The purpose of my paper in Minnesota this past June was to examine some of the pitfalls and roadblocks that were thrown in our way over 100 years ago by a well-meaning doctor. Without his written notes about the great detective Sherlock Holmes we would have nothing. But, since those notes do exist and have been made public, we have lots to sink our teeth into. I like to sink mine into the chronology of the stories, but John Watson did not make it an easy bite to swallow.
I'd like to start by telling you that there is only one definite with this topic: all of the stories had to have happened before they were published. That's it. There are no other absolutes, and as you will see there may never be.
When I first found chronology in the hobby I was thrilled. I was drawn to the finality of it. The black and white way it should have been. But I quickly found out it wasn't like that at all. It was a train wreck. Lots of inconsistency. I still found myself fascinated, though, and it was the inconsistencies that kept me coming back. People told me I was chasing a fool's folly, but I couldn't shake it. It seemed to be where I continued to turn. The reason I do it? It's almost solvable. That makes me crazy.
See, I believe that most things should boil down to very simple solutions, no matter how convoluted or intricate they are. Canonical chronology is quite complicated, and every attempt to work out a fresh new timeline has only muddied the proverbial waters. On the surface, though, it looks as though it should be simple enough.
Some say yes, some say no. It is possible to enjoy the stories without it. Many do. The deductions and inductions. The friendship. The era itself. The thrills, spills, and chills. I'm not sure about important, but I do think it's necessary, imbedded, and unavoidable. Here are my reasons.
Necessary: whenever you watch a crime drama or documentary one of the first things the detectives or police try to nail down is a timeline. It's crucial. Well, it’s the same for a historian or researcher. A solid order of events has to be established. From there everything else falls into place.
Imbedded: let's say you have a lighthearted conversation with someone about the number of times Watson was married. The only reason this problem exists is because of chronology. Now, some say they believe it had only been once, and I'm sure that’s how others in the early 20th century felt as well…until that one day when an astute reader said, "Hhhheeeeyyyy, wait a minute."
And what about Holmes's birthday? The date we have exists because of two things: Shakespeare and chronology.
Then there's the true location of The Holy Flat. Before 1932 there was no 221 on Baker Street in London. So, you have to look at Baker Street, Upper Baker Street, York Place, Camden House and anything else associated with 221b in order to try and determine exactly where it was. All of those things existed at some point in time, and to solve the unsolvable riddle you have to know when.
Unavoidable: if you give a paper about poisons, female detectives, the Pinkertons, Jack the Ripper, Victorian fingernail clippers, whatever it may be, you have to do research about times and dates or your presentation could sound something like: "Sherlock Holmes was really cool, and he did lots of stuff and went lots of places with Dr. Watson and they lived happily ever after. Thank you. Good night." (A little extreme, but you get my point.)
My friend, and fellow Illustrious Client, Pat Ward likes to say, "I'm glad there are chronologists because I wouldn't want to have to do it." I understand that. It isn't for everybody. I live it daily, but that's just me. It's how my parts are assembled. And actually, I'm glad there aren't a lot of us.
I'd like to share with you two quotes that show just how different attitudes can be about it:
"Some Sherlockian scholars persist in taking everything Watson says quite literally, forgetting that he was not giving a verbatim account - something he was not necessarily always in a position to do anyway - but telling a story for the amusement of the general reader." - John Hall
I chose not to believe that. However, there have been legions of people who do. But, even if it’s true, Hall still decided to write a whole book about it. Further, The Canon is a puzzle whether just amusing stories or not. And I am not a general reader.
Not everyone had such a cavalier attitude about the task. The following quote is from a chronologist who refers to chronology as a Demon or The Devil:
"As I toiled painfully along the rocky road of my servitude, the journey's end ever receded; but being prodded continually in the fleshy parts I was given no rest. The path was slippery with the tears of my exasperation."
- H.W. Bell
(THAT sounds more like me.)
