Due to a teacher training day at my son’s school, today is my first day back at my desk since the Christmas holidays. After two and a half weeks of combined childcare and hosting family, this comes as something of a relief, despite the fact that a misremembered date has left me with a book chapter to complete in less than a month. In fact, January is going to be pretty writing intensive, with a couple of book reviews due at the same time, as well as my sole New Year’s resolution, to draft or redraft a chapter a month until I get my book completed and sent to a publisher.
On the theory that writing breeds writing, I am going to embark on this rigorous schedule with a blog post about … the New Year’s Day episode of Sherlock (BBC1). (Beware spoilers from here on in.) I don’t even really have the excuse of doing this with my historian’s hat on. I make no pretensions to being a proper Victorianist, but I am, alongside my First World War expertise, a historian of popular culture with a specialism in detective fiction and it is as such that am going to make so bold as to comment.
I am also, of course, a gender historian so let me start off by saying that, as far as the ‘mansplaining’ debate which convulsed portions of Twitter in the wake of this episode, I agree entirely with Camilla Ulleland Hoel, who articulates why this is not an example of men silencing women far more eloquently than I can. I do, however, take one slight issue with her reading of the episode, and that is in her comments on the ‘the pointy hats of Ku Klux Klan (in order to create an echo, I assume, to the orange pips story)’. Because I am fairly sure that the entire set up to the scene was not a gratuitous KKK reference, but rather one to the 1985 film The Young Sherlock Holmes, directed by Barry Levinson, a film which, aged 12, frightened me into nightmares for months (no, I was not very sophisticated and rather too imaginative for my own good).
And that is what I loved about the episode. Yes, there were the many, many references to the Sherlock canon. But there were also the references to the much wider field of Sherlockiana, including Watson’s suggestion for ‘The Monstrous Regiment’ as a potential title for the episode, one that has already been used by Laurie R. King as the title for one of her Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series, an explicitly feminist reworking of the tradition. And then there was the plot, not simply a metafictional phantasmagoria but also a spoof on Anthony Schaffer’s Sleuth (1970), itself part of a long line of spoofs on the detective fiction tradition, which Conan Doyle arguable founded, stretching back through the entire 20th century.
I picked up three references, but I am sure there were many, many more which I missed, given that it is some years since I have been properly involved with Sherlockiana and the field has developed hugely since then (a couple more can be found here). My guess is that most of these conceits were the contribution of Mark Gatiss rather than Steven Moffat. Gatiss’s writing, whether on Sherlock, Dr Who or the ridiculously clever clever and very funny Lucifer Box series, always gives me the disquieting if rather pleasing sense that here is a man who shares my somewhat obscure frame of reference when it comes to popular culture. Which probably just means that my very limited and specialised frame of reference also happens to be a very small subset of his far, far larger one. This is a man, after all, who, as Hoel points out, is as happy incorporating a Victorian music hall stage trick into his plots as he is with referencing semi-obscure mid-to-late 20th century plays and novels.
The delight of all this to me, beyond the comfortable smugness that comes from feeling that I am getting the joke, is the reinforcement it gives to my own belief in the importance of the history of popular culture, including low- and middle-brow material that is all to often dismissed as culturally worthless. This is in part because it tells us something about the time in which such cultural production was created, always useful for a historian, but also, often, because if forms part of a much longer tradition, allowing us to read change and continuity across time. Sherlock itself embodies this duality and, in this episode, made it the very conceit on which the plot was built. Itself a hugely popular element of contemporary popular culture, it nonetheless lays explicit claim to the timelessness of Conan Doyle’s creation. By tipping its hat to the long tradition in Anglo-American culture of riffing on that creation in ways which illuminate different historical moments, it located itself within that linear tradition and made its own bid for immortality. Now there is metafiction and self-referentiality for you!
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