and drunken violence. The Holmes novels and stories capitalise on this fin-de-siècle sense of corruption and depravity, contrasting high luxury and deepest sin at the extremes with the homely middle way of Holmes and Watson’s happy, well-educated bourgeois lifestyle. Whatever else happens they’ll come home to tea and scones served by Mrs Hudson.

The neatness of cheap art

The book ends as it began with a bored Holmes reaching for the consolation of his cocaine.

 “The division seems rather unfair,” I remarked. “You have done all the work in this business. I get a wife out of it, Jones gets the credit, pray what remains for you?”
“For me,” said Sherlock Holmes, “there still remains the cocaine-bottle.” And he stretched his long white hand up for it. (Chapter 12)

Full text of The Sign of Four on the website

'The Sign of the Four" in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine (1890) (Wikimedia Commons)

‘The Sign of the Four” in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine (1890) (Wikimedia Commons)


A Study in Scarlet (1887, in Beeton’s Christmas Annual)
The Sign of the Four (1890, Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine)
The Hound of the Baskervilles (serialised 1901–1902 in The Strand)
The Valley of Fear (serialised 1914–1915 in The Strand)

Short story collections

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1891–1892 in The Strand)
The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1892–1893 in The Strand)
The Return of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1903–1904 in The Strand)
His Last Bow: Some Later Reminiscences of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1908–1917)
The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1921–1927)

A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle (1887)

Introducing Sherlock

A Study in Scarlet is the first of the four canonical Sherlock Holmes novels. It was published in Beeton’s Christmas Annual 1887 and attracted very little attention. Conan Doyle went on to write a sequel, The Sign of Four for Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine (1890), and then persuaded Strand magazine to take 13 short stories to appear monthly in 1890-91. These stories are collected in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892). It was the stories which became popular and led to a further 13 being commissioned (collected as The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, 1894).

Watson’s metafiction

The novella (130 pages) is described as being a ‘Reprint from the reminiscences of John H. Watson MD, late of the Army Medical Department’. This is very much of the period which revelled in intertextuality, enjoying texts made of other texts, from letters, journals, diaries, newspaper accounts etc. Later Watson reads out newspaper accounts of the murder, includes his transcript of the killer’s confession taken down shorthand, and the text includes notes, adverts, even the message scrawled in blood on the wall.

At the end of the book, Holmes laughs at the way the incompetent Scotland Yard detectives get the glory of solving the crime in the Press. Watson comforts Holmes that he will publish the truth: ‘Never mind. I have all the facts in my journal, and the public shall know them.’ To the duality of story and plot (see below), and the duality of the various disguises characters adopt in the story, is added a fundamental duality between what actually happens in the detection of the crime, and a) what is reported in the Press and b) what is published in Watson’s accounts/stories.

Watson’s career and character

For someone interested in late Victorian history, Watson’s biography as as interesting as Holmes’s. Watson took a medical degree from University of London in 1878. He enlists in the army and joins his regiment in India just in time to take part in the Second Afghan War (1878-80) and sees action in the Battle of Maiwand where he is shot in the shoulder and, upon recovering, invalided out of the service a pension. Not exactly a long career, then.

Because he is not a freak, like Holmes, his views can be presumed to be characteristic of the times and therefore have great sociological interest. It is notable, then that he refers to ‘London, that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained’.

Plot and story

In a way the stories are made out of, or capitalise on, one of the fundamental ideas in narrative, the difference between story and plot, or story and discourse, or fabula and sujet – ie between the actual chronological course of events in the ‘real world’ and the way the narrative reveals these for our entertainment. Study in Scarlet and most of the other Holmes stories are in two parts: the mystery; and the backstory or mystery explained. Thus:

Plot 1881. A murder in the Brixton Road, the word Rache in German written in blood; Lestrange and Godfrey of the Yard pursue their wrong-headed theories; Stangerson found dead in lodgings. Finally, in a coup de theatre, Sherlock arrests the cabman they call to their rooms.

Story 1840s. John Ferrier dying in the Salt Lake Desert with a little girl, daughter of one of his party. Rescued by the Mormons migrating to Utah, at the price of demanding they adhere to their beliefs. 1860s Ferrier thrives but the Mormons insist his (adopted) daughter, Lucy, marries one of the sons of the founding Elders – Drebber or Stangerson. Instead she loves the trapper Jefferson Hope. One night Jefferson, Ferrier and Lucy make a break for it. Three days into their trek Jefferson leaves them to catch game, returns to find Ferrier dead and Lucy kidnapped by the Mormons. She is forced to  marry Drebber, pines and dies. Jefferson vows revenge, goes away to plan. 1880s Hope returns years later to find Drebber and Stangerson have quit the Mormons and left Utah. He tracks them across the States, to Europe and to London, where he confronts Drebber with the choice of two pills he has concocted, one with deadly poison, one anodyne. Drebber picks the poison and is dead & contorted in seconds, as the police find him. Hope’s nose had bled and on a whim he wrote the German word Rache on the wall in his own blood, thus foxing the coppers but not our Sherlock.

London the cesspool of Empire

Cesspool of Empire London may well have been (see Conrad’s spooky vision of it in Heart of Darkness or Kipling’s bitter disillusionment in stories like One View of the Question); but its awesome size (4 million inhabitants!) and its place at the centre of the great Empire mean criminals and victims with concerns from all over the world turn up there and provide Holmes and Watson with a potentially vast cast of characters and limitless possible plots.


To the two categories, above, created by various literary theorists from Aristotle to Shklovsky I would add the tidy-up or wash-up, as Press Offices call it. The Post-script. Addendum. Loose ends. While awaiting trial Hope dies in custody from a weak heart brought on by a life of trial. Leaving Holmes and Watson with cheesy reflections on Justice Done.

