Victorian Opinions in Sherlock Holmes

Within the story “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, some of the true thoughts of Victorian people about other cultures and ethnicities are brought to light. A topic constantly mentioned within the story is the topic of foreign people, especially Indian people. The act of traveling to “the tropics” was thought by the female protagonist to have changed her stepfather, making his behavior more violent and strange, and the “Indians” in the backyard are also thought to be uncivilized (Doyle, 42). As well, the “speckled band” was really a snake from India, further continuing the idea that Victorians did not find comfort in things considered to be foreign. As the Victorian Era was also known as an age of conquest in Britain, many of the citizens believed that their country was the only country that was truly civilized, and looked down upon other peoples as being savage. This idea is explored within Doyle’s story, as characters such as Helen say lines that are unkind towards others, such as “It must have been those wretched gypsies in the plantation” (Doyle, 44). The sensation genre was known to try to elicit strong reactions within the readers of these stories and novels, and so a story involving foreign people from a different continent may have elicited fear and a sense of wonder about these people. The story involves the notion held by many that foreign people and their lands were uncivilized, and so including a foreign animal as the murder weapon may have caused the people reading in Britain to further validate their opinions that foreign lands were dangerous and their people uncivilized.

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.

The Murder Weapon in Bed’s Clothing

The domestic as we have seen is a vital aspect the sensation novel. It provides the setting in which people should be safe, but is the place hiding the most danger. I noticed that our narrator repeats exclaiming the ways in which the apparatus works in silence once he has discovered its existence: “The frightful apparatus moved without making the faintest noise. There had been no creaking as it came down; there was now not the faintest sound from the room above” (Collins, 40). Something with so sinister a goal would have to show its true intentions. We hate to believe that evil conducts its business in silence and in the darkness where we, as the good individuals of the world, have no access and is beyond our reach. 

Another aspect of this is where we see him finally examining the machine itself. Knowing that it is there allows the narrator to search for how it works hidden in plain sight: “I felt at the sides, and discovered that what had appeared to me from beneath to be the ordinary light canopy of a four-post bed was, in reality, a thick, broad mattress, the substance of which was concealed by the valance and its fringe” (Collins, 40). The true nature of the bed provided for him to sleep is hidden from the vantage point of the average person. It “appeared to me from beneath to be the ordinary light canopy of a four-post bed” showing us that what the average individual saw when they looked at it was different from its sinister reality due to the fringe concealing it as well as the angle that interrupted a comprehensive view. 

In a civilized society, we should be able to roam our world without fear of things we might not see. As individuals of society we would like to believe that that idea is not a reality in our civilized world and that unseen evil is a way of the past, but here we are forced to see the truth. The darkest, most sinister acts are always performed in darkness away from the eyes of good, honest people. This passage highlights the worst fear we can have- the fear of the unknown and the unexpected-is a common theme throughout literature because as must as the reality scares us, the idea of what happens in the dark also intrigues us.

A Terribly Strange Night in A Terribly Strange Bed

In Wilkie Collins “A Terribly Strange Bed, ” many of the fears of the Victorian time period are portrayed. The paragraph that stood out to me was on page 45, when the police explained to Mr. Faulkner how the discovery of the machinery in the gambling house explains the death of many drowned men they have found in the river. In the passage, there is emphasis on how Mr. Faulkner closely escaped his death. As the police reiterate to him “Do I know how many of those men entered the same gambling-house that you entered? Won as you won? Took that bed as you took it?” the Victorian fear of the domestic is displayed. The bedroom is supposed to be a peaceful place to relax, but instead it was the site of many murders in the gambling house. The emphasis on how common it was for so many before him to follow the same routine and be murdered, makes it realistic to everyday life. The repetition of how close Mr. Faulkner was to death brings feelings of discomfort and fear in the readers, and did the same to the readers in  the Victorian era. The sensation novel evokes emotions and thoughts in the readers that cause them to question their safety in the evolving world around them. In addition to the fear of the domestic, this passage also contains the fear of machinery from the Victorian time period. The machinery that had killed so many before him was hiding in the floorboards of a bedroom, integrating the fear of machinery into everyday life and the domestic. This idea that machinery could be in the floorboards and could bring death displayed how the Victorians were fearful of the evolution and advancement of machinery.

Fear of the Working Class in “A Terribly Strange Bed”

“We had come to see blackguards…the English stranger was going to break the bank” (Collins 29).

I was first drawn to this passage because of the story’s strange fixation with silence. As I did more of a close read, however, I noticed other word clusters and binaries which suggest something more than just eerie quiet. Collins repeats the phrase “never spoke” three times when describing specific guests of the gambling hall. Other words, such as “mute,” “quiet,” “whispered” and “staring” (because when one is staring, he is not speaking) are distributed throughout the passage. But there is so much more to unpack, which leads me to believe that the haunting silence simply adds to the aesthetic rather than being Faulkner’s main concern, as was my original thought. After all, what about silence agitates the Victorian and not me?

