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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Conan Doyle’s bold, covert allusion to lesbian subtext in 2 Austen letters…& in a second Austen novel!

After my post yesterday, this morning I realized that the following passage….
“And here it is that I miss my Watson. By CUNNING questions and EJACULATIONS OF WONDER, he could elevate my simple art, which is but systematized common sense, into a prodigy…”
….is actually contained in “The Blanched Soldier” (hereafter “TBS”, part of The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes).  I then read the entire (very short) text of “TBS”, to see if anything else in “TBS” beyond that one Austen-drenched paragraph might shed further light on my last post’s central conclusion--that such passage was a crucial component of a complex veiled allusion by Arthur Conan Doyle to Jane Austen—to Sense & Sensibility, and also to Jane Austen’s intimate relationship with her friend & longtime housemate Martha Lloyd. But even I, with my fertile imagination, did not expect what I found in the rest of “The Blanched Soldier”:  a story which contains every one of the following Austen-drenched plot elements:

ONE: A young visitor to a large English country estate is abruptly ordered to leave by the owner, a stern father who is a retired army officer.
TWO: The officer wishes to keep that visitor away from the officer’s child, who has been a very close, same-sex friend of the visitor.
THREE: The visitor, while snooping around the estate like an amateur detective, believes he sees a family member (of the officer), who appears like a ghost, and whom the visitor speculates is being imprisoned in a secret cell on the estate, and is being fed by a covert supply of food.
FOUR: The subtly but strongly implied reason for the banishment is the officer’s homophobia over the child's close relationship with the visitor.

Any Janeite reading the first three of the above plot points will immediately recognize that I’m describing not only “TBS”, but also Jane Austen’s famous Gothic (anti)parody, her most underestimated masterpiece Northanger Abbey (NA)! Instead of Austen’s General Tilney, Doyle gives us Colonel Emsworth; Instead of Eleanor Tilney, Godfrey Emsworth; and instead of Catherine Morland, bosom friend of Eleanor, we get James Dodd, bosom war buddy of Godfrey.

While you ought to read the entirety of “The Blanched Soldier”, in order to grasp the full extent of Doyle’s pervasive allusion to NA, the textual highlights at the end of this post will give you a strong taste of it. But before I get there, I’ll first give you a few more relevant points to consider:

First, there have been several Sherlockians, both scholarly and amateur, who have detected a strong gay subtext in “TBS” (and, for that matter, in other Holmes stories), including suggestions about a homoerotic charge between Holmes and Watson themselves. For example, there is an extensive, lucid unpacking of gay subtext in “TBS” here , as follows:

“There is ample evidence throughout “The Blanched Soldier” to suggest that Godfrey was, in fact, James Dodd’s lover. In fact, James, when describing Godfrey to Holmes, states: “There was not a finer lad in the regiment. We formed a friendship — the sort of friendship which can only be made when one lives the same life and shares the same joys and sorrows. He was my mate — and that means a good deal in the Army. We took the rough and the smooth together for a year of hard fighting.” A very suggestive statement, to be sure! But not more suggestive than James’ mere presence, for James hires Holmes to help him find Godfrey; an act very indicative of the love James bore for Godfrey. We see, too, evidence of society’s rejection of homosexual love in James’ reference to the problems between Godfrey and his father (which are highly indicative of a father’s disapproval of his son’s homosexuality; indeed, this comes up later in James’ meeting with Godfrey’s father, for Colonel Emsworth takes an instant disliking to James, his son’s lover).
…and also that his father and he did not always hit it off too well. The old man was sometimes a bully…” Not that this stops James; indeed, he immediately sets out to Godfrey’s family estate, where he spends the night in hopes of uncovering Godfrey’s location. So consumed is James by Godfrey’s welfare that he stands against the verbal assaults of Colonel Emsworth, refusing to back down despite the Colonel’s threats: “We had a bit of barney right away, and I should have walked back to the station if I had not felt that it might be playing his game for me to do so.” James even goes so far as to tell Colonel Emsworth: “I was fond of your son Godfrey, sir. Many ties and memories united us.” The statement does not, of course, sit well with the Colonel, and yet this does nothing to dissuade James, James excusing his insolence by stating: “You must put it down, sir, to my real love for your son.”
Again and again we are given evidence to suggest that the relationship between Godfrey and James was that of lovers. We begin to see, then, that their tale was told because Watson dare not share the story belonging to him and Holmes. Indeed, we begin to see, too, the reasons for Watson choosing this story, for clearly it does not present any other points of interest; it is a story of love and friendship, having nothing to do with detection or deduction. So far, however, we have only been graced with James’ point of view. As the story progresses we begin to see that James’ feelings for Godfrey are quite reciprocated. Indeed, in spending the night in Godfrey’s family estate, James catches his first glimpse of Godfrey through the window, telling us: “He was deadly pale — never have I seen a man so white. I reckon ghosts may look like that; but his eyes met mine, and they were the eyes of a living man. He sprang back when he saw that I was looking at him, and he vanished into the darkness.” That Godfrey would disobey his father, and risk public scandal by leaving his safe house, simply because he is overcome with desire to see James is quite suggestive. In fact, later, Godfrey himself tells us: “Old Ralph told me you [James] were there, and I couldn’t help taking a peep at you.” A clear indication of Godfrey’s need and love for James.
Prior to discovering Godfrey, however, James first sets out to search the grounds in hopes of finding his friend’s hideaway. He stumbles across an old cottage, and, peering into the window, James tells us:
“However, I had little thought to spare upon such details, for a second man was seated with his back to the window, and I could swear that this second man was Godfrey. I could not see his face, but I knew the familiar slope of his shoulders.” To recognize a man by the slope of his shoulders is a true feat indeed. This speaks to intimacy beyond that of mere friends and comrades.
It is shortly after James’ narrative that Holmes agrees to accompany James to Godfrey’s family estate. There, our conviction that James and Godfrey are, in fact, lovers is strengthened. “I cannot leave here,” said my client firmly, “until I hear from Godfrey’s own lips that he is under no restraint.” James’ devotion becomes even more apparent when he risks everything to stand up to Godfrey’s father. Finally, there is the eventual reunion between Godfrey and James, Holmes telling us: A man was standing with his back to the fire, and at the sight of him my client sprang forward with outstretched hand.
“Why, Godfrey, old man, this is fine!””  END QUOTE