Cover of Beeton's Christmas Annual for 1887, featuring 'A Study in Scarlet' (Wikimedia Commons)

Cover of Beeton’s Christmas Annual for 1887, featuring ‘A Study in Scarlet’ (Wikimedia Commons)


A Study in Scarlet (1887, in Beeton’s Christmas Annual)
The Sign of the Four (1890, Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine)
The Hound of the Baskervilles (serialised 1901–1902 in The Strand)
The Valley of Fear (serialised 1914–1915 in The Strand)

Short story collections

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1891–1892 in The Strand)
The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1892–1893 in The Strand)
The Return of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1903–1904 in The Strand)
His Last Bow: Some Later Reminiscences of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1908–1917)
The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1921–1927)

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (1400)

In a second hand shop in Shrewsbury I picked up David Wright’s 1985 verse translation of the Canterbury Tales, published by Oxford University Press (1985 neatly being some 500 years after the first manuscripts of the tales began circulating). With a short introduction and hardly any notes, it is an edition intended to be read and enjoyed and I found it very readable and very enjoyable.

One April Geoffrey is staying at the Tabard pub in Southwark (presumably on or near the current Borough High Street) when a miscellaneous party of pilgrims arrives, 29 in all. They have arranged for the host of the Tabard, Harry Bailly, to accompany them to Canterbury. By the end of the evening Geoffrey is firm friends with the party and, the next morning, they invite him to accompany them. The Host proposes to while away the time of the journey with a competition – they’ll each tell two tales on the way there, two on the way back, and the winner gets a dinner paid for be everyone else!

‘Whoever best acquits himself, and tells
The most amusing and instructive tale,
Shall have a dinner, paid for by us all…’

29 + Geoffrey = 30 x 4 = this plan, if carried out would have resulted in 120 tales. In the event Geoffrey got nowhere near this goal; we have only 21 tales scattered into half a dozen different ‘groups’ or fragments of manuscript,  several incomplete, several quite clearly allocated to the wrong teller – in other words the Tales are radically unfinished. But we can still enjoy the 20 we have and, as it is, these twenty plus the connecting passages or ‘introductions’ to each speaker, easily fill a 400-page paperback.

The prologue to the Canterbury Tales lists the pilgrims with a brief description of each:

  1. the Knight
  2. his son, the Squire
  3. his servant, the Yeoman, dressed like a forester
  4. a Prioress, Madame Eglantine
  5. the nun’s priest
  6. the nun’s second priest
  7. the nun’s third priest
  8. another nun
  9. a merry, worldly Monk
  10. Hubert, the worldly Friar
  11. a Merchant
  12. a poor Oxford Scholar
  13. a knowledgeable Sergeant-at-Law, or Man of Law
  14. a Franklin ie a country gentleman
  15. a Haberdasher
  16. a Weaver
  17. a Carpenter
  18. a Dyer
  19. a Tapestry-Maker
  20. their Cook, Roger Hodge of Ware
  21. a Sea Captain
  22. a Doctor/Physician, greedy for gold
  23. the Wife of Bath, a businesswoman in cloth, fat, five times married
  24. a good honest poor village Priest
  25. the priest’s brother, an honest Ploughman
  26. Oswald the Reeve, an estate manager, skinny and mean, from Norfolk
  27. Robyn the Miller, massive and strong, a wrestler and loudmouth who plays the bagpipes
  28. a Pardoner from Charing Cross who sells indulgences
  29. a Summoner who enforces religious law eg on adultery and fornication, and is randy, greedy and corrupt
  30. a Manciple, like a bursar, who buys supplies for colleges
  31. the Narrator, Geoffrey
  32. our Host, Harry Bailly

There are 83 manuscripts of the tales, none complete, all varying, from variant details like individual words, to large variations such as the order of the stories appear in. This Wikipedia article explains the numbering of the fragments. It will be observed that David Wright’s order is not the classical one: he goes Fragments I, II, VII, III, IV, V, VI, VIII, IX, X.

1. The Knight’s Tale – very long, 2,250 lines: in ancient Greece cousins Palamon and Arcite barely survive Duke Theseus of Athens’ devastation of Thebes (prompted because weeping widows complained their husbands haven’t been buried by beastly Creon), are imprisoned and from their prison window both see and are smitten in love with Theseus’ sister, the beautiful Emily. There follow sundry adventures ie Arcite is released from prison but returns to serve Emily’s household in disguise; Palamon is finally released through intervention of a friend of Theseus’s but overhears Arcite singing Emily’s praises in the woods and attacks him Duke Theseus and his entourage just happen to arrive at that moment, part the fighting cousins and tells them to gather 100 men each for a mighty tournament, and builds a vast arena. In the lovely structured way of medieval literature they each pray to their intercessor: Palamon to Venus for her love, Emily to Diana to stay chaste, Arcite to Mars for victory. Palamon and Arcite fight valiantly until Palamon is wounded by one of Arcite’s men and dragged form the arena. As Arcite rides towards the dais to claim his bride a fiend out of hell erupts from the earth, frightens his horse and unseats him; crushed, mortally injured, he tells Emily to marry Palamon as he genuinely loves her.

The Knight’s Tale inaugurates the central theme of LOVE in the Tales. Also a number of moral dilemmas – the cousins fighting, who has precedence, should one submit, who should Emily choose – etc, which indicate that these fictions were meant to prompt discussion and debate in the audience who heard them.

