South London Holmes: The Adventure of the Cardboard Box

listening-ear-clip-art-10322405-human-ear

The Adventure of the Cardboard Box is one of my favourite Holmes stories, for three reasons. 

Firstly, to the best of my knowledge, it’s the only Holmes story which features Penge. Admittedly there are only a couple of brief mentions, identifying it as the previous home of one of the characters, but nevertheless there it is. Penge’s existence in the world of Sherlock Holmes is officially acknowledged.

Secondly, the story is set in Croydon, also close to my heart. As usual, Doyle gives us a fictional address – Cross Street – but in the course of the story we learn that Cross Street is five minutes’ walk from the railway station at which Holmes and Watson arrive; and that it is about a mile from Wallington. This means that Holmes and Watson must have arrived at West Croydon Station, travelling down on the line from London Bridge; and that Cross Street must be somewhere south and west of the station, towards Waddon.

Map - Cardboard Box

From Bacon’s Atlas of London & Suburbs 1909

Thirdly, and most importantly, as a story The Cardboard Box is strange, awkward, and unbalanced. And it is the subject of a minor mystery which is, I believe, inseparable from this awkwardness. 

The twenty-five year delay 

The mystery is simply stated: why did Doyle withhold book publication for twenty-five years? 

He wrote The Cardboard Box in the summer of 1892, during his first year in his new home in Tennison Road, South Norwood. These were still early days in Doyle’s career as a writer, and he was working hard to build on the success of his first Sherlock Holmes tales. Several of these had South London settings, including the two novellas which introduced Holmes and Watson, A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four; and some early short stories including The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet, and The Man with the Twisted Lip.

The Adventure of the Cardboard Box was one of several tales which Doyle turned out during that summer. Like the others, it was published soon after in the Strand Magazine, which gave it brief public exposure. But while the other short stories written at this time were quickly re-published as a collection in book form, as The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, Doyle withheld The Cardboard Box. It was only published in book form twenty-five years later, in the collection entitled His Last Bow. Why?

One possibility is that Doyle felt that the story was simply too gruesome. Its title refers to a cardboard box containing two freshly severed human ears, delivered by post to a respectable elderly lady living in Croydon. Personally I think this is great: the juxtaposition of almost comic grotesquerie and suburban primness is a delight. But, possibly, Doyle felt differently.

Alternatively, it has been suggested that his reticence sprang from a fear that the theme, a double-murder provoked by female sexual jealousy, would be considered too racy. I’m not convinced, because he had already written several stories in which he was willing to court mild scandal in his approach to sexual themes. For instance, the back-story to A Study in Scarlet is a lurid vision of Mormonism in Utah, which he portrays as a proto-Gilead, a totalitarian patriarchy with strong implications of institutionalised sexual violence. Meanwhile, in a very different vein, Irene Adler in A Scandal in Bohemia is positively celebrated for her glamour, intelligence and chutzpah, while making it perfectly clear that she is a high-class courtesan.

I think there is a third, more convincing explanation.

Browner’s version 

Holmes finds this case remarkably easy to solve; in fact he wraps it up in a single morning and goes off with Watson for a pleasant little lunch in a Croydon hotel. But we as readers only learn the full story – or at least a version of it – when the murderer, Browner, is arrested and makes his confession. Briefly summarised, it goes as follows:

The respectable retired lady in Croydon to whom the cardboard box is delivered is Miss Susan Cushing, the eldest of three sisters. Her circumstances – she was a landlady when she lived in Penge, and can afford a young servant girl in her house in Croydon – suggest that the Cushings are lower middle class. The youngest sister Mary has stepped somewhat beneath her social station to marry James Browner, a steward on a passenger ship (Holmes calls him “a man of limited education”). The couple go to live in Liverpool where his work is based. All is well until the unmarried middle sister, Sarah, comes for a visit and takes a fancy to her brother-in-law. Browner rejects her. She seeks revenge by driving a wedge between the married couple, and by encouraging Mary to take up with another man, before returning to Croydon. Browner, who had ‘taken the pledge’ and forsworn strong drink when he married Mary, returns to the bottle, and in a drunken rage murders his wife and her supposed lover. Blaming Sarah for the whole catastrophe, he then posts the victims’ ears to what he believes to be her address, as a way of punishing and horrifying her. But the address is not hers, and the ghastly package is delivered instead to her blameless sister Susan.