To that thorough and acute analysis, I add that Doyle plays, on a macro scale, with the metaphor of Godfrey as having a terrible contagious, incurable ‘disease’ which requires that he be kept away—indeed, secret-- from all outside human contact and awareness—that is clearly Doyle’s sly way of hiding in plain sight his own strong critique of the near-universal societal homophobia of turn of century England. And note that at the end of “TBS”, Holmes’s medical expert pronounces Godfrey to not have “leprosy” after all—in other words, in code, Godfrey’s being gay is not a “disease” at all! This is fine social satire by Doyle!

I also found a very interesting online article entitled “"Was Sherlock Holmes gay? Was Victorian London’s most famous sleuth looking for more than crime in the back alleys of the West End?”, which bears indirectly on some significant Royal Family tabloid background for this gay subtext in “TBS”, too.

Second, I think it’s clear that Doyle chose “TBS” to be the special Holmes story in which Doyle alluded most pointedly to what I infer Doyle saw as Jane Austen's real life lesbian relationship with Martha Lloyd, to whom she wrote about Mrs. Stent "ejaculating wonders about cocks and hens" and whose “cunning” elicited Jane’s mock worry of plagiarism of First Impressions. Again, those are the very same keywords Holmes uses in “TBS”—a story filled with gay subtext--- to describe Watson’s prowess at telling Holmes’s stories for him! Who gets to tell whose personal story, and whose story must be concealed —those are the questions Doyle wants his sharp elf readers to grapple with!

Third, I believe that Val McDermid was brilliant in her recent 21st century retelling of Northanger Abbey, in suggesting that General Tilney abruptly boots Catherine out of the Abbey because he wishes to put the kibosh on a budding lesbian romance between Eleanor and Catherine. While this plot twist has elicited snorts of scorn from many Janeites who’ve read McDermid’s retelling, I have long believed that Jane Austen very intentionally created a very strong erotic subtext in the relationship between Eleanor and Catherine. So I say that McDermid was spot-on in inferring the banishment of Catherine from the Abbey as a probable consequence of Colonel Tilney’s discovery of same.

But I had no idea before today that Arthur Conan Doyle had already sleuthed out that lesbian subtext in NA way back in 1926, and had covertly displayed his discoveries in “The Blanched Soldier”.  So, my final question is whether McDermid, a celebrated modern detective story writer, was aware of Doyle’s having been there first? I think she just might have, after reading the following blurb about one of McDermid’s series of detective novels, which suggests---not surprisingly-- that McDermid knows the Holmes canon well, and wished to emulate this part of it, in her homage to Austen’s NA:

"Tony Hill & Carol Jordan - created by Val McDermid. First appearance: The Mermaids Singing (1995) Most people would maybe classify this relationship within the Mulder & Scully vein (another great duo), but it's actually much closer to the traditional Holmes/Watson relationship. The eccentric, but brilliant Tony Hill and police detective Carol Jordan bring Doyle's tradition to the present. And as is common with the male/female team-ups, it offers a certain amount of romantic tension to all their interactions."

