From Cuff to Holmes: Developments in Mystery

Nearly twenty years separate Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone from Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet. Similarly, the texts exemplify nearly twenty years of literary development. Here, I wish to bring attention to the ways in which the detective figure is constructed between these novels in order to explore the fluctuating views of crime and justice in Victorian society. Specifically, I wish to highlight the connection between the emerging field of forensics as a possible explanation for shift from a character like Sergeant Cuff to Sherlock Holmes.

While there are many aspects which separate Cuff from Holmes, I would argue that the most genre defining differences spawn from their relationship with mystery and how the detectives contribute to narrative pacing. For example, Cuff’s first introduction is met with Betteredge’s disappointment that, “this celebrated policeman proved to be quite a mine of learning on the trumpery subject of rosegardens [sic]” (Collins 107). Gardening, as an activity, relies heavily on a strong sense of patience and faith in the process, and these traits carry into Cuff’s relation with mystery. A brisk 342 pages later, Cuff relays his account: “I have waited to make it a complete Report; and I have been met, here and there, by obstacles which it was only possible to remove by some little expenditure of patience and time.” (Collins 449). For Cuff, mystery necessitates precision and patience in order to deliver a “complete” report. In this case, his methods do not delay the narrative so much as they lack in offering progression. Sherlock could not be more different.

Contrary to Cuff, Stamford introduced Sherlock with excitement. Stamford outlines a problem in which a, “man is suspected of a crime months perhaps after it has been committed,” (Doyle 12) because there was no reliable way to test blood. Miraculously “[n]ow we have the Sherlock Holmes test, and there will no longer be any difficulty.” (Doyle 12). Even the way in which he uses Sherlock’s name, Stamford equates Sherlock to a mystery already solved. In many cases such as this, Sherlock’s relation to mystery resembles action rather than inquisition. The tension with Sherlock stories is rarely “What happened?” but rather “How does Sherlock know what happened?” This shift in knowledge appears through a narratively, in which Sherlock’s actions set the pace rather than a Cuff-like need for precision. For the Victorian reader, these stories may represent a reaction to new and emerging epistemologies, such as forensics. After all, the idea that actions leave definitive signs leaves little room in the mystery genre for the supernatural and slow-moving elements in The Moonstone.


Works Cited

Collins, Wilkie. The Moonstone. Edited by Sandra Kempt, Penguin Classics, 1998, pp. 1-472.

Doyle, Arthur Conan. A Study in Scarlet. Penguin Classics, 2001, pp. 1-128.


A Study in Eating Sand

“They’re like the weird kids at the playground, who rather than running and going down the slide are like eating sand together, okay?”—Levy Rozman

Above, Rozman describes how chess grandmasters look to an average person. Their actions look erratic and their moves make little intuitive sense. And yet, this ‘sand eating’ is of the highest performance.

Rozman leans on a modern trope in which especially skilled individuals must also lack in other key components, usually social abilities. This individual’s prowess would be so great that they surmount most, if not all, shortcomings. I wish to propose that this phenomena in a Victorian literature both reveals and critiques the capitalist call for specialization. In the case of Sherlock, for instance, he prides that his mind “will have nothing but tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order.” (Doyle 17). So, while Rozman’s comment may come from the past couple of years, Sherlock Holmes most certainly consumes a similarly large volume of sand.

Holmes, however, may not possess that same iron stomach as modern chess players. At the cost of his specialty and skill, “now and again a reaction would seize him, and for days on end he would lie upon the sofa in the sitting-room, hardly uttering a word or moving a muscle from morning to night.” (Doyle 15). Sherlock’s character achieves balance through this suffering, and yet his focal point remains on his work. Holmes even encourages a blind eye towards this occasional catatonia. He instructs Watson that he, “must not think [he is] sulky when [he does] that. Just let [him] alone, and [he]’ll soon be right.” (Doyle 13). None of Sherlock belongs to himself. Everything from his pursuit of knowledge to his retention of information to his caring for his general well-being centers around his profession. When we love Sherlock as Watson does, do we also overshadow the pain and deliberate neglect in constraining a boundless man to specialized detective? Admittedly, he is one hell of a detective, but should we celebrate that?

