The Sherlock Holmes stories delicately balance order and chaos. The premise of detective stories is to restore order where it has been disturbed, and the Sherlock Holmes stories act as a way for readers to feel secure in an age of sweeping change and uncertainty. The Longman Anthology chapter on “The Victorian Age” sheds light on how the Sherlock Holmes stories embody core concerns of the 1890’s.
The Sherlock Holmes stories, particularly A Scandal in Bohemia, are fascinated with crimes we cannot detect; they happen right under our noses. And if they happen right under England’s nose (the most powerful, secure nation in the Victorian Age), what kind of monumental threat do they pose? Who can actually stop them? The Longman Anthology discusses the “age of doubt” (1055) rippling through British culture in the 1890’s. People stopped responding to authority figures, like religion (1056). This scared citizens because it meant they could not impose authority as directly as before (1056). Colonized societies began to rebel, and marital and women’s rights laws passed (1059); generally, every form of social order and regularity began to fall apart in the 1890’s, and Britain stood to lose the most from this shift.
“Each of the issues that threatened to bring the country into open conflict or destroy the social fabric was in the course of the century addressed peacefully through legislation…” (1059). While the end of this statement appeases readers, it also exposes the discomfort prevalent at the time of the Sherlock Holmes stories, and shows that A Scandal in Bohemia, for instance, reflects that unsettled feeling. Many of the Sherlock Holmes stories do not even end gratifyingly; they simply stop, and the “payoff” does not match the story’s suspense. In A Scandal in Bohemia, Irene Adler escapes Sherlock’s grasp, and she even keeps a picture that could destroy a king’s reputation. As the story says, “I keep [the picture] only to safeguard myself, and to preserve a weapon which will always secure me from any steps which [the king] might take in the future” (19). Arguably, nothing is resolved in the story, except the great Sherlock Holmes does know how Irene committed the crime. Maybe as long as he knows how she did it, we are supposed to forgive Sherlock for letting Irene escape, and we can trust England’s security once more? This lack of a neat, clean ending reflects Fin de Siècle sentiments. Not only is the story unresolved, but Irene Adler could return at any time and use the picture to cause a “scandal.” She continues to threaten the balance Sherlock establishes at the end of the story. Really, though, society does not actually regain balance in the story; instead, Sherlock, Watson, and the rest of England simply proceed as though Irene Adler presents no threat. In this story, ignoring the problem seems to “solve” it.
Ignoring the problem, or pretending there isn’t one, seems to be a common practice in the Victorian Age, according to The Longman Anthology. “[Victorian] novels work within an established social frame, focusing on the characters’ freedom to act within fairly narrow moral codes in an unpredictable universe; they deal with questions of social responsibility and personal choice, the impulses of passion and the dictates of conscience” (1071). So Victorian literature both reaffirms faith in society, because it operates “within an established social frame” (1071), and the works investigate how social order could imperceptibly, and then permanently, crumble. A Scandal in Bohemia and other Sherlock Holmes stories embody this because the crimes themselves are not serious (theft, digging for gold, and royal “scandals” are not so fantastical), but Sherlock and other characters respond to the crimes with an urgency that suggests a far greater threat. Sherlock acts as though solving the crime will provide an eternal restoration of order, which of course it won’t, especially if you solve the crime but have no control over the threat (in this case, Irene).
The stories’ crimes themselves are not dramatic; Sherlock’s reaction provides the fearful quality of the stories. This mirrors Victorian sentiments. Colonization, class equality, and other changes do not threaten society’s health or lifespan, but British society’s reaction to those changes produces anxiety and fear. Thus, the Sherlock Holmes stories deeply resemble how Victorians reacted to the change confronting their established society, and how that reaction posed more of a threat than any change could.