2. The Miller’s Tale – the Host wants the Monk to speak next but the amiable anarchy of the Tales is established when Robyn the Miller, completely plastered, interrupts and insists on telling his tale: Fly Nicholas the lodger devises a scheme to fornicate with beautiful Alison, wife of John the old carpenter: he tells the carpenter the Flood is coming so he hangs three baths from the ceiling packed with provisions ready to float away. That night they get in their baths and when John falls asleep Nicholas and Alison climb down and go to bed. However Alison has another admirer, the dapper parish clerk Absalon. He picks that very night to climb a ladder to the little privy window of her bedroom and beg a kiss: she sticks her bottom out and Absalon kisses her arse; as he descends wondering why she has a beard she hears Alison and Nicholas giggling and, flying into a fury, goes gets a red hot poker for the early rising blacksmith: He whispers to Alison but this time it is Nicholas who sticks his bottom out the window and is rewarded by having the poker rammed between his buttocks; he screams, John wakes up and cuts the ropes crashing his bath to the ground, inciting the neighbours to come crowding in where Nicholas suavely tells everyone the carpenter has gone raving mad.

The Miller’s tale is an ironic and vulgar response to the knight’s courtly love; it uses tropes common in continental literature such as deep learning misdirected to scandalous ends and the ‘misdirected kiss’, and is obviously a variatoin on the central theme of Love, Married Love.

3. The Reeve’s Tale – the skinny, dry, abstemious reeve or estate manager: as a carpenter he is offended by the miller’s tale about a carpenter who is cuckolded so he promptly tells a story about a miller, nicknamed Show-off Simkin, in the village of Trumpington outside Cambridge who takes a noble wife and is very jealous of her and of his beautiful 18 year olf daughter. Two students, John and Alan, visit him with corn to see if he’ll swindle them but the wife frees their horse who rampages off across fields and by the time they’ve captured him it’s late and they stay the night. Through various farcical contrivances the students manage to sleep with the daughter and the wife before giving the game away and, in the uproar, also stealing the pie the miller had made with the corn he stole for them. Comprehensive humiliation.

Chaucer’s texts are stuffed to the gunwales with proverbs, saws, apothegms, texts and sayings. It is as if the stories, as if the medieval mind, is strung from them, is made up of them – rather as our minds are saturated with truisms about the Information Age, the Environment, Welfare Spongers, Immigrants, the Recession etc etc etc most of which will turn out to be equally untrue.

4. The Cooks’ Tale starts to be about a gadabout London apprentice who is eventually kicked out by his master and goes live with a fellow young man and wide boy when it abruptly ends after only 58 lines.

5. The Man of Law’s prologue goes on at surprising length about Chaucer and his works, praising his Legend of Good Women, before commencing the Man of Law’s Tale – the long trial of Constance, daughter of the Christian Roman Emperor who is sent to marry the Sultan of Syria but he is murdered along with all her entourage by the wicked mother-in-law and Constance is set adrift in a boat which floats for years right out of the Mediterranean and to the coast of Northumbria where she is rescued by the pagan governor and converts first his wife, Hermengyld and then him before a randy knight tries to seduce her: she refuses: he murders Hermengyld and frames her with the bloody knife; however God strikes down the guilty knight as a result of which king Alla marries Constance and converts  but goes off to fight the Scots; in his absence Alla’s wicked mother forges letters telling the governor to set her adrift in a boat again and she (and her son) drift right back to Italy where they are rescued by a senator and brought to court where the Emperor realises she is his daughter and where Alla happens to be on pilgrimage and recognises his wife and daughter. All good.

The long-suffering woman true to her Christian faith despite all trials is a commonplace of the time: apparently there is a ‘Constance Cycle’ of interlinked stories about the same figure. Looked at structurally you begin to realise the women are fixed structural points, like hinges, around which various men carry out their various plans (whether ‘noble’ like the feuding cousins or ‘low’ like Fly Nicholas and the Cambridge students); and yet in this tale Constance is undoubtedly the heroine and the main instigators of action are the two wicked mothers-in-law.

6. The Sea Captain’s Tale, like the miller’s and reeve’s is about adultery. A merchant of St Denis has a pretty wife and an old friend a monk. He loans the monk 100 francs; the monk pays it to the wife to have sex with her while the merchant is away; when he goes to reclaim the loan the monk tells her he’s  repaid the wife; the merchant is a bit cross with the wife for not telling him of the repayment but she has sex with him and makes him happy. It is a satire on the circulation of money and sex.

7. The Host thanks the Captain and invites the Prioress to tell a tale. The Prioress’s Tale is a horrifying example of raw medieval anti-semitism. In Asia in a city with a Jewish quarter a little boy goes about singing the praises of the Virgin Mary. Satan incites the Jews to kill him and they hire an assassin who slits the boy’s throat and throws him in the cesspit. However he keeps on singing and attracts rescuers to him. They arrest, torture and execute the Jews responsible. Then the abbot removes the pearl under the boy’s tongue and he ceases singing and dies and is laid in a holy sepulchre.

The blood libel of the Jews was widespread in the Middle Ages. It starts in the new testament written by Greeks threatened by and antagonistic to Jews and we all know where it led. Jews had been expelled from England in 1290 (not to be readmitted until Oliver Cromwell in 1656) and so their remoteness made them even easier to vilify. The tale also uses the very widespread theme of a miracle of the Virgin Mary but it is hard to register the fact – the anti-semitism associates the Virgin Mary with the most evil wickedness in European history.

8. Chaucer’s Tale of Sir Topaz – Chaucer presents himself as a plump bumbler and his tale of Sir Thopas is told in a series of verses with an elaborate rhyme-scheme which he never uses anywhere else. The high flown language describes the birth and breeding of Sir Topaz and how he dreams of the elf-queen and sets off to find her in Fairy Land but is immediately waylaid by the giant Sir Olifaunt (‘Elephant’). Topaz returns to town to put on his armour, the description of which is long and boring, and at t his point the Host interrupts to say he can’t bear such awful stuff. Give us another thing. At which Chaucer commences a long work in prose.

