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.
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.
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.