Doyle clearly intends us to accept this tale, Browner’s tale, as a reliable account of this claustrophobic, over-heated, intensely domestic tragedy. In this account Browner admits the murder, but insists that the blame for it lies with Sarah, who is incapable of controlling either her passion for him, or her jealousy and spite once rejected.

A complex tale, too simply told

But there is a problem here. Doyle has been too clever for his own good. He has constructed a rich and complex situation, replete with sexual and psychological tension, capable of supporting extended treatment at least in the form of a novella. But he has done so within the confines of a short story, which he needs to bring to a conclusion. He therefore tries to square the circle by ignoring all the complexities which he himself has put in play, and by opting for a single one-dimensional version of events which has the advantage of boiling down to a familiar maxim that many readers will recognise and with which they will feel comfortable: ‘Hell has no fury like a woman scorned’.

We can perhaps dramatise the inadequacy of this strategy through a comparison with another work. There is a remarkable similarity of plot between The Cardboard Box and Tennessee Williams’s play A Streetcar Named Desire. In both cases a younger sister marries an attractive man from a lower social class. In both cases an unmarried older sister comes to stay. In both cases there is a sexual/social uneasiness between husband and older sister. And both cases result in an explosion of male violence. Streetcar is of course an incomparably finer and more sensitive work than The Cardboard Box – but would that still be true if Streetcar’s story were told exclusively from the point of view of Stanley Kowalski? If all the intricate detail of Blanche DuBois’s life, its yearning and self-delusion, were reduced to his understanding of it? I ask because that is, in effect, what we get in The Cardboard Box; a version of complex events as understood by a male participant ill-equipped to grasp their meaning, and with a motive to pin blame elsewhere.

Browner insists that the blame lies with Sarah: she propositioned him, and her efforts to alienate Mary from him were revenge for his rejection of her. But the bald facts are equally consistent with a very different version of events in which he propositions Sarah, and she rejects him, so that her efforts to alienate Mary from him become the actions of a loving sister who knows her brother-in-law to be a faithless sexual predator.

Sarah Cushing’s silence

Of course there is no ‘true’ or ‘correct’ version, because this is just a story, a fiction. But the point is this: in both versions, Sarah Cushing has agency. Her choices and her actions alter the emotional geometry of the household in Liverpool and thus drive the story forward. Whether out of revenge or out of sisterly love, Sarah has agency. Browner however has none. He is a cipher. His response to the train of events set in motion by Sarah is simply to revert to type; to resort to the bottle and to violence fuelled by the bottle.

I think that this may explain the twenty-five-year delay in book publication. The Cardboard Box is ‘unbalanced’, and the source of its unbalance is the mis-match between content, and narrative voice. Doyle has created a complex web of domestic relations and he has – perhaps inadvertently – established Sarah Cushing as the key character, the key actor. And yet he does not place her centre-stage, and he does not give her a voice, because this would complicate his attempt to tell a straightforward short story of detection. So he condemns Sarah Cushing to silence, and gives a voice instead to the unsatisfactory figure of Browner.

The overall result is awkward and off-balance. We know that we have been told a rich, intriguing and tragic tale, but we have heard it from the wrong person, and we are left with a lingering sense of unfinished business.

I suspect that Doyle was aware of the awkwardness, aware that there was something about this story that didn’t quite work, and that this was why he delayed book publication for a quarter of a century.

South London Holmes: Lee

The man with the twisted lip

Illustration by Sidney Paget. Public domain.

Two Sherlock Holmes stories involve Lee in Kentish south-east London. In one it is a significant location, while in the other it serves to signify a certain social type. Neither presents Lee in a flattering light, offering it to us as a place where suburban middle-class respectability becomes either deceitful or pompous.