9. Chaucer’s Tale of Sir Melibee – Melibee who is away one day when three enemies break into his house, beat his wife Dame Prudence, and attack his daughter, leaving her for dead. The tale becomes a long debate between Melibee and his wife on what actions to take and how to seek redress from his enemies. His wife, as her name suggests, counsels prudence and chides him for his rash opinions. The discussion uses many proverbs and quotes from learned authorities and the Bible as each make their points.

a) Dame Prudence is a woman discussing the role of the wife within marriage in a similar way to the Wife of Bath and the wife in The Shipman’s Tale. b) It is really very long and, for many critics, some kind of joke and a revenge on the Host for stopping him in the middle of Sir Topaz: then again, the Host claims to have enjoyed it, and wanted something with doctrine in it.

The Host says he wishes his wife were as wise and restrained as Melibee’s Prudence. He turns to the Monk and says he’s a fine figure of a man who could please many women by copulating with them; let’s have his tale. The Monk takes this in good part then explains to everyone what a tragedy and that his ‘tale’ will be a series of short verse descriptions of men brought low by Destiny. 

10. The Monk’s Tale – the fates of 17 worthies from antiquity are described in an elaborate verse form (an eight-line stanza rhyming ababbcbc) – eg Satan, Adam, Hercules, Nebuchadnezzar – for 775 lines until the Knight interrupts him, saying it’s boring.

11. So the Host asks for the Nun’s Priest tale: it is a comic fabliau or animal story, of Chanticleer the cockerel and his favourite hen, Pertelote. Chanticleer dreams he is being attacked by a red dog; he tells his wife Pertelote and this leads to a comically learned debate between the two about the validity of dreams, mentioning various high authorities including Boethius, Cato, Cicero, Macrobius and the stories of Daniel and Joseph from the Bible. The comedy is in two talking animals debating with such learning. Chanticleer says dreams are meaningless and ignores it but a month later the fox Reynard sidles out of the bushes and asks Chanticleer to close his eyes and crow for him; the moment he does he grabs him in his mouth and runs off, followed by all the farmyard in a hullabaloo; but Chanticleer has the last laugh, he asks the fox a question and when the fox replies ie opens  his mouth, flies free and up into a tree where he refuses all the fox’s kind invitations to come down again.

Chaucer satirises animals having learned discussions; but he doesn’t satirise learning as such. We now know almost everything considered knowledge in the Middle Ages was wrong.

12. The Wife of Bath has the longest prologue in the book in which she recalls her five husbands and the tactics she used to keep them under control ie falsely accusing them of accusing her of all kinds of crimes, getting them to apologise, and then owning them. The Wife of Bath’s tale is about a knight from the time of King Arthur who rapes a maiden and is about to be executed when Queen Guinevere intervenes and says he can live if, within a year and a day, he can answer the question: What does a woman want? He travels all over the country and gets hundreds of contradictory answers: only an ugly old crone tells him the correct answer, Women want mastery over their men. The knight saves  his life but is forced to marry the crone, named Alison. When she asks whether he’d prefer her old and faithful or young & beautiful but flighty, he knight gives in and says, Do what you think is best ie resigns his mastery to her: whereupon she transforms into a beautiful young woman.

At the conclusion of her tale the Friar and the Summoner bicker, vowing to get revenge by telling critical stories about each other’s professions.

13. The Friar’s Tale – the friar depicts a greedy unscrupulous summoner riding to blackmail a poor widow, when he falls in with a pleasant yeoman and they become fast friends. When the yeoman reveals he is a fiend from hell the summoner is unconcerned. When they come across a carter damning his horses to hellfire when they can’t get out of the mud, the summoner asks why the fiend doesn’t take them; because he doesn’t mean it, is the reply. When the summoner threatens the widow she damns him to hell unless he repents his bullying; he doesn’t; the widow meant it; and so with no ceremony the fiend takes the summoner off to hell.

The summoner is livid. He retells the friar who has a vision of hell and can’t see any friars there until Satan lifts up his tale to reveal 20,000 friars living up his arse.

14. The Summoner’s Tale – laugh out loud funny, this is the tale of a corrupt and unscrupulous friar who picks on a poor widower and his daughter, trying to bully him into coughing up cash: driven to paroxysms of anger the old man makes the friar promise to distribute his gift equally between all 12 friars in his college; then gets the friar to put his hand down between his buttocks; and does a big fart. Not only is the friar outraged but goes to the lord of the manor to complain and finds his insult turned into a learned debate as the lord, his wife and various servants debate just how to divide a fart equally. Eventually Jankyn the servant comes up with a solution.

Group E (Fragment IV)

15. The Oxford Scholar’s Tale aka the Clerk’s Tale – the long story, divided into six parts and, Chaucer admits, copied from Petrarch, of the constancy and devotion to her husband of the peasant girl Griselda who is plucked from cowherd obscurity to marry the marquis, Walter, who is driven by perverse determination to test her by taking away her two beautiful children and then publicly rejecting her for a younger model. Throughout Griselda remains patient and dutiful and Walter relents, takes her back as wife, reunites her with her children.

A picture of Chaucer as a pilgrim from the Ellesmere Manuscript of the Canterbury Tales. In the middle of the page are the words: "Heere Bigynneth Chaucers Tale of Melibee"

A picture of Chaucer as a pilgrim from the Ellesmere Manuscript of the Canterbury Tales. In the middle of the page are the words: “Heere Bigynneth Chaucers Tale of Melibee”

A History of the English Church and People by the Venerable Bede (732)

Bede’s life

Bede was a monk who spent most of his life in the monastery of Saint Peter at Monkwearmouth and its companion monastery, Saint Paul’s in what is now modern Jarrow, both situated in the Dark Age Saxon kingdom of Northumbria.

He lived from 672-735. The honorific Venerable (as in ‘the Venerable Bede’) apparently derives from the tombstone erected some years after his death.

