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Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes Stories: Crime and Mystery from the Text to the Illustrations

Christophe Gelly
p. 93-106


This essay argues that the illustrations provided for the serial publication of the Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—mainly by Sidney Paget—constitute a significant supplement that both illustrates common ideological prejudices of the nineteenth century and undermines any complete containment of evil and crime by the investigator. This ambivalence between social conformism and a disquieting urge in Paget’s drawings appears for instance in the similitude between images of Holmes and images of Moriarty, his arch enemy, or through the stylized settings which suggest a lasting threat in the outside, non-domestic world. The specific style of the illustrations, often unrealistic and bent on euphemizing violence, also contributes to this ambivalent celebration of crime fighting that only partly hides some distrust as to its success. Eventually, by relating the topic at hand to the global debate on photographic and mechanical reproduction in the nineteenth century, it appears that the various disguises Holmes uses in the plots are rendered graphically by Paget as entirely new images of the characters, which again ambivalently points both to his mastery over crime fighting modern artefacts and to some uncertainty (generating cultural anxiety) over the question of stable identities.

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  • 1 On that notion of a competition between the reader and the detective (and beyond him, with the writ (...)

1There is little doubt that detective fiction in general entertains a privileged relationship with the world of images and illustrations, and this holds true up to this day when a large part of the cinema industry still hinges on that genre. But that situation seems in fact to have its roots in the very origin of the genre in so far as detective stories first came out as serial publications in illustrated magazines—if we rule out the very first occurrence of some detective tales that were not illustrated, namely the stories of detection written by Edgar Allan Poe, which he called “tales of ratiocination”. Apart from Poe, many major nineteenth century detective texts were published in serial form, be it Dickens’s Bleak House (1854), in which we find the first police inspector to appear in an English fiction, or Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868), also published in Household Words, the magazine which Dickens himself owned and edited. The special relationship between the genre and the illustrated and serial mode of publication may be accounted for in many ways, and particularly through the paradoxical need for the writer/illustrator to maintain some suspense until the end of the story while at the same time revealing some part of the mystery—through images and clues given in the course of the narration—as the reader would not go on reading if no element were given to him to perform his own investigation on a competitive basis with the detective.1 Illustrations here appear as clues among others, but it appears that they also enrich the text in a peculiar way and fail to be merely “illustrative” in a restrictive sense. This was already noticed by Joseph Hillis Miller in his comment on the illustrations of Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers by Phiz (the pen name of Hablôt K. Browne). Pointing to the originality and artistic value of those illustrations, Miller writes:

  • 2 Joseph Hillis Miller, p. 101–103.

[Many] details are Phiz’s invention, with no literal basis in Dickens’s text. They make the relation between Phiz’s illustrations and Dickens’s novel not so much that of text and “elucidating” commentary . . . as that of two parallel, and to some degree incompatible, expressions with somewhat different traditions as controls on meaning, one in the form of the printed word, the other in the graphic form of impressions drawn from the etched steel. The relation between Phiz’s etchings and Dickens’s novel is a good example of the way an illustration for a novel always adds something more, something not in the text. The illustration, therefore, to some degree interferes with the text, as two melodies playing simultaneously sometimes harmonize and sometimes do not seem to go together.2

2Both modes of representation thus interact in their own particular fashion and it will be of interest to assess the impact of generic writing at large on that interaction.

  • 3 The edition of Doyle’s stories that is quoted here is the only one that offers a reproduction in fa (...)
  • 4 Walter Paget was intended by the manager of the Strand as the original illustrator from the start, (...)

3What I propose to do here is to examine a specific instance of the relationship between text and images within the detective genre, focusing on what eventually turned out to become an inescapable reference for all detective fiction writers, namely the Sherlock Holmes stories by sir Arthur Conan Doyle as they were published in the Strand magazine.3 Studying Doyle’s stories in relation to their illustrations means trying to understand the strange equation between the fictional sleuth and his image, often epitomized by two main props, the deerstalker hat and the calabash pipe. One man was mainly responsible for that depiction of Holmes, his name was Sidney Paget (1860–1908), and he illustrated the Sherlock Holmes stories for thirteen years, from 1891 (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes) to 1904 (The Return of Sherlock Holmes). After his death in 1908, several artists took over and illustrated the various other Sherlock Holmes stories, noticeably Sidney Paget’s own brother, Walter,4 and Frederic Dorr Steele, who illustrated the stories when they were published in American magazines. Even Doyle’s own father, Charles Doyle, took part in the business when, before Paget’s time, he illustrated A Study in Scarlet (1887), Doyle’s first novel staging Sherlock Holmes. However, there is little doubt that Paget remains the most influential graphic artist connected to the Sherlock Holmes universe and most critics agree on the fact that he definitely shaped the image the Victorian public built up about the famous investigator. We shall deal here with Paget’s illustrations only, and a first step in that study will be to wonder about the way the artist handled that task of illustrating texts which, as detective fiction, were fraught with social contents and sometimes prejudices typical of the period.

