Sherlock Holmes, Victorian Gentleman

The heart of London in Doyle's time

 

A Bird's-Eye View of the Thames

In 1891, Sherlock Holmes was a character very much of his time and place, who appealed to British readers directly by confronting the messy, changeable world they lived in. Rather than dwelling in romance or in an idealized past, as many of Arthur Conan Doyle's other characters did, Holmes was grounded squarely in Victorian London. The Sherlock Holmes mystery stories, written over a forty-year span from 1887 to 1927, represented the good, the bad, and the ugly of Victorian society: its ideals, its accomplishments, and its deepest fears.

Arthur Conan Doyle's birth year, 1859, fell 22 years into Queen Victoria's 64-year reign, a time of unparalleled growth and optimism for the British Empire. Resources and labor taken from colonies worldwide had made England prosper, and the time of serious independence struggles lay in the distant future. Business flourished, technology blossomed, and London grew at a great rate—from one million people to six in the space of a century—creating problems of urban overcrowding familiar to us today: poverty, homelessness, drug abuse, crime. While the great divide between rich and poor and the economic and human strain of maintaining the colonies exacerbated social problems that were as yet insoluble, Victorian Britons, led by Victoria's husband Albert, put their faith in technology and science. The contrasts and conundrums of this fascinating time provided Conan Doyle with the raw material and the backdrop for Sherlock Holmes: a man of science, undistracted by the gentler passions, who moved easily through the disquieting urban space, using his wits to solve its moral and practical dilemmas.

Physically, London could be a place of disturbing contrasts, a cosmopolitan city where the middle class drank tea in comfortable drawing rooms while epidemics of typhoid and cholera ravaged the squalid, overpopulated East End. The putrid Thames River, the city's main source of drinking water, despite the network of open sewers that dumped tons of waste into it daily, carried a reeking cloud of contagion to all levels of society as it meandered through the heart of the city.

Since 1844, the government had struggled with various solutions to the sewage problem. In 1858, the year before Conan Doyle was born, the "Great Stink," caused by the unfortunate effects of a hot summer on a sluggish, polluted river, clotted with solid waste, drove thousands out of the city.






 
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