Bede was fortunate in that his monastery was run by the enlightened abbot, Benedict Biscop, and his successor, Ceolfrith, who both encouraged his historical studies.

It also contained probably the most extensive library in Anglo-Saxon Britain. Thus encouraged by kind sponsors and in a uniquely well-provisioned environment, Bede began to write, and went on to compose some 40 works, including commentaries on numerous books of the Bible, a life of St Cuthbert, lives of famous Saxon abbots, and so on. (He usefully provides us with a list of his works.)

But Bede is best-known for his masterpiece, regularly described as the first and greatest work of English history, the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People). I have the old 1955 Penguin translation by Leo Sherley-Price, who translates the title as A History of the English Church and People.

Bede is called the Father of English History for several reasons:

  • He checked his sources, requesting documents and information from libraries in all the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, correlating documents against each other, enquiring of eye-witnesses or descendants of eye-witnesses wherever possible. He clearly lays out his methodology in the introductory letter, and thus established a tradition of scrupulously checking the facts.
  • He describes in wonderful detail a period – from the Roman departure 410 until his own day, the 720s – for which we have pitifully little alternative material. Without his history there would be a big hole in our knowledge of the period and, since this was when our country was founded, he is an invaluable source for the earliest years of our nation.
  • Bede’s whole conception of History is wonderfully rounded. At a time when his contemporaries were struggling to produce the blunt line-for-each-year Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Bede set the events he reports in the contexts of Papal, European and wider British history, going backwards and forwards in time to situate events within broader historical themes as well, of course, as setting everything he describes within the overarching framework of God’s great redemptive plan for Man.

Structure of the Ecclesiastical History

The work is divided into five books, each of which covers a certain period. But the more important division is of each book into 30 or so one- or two-page chapters. These focus on one incident or theme (the miracles of so and so, the death of one bishop, the succession of another, and so on) and were obviously designed to provide good, practical meditations for his (entirely religious) audience to hear read out loud and ponder.

Leo Sherley-Price

Sherley-Price’s prose translation is crisp and brisk, presumably a faithful translation of Bede’s practical style. But the most striking thing about this translation is Sherley-Price’s attitude: he is himself a devout Christian and his beliefs come out in the introduction and (brief) notes, in a way a modern writer would not permit themselves. Thus his note on Pelagianism:

Pelagianism, ‘the British heresy’, denied the reality of original sin, and affirmed that man could attain perfection by his own efforts, unaided by the grace of God. This misconception is still strong today! [emphasis added]

In the introduction he gives a stout defence of miracles and the presence of the miraculous in the History:

Even when ruthless pruning has greatly reduced the number [of plausible miracles in the text], there remains an indissoluble core that cannot be explained by any known natural means, and attributable solely to the supernatural power of God displayed in and through His saints. And this is as it should be. For a true miracle (and who may doubt that such occur?) is not due to the supersession or inversion of the natural laws of the universe ordained by the Creator, but to the operation of cosmic laws as yet unrealised by man, activated by non-material forces whose potency is amply demonstrated in the Gospels. (Introduction, page 30, italics added)

These are confidently Christian words from a pre-1960s era which, in its own way, seems as remote to us today as Bede’s 8th century.

But the most telling sign of their datedness is, I think, not his Catholic faith as such – there’s no shortage of relic-kissing Catholics in 2013 – it is that Sherley-Price tries to make a rational, scientific distinction between improbable or forged miracles, and those which are undoubtedly the real thing. He thinks it is worthwhile to make this distinction and, in so doing, sounds like a member of the Brains Trust, like a reputable academic wearing a tweed jacket and puffing a pipe, debating atheism and belief with Bertrand Russell;he sounds like C.S. Lewis in his apologetic works, naively confident that you can reason someone into belief.

Our understanding of texts and discourses has leapt forward massively in the past 60 years.

The miraculous in Bede

In my opinion, Sherley-Price is missing the point by his nitpicking. The miraculous is the element in which Bede lives and breathes. God is all around him and his angels regularly appear to the people he is describing, to people he actually knows, with important messages and predictions.

Bede’s world is full of miraculous recoveries, holy rescues and blessed cures because God’s angels and saints are continually battling demons and spirits, the forces of the Old Enemy, who are at work everywhere and in everyone.

The miracles in Bede aren’t incidental; they are symptomatic of a world utterly drenched in the presence of God’s powers. To try and unpick the more likely from the less likely ones is to misread the coherence of the imaginative world, the worldview, the psychology, the culture which Bede inhabits. It is to apply absurdly flat and literalistic criteria to a world of wonders.

It is like undertaking a scientific assessment of which bits of magic in Harry Potter might actually be feasible. You are missing the point; the point is to abandon yourself entirely to the endless wonder and richness and unceasing miraculousness of Bede’s world, a world in which God always helps his saints and always punishes his sinners.

Some miracles

  • Book I, chapter 7 St Alban, sentenced to execution by the Roman authorities, can’t cross the packed bridge into Verulamium, so the river blocking his way dries up just as the Red Sea did. As the executioner decapitates Alban, his own eyes pop out.
  • I, 17 as Germanus sails to Britain, devils raise a storm and the ships are in peril of foundering so Germanus prays and sprinkles holy water on the waves, which puts the demons to flight and the storm passes.
  • I, 18 Using relics he’s brought from Rome, Germanus cures the blindness of a tribune’s young daughter.
  • I, 19 A fire threatens the house where Germanus is staying but he calls on the Lord and the flames turn back. Demons throw Germanus off his horse and he breaks his leg. In a vision an angel raises him and lo! his leg is healed.
  • I, 20 Picts and Saxons invade but bishops Germanus and Lupus organise the Britons into a defensive force. They call on the Lord and leap out of hiding shouting so effectively that the Saxons and Picts all run away, many of them drowning in the river.
  • I, 21 Germanus heals the crippled son of the chieftain Elaphius.
  • I, 33 The priest Peter is drowned off the coast of Gaul and buried by the locals in a common grave but God makes a bright light shine over the grave every night until the locals realise he is a holy man and bury him properly in a church in Boulogne.