I think this has more to do with the people who produce the unnatural quiet than the lack of sound itself. Collins’ alliteration (“…the flabby fat-face, pimply player who pricked his piece of pasteboard perseveringly…”) draws negative attention to the type of client the gambling house attracts. Faulkner describes the hall’s patrons as being “thin,” “haggard,” “dirty,” “sunken,” “wrinkled,” “desperate,” “hungry,” and as having “sunken…vulture eyes.” Collins’ word choice in describing the scene (“spirits,” “atmosphere,” “weird,” “strange,” “superstitious”) is oddly reminiscent of the supernatural–that to which the lower class Victorians were notorious for subscribing. “Blackguard,” a rude or unscrupulous person, repeats twice, again noting the type of people who haunt the gambling hall. Faulkner describes a man who merely watches with his greedy “vulture eyes” as the other gamblers play. He cannot participate, however, because he has gambled away “his last sou.” This desolation, juxtaposed with Faulkner’s apparent luck at winning (the word “won” repeats four times in one sentence) “incredibly,” “prodigiously,” suggests that success in a seedy gambling house such as this one is exceedingly rare. Or, rather, it suggests that success–in a more general sense–among the people who frequent the hall is abnormal. Luck does not often visit the members of low society. Faulkner tells Mr. Kerby that he had “entered the place to laugh,” but that the “spectacle before [him] was something to weep over.” “Tragedy” repeats twice, and words such as “horrible,” “depression” and “unfortunate” are scattered about the passage. I think that the immediate disgust Faulkner has for the patrons is a facade for a deeper feeling among the high and middle class Victorians. This was the height of the Industrial Revolution, and while it was also the Age of Reform, living conditions for the poor, working class citizens of Europe had hit rock bottom. Though Faulkner does not sympathize with the regulars, he fears them because they evoke a feeling of guilt from his subconscious. Some, when they see a homeless person on the side of the road, feel anger or repugnance. But this revulsion masks subconscious feelings of guilt and sorrow. We cannot but feel guilty and remorseful for being better off, and I think that this is what the passage is hiding.

Was it worth the tea?

“’It is a swamp adder!’ cried Holmes; ‘the deadliest snake in India.’” (Doyle 57)

In this moment Holmes has just opened the door of Dr. Roylott’s bedroom to find him killed by the same snake he used to murder Julia Stoner. While Dr. Roylott is undoubtedly cruel and cunning, a great deal of terror for the Victorian reader would have come from the image of a snake in the bedroom, crawling about the body of a sleeping girl every night until it eventually bit her, ending her life.

The use of an Indian snake as the vehicle of such frightening imagery betrays the fear that Victorians felt for the lands they colonized: India was an English colony for nearly 300 years, but most of the population in England would never have physically gone there. This gives it a tangible connection to England while leaving it foreign enough to be a stage for English fears (particularly scientifically-minded Victorians’ fears of the unknown and the untamable in nature) to play out on. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has the snake wrapped around the head of the villain of the story—completely unnecessary positioning for the bite that killed him– noticeably playing off the image of the pagri (turban) which many Indian men wear. In this way the English doctor is, in the moment when his greatest crime is revealed, depicted as an Indian man. It is also worth noting that, supposedly, Roylott was an upstanding gentleman bent on improving his familial situation through “professional skill and his force of character” (Conan Doyle 41) until he went to India and became violent and angry. The demonization of India through Roylott is ironic; nobody and nothing from India would have harmed anyone were it not through the actions of a white man. Much like many politicians do today, Conan Doyle plays off the racism and xenophobic fears of his intended audience to sell his work.


Swamp Adder:

snake wrapped around a tree

Inspiration of a Painter

“I have been trying to catch your likeness; and, while telling your story, you have unconsciously shown me the natural expression I wanted to ensure my success” (Collins, 46)

This passage in Collins’ A Terribly Strange Bed makes readers consider the act of painting a portrait in the Victorian era, and what it took to elicit a natural expression from the sitter. After reading this passage more carefully I could not help but think of a passage in Braddons Lady Audley’s Secret when Alicia is telling Robert about the painting of Lady Audley.

“I think that sometimes a painter is in a manner inspired, and is able to see, equally a part of it, though not to be perceived by common eyes. We have never seen my lady look as she does in that picture; but I think that she could look so” (Braddon, 73).

