Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Pushing Past The Servant

The door of Briony Lodge was open, and an elderly woman stood upon the steps. She watched us with a sardonic eye as we stepped from the brougham.

“Mr. Sherlock Holmes, I believe?” said she.

“I am Mr. Holmes,” answered my companion, looking at her with a questioning and rather startled gaze.

“Indeed! My mistress told me that you were likely to call. She left this morning with her husband by the 5:15 train from Charing Cross for the Continent.”

“What!” Sherlock Holmes staggered back, white with chagrin and surprise. “Do you mean that she has left England?”

“Never to return.”

“And the papers?” asked the King, hoarsely. “All is lost.”

“We shall see.” He pushed past the servant, and rushed into the drawing-room, followed by the King and myself.

fromA Scandal in Bohemia,”
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

That’s toward the end of the very first published Sherlock Holmes short story. Irene Adler has out-witted Holmes and prevented him from recovering her compromising photo of herself and the King. Although Holmes was out-witted, he wasn’t defeated, because the King is satisfied that she will be true to her promise to Holmes not to reveal the photograph to the press.

Fans of Conan Doyle suspect Lillie Langtry (and her affair with Prince Albert Edward) may have been part inspiration for Irene Adler.

Fans of Conan Doyle also suspect something almost surreal may be happening in this scene.

Dr. Watson, Holmes’s friend and the narrator of this story, certainly assumes that Irene Adler has out-witted Holmes. But does Conan Doyle?

This is a story built around false identities. The King originally tries to fool Holmes by appearing as a Count Von Kramm. Holmes, disguised as a laborer, serves as a witness at Irene Adler’s wedding. Holmes, disguised as a clergyman, fools Irene Adler into revealing the location of the photograph. But then Irene Adler disguises herself as a young man and follows Holmes and Watson back to Baker Street, and even wishes Holmes “Good night,” without giving away her identity.

Fans assume the ‘elderly woman’ standing on the step watching with a ‘sardonic eye’ is really Irene Adler again in disguise.

But does she fool Holmes?

Holmes certainly doesn’t confide any complicity in Irene Adler’s mischief to Watson.

But what is Conan Doyle confiding to the reader?

Conan Doyle writes that Holmes looks at the old woman with a ‘questioning’ and ‘startled gaze.’ When the old woman informs them that ‘her mistress’ has gone to Europe, Holmes is ‘staggered back, white with chagrin and surprise.’

Holmes already knows the King’s secret is safe because of Irene Adler’s marriage. Is he really fooled, or is this just the mischievous Holmes indulging in some melodrama to sell Irene Adler’s story to the King and indulge the woman herself—after all, Holmes is about to ask the King for Irene Adler’s (non-incriminating) photograph as payment for his involvement in the case, and Holmes is about to describe her by saying to the King, “From what I have seen of the lady, she seems, indeed, to be on a very different level to your Majesty.”

This story was published in 1891. This isn’t what we would now call metafiction.

But when you have the narrator of a story narrating events that pass right over his head but are intended by the real writer to be understood by the reader, that is some pretty cool stuff.

Very cool stuff.

There is a reason some fiction remains popular for more than a century after it is first published.

Is anything that’s getting written today going to be popular a hundred years from now?

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Metafiction at Wikipedia


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