Wheels within wheels within wheels, a literary game of hide and seek about gay and lesbian lives lived in the shadows of the straight world, played out over a span of 200 years, with the Sherlock Holmes stories as the bridge that connects Austen’s covert lesbian subtext to McDermid’s overt lesbian detective stories!


“I find from my notebook that it was in January, 1903, just after the conclusion of the Boer War, that I had my visit from Mr. James M. Dodd, a big, fresh, sunburned, upstanding Briton. The good Watson had at that time deserted me for a wife, the only selfish action which I can recall in our association. I was alone.….
"…a good deal has happened since then. If Colonel Emsworth had not kicked me out --"
"Kicked you out!"
"Well, that was what it amounted to. He is a hard nail, is Colonel Emsworth. The greatest martinet in the Army in his day, and it was a day of rough language, too. I couldn't have stuck the colonel if it had not been for Godfrey's sake."
I lit my pipe and leaned back in my chair.
"Perhaps you will explain what you are talking about."
My client grinned mischievously.
"I had got into the way of supposing that you knew everything without being told," said he. "But I will give you the facts, and I hope to God that you will be able to tell me what they mean. I've been awake all night puzzling my brain, and the more I think the more incredible does it become.
"When I joined up in January, 1901--just two years ago--young Godfrey Emsworth had joined the same squadron. He was Colonel Emsworth's only son--Emsworth the Crimean V. C.--and he had the fighting blood in him, so it is no wonder he volunteered. There was not a finer lad in the regiment. We formed a friendship--the sort of friendship which can only be made when one lives the same life and shares the same joys and sorrows. He was my mate--and that means a good deal in the Army. We took the rough and the smooth together for a year of hard fighting. Then he was hit with a bullet from an elephant gun in the action near Diamond Hill outside-Pretoria. I got one letter from the hospital at Cape Town and one from Southampton. Since then not a word--not one word, Mr. Holmes, for six months and more, and he my closest pal.
"Well, when the war was over, and we all got back, I wrote to his father and asked where Godfrey was. No answer. I waited a bit and then I wrote again. This time I had a reply, short and gruff. Godfrey had gone on a voyage round the world, and it was not likely that he would be back for a year. That was all.
"I wasn't satisfied, Mr. Holmes. The whole thing seemed to me so damned unnatural. He was a good lad, and he would not drop a pal like that. It was not like him. Then, again, I happened to know that he was heir to a lot of money, and also that his father and he did not always hit it off too well. The old man was sometimes a bully, and young Godfrey had too much spirit to stand it. No, I wasn't satisfied, and I determined that I would get to the root of the matter. It happened, however, that my own affairs needed a lot of straightening out, after two years' absence, and so it is only this week that I have been able to take up Godfrey's case again. But since I have taken it up I mean to drop everything in order to see it through."
Mr. James M. Dodd appeared to be the sort of person whom it would be better to have as a friend than as an enemy. His blue eyes were stern and his square jaw had set hard as he spoke.
"Well, what have you done?" I asked.
"My first move was to get down to his home, Tuxbury Old Park, near Bedford, and to see for myself how the ground lay. I wrote to the mother, therefore--I had had quite enough of the curmudgeon of a father--and I made a clean frontal attack: Godfrey was my chum, I had a great deal of interest which I might tell her of our common experiences, I should be in the neighbourhood, would there be any objection, et cetera? In reply I had quite an amiable answer from her and an offer to put me up for the night. That was what took me down on Monday.
…."'Well, sir,' said [Colonel Emsworth] in a rasping voice, 'I should be interested to know the real reasons for this visit.'
"I answered that I had explained them in my letter to his wife.
"'Yes, yes, you said that you had known Godfrey in Africa. We have, of course, only your word for that.'
"'I have his letters to me in my pocket.'
"'Kindly let me see them.'
"He glanced at the two which I handed him, and then he tossed them back.
"'Well, what then?' he asked.
"'I was fond of your son Godfrey, sir. Many ties and memories united us. Is it not natural that I should wonder at his sudden silence and should wish to know what has become of him?'
…."My request seemed both to puzzle and to irritate my host. His great eyebrows came down over his eyes, and he tapped his fingers impatiently on the table. He looked up at last with the expression of one who has seen his adversary make a dangerous move at chess, and has decided how to meet it.
"'Many people, Mr. Dodd,' said he, 'would take offence at your infernal pertinacity and would think that this insistence had reached the point of damned impertinence.'
"'You must put it down, sir, to my real love for your son.'
"'Exactly. I have already made every allowance upon that score. I must ask you, however, to drop these inquiries. Every family has its own inner knowledge and its own motives, which cannot always be made clear to outsiders, however well-intentioned. My wife is anxious to hear something of Godfrey's past which you are in a position to tell her, but I would ask you to let the present and the future alone. Such inquiries serve no useful purpose, sir, and place us in a delicate and difficult position.'