So, let's take a look at what this tangent of Sherlockian study entails. One of the great things about investigating chronology is that there are other Canonical mysteries that we don't have to tackle. We will, and we have, but we don't need to for our purposes.
Others, like Brad Keefauver, prefer to do his own work first and then take a look at his predecessors after. I think either way works fine. No matter which someone does, the end result will still have disagreements. Let me give you an idea of some of those disagreements. Here is a graph I made that shows how the first ten cases compare from five random chronologists (Brad Keefauver, John Hall, Jay Finley Christ, Chris Miller, and William S. Baring-Gould).
There is a lot of agreement for the order of the first three or four cases, but then it goes all wonky, and that's just with ten cases and five chronologists. (You should see what a graph of all 60 looks like!) Also note that there are 10 cases that don’t correlate to other columns at all.
One of those listed above, William S. Baring-Gould, gave compiling a timeline at least three tries. In 1948 he published a chronology in The BSJ. In 1955 he published The Chronological Holmes that used the same one from 1948, but did contain some revisions. In 1967 he put out his most famous work - The Annotated Sherlock Holmes. It contained a new chronology. Somewhere he found something that changed his mind and caused him to have to rethink and rewrite a large number of his previous findings.
Now, if you want me to get really nitpicky, I could point out that Great Britain didn't get into the war until August 4. The paper above, from New York, was the best image I could find which showed a date. It's from the next day. I am certain this info was known by other chronologists, but since the story actually has the date of August 2 in it, that's what everyone uses.
Publications – what newspapers or magazines are mentioned? Occupations – remember that most people didn’t work on Sundays. Real historic people – they can help if they really existed. Actual events – can also help if they really happened. Other cases – are others mentioned? How does this case relate to them? Billy the page – is he mentioned?
Holidays – absolute dates that can help. Weather events – weather can help if it can be confirmed. Dates – do all of the dates talked about work together? Odd words or phrases – was a word or phrase in use at the time? Anachronisms – could they have existed at the time? Watson's life – was he married? Living at Baker Street? Was he in practice? Mail – if new mail is mentioned it isn’t a Sunday. Brand names – did that product exist? Street names – did that street or those streets exist then? Clothing – does what is described help with the time of year? Age references – do we have any clues about the age of Holmes or Watson? Days of the week – can they be used to help date the story? (And this is just some of the things to look at.)
There are three ways, I think, in which to make a chronology.
1. Make all of the stories work with each other. This is what a number of the older chronologists did.
2. Make all of the stories work with each other and add internal evidence. This is where it starts getting tricky. There is so much information included in the texts that one can look into. Living in the age of information is truly a great thing. Previous researchers could never have fathomed what we have at our fingertips. And more is discovered daily. (Now you'd think this would help in our quest, but it doesn't. Instead, it makes it worse. Now we have evidence to help with those small inconsistencies, but they often go against the story-interaction-only timeline. As such, we are still no closer to a definitive one.)
3. Trust Watson. Let's take a look at a few examples of why that isn't an option.
Watson was not a psychic, seer, or prophet, but he did leave us intriguing little problems to be worked out. The list I have here is probably not all-inclusive, but I think it represents the major "rules" we have to use in our chronological journey.
Instead of reading them all, I'd like to talk a little bit about #6 – Used current terminology in older stories. This is something that came to my attention some years ago. I had never given it any thought, but when I did I realized that I had a whole new problem in trying to date the cases.
I was doing a story discussion and was leaning pretty heavily on some wording or phrasing, and one of our members asked the question, "What if Watson inserted that word or phrase while editing, but it wasn't actually in use at the time the story happened?"
I was floored. I had never realized this possibility, and I had to go back and do a lot of rethinking.
(I actually did this with SUSS and the term "yegg." My date was nowhere close to anyone else's, and I thought I had made some kind of breakthrough. Well, I hadn't. Had to throw out my reasoning and start all over again. Using this logic and making some adjustments I found my new date was similar to others.)