In this passage Alicia explains how the painter may have seen a look on Lady Audley that she has never seen. Alicia explicitly states how a painter can see a side of the sitter that is less obvious to the untrained eye, but until reading Collins’ story I had not considered how the artist is able to see this look. Potentially Lady Audley had been telling the artist the “secret of her life” or had told the artist a different story altogether. It seems that the artist was able to capture the madness within Lady Audley far before her family was able to see it. This passage foreshadows the ending of the book as does the painting itself. The passage repeats the words look, expression and see/seen. Alicia is clearly hung up on the look and expression on Lady Audley’s face, and finds it strange. I believe Alicia has always been slightly suspicious of Lady Audley and her background and intents. Robert tells Alicia to not be German after she say all of this. From the clues in the surrounding pages it seems being German is to be rude, and Robert is telling Alicia to not be so blunt and rude toward Lady Audley’s appearance.

Overall, this passage was an important clue in foreshadowing the ending to this book, and the connection because quite clear after reading A Terribly Strange Bed.

The Underlying Fears of Victorian Era in A Terribly Strange Bed

“The frightful apparatus…in all its horror.” (Collins 40)

Within the passage on page 40 of A Terribly Strange Bed, as Mr. Faulkner observes the movement of the bed that was close to suffocating him, there is an unavoidable emphasis on the silence of both the bed and the room. The bed is described to move with “the faintest sound”, “no creaking” and the room develops a “dead and awful silence”. These descriptions easily induce sensations of fear and danger to readers because the story is occurring within a realistic place that readers often find themselves in, a bedroom. The passage induces these emotions in readers not only by describing the environment but by also describing the reactions of the characters. In the passage, Mr. Faulkner states “I could not move, I could hardly breathe” which are reactions that readers may incorporate and express while reading the story. This is important to notice because this is what the sensation genre does; it presents a story to the reader that brings to life underlying fears of society and induces sensations of terror and fright. The sensations of fright are easily reproduceable in readers because, prior to reading the story, readers already carry the fears that the story is simply bringing to life in the text. A fear that this sensation story is bringing up is the fear of machinery as the Victorian era is incorporating more industrial achievements into its communities. Victorian societies feared the unknown that came with machinery and this short story is giving readers a terrifying and outrageous possible outcome to a fear they already have, as the sensation genre does. Essentially this solidifies the fears and emotions the Victorian Era was feeling during its changing times.

Losing Control in Victorian Literature

In A Terribly Strange Bed by Wilkie Collins, I noticed the passages on pages 32-35 when Mr. Faulkner describes his experience with drinking.  He uses words like “drinking liquid fire”, “flame”, “mad state of exhilaration”, “violent singing”, and “my body trembled”.  These are all really dramatic, intense words to describe his current state.  All of these descriptions help further tie into the first couple paragraphs on page 32 when most of the dialogue ends in exclamation points.   These small details demonstrate the crazy haze of events that are happening and will continue to happen to the narrator throughout the rest of the story, especially in regard to the bed.  The narrator says, “No excess in wine had ever had this effect on me before in my life”.  This shows that Mr. Faulkner has never lost control like this before.  The overarching idea that struck me after reading this passage was that Victorians must be obsessed with the idea of losing control.  The narrator in this story quickly loses control of himself after he drinks, and Lady Audley loses control of herself once her secrets are revealed at the end of Lady Audley’s Secret.  This leads me to believe that the people in this time must be concerned with how easy it is to lose control of oneself.  Collins associates this behavior with violence and chaos, by saying things like the words listed above.  This might be a kind of warning, reminding people that although losing control of oneself may seem enticing and alluring like a flame or fire, it is also dangerous and harmful to your life, and potentially your fortune.

Witchery and Tea: A Lady’s Weapon

This passage describes the act of making tea as an occupation for women. One that allows her to “reign omnipotent” amongst the visitors in her home (Braddon, 222). With this power, the act of making tea also provides for a darker undertone: “The most feminine and most domestic of all occupations imparts a magic harmony to her every movement, a witchery to her every glance” (Braddon, 222). Women are grouped with witchcraft here because they have power in this task and the loss of power is a point of unease for a guest. This passage mentions the “floating mists from the boiling liquid in which she infuses the soothing herbs, whose secrets are known to her alone” which tells us that in drinking what is given to them a guest trusts their host. It is a social act to receive people into your home and to serve them a beverage of your choice. The lady of the house has that power in these situations. She would make the mixture. She would pour the tea into portions of her choice. If one comes into the Lady’s home, she decides how they will be served. In this passage we even see the narrator mention the possibility of the task being given to servants, “ To send a couple hulking men about amongst your visitors, distributing a mixture made in the housekeeper’s room, is to reduce the most social and friendly of ceremonies to a formal giving out of rations” (Braddon, 222). In giving the task to someone else, the entire ceremony of receiving visitors is violently changed. A moment that is meant to be inviting to outsiders would become very formal and rigid without the ease of the Lady of the house making the visitor feel personally welcomed into the space. In handing over power and giving the Lady your trust, a visitor is awarded a sense of personal invitation in which they can feel safe despite their lack of control.