"So I came to a dead end, Mr. Holmes. There was no getting past it. I could only pretend to accept the situation and register a vow inwardly that I would never rest until my friend's fate had been cleared up. It was a dull evening. We dined quietly, the three of us, in a gloomy, faded old room. The lady questioned me eagerly about her son, but the old man seemed morose and depressed. I was so bored by the whole proceeding that I made an excuse as soon as I decently could and retired to my bedroom. It was a large, bare room on the ground floor, as gloomy as the rest of the house, but after a year of sleeping upon the veldt, Mr. Holmes, one is not too particular about one's quarters. I opened the curtains and looked out into the garden, remarking that it was a fine night with a bright half-moon. Then I sat down by the roaring fire with the lamp on a table beside me, and endeavoured to distract my mind with a novel. I was interrupted, however, by Ralph, the old butler, who came in with a fresh supply of coals.
…."'Listen,' I said. 'You are going to answer one question before you leave if I have to hold you all night. Is Godfrey dead?"
"He could not face my eyes. He was like a man hypnotized The answer was dragged from his lips. It was a terrible and unexpected one.
"'I wish to God he was!' he cried, and, tearing himself free he dashed from the room.
"You will think, Mr. Holmes, that I returned to my chair in no very happy state of mind. The old man's words seemed to me to bear only one interpretation. Clearly my poor friend had become involved in some criminal or, at the least, disreputable transaction which touched the family honour. That stern old man had sent his son away and hidden him from the world lest some scandal should come to light. Godfrey was a reckless fellow. He was easily influenced by those around him. No doubt he had fallen into bad hands and been misled to his ruin. It was a piteous business, if it was indeed so, but even now it was my duty to hunt him out and see if I could aid him. I was anxiously pondering the matter when I looked up, and there was Godfrey Emsworth standing before me."
My client had paused as one in deep emotion.
"Pray continue," I said. "Your problem presents some very unusual features."
"He was outside the window, Mr. Holmes, with his face pressed against the glass. I have told you that I looked out at the night. When I did so I left the curtains partly open. His figure was framed in this gap. The window came down to the ground and I could see the whole length of it, but it was his face which held my gaze. He was deadly pale--never have I seen a man so white. I reckon ghosts may look like that; but his eyes met mine, and they were the eyes of a living man. He sprang back when he saw that I was looking at him, and he vanished into the darkness.
"There was something shocking about the man, Mr. Holmes. It wasn't merely that ghastly face glimmering as white as cheese in the darkness. It was more subtle than that--something slinking, something furtive, something guilty--something very unlike the frank, manly lad that I had known. It left a feeling of horror in my mind.
"But when a man has been soldiering for a year or two with brother Boer as a playmate, he keeps his nerve and acts quickly. Godfrey had hardly vanished before I was at the window. There was an awkward catch, and I was some little time before I could throw it up. Then I nipped through and ran down the garden path in the direction that I thought he might have taken.
"It was a long path and the light was not very good, but it seemed to me something was moving ahead of me. I ran on and called his name, but it was no use. When I got to the end of the path there were several others branching in different directions to various outhouses. I stood hesitating, and as I did so I heard distinctly the sound of a closing door. It was not behind me in the house, but ahead of me, somewhere in the darkness. That was enough, Mr. Holmes, to assure me that what I had seen was not a vision. Godfrey had run away from me, and he had shut a door behind him. Of that I was certain.
"There was nothing more I could do, and I spent an uneasy night turning the matter over in my mind and trying to find some theory which would cover the facts. Next day I found the colonel rather more conciliatory, and as his wife remarked that there were some places of interest in the neighbourhood, it gave me an opening to ask whether my presence for one more night would incommode them. A somewhat grudging acquiescence from the old man gave me a clear day in which to make my observations. I was already perfectly convinced that Godfrey was in hiding somewhere near, but where and why remained to be solved.
"The house was so large and so rambling that a regiment might be hid away in it and no one the wiser. If the secret lay there it was difficult for me to penetrate it. But the door which I had heard close was certainly not in the house. I must explore the garden and see what I could find. There was no difficulty in the way, for the old people were busy in their own fashion and left me to my own devices.