When he wrote the first Lee story Doyle had only just moved to London and he probably knew very little about the place. But there were plenty of guides and gazetteers, including Edward Walford’s Old & New London published in the late 1870s. According to him, Lee was:

“ … a favourite place of residence for City merchants and men of business … ”.

This had been the case since the 1860s, when the South Eastern Railway arrived and built Lee Station, with a direct connection to the new terminus at Cannon Street. According to Walford this sparked a building frenzy:

“ … every available plot of ground has been covered with terraces of detached and semi-detached villas and genteel cottages for their accommodation; and such names as Belmont Park, Manor Park, Dacre Park, Grove Park, &c., in which the more respectable class of houses are built, imparts a somewhat pretentious air to the locality”.

Lee map #2 (2)

From Bacon’s Atlas of London & Suburbs 1909

The Man with the Twisted Lip

This genteel suburb, favoured by City gents, was a key location in The Man with the Twisted Lip. Doyle wrote it in the summer of 1891, as he was settling in to his new home in Tennison Road, South Norwood, and sent it off to the Strand Magazine, which promptly commissioned six more tales and raised his fee from £35 to £50 per story. It’s no wonder that the Strand was impressed, because this is one of the most complex yarns in the Holmes canon, narratively sly and morally troubling.

The central figure is Neville St. Clair, who lives with his wife and children at The Cedars, Lee: “a large villa which stood within its own grounds”. He appears to be a wealthy and successful businessman and he commutes to the City daily by train. But one day his wife, on a private errand of her own, catches sight of him in Upper Swandam Lane: “ … a vile alley lurking behind the high wharves which line the north side of the river to the east of London Bridge”.

Lee map #1

From Bacon’s Atlas of London & Suburbs 1909

Topographically this is not far from the offices and counting-houses where St. Clair might be expected to conduct his business. But socially it is a world away, a haunt of thieves and opium addicts, dangerously cosmopolitan to a visitor from prim Lee, inhabited as it is by “sallow Malays” and “rascally lascars”.

Believing that her husband must have been abducted, Mrs. St. Clair – “by rare good fortune” – runs into a troop of policemen who happen to be patrolling the neighbourhood. They break into the room where her husband had been, but he has disappeared. Instead, they find a “crippled wretch of hideous aspect”, Hugh Boone, a professional beggar well-known in the City. St. Clair’s abrupt disappearance looks like foul play, and Boone is arrested on suspicion of his murder.

At this point Mrs. St. Clair brings in Holmes to solve the mystery. Holmes in turn brings in Watson after bumping into him in an opium den in Upper Swandam Lane, where Holmes is masquerading as an addict, and Watson is on a mission of mercy. (Since this story is set during the period of Watson’s marriage, Doyle requires a bit of narrative licence to get them back together, and a chance meeting in an opium den serves as well as any other).

The mystery is therefore set up for us around a pattern of binary oppositions stemming from two opposed worlds: Lee (safe, domestic, wholesome, British, middle-class) is set against Upper Swandam Lane (dangerous, feral, filthy, foreign, lumpen); St. Clair (upright businessman) is set against Boone (disfigured beggar); and the respectable, legitimate business of the City is set against the criminal business of begging and murder.

But all these binaries are misdirections. As the story unfolds we discover that there are not two worlds, but only one. Boone is neither St. Clair’s abductor nor his murderer – Boone is St. Clair. He arrives every day by train in the guise of St. Clair, changes in Upper Swandam Lane into the guise of Boone, and makes his way to his regular pitch on Threadneedle Street to start his day’s begging, because it is begging that has made him rich. Once his ruse has been exposed, St. Clair reveals that he was previously a newspaper reporter, and in the course of researching a story on begging he decided to act the part himself for a day – and was astonished to find how much money he took: “You can imagine how hard it was to settle down to arduous work at £2 a week when I could earn as much in a day by smearing my face with a little paint, laying my cap on the ground, and sitting still.”