Paget’s Illustrations in the Victorian Context

  • 5 In The Hound of the Baskervilles, Jack Stapleton intends to attract sir Henry in a trap by using hi (...)

4The first element which is bound to strike the reader of the illustrated stories has to do with the depiction of social relationships both in the texts and in the images. To a modern reader, an important part of the stories seems to rely on a recurring pattern in which Holmes, the representative of British Victorian civilization, is asked to rescue or protect a member of the fair sex who is persecuted, most often by a man. For instance, in The Speckled Band or in the serially published novel The Hound of the Baskervilles, Holmes has to rescue a woman who is morally and physically abused by her husband (in the latter case) or her stepfather (in the former). The aggression often involves a sexual connotation, as in The Speckled Band for instance, where Dr Roylott of Stoke Moran intends to kill Helen Stoner (his stepdaughter) through secretly introducing a deadly snake in her bedroom, so as to prevent her marriage which would mean the loss of an important part of his income. The symbol of the snake is implicitly referred to as a sexual symbol through some of the remarks made by Holmes in the story. Sidney Paget indeed faithfully conveys that feature, reminiscent of the eighteenth century theme of “virtue in distress”, through a depiction of women as submissive, docile, and mostly helpless, as their postures suggest, for instance in the representation of Beryl Stapleton, in The Hound of the Baskervilles (Figure 1), trying to warn Watson (whom she mistakes for sir Henry) of the danger he runs if he stays in Devonshire, namely being killed by the Hound trained by Jack Stapleton, her husband (who wishes to pass for her brother). Noticeably, when she is courted by sir Henry himself, Beryl also adopts a similar attitude in Paget’s drawing (Figure 2), thus revealing the deep affinity the Victorian culture recognized between sex and death in a particular image, that of the assaulted woman resisting the courtship of a stranger. In that connection, and although the link exists at an implicit level in the novel,5 Paget’s drawings make visible an element of the cultural ideology at stake in the story: they represent the scene subject to social repression (the courtship) as parallel to an objective death threat. Thus, the drawings somehow sustain the underlying social discourse which they also contribute to make clearer and more visible.

  • 6 That ideological belief even led some eminent police members, such as the Frenchman Alphonse Bertil (...)

5Paget’s illustrations do not only generate their own ideological contents, but they mostly tend to take up what is only too clear in the stories themselves. If we move from the representation of women to that of criminals, it is obvious first of all that Holmes’s views about the physical features of wrong-doers are quite influenced by the then widespread beliefs in phrenology and physiognomy, i.e. by the belief that the face of an individual reflects his temper, noticeably his criminal temper.6 A quote from The Empty House will be enough to make that clear:

It was a tremendous virile and yet sinister face which was turned towards us. With the brow of a philosopher above and the jaw of a sensualist below, the man must have started with great capacities for good or for evil. But one could not look upon his cruel blue eyes, with their drooping, cynical lids, or upon the fierce, aggressive nose and the threatening, deep-lined brow, without reading Nature’s plainest danger-signals. He took no heed of any of us, but his eyes were fixed upon Holmes’s face with an expression in which hatred and amazement were equally blended. “You fiend!” he kept on muttering—“you clever, clever fiend!” (p. 131)

  • 7 Such prejudices in the detective’s deductions were highlighted by several critics. See for instance (...)

This description of Colonel Sebastian Moran, Moriarty’s second-in-command, matches physical traits with psychological features in a characteristic fashion. Holmes’s ideological prejudices7 also appear in the same story through his theory of atavism, which also recurs all through the texts:

. . . I have a theory that the individual represents in his development the whole procession of his ancestors, and that such a sudden turn to good or evil stands for some strong influence which came into the line of his pedigree. The person becomes, as it were, the epitome of the history of his own family. (p. 134)

6When the reader looks at the picture drawn by Paget of that supposedly telling face of Colonel Moran (Figures 3 and 4), he may fail to recognize the “sensualist” jaw or the “cynical” lids Watson refers to, as these notions rely too much on a subjective approach, but the aggressive stance of the criminal, ready to attack the detective, or his stooping posture as he stands hidden by the window do convey the evil nature of the character quite efficiently. More revealing still is the physical depiction of Sherlock Holmes himself by Paget in all his illustrations (Figures 5 and 6). It has to be noted that Doyle provided little information on that point when he first introduced his character in A Study in Scarlet (1887). This is the portrait Watson gave of his famous joint tenant:

His very person and appearance were such as to strike the attention of the most casual observer. In height he was rather over six feet, and so excessively lean that he seemed to be considerably taller. His eyes were sharp and piercing, save during those intervals of torpor to which I have alluded; and his thin, hawk-like nose gave his whole expression an air of alertness and decision. His chin, too, had the prominence and squareness which mark the man of determination. His hands were invariably blotted with ink and stained with chemicals, yet he was possessed of extraordinary delicacy of touch, as I frequently had occasion to observe when I watched him manipulating his fragile philosophical instruments. (p. 14–15)

  • 8 The two novels that were published before, A Study in Scarlet (1887) and The Sign of Four (1890), w (...)
  • 9 In the description of Moriarty by Holmes, no such similitude is explicitly indicated: “His appearan (...)

