There is something about the Sherlock Holmes novels and short stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that readily adapt to steampunk additions in films. The most recent series of big budget movies starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law have quite a few steampunk-style gadgets interlaced throughout. Indeed, some of these gadgets are crucial to the plot. (Holmes’s breathing apparatus from the second movie jumps to mind immediately.)
(Trivia note: Sherlock Holmes books have never been out of print.)
What is interesting to me about this connection between the scientific innovation in the stories (depicted as modern-day steampunk inventions in the movies) and the Victorian obsession with fairies and fairytales lies with author, Conan Doyle. Although he created a character in Holmes that was highly logical and used science and the latest technology, Conan Doyle had a history with the “other side” of Victorian literature—that of the fairy tale and the belief in the “unseen world” that lies next to our own.
“Let me run over the principal steps. We approached the case, you remember, with an absolutely blank mind, which is always an advantage.
We had formed no theories. We were simply there to observe and to draw inferences from our observations.”
Sherlock Holmes Quote
-The Adventure of the Cardboard Box
The Family Connection
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle came from an artistic family. His grandfather, John Doyle, had a successful artistic career as a political caricaturist. His uncle, Richard Doyle, was also an illustrator of fairy subjects. Charles Doyle, his father, was almost as famous an artist as Richard during the Victorian era and created many popular paintings of fairies as well.
“The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.”
Sherlock Holmes Quote
-The Hound of the Baskervilles
In many popular Victorian-era paintings, fairies were often portrayed as secretive people who preferred to seek entertainment in sheltered out-of-the-way places away from human eyes and human interference. Common scenic backgrounds included Forest Glades, flower-filled valleys, and leafy riverbanks. Charles Doyle’s paintings often included humorous details as well.
(Charles Doyle: In the Shade Image from http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)
Charles Doyle’s fragile health may have given an edge to his work. In the 1880s he was committed to the Montrose Royal lunatic asylum suffering from a combination of epilepsy and alcoholism.
At the same time that paintings of fairies and fairy tales flourished in Victorian England, the practice of spiritualism and “spirit mediums” grew popular at all levels of society. There was a widespread interest despite Christian piety in psychic phenomena and the occult. Spiritualist societies sponsored lecture tours, opened reading rooms, and published newspapers where photographic evidence of spirits were presented as proof that contact with the unseen world could be documented on film. For the first time in history people could “see” an image on a photograph of what appeared to be their deceased loved one.
“There is nothing like first-hand evidence.”
Sherlock Holmes Quote
-A Study in Scarlet
At this time, knowledge of the “trick” of double exposure on the same photographic plate was not widespread and grieving people could be convinced that a camera could capture something they could not see with their own eyes. This type evidence appears to have led to Conan Doyle’s belief in the existence of fairies when photographs taken by young girls in Cottingley were brought to his attention. Having examined the five photographs known as the Cottingley fairy pictures, Doyle concluded they were authentic.
(Image from http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)
Instead of hearing reports of fairies from another party, listening to folktales, or seeing paintings or other artwork that represented a fairy, the photographs were visual proof that fairies existed. In a way this seemed to be better than the “first-hand evidence” that Holmes so admired. First hand evidence, after all, could not be shared with the general public; this type of photographic evidence could be distributed for all to see and experience.
The Strand Effect
The first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlett, appeared in print in 1887. In 1891, The Strand Magazine began publishing a series of Sherlock Holmes stories and years of successful publication followed. Conan Doyle was able to give up his medical practice. By 1920, however, Conan Doyle had all but ceased writing fiction and instead published a different type of work altogether in The Strand. The Christmas edition had emblazoned across its cover the headline: “Fairies Photographed – An Epoch Making Event Described by A. Conan Doyle.”
“Eliminate all other factors, and the one which remains must be the truth.”
Sherlock Holmes Quote
-The Sign of Four
Although Conan Doyle opened his article in noncommittal fashion, calling for the scenes portrayed to be repeated before a “disinterested witness” in order to “remove the last faint shadow of doubt”, the reader was left in little doubt where he stood: “It seems to me that with fuller knowledge and with fresh means of vision, these people are destined to become just as solid and real as the Eskimos.”
He explained that he had examined the photographs “long and earnestly” with a high-powered lens. Obviously intent on using the Cottingley fairies to advance the Spiritualist cause, Conan Doyle concluded there was a strong case for the pictures’ authenticity. (Read more at the following site: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-1077709/Sherlock-Holmes-curious-case-garden-fairies.html#ixzz3W5txzJqu )
Conan Doyle led the defense of the Cottingley fairy photographs. (Only after Conan Doyle’s death did one of the girls who took the photographs admit they were fakes. See the above mentioned Daily Mail article for more details.) Publicly there was astonishment that a man such as Conan Doyle, someone who created the character of Sherlock Holmes—logical, scientific, rational—could ever believe in fairies. His reputation, along with the public’s unfamiliarity with how photographic evidence could be faked, increased the public debate on the existence of fairies. This debate continued long after his death in the 1930s.
“I had,” he said, “come to an entirely erroneous conclusion, my dear Watson, how dangerous it always is to reason from insufficient data.”
Sherlock Holmes Quote
-The Adventure of the Speckled Band
Please leave your comments below. I am interested in what you think about this topic.
For More Articles about Victorian Influences and The Steampunk Genre by me, please see:
Steampunk and Fairy Tales
Toward an Understanding of the Steampunk Aesthetic
The Hybrid Temporality of Steampunk, Part One
The Hybrid Temporality of Steampunk, Part Two
Victorian Influences and Modern Day Steampunk Part 1
Victorian Influences and Modern Day Steampunk Part 2
Why Charles Dickens Isn’t The Father of Steampunk
Want even more Victorian inspired speculative fiction? Check out the following:
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