….I could swear that this second man was Godfrey. I could not see his face, but I knew the familiar slope of his shoulders. He was leaning upon his elbow in an attitude of great melancholy, his body turned towards the fire. I was hesitating as to what I should do when there was a sharp tap on my shoulder, and there was Colonel Emsworth beside me.
"'This way, sir!' said he in a low voice. He walked in silence to the house, and I followed him into my own bedroom. He had picked up a time-table in the hall.
" There is a train to London at 8:30,' said he. 'The trap will be at the door at eight.'
"He was white with rage, and, indeed, I felt myself in so difficult a position that I could only stammer out a few incoherent apologies in which I tried to excuse myself by urging my anxiety for my friend.
"'The matter will not bear discussion,' said he abruptly. 'You have made a most damnable intrusion into the privacy of our family. You were here as a guest and you have become a spy. I have nothing more to say, sir, save that I have no wish ever to see you again.'
"At this I lost my temper, Mr. Holmes, and I spoke with some warmth.
"'I have seen your son, and I am convinced that for some reason of your own you are concealing him from the world. I have no idea what your motives are in cutting him off in this fashion, but I am sure that he is no longer a free agent. I warn you, Colonel Emsworth, that until I am assured as to the safety and well-being of my friend I shall never desist in my efforts to get to the bottom of the mystery, and I shall certainly not allow myself to be intimidated by anything which you may say or do.'
"The old fellow looked diabolical, and I really thought he was about to attack me. I have said that he was a gaunt, fierce old giant, and though I am no weakling I might have been hard put to it to hold my own against him. However, after a long glare of rage he turned upon his heel and walked out of the room. For my part, I took the appointed train in the morning, with the full intention of coming straight to you and asking for your advice and assistance at the appointment for which I had already written."
…."The servants," I asked; "how many were in the house?"
"To the best of my belief there were only the old butler and his wife. They seemed to live in the simplest fashion."
"There was no servant, then, in the detached house?"
"None, unless the little man with the beard acted as such. He seemed, however, to be quite a superior person."
"That seems very suggestive. Had you any indication that food was conveyed from the one house to the other?"
"Now that you mention it, I did see old Ralph carrying a basket down the garden walk and going in the direction of this house. The idea of food did not occur to me at the moment."
…It happened that at the moment I was clearing up the case which my friend Watson has described as that of the Abbey School, in which the Duke of Greyminster was so deeply involved. I had also a commission from the Sultan of Turkey which called for immediate action, as political consequences of the gravest kind might arise from its neglect. Therefore it was not until the beginning of the next week, as my diary records, that I was able to start forth on my mission to Bedfordshire in company with Mr. James M. Dodd. As we drove to Eustonn we picked up a grave and tacitum gentleman of iron-gray aspect, with whom I had made the necessary arrangements.
….."Then I will ask Sir James to step this way. He is at present in the carriage outside the door. Meanwhile, Colonel Emsworth, we may perhaps assemble in your study, where I could give the necessary explanations."
And here it is that I miss my Watson. By cunning questions and ejaculations of wonder he could elevate my simple art, which is but systematized common sense, into a prodigy. When I tell my own story I have no such aid. And yet I will give my process of thought even as I gave it to my small audience, which included Godfrey's mother in the study of Colonel Emsworth.
"That process," said I, "starts upon the supposition that when you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. It may well be that several explanations remain, in which case one tries test after test until one or other of them has a convincing amount of support. We will now apply this principle to the case in point. As it was first presented to me, there were three possible explanations of the seclusion or incarceration of this gentleman in an outhouse of his father's mansion. There was the explanation that he was in hiding for a crime, or that he was mad and that they wished to avoid an asylum, or that he had some disease which caused his segregation. I could think of no other adequate solutions. These, then, had to be sifted and balanced against each other.
…."It is often my lot to bring ill-tidings and seldom good," said he. "This occasion is the more welcome. It is not leprosy."
"A well-marked case of pseudo-leprosy or ichthyosis, a scalelike affection of the skin, unsightly, obstinate, but possibly curable, and certainly noninfective. Yes, Mr. Holmes, the coincidence is a remarkable one. But is it coincidence? Are there not subtle forces at work of which we know little? Are we assured that the apprehension from which this young man has no doubt suffered terribly since his exposure to its contagion may not produce a physical effect which simulates that which it fears? At any rate, I pledge my professional reputation--But the lady has fainted! I think that Mr. Kent had better be with her until she recovers from this joyous shock."

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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