Works Cited

Doyle, Arthur Conan. A Study in Scarlet. Penguin Classics, 2001, pp. 1-128.

Rozman, Levy. “GothamChess about eating sand Animation.” YouTube, uploaded by doctor bees, 21 April 2021,

What’s in a Curse?

The British Empire looted cultures around the world. It is almost comical (if not terrifying) how many priceless and sacred artifacts from the Americas, Asia, and Africa are currently stored away in the bowels of the British museum or shown behind glass as prominent sites of conquest. And yet across time and genre, literature often features these objects without reverence or pride.

Take Wilkie Collin’s The Moonstone, for example. The narrative introduces its titular gemstone through the language of historical myth, wherein “The deity [Vishnu] predicted certain disaster to the presumptuous mortal who laid hand on the sacred gem, and to all of his house and name who received it after him.” (Collins 12). Although the narrator expresses skepticism towards the Indian tale, he states “I am influenced by a certain superstition of my own in this matter. It is my conviction, or my delusion, no matter which, that crime brings its own fatality … [Herncastle] will live to regret it, if he keeps the Diamond; and the others will live to regret taking it from him, if he gives the Diamond away.” (Collins 16). Regardless of whether the moonstone holds any actual curse, this language foreshadows future conflict similar to a curse. In doing so, the narrative communicates some sort of cosmic anti-colonial and vengeful power that deters the diamond from invading forces. This should raise several key questions: Why does the language of curses and mysticism appear alongside colonial artifacts? How does the language of curses reflect and critique ongoing and past colonialism? How did colonialism affect the British cultural psyche regarding the emergent capitalist ideals of property and ownership?

In order to avoid a tangent on its full history and extensive controversy, let us start with capitalism. When I speak of the capitalist ideals in Victorian society, I posit two core values: 1) Profit in the form of capital serves as a measure of social and economic quality. 2) Respect in the private property rights attributed to Individual entities.

Colonial curses represent a repressed anxiety over wrongful land acquisition. The act of conquest undermines respect for private property, in and of itself, and loot from conquests serves as the most visible representation of imperialism for the British public. For example, a British citizen would not have to travel to India in order to see the Koh-I-Noor Diamond after Victoria put it in her crown. These physical objects, such as the moonstone, become sites in which British Imperialism and Capitalist values come at odds. At the same time that the working classes of England saw factories, tools, and large plots of land fall into private enterprise through either legal or financial means, they also witnessed facets of Empire consistently returning to the mainland. As products of conquest, these objects represent the potential force has in acquiring and usurping power, including landed power. And as such, their presence in England creates tension between core capitalist values and imperialist attitudes. In short, this brand of imperialism is inconsistent with the capitalist ideology imposed upon the British public, and so these objects must be cursed.

Lessons From a Bastard in Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights”

The Victorian Era was a time of change across all aspects of society. As working conditions began to improve, so did room for literacy. According to Richard Altick, the forms of the novel which emerged in the Victorian Era catered to the increasingly literate working class with one, key caveat—The “reading matter had to be devoid of all but the most familiar literary and historical allusions” (Altick 61). These narratives communicated a simplicity and coalesced into a “many-voicedness” which allowed “the several classes [to come to] a certain understanding of one another’s positions in the fluid state of society” (Altick 72). Although I hold some reservations concerning his tone towards the working class, Altick’s broader point that the contemporary literature communicated ideas in simple and familiar terms provides a lens for reading Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights”. If ideas were blunt and instructive about class standings, then where does that leave a bastard like Heathcliff?

That bastard is selfish, cruel, and unforgiving. The caretaker, Nelly, describes Heathcliff in the following words:

“He has nobody knows what money, and every year it increases. Yes, yes, he’s richer to live in a finer house than this; but he’s very near—close-handed; and, if he had meant to flit to Thrushcross Grange, he could not have borne to miss the chance of getting a few hundreds more. It is strange people should be so greedy, when they are alone in this world” (Bronte 34)

While Nelly reveals to Lockwood the vast wealth Heathcliff has acquired, she includes mention that this fortune is tainted by its excess. Since his expansion into Thrushcross Grange would only [emphasis added] produce “a few hundreds more,” he is greedy. In fact, Nelly puts the whole of Heathcliff’s standing under fire. Since Heathcliff does not renovate his house, he is “near.” Without family, he is “alone,” which only adds to making him more cheap and more greedy. All of these criticisms compound to reconcile the achievement in her first statement. Heathcliff does well in society, but Heathcliff doing well does not conform with the image of the Bastard.