The power of Christianity

The miracles are just the most striking way in which, for Bede and for all the early missionaries, bishops and believers he describes, Christianity works. It is better than paganism because its believers wield the real power which drives the universe, not the foolish, deluded voodoo of illiterate peasants who believe in amulets and spells and worship stones and trees.

For many profaned the Faith that they professed by a wicked life, and at a time of plague some had even abandoned the Christian sacraments and had recourse to the delusive remedies of idolatry, as though they could expect to halt a plague ordained of God by spells, amulets, and other devilish secret arts. (IV, 28)

Christianity is the Real Thing, it is the real magic that pagans only pretend to harness.

Believers in it win victories and become kings or emperors (as Constantine famously won the Battle of the Milvian Bridge after invoking Christ’s name), they heal the sick and raise the dead and cast out demons and do battle with devils and quench fires and bring down rain and make the crops grow. It is all the supernatural things paganism falsely claims to be – except it actually is.

Crediting witnesses, believing in miracles

Bede goes out of his way to tell us that he has many of these stories from people who knew the saints in question, that he personally has listened to their stories of angelic visitors and wrestling with devils and curing the sick and of coffins which magically resize themselves to fit the bodies of deceased saints.

An old brother of our monastery, who is still living, testifies that he once knew a truthful and devout man who had met Fursey in the province of the East Angles, and heard of these visions from his own mouth (Book III, chapter 19)

I have thought it fitting to preserve the memory of one of these stories, often told me by the very reverend Bishop Acca, who said that it was vouched for by some very reliable brethren of the monastery. (IV, 14)

Among those who told me this story were some who had actually heard it from the mouth of the man to whom these things happened, so that I have no hesitation  about including it in t his history of the church as it was related. (IV, 23)

My informant in all these events was my fellow-priest, Edgils, who was living in the monastery at the time. (IV, 25)

Even if we disbelieve every story, we are impressed by Bede’s conception of the historian as one who seeks out eye witnesses, who listens, who writes it down.

Anyway, even our sceptical age is alive with urban myths, and still suffers from the profound irrationality and credulousness of human beings. There are still people who under stress clutch any straw, who pray and promise God they’ll believe in him, who believe it was their prayers that saved the plunging plane or their sick relative or clinched the extra-time winner.

But we also know about the Somme, the Holocaust, about 9/11, we know that vast massacres occur and no-one is saved and God is nowhere to be seen.

Personally, I apply David Hume’s Calculus of Probability to all accounts of miracles. Is it more likely that the vast and universal laws of Nature were suspended, often for childish and petty ends? Or that the people who claim to have experienced a miracle, simply have a need to appear important, or are propagandising for their faith, or are naive and credulous?

It will always be the latter. An entirely rational assessment will always militate against miracles. But where, then, is the point or pleasure in reading Bede or indeed any other Christian literature?

For me such Christian literature can still be immensely rewarding, you just have to suspend disbelief. You just have to make the effort to cast yourself back into that mental world. Indeed, that is precisely the point of reading old literature: to expand your mind.

Some more miracles

  • Book IV, chapter 28 Cuthbert makes spring water appear on a barren hillside and crops to grow out of season.
  • IV 29 Cuthbert prophetically foretells his own death.
  • IV 30 Eleven years after his death Cuthbert’s body is found to be uncorrupted, soft and sweet.
  • IV 31 Brother Baduthegn suffers a paralytic stroke but drags himself to Cuthbert’s tomb where he dreams a great hand touches his wound and he awakens healed.
  • IV 32 Hairs from Cuthbert’s corpse cure the tumour on a brother’s eye.
  • V 1 The hermit Ethelwold calms a storm threatening to drown some monks.
  • V 2 Bishop John cures a dumb, scrofulous servant.
  • V 3 Bishop John cures Coenburg, a sick serving girl.
  • V 4 Bishop John cures the thane Puch’s wife.
  • V 5 Bishop John cures thane Addi’s servant.
  • V6 Bishop John cures a brother who foolishly races a horse, falls off and cracks his skull.
  • V 8 Archbishop Theodore foresees his own death in a vision.
  • V 9 Holy Egbert plans to evangelise the Germans but is prevented by God who sends visions and a storm.
  • V 10 Two missionaries to the Old Saxons are murdered by pagans but their bodies are washed upstream and a light shines over them every night till their companions find them and give them decent burial.

And so it goes on… To try to weight up the ‘valid’ miracles from the ‘invalid’ may be an interesting academic exercise but is pointless. Take out the miracles and there’d be nothing left. The entire story of the growth of the English church is, for Bede, miraculous and made up of miracle piled upon miracle.

Therefore, we should embrace the supernatural elements of Bede’s history unquestioningly, both as a vital component of his worldview, without which his whole history is pointless; and also because of the sheer pleasure it gives. How wonderful to live in this world of angels and demons! Surrender to its visions and what a wonderful, informative, imaginative, delightful book this is!

But what did the pagans believe?

Notoriously,and tragically, Bede (like all the Christian writers of the Dark Ages) tells us almost nothing about what his heathen and pagan opponents believed.

Worshiping trees, stones and rivers, wearing amulets and slaughtering horses seem to be part of pagan belief but we only glimpse these as throwaway asides. There are only a few exceptions, a few places where Bede paints a ‘conversion scene’ and allows us to see what the pagan worldview actually consisted of.