Furthermore, how do we interpret the following in the texts?
Week - Does he mean around a week? Or does he mean 5 days? Or 7 days?
All day - Is that 24 hours? Sunrise to sunset?
Winter - True winter? Or just when there's snow on the ground?
Autumn - Is he talking about fall? Or before it gets really cold?
Another example of a problem occurs in CARD. Mary Browner and Alec Fairbairn buy tickets for New Brighton, as does Jim Browner. But, is this a reference to the New Brighton train station? That station was called simply New Brighton after it was remodeled in 1888. (Before that it was called Brighton Station.) Or is it just a reference to the town of New Brighton itself where there just happened to be a station? Whichever someone picks could completely change the dating. (I should point out that three major chronologists date the story before 1888, so they believed it referenced just the station.)
In NAVA Watson tells us of three cases he has listed for the July preceding his marriage - "The Adventure of the Second Stain" "The Adventure of the Naval Treaty" and "The Adventure of the Tired Captain."
The third one here is an unpublished case. The first two we know about. Or at least we think we know about them.
"The first of these, however, deals with interests of such importance and implicates so many of the first families in the kingdom that for many years it will be impossible to make it public. No case, however, in which Holmes was engaged has ever illustrated the value of his analytical methods so clearly or has impressed those who were associated with him so deeply. I still retain an almost verbatim report of the interview in which he demonstrated the true facts of the case to Monsieur Dubuque of the Paris police, and Fritz von Waldbaum, the well-known specialist of Dantzig, both of whom had wasted their energies upon what proved to be side-issues."
Problem: neither of these two men appear in SECO! Are we talking about a totally separate case, or did Watson make an error in the name of it, or did he hide the real facts but later changed them when it was okay to do so? Furthermore, in YELL Watson calls the case "a failure." Well, the published version surely wasn't one, so what are we to think? Not only that, The Doubleday, and other American editions, has MUSG in place of SECO. MUSG wasn't "a failure" either. And to throw one more pickle in the barrel, SECO wasn't even published until 1904. YELL was published in 1893. But, Watson refers to it in YELL as a past case. We cannot be talking about the same one.
Let's talk briefly about crocuses. Using the times that crocuses bloom is an easy way to nail down a timeline, but that isn't the case. First off, there are over 90 types. Second, at the time of Holmes career there were over 40 different versions in the UK. (That number does not include hybrids.) The problem is that the different versions can bloom almost all year round. Baring-Gould uses them in EMPT to help with his dating, but completely ignores them in SPEC. But, without knowing exactly which one is being referred to, it's not a usable piece of evidence.
1. Lump all of the stories where Watson is married into one marriage and work everything out around it.
Problem: what about the cases where Watson isn't living at 221b? He doesn't always say he's married.
2. Lump all of the stories where Billy the page appears.
Problem: "Billy" may have been a nickname for any pageboy.
3. Use the dining table to work out a timeline.
If you look at the Paget illustrations you'll find the dining table changes. Sometimes it had sharp corners, sometimes it had rounded corners. What if we lines up all of the sharp-corner cases, and then all the rounded-corner cases? (That last one is is entirely my invention. It would be fun to try it someday.)
So, this brings me to the end. But before I go, I want to include one last thing. One last factor. One last headache.
Let's say you've put in all of the necessary work to build a chronology. You've done all the research, compared all the stories, and read all of the reasoning that others before you laid out. Great, but…
Recall that in VEIL Watson talks about how long Holmes was in practice, and also how long he was with Holmes. Holmes's 23 years is not very debated, and can be calculated fairly easily. Watson's 17 years is heavily debated, but it has to fall into the 23 somewhere, of course. Your findings have to fit into this one last set of parameters. If they don't, then grab some caffeine, your Post-it Notes, those flash drives, the laptop that actually works, and the stacks of books which has to include The Canon, because now you have to start all over again.