The previous post focused on two of Sherlock Holmes’s cases – one a murder, the other an attempted murder – in which Brixton figured prominently.
Brixton also appears, in passing, in a number of other stories – but just because a reference is casual does not mean that it is unimportant. On the contrary, a casual throwaway comment may tell us a great deal. It may tell us that the writer is making a firm but subsidiary point in the story – for instance: ‘This guy is a bully, and that’s all we need to know’. Or, it may tell us that the writer is counting on a shared understanding with the reader, and can therefore settle for brevity, confident that the reader will do the rest of the work and flesh the matter out.
In these particular cases, I think that Doyle assumes a shared understanding with his reader. More specifically, he assumes a shared middle-class understanding. All the Holmes stories are written from an emphatically middle-class point of view, so that passing references to middle-class characters or circumstances have a very different tone and flavour to references to working-class characters or circumstances. Let’s take some examples.
MIDDLE CLASS BRIXTON
We saw in the previous post that late Victorian and Edwardian Brixton was, mostly, a comfortable and respectable suburb, and this is often its role in the Holmes stories. Brixton’s purpose in The Greek Interpreter (1893), The Adventure of Black Peter and The Adventure of the Six Napoleons (both 1904) is to signal middle-class respectability. In the first story it is the address of a friend of an heiress. In the second it is revealed as the home of Inspector Stanley Hopkins, “a young police inspector, for whose future Holmes had high hopes”. In the third it is the scene of an apparently pointless crime in which a burglar breaks into a doctor’s surgery in order to smash a plaster bust of Napoleon.
But for our purposes, the narrative details are less important than the social clues. What sort of man is likely to be the personal friend of an heiress, if not a man who is himself prosperous? What sort of neighbourhood is a police inspector likely to live in, if not a thoroughly respectable neighbourhood? And what sort of man is a GP, if not the acme of bourgeois esteem? All these references, brief as they are, reveal Doyle using Brixton to signify solid, suburban, middle-class repute.
WORKING CLASS BRIXTON
But Brixton also had its working class which also appears, occasionally, in the Holmes stories. And when it does appear, it is treated very differently.
In The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle (1892) Mrs. Oakeshott, sister to hotel attendant James Ryder, runs a small poultry business from her home on the Brixton Road. This is a Christmas story, populated by several humble and semi-comical characters: an honest commissionaire, a decayed intellectual, an acerbic goose-seller, and the pathetic thief Ryder. The tale is set in motion by his opportunistic theft of a jewel from the Countess of Morcar, a guest at the Hotel Cosmopolitan where he works. In a state of panic, he hides the jewel in the crop of one of his sister’s geese, while crouching behind the shed in her back-yard. This vulgar little scene is offered as a glimpse of plebeian Brixton, low-life Brixton, a far cry from Doyle’s, and Holmes’s, and the presumed reader’s, middle-class world. It is intended to raise a condescending chuckle.
The second example, The Naval Treaty (1893), is different again. The tone here is sombre, because the story concerns a weighty matter, the theft of a crucial diplomatic document; and the main characters are of high social status, upper middle class and aristocratic, senior members of Government, elevated and elegant gentlemen.
Illustration by Sidney Paget. Public domain.
Set against these elegant gentlemen is Mrs. Tangey, a Foreign Office charlady, who lives at 16 Ivy Lane, Brixton, and who is initially suspected of being the thief. The portrayal of Mrs. Tangey is highly unsympathetic: “a large, coarse-faced, elderly woman” who drinks and is in debt. It could be argued that these details are necessary for her role in the story, which is to offer us a suspect as unlike the elegant gentlemen as possible – female, coarse, unreliable, working class – in order to misdirect us, because the real culprit is indeed one of the elegant gentlemen. This narrative job could, of course, have been done without the casually contemptuous portrait of a working-class woman with which Doyle chooses to present us. But Doyle is confident that his presumed reader will raise no objection.
Finally: despite their different moods, these two stories share a certain similarity of structure. Each involves a theft from a prestigious Westminster address, one a fashionable hotel, the other a government office. Each involves a victim who is a person of social status and consequence. And each lays emphasis on these themes of social and geographical ascendancy by confronting them with their opposites: upper-class Westminster on the banks of the Thames meets working-class Brixton south of the river.
South London was largely outside the ‘Popularly Imagined London’ of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Proper London, landmark London, self-congratulatory London, the London where stories about London belonged, sat north of the river. South London was somewhere else, across the river, on the other side of the river, transpontine.
So: by establishing Holmes so emphatically as the pre-eminent London detective, and then sending him off so regularly to the suburbs south of the river, Doyle was being a bit deviant, a bit scandalous, and was at the same time cleverly serving his own story-telling purposes. He was challenging comfortable assumptions about what London was; and he was laying claim to a whole new narrative territory. And Brixton, that recently-emerged and rather shapeless suburb, was of all South London places most open to his peculiar knack for a yarn.