The most famous is in Book II, chapter 13, where King Edwin of Northumbria has already converted to Christianity but needs to take his nobles with him. He convenes a council (AD 627). They are sitting in the king’s large hall, illuminated by a huge fireplace and maybe other torches, but with glassless windows. And one of the king’s thanes uses their setting for a famously beautiful metaphor of human life.

Another of the king’s chief men signified his agreement and went on to say: ‘Your majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thanes and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside, the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing. Therefore, if this new teaching has brought any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it.’

Yes, but what were they converting from? Bede doesn’t sully his book by telling us. Probably the mere act of writing down pagan beliefs would in some sense validate them. It might even conjure them up. Best left unmentioned, undescribed.

The conversion of King Sigbert of the East Saxons

There is another exchange, less poetic but, I think, more revealing in Book III, chapter 22:

About this time also, the East Saxons, who had once rejected the Faith and driven out Bishop Mellitus, again accepted it under the influence of King Oswy. For Sigbert their king, successor to Sigbert the Small, was a friend of Oswy and often used to visit him in the province of the Northumbrians. Oswy used to reason with him how gods made by man’s handwork could not be gods, and how a god could not be made from a log or block of stone, the rest of which might be burned or made into articles of everyday use or possibly thrown away as rubbish to be trampled underfoot and reduced to dust. He showed him how God is rather to be understood as a being of boundless majesty, invisible to human eyes, almighty, everlasting, Creator of heaven and earth and of the human race. He told him that he rules and will judge the world in justice, abiding in eternity, not in base and perishable metal; and that it should be rightly understood that all who know and do the will of their creator will receive an eternal reward from him. King Oswy advanced these and other arguments during friendly and brotherly talks with Sigbert, who, encouraged by the agreement of his friends, was at length convinced. So he talked it over with his advisers, and with one accord they accepted the Faith and were baptised with him by Bishop Finan in the king’s village of At-Wall, so named because it stands close to the wall which the Romans once built to protect Britain, about twelve miles from the eastern coast.

In the context of the Dark Ages this is gold dust. How fabulous to be told so much detail about these obscure kings, Oswy and Sigbert, about social intercourse between the kings of these early English kingdoms, about the relationship between a king and his advisers, about the geography of the region.

Christianity trumps paganism

But the core of the passage is the absolute crux of Bede’s History – the sheer majesty and breathtaking sweep, the intellectual, moral and imaginative scale and thoroughness and universality of Catholic Christianity compared with the thin, local, petty, shallow gods and practices of paganism.

For me this one chapter shows how Christianity was a VAST improvement on the limited, dark, unintellectual world of the pagan gods.

Miracles and all, if you compare the intellectual coherence of Bede’s position with the worldview of the pagan Poetic Edda, Christianity wins hands-down for its scope and thoroughness.

Thor throwing his hammer at giants is for children, the Last Battle between gods and giants is a fable for fatalistic warrior-kings.

Neither can stand comparison with the wonder and coherence of the Christian notion of one, all-powerful, all-loving Creator, with his flocks of angels ready to help the mightiest king or the lowliest serf to lead a more holy, just and – ultimately – satisfying life.

One by one, the kings of Dark Age Britain who Bede describes, realised this mighty truth and bowed to the inevitable.

Little was Bede to know that just 60 years after his death in 732, furious straw-haired pagans were to appear from across the sea and do their damnedest to destroy everything he and his brothers had built up. But that is another story…

"The Venerable Bede Translates John" by James Doyle Penrose (Wikimedia Commons)

The Venerable Bede Translates John by James Doyle Penrose (source: Wikimedia Commons)

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The Rest Is Noise 12: New World Order

To the South Bank for the twelfth and final weekend of the year-long festival about 20th century classical music, The Rest Is Noise 12: New World Order, designed to bring the story up to date, covering classical music from the 1990s to the present, and beyond.

As usual each day was stuffed with lectures and workshops and chamber concerts and film screenings so that at any one point you had half a dozen items to choose from, forcing you to make some pretty hard choices. I went to see:

Saturday 7 December

10-11am Breakfast with Adams Good-humoured Irish composer John Browne spent an hour explaining the background to, and musical structure of, John Adams’ opera-oratorio El Niño. JA is, apparently, very political, into issues of social justice, as referenced in his big operas Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer (which I went to see last year), Dr Atomic etc. El Niño is an opera-oratorio on the Christmas story, using classic Bible, but also Spanish and south American, texts, many by women, favouring the woman’s point of view.

Adams has joked that he is a ‘recovering minimalist’ and, on first hearing, sounds like a more adaptable version of Steve Reich, with the same highly repetitive ostinatos. His music tends to stay on one chord for a long time, underlain by a single repetitive pulse, but with constantly changing time signatures. He has openly stated that he wants to reconnect with popular music and the street, and so his music tends to be harmonic, the chords are simple triads and, when they do change, it’s often by simply changing one note in the chord. Happy to use pop rhythms.

Brown quotes Brian Eno who described the shift to musical minimalism as a shift from Narrative to Landscape, from arcs and lines of melody, to static, repetitive sounds. This echoes what we heard a few weeks ago about Philip Glass, his study of Indian music, the hypnotic affect of endless repetition. For the now traditional audience participation in these sessions Browne got half a dozen volunteers onstage to each play a different simple motif on a xylophone and then do it together to create our very own piece of minimalist music. My son did the same at school when he was 14. It was great fun, and really explained how this type of sound is created.

At the very end he got the pianist to play a minute of Schoenberg, partly to make the point that Adams wrote a riposte to Schoenberg’s 1911 Modernist treatise, Harmonielehre, also called Hamonielehre. To be honest I preferred the space and delicacy of the Schoenberg to any of the minimalism I’ve heard over the past few weeks.

