Get Smarter, Mr. Watson, You’re a Bad Biographer And Need To Understand Foreign Culture Better

‘ “It’s a swamp adder!” cried Holmes; the deadliest snake in India. He has died within ten seconds of being bitten.” ‘ (Doyle 57)

The Conan Doyle story, The Adventure of the Speckled Band, is one of the more wackier Sherlock Holmes plotlines. Wackier in the sense of how the murder is perpetrated anyway, where an elaborate plan by a doctor to steal his deceased wife’s fortune from his stepdaughters involves placing them in a room with a fake bellpull connected a ventilator for a snake to come down and bite them to death.

The snake is described as looking like a “peculiar yellow band, with brownish speckles” (Doyle 57), hence the aforementioned title. But the bit that comes after, where Holmes declares immediately it is a swamp adder, is the interesting bit.

Now here’s the thing: there’s no such thing as a swamp adder. It’s such a seemingly inconsequential bit to this story, and even more inconsequential to analyze, but it does offer an interesting perspective into Victorian mindset that isn’t there at first glance.

The snake hails from India, or so Holmes claims. Except no such snake exists, and it’s probably some kind of cobra, given the description and its poisonous nature and the likelihood of a dangerous snake from India being a cobra. And this is interesting because Victorians were afraid of foreign things, and didn’t understand cultures, and with the Industrial Revolution’s boom things came in from around the world as the British expanded their territory. But places like India were seen as strange and foreign, and the average Victorian would’ve had little-to-no idea about any “swamp adders” or such, and would thus be remarkably frightened at the prospect of such a creature coming in, because they couldn’t understand it or the place it is from, despite the influx of new cultures coming in from colonization.

While Watson might not actually be at fault for the claim, and neither is Holmes since he’s the one who actually identifies it despite the title of this post suggesting otherwise, but from a Watsonian standpoint, i.e an in-universe one,  while the swamp adder is a fact and knowledge to them, from a Doylist standpoint, i.e from a author’s out-of-universe perspective, it is made up and obviously created to inspire foreign shock in readers. I mean, if the fact Dr. Roylott also owned a baboon and a cheetah weren’t exotic enough for readers…

Since Victorian fiction was serialized in periodicals, and coming off the sensation novel genre now becoming the basis for detective fiction like Sherlock Holmes, many of the same tropes  are still there. There are references to Roylott having a “temper approaching mania” (Doyle 42) being described as hereditary in males and exacerbated by his stay in the tropics, something similar to claims made in Lady Audley’s Secret which in itself talks about how Victorians thought madness was hereditary, and the idea of a foreign land where foreign things happen just ties into Victorians slowly learning about things they don’t understand.

All in all, Victorians enjoyed their sensationalism, and Sherlock Holmes and his strange cases were great for them because it was always going to arouse those feelings, and with layers of things like exotic foreign culture just meant more spice to the sensationalism.