Lee and Upper Swandam Lane belong to the same world, for the prosperity of the former requires the presence of the latter. Upright St. Clair and disreputable Boone are one and the same. And the respectable business of the City joins hands with the demeaning business of begging in their common pursuit of money.

This is a moral tale of sorts, but it is peddling two distinct and contradictory moral codes. Firstly, by setting up St. Clair as a respectable City businessman, and then revealing that his business is to beg in the guise of Boone, it punctures the City’s pretensions and exposes its money-grubbing for what it is. Boone’s pitch on Threadneedle Street – the very heart of the City, the home of the Bank of England – is no accident. And by extension, the story also exposes Lee and all the other prim suburbs whose prosperity springs from this money-grubbing.

But alongside this is another, nastier moral, highlighted by the fantastic figure of a wealthy beggar. The story suggests that begging is a rational career choice leading to a villa in the suburbs; that far from being the last resort of the desperate it is a cynical scam; that the appearance of poverty is just an act; and, in effect, that poverty itself is voluntary. Plenty of affluent folk entertained these vile, self-serving fantasies in Doyle’s day, just as plenty do today. But it is depressing to find Doyle himself promoting them.

The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge

Lee plays a different role in the 1908 story The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge. It is never visited, only referred to, but the references are essential in establishing the nature of a key character.

The story opens with Mr. John Scott Eccles, of Popham House, Lee, bursting in upon Holmes and Watson to beg their help in making sense of his extraordinary experiences of the previous night. Hard on his heels comes Inspector Gregson of the Yard, in search of the same Mr. Eccles, who is the prime suspect in a case of murder.

This is of one Doyle’s exotic conspiracies, a dark tale of Latin American brutality and revenge, secret messages and assassinations, with a bit of voodoo thrown in for good measure. Eccles’s role in all of this can be summed up quite simply; he is a useful idiot.

Eccles is the epitome of the dull, middle-aged English bourgeois: “From his spats to his gold-rimmed spectacles he was a Conservative, a churchman, a good citizen, orthodox and conventional to the last degree.”

And yet we learn that this dull and unprepossessing character has been befriended by Aloysius Garcia, a lively and attractive young man, who actively seeks out Eccles’s company, and invites him to stay at his house near Esher. Once there, however, Eccles finds Garcia unfriendly and uncommunicative. He retires to bed, disgruntled, only to be woken in the night by Garcia who tells him, for no good reason, that the time is one o’clock. Eccles goes back to sleep, and awakes to find himself alone in the house, Garcia and servants having disappeared. Furious at having apparently been the butt of some practical joke, Eccles hastens to Holmes in search of an explanation, where he is met by Inspector Gregson who tells him that Garcia’s body has been found and that he, Eccles, is suspected of his murder.

You have, of course, worked out why Eccles was invited to Esher; he was invited to give Garcia an alibi. His function was to witness to Garcia’s presence in the house at one o’clock in the morning. And for that purpose his dull and unimaginative conservatism was a positive asset. As Holmes puts it: “I see no charm in the man. He is not particularly intelligent … Has he any one outstanding quality? I say that he has. He is the very type of conventional British respectability, and the very man as a witness to impress another Briton”.

It turns out that Garcia’s intention, having established his alibi with Eccles, is to assassinate the fugitive former dictator of his home country, who is living incognito close by. But the plan goes wrong, and Garcia himself is killed instead.

There are not many figures of fun in the Holmes stories, but John Scott Eccles, “gray-whiskered and solemnly respectable” with “heavy features and pompous manner”, is one of them. A pillar of convention, charmless, unintelligent, monumentally respectable, and a resident of Lee: the perfect candidate to serve as a useful idiot in the subtle designs of cleverer folk.

Unfair?

Taking the two stories together, it has to be said that Doyle is not kind to Lee. In each tale he uses it to signal an unattractive variant of middle-class respectability: in the first case, bogus respectability; and in the second, dull respectability. To paint Lee in such colours is arguably unfair, but it serves no purpose to complain. They are, after all, just stories.