11.15-12.15 Keynote lecture: Pankaj Mishra ‘One of the world’s leading intellectuals’, Mishra was young, relaxed and phenomenally wideranging, effortlessly using examples from the economics, politics, arts and media of just about every nation on earth, but tending to focus particularly on America, Europe, India, China, Russia and Latin America. His message: The Decline of the West has been much exaggerated (isn’t it always?); the West still leads the world on countless fronts. But western arrogance at ‘winning’ the Cold War led to hubris and arrogance and delusions. Only very slowly have we realised what the invaded countries of Iraq and Afghanistan really thought of us; meanwhile hundreds of thousands died in our crusades. The End of History rhetoric after the collapse of the Soviet Union was childishly naïve. (Yup.) In the twenty years since:

  • The liberal capitalist model of economics and society which American ideologues thought had triumphed has in fact been thoroughly rejected by China, Russia and left-leaning Latin America.
  • The widespread failure of the growth model, in fact the realisation that Globalisation leads to growing inequality and to the gutting of entire cities, regions or even countries (eg Greece), has led to a widespread sense of helplessness, powerlessness and disillusion.

Globalisation doesn’t lead to Utopia; a crowded world leads to greater repression, loss of freedoms. But what, asked voices from the audience, is the alternative to Vampire Capitalism? Well, in part, the reassertion of localism and for communities to take their destinies into their own hands. Ah, but then our politicians would have to want to help us…

12.30-1.30 Best of British Concert given by the Royal College of Music’s New Perspective ensemble conducted by Timothy Lines.

  • Mark-Anthony Turnage Two memorials for solo soprano saxaphone
  • Oliver Knussen Two Organa
  • George Benjamin Viola, Viola[unrelenting to begin with, this ended with quiet plucked strings]
  • Mark-Anthony Turnage On All Fours [chaotic, with jazz rhythms sort of emerging in the middle]
  • Oliver Knussen Elegiac Arabesques
  • Simon Holt Lilith

2.15-3.15 Alex Ross The man himself, author of The Rest Is Noise, the book which inspired this festival, gave the fourth of his keynote lectures, covering from the 1990s to the present day. In fact the simple message is there’s too much. No one person can encompass all the music the human race is making. No one person can even know about all the ‘classical’ and crossover music being made in the West, where anyone with a laptop can now write a concerto. Instead Ross gave us four individuals who strike him, told a little about them and played extended clips:

In an era when every piece of music has been bought up and turned into searchable databases, maybe contemporary classical music’s very exclusion from the mainstream guarantees that it is still a place with some kind of authenticity, some kind of ‘soul’. (You certainly can’t find some of the music he and other today mentioned (or played) anywhere on the internet, not on YouTube, no on Spotify; so if impossible to find or listen to, accessible only to the tiny numbers of people who go to see it live, means ‘authentic’, lots of this stuff has it in spades.)

3.30-4.30 Listen to This Oxford professor Jonathan Cross kicked off with a track from J Lo, music unmistakably for the body with cover art selling her hot body and alluring looks. Cut to Stockhausen or K Sto, as Cross wittily called him. Classic Modernist: a man, an intellectual, isolated, heroic, at the cutting edge, regardless of audience, a high priest, of a new religion whose work is to be performed in reverential silence in buildings created for the purpose by orchestras dressed in black. Compare Birtwistle whose Pan so upset the Proms audience back in 1995. Same set-up: an intellectual man, no compromises to the audience, in the setting of the patriarchal Albert Hall, dressed in centuries-old outfits, with a heroic male conductor at the helm.

Cross contrasted this with the growing situation since 1990, post-Modernism. Where there had been one master narrative, now there are countless stories. Where white western men dominated, now there are more women composers, and from all round the world. Globalisation.

Further – Digital technology enables anonymous, collaborative and vast outpourings of amateur music, as with the all-women collective Lappetites. Further still, modern technology puts the listener in charge. The ipod leads us to the edge of the ‘death of the composer’, as the listener chooses how where and when to consume music. No more Albert Hall except for die-hard traditionalists!

In the 50s Milton Babbitt published an article with the notorious title Who cares if you listen. Cross postulates a spectrum from Babbitt at one end representing the ne plus ultra of avant-garde extremism, the intellectual sound scientist trying to remove the audience from music; and at the other extreme John Cage who, with his techniques of indeterminacy, sought to remove the composer from the process and liberate sounds to be themselves.

5-6pm I should have gone to see a concert of Knussen and Weir but I needed a break so went to hear Professor Susan Greenfield deliver a high-speed version of the case she has presented in articles and letters, that the digital age presents real threats to the brains of the young. Environment stimulates brain growth, which is why even identical twins aren’t identical. Brains continue growing and making connections up to the age of 16 and beyond. These connections build up associations between thoughts, experiences, feelings, it is these associations which create meaning and significance. All this is threatened by flat screens which promote addictive, game-playing, immediately rewarded behaviour with no depth or significance, which prioritise information processing without finding depth of meaning. Information, not wisdom.

Read more on her website, which includes a long reading list of the scientific research.

6-7pm London Philharmonic Orchestra Foyle Future Firsts conduced by Paul Hoskins performed:

7.30-10pm London Philharmonic Orchestra: Classic Britannia Four classic compositions from the 1990s:

I liked the Turnage most because it was quiet. The other three were dominated by percussion, lots of banging, lots of glockenspiel, xylophone, wood blocks and tubular bells. The apparently random use of thin, weedy plinks and plonks is a cliche of modern classical music and, rather than be awed by the modernity of these pieces, I was dismayed by how much they embodied the worst cliches of the tradition, the reason so few people like this music.


A long and exhausting day but bursting with ideas and sounds which will take weeks if not months to digest. Sonically, the most obvious thing was the distinction between the British composers whose work we heard live, and the clips played by Cross and Ross. The clips were interesting and immediately attractive. I’m going to listen to more Haas and JL Adams.

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