Being alone from a family restricts Heathcliff and taints how others see both his success and failures. If we assume the blunt image of the Bastard, as a conniving, evil bastard, then Heathcliff makes a fine villain. However, if we assume the blunt messaging reveals “a certain understanding of one another’s positions” (Altick 61), then Heathcliff unravels into a rich commentary about Victorian prejudices and rigidity. Nelly accurately points out that Heathcliff is “alone” (Bronte 34), but his loneliness is not of his sole doing. Heathcliff endured abandonment to reach his position, but despite his acquisition of status, he goes unrecognized and remains disconnected. “Wuthering Heights” is a tragic depiction of neglect in society, the indifferent cruelty of others, and the continual suffering that prejudice produces. The Bastard, while a blunt literary image, works here as a lesson against such discrimination. At all levels of society, hate breeds hate, and resentment breeds sufferings.


Words Cited

Altick, Richard D. “The Power of the Press.” Victorians: Actors and Audience, Norton, 1973, pp 64-72.

Altick, Richard D. “The Reading Public.” Victorians: Actors and Audience, Norton, 1973, pp 59-64.

Bronte, Emily. Wuthering Heights. Penguin Random House, 2003.

Ventriloquist Activism: Discourse Through Dialogue and Distance in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton

How is Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton not more radical? At face value, the novel takes the form of a marriage plot. Although the characters are mostly poor, laboring peoples, the narrative follows the titular Mary Barton as she moves through an industrializing Britain during the early Victorian era. She loves, then she longs. She learns that she doesn’t love. She longs some more, and then she loves again. Some people die along the way, but surely a happy ending ensues. Yet these romances and spectacles only dominate one part of the narrative. In this paper, I argue that Mary Barton performs a balancing act between flashy spectacle and serious, political commentary about class relations. The narrative voice does this through alternating between transparent and opaque language, and in doing so, the novel consistently comments on class issues while repeatedly claiming otherwise. Take, for example, the following passage:

“[The condition of the poor] is so impossible to describe, or even faintly to picture, the state of distress which prevailed in the town at that time, that I will not attempt it; and yet I think again that surely, in a Christian land, it was not known even so feebly as words could tell it, or the more happy and fortunate would have thronged with their sympathy and their aid.” (85)

Within the above section, there is a pattern of absence. Although the narrator claims that the conditions of the working class were “so impossible to describe,” the narrative then goes at length to monotonously not describe the impossible scene. Three consecutive times in only two lines of text, the narrator insists upon this point. Rather than withhold information, the text goes on about this elusive scene, imprinting it upon the reader. Through this repeated protest to speak, the narrative actually does much to convey the opposite. This repetition widens the void left through this absence, and the lacking text leaves the reader with a more vivid image of the distress which the poor endured than general statistics could otherwise provide.

Interestingly, the narrative then follows what had not happened with speculation. Wealthier, “more happy and fortunate” classes “would have thronged with their sympathy and their aid” if only they had known how bad the situation had gotten. It is hard not to read this passage in the context of another character, John Barton, who has often spoke on behalf of Trade Unionists and other contemporary labor groups. Yet here, the text steps out from itself. What first begun as a proclamation about impoverished peoples changes tone completely, as if to distance the narrative from radical positions while still commenting and agreeing with radical sentiments.

Every section that depicts the poor and laboring class seems to lead to some radical conclusion about inequality. Yet the text suggests that class sufferings are wholistically distinct from the very institutions which separate the different classes of Victorian England. At the same time, the very separation of classes allows for terrible hardship without relief. To be clear, I do not argue that Elizabeth Gaskell is a Radical. The ways in which Gaskell portrays working conditions and hints of a strong sympathy towards labor groups, however, raises an important question. How is she not?


Works Cited

Barton, Mary. Elizabeth Gaskell, edited by Macdonald Daly, Penguin Books, 1996.