7This short portrait is the only one to be found in the whole Sherlock Holmes stories, so that Paget’s image of the detective came to supplement the text with new content for the reader in a particularly important matter. If we take the very first picture of Holmes by Paget, appearing in A Scandal in Bohemia,8 we may well contend that Holmes, though he corresponds in every detail to the poorly informative portrait given by Watson, could be just anybody, the man in the street. One of the most famous illustrations also confirms that judgement: Holmes working over a chemical experiment proves to evince no particularly striking physical features, except maybe that slim figure and gaunt face pointing, in Doyle’s vision of his character, to an ascetic temper. However, Paget’s graphic characterization of Sherlock Holmes appears much more informative when the detective is depicted together with some other specific characters. When he meets Moriarty in The Final Problem, an adventure in which he was supposed to have died together with his arch-enemy, until public pressure eventually drove Doyle to bring him to life again in The Empty House, Sherlock Holmes looks strangely like a younger version of the ultimate criminal taking his leave in the picture (Figures 7 and 8).9 That impression is reinforced in the death embrace he gives to Moriarty as they fall together down the Reichenbach falls in Switzerland, the place of their (supposed) deaths. Through that similitude, enhanced in the first picture by the equally high statures of both characters and their equally dejected countenances as they are nearing death, Paget introduced the suggestion of a hidden affinity between the wrong-doer and the redresser of wrongs, an affinity which will call for comment later on in this study. For the moment, let us notice that Paget does interpret the story in his own way, while still conforming to its overall ideological assumptions, mostly through the darker, more sinister face of Moriarty which stands as an omen of evil to come.

8The Victorian assumptions underlying the texts thus appear through depictions of characters by Sidney Paget, but it would be a mistake to consider those illustrations from the viewpoint of characterization only. Indeed, a larger scope is necessary to understand the specific approach visible in that text/image association, and we will now analyse the representation of the settings of the stories in that perspective. The Sherlock Holmes stories often refer to the dichotomy between cities and rural areas, in a peculiarly negative outlook concerning the latter. For instance, in The Copper Beeches, Holmes considers the beautiful but isolated countryside around Winchester as a perfect place not for rest but for crime:

“Do you know, Watson,” said he, “that it is one of the curses of a mind with a turn like mine that I must look at everything with reference to my own special subject. You look at these scattered houses, and you are impressed by their beauty. I look at them, and the only thought which comes to me is a feeling of their isolation, and of the impunity with which crime may be committed there.” (p. 277)

  • 10 This is what the plots of A Study in Scarlet and many stories show, in so far as crime is deeply co (...)

9This peculiar distrust echoes a larger fear present in the Victorian mentality, connected to the “blank spaces” still untouched by civilization, and to the need for civilization to spread always further. Quite obviously, the Sherlock Holmes stories evince a belief in what Rudyard Kipling called “the white man’s burden”, i.e. his civilizing mission in an imperialistic context—only the difference here is that this mission does not only extend overseas10 but also has to be carried out at the heart of old England itself (even, when quoting The Copper Beeches, in its former capital city, Winchester). This typically nineteenth century vision does appear through Sidney Paget’s illustrations since outdoor settings are represented in a minimal fashion, they often remain quite vague and mysterious, as a place of danger that cannot be depicted in full details. If we take for instance the illustration of The Hound of the Baskervilles in which the guilty party, Jack Stapleton, points to the dangerous, death-bringing marshes called the Grimpen Mire (Figure 9), we notice that the place does not appear as such but is only a direction which Stapleton is pointing his finger at.

10More largely, this lack of scenery is a recurring feature of Sidney Paget’s illustrations when he deals with dramatic scenes involving potential criminals, as for instance when sir Henry Baskerville’s butler, John Barrymore, who is suspected of wrong doing, is questioned by Watson and by his employer (Figure 10). Through this void around the characters, one senses the uncertainty in the scenes (revolving around a potentially guilty character) and the brutal confrontation between the protagonists—in other words that void comes as a sign of the intrusion of violence and threat in the social space. Contrasting with those images, the numerous “train scenes” to be found in the stories are depicted by Paget as the space of civilization par excellence, with much care given by the artist to the clothes and “props” used by the characters, such as pipes, walking sticks, or newspapers (Figures 11, 12, 13 and 14). In the same way, the scenes depicting the “classical” visit of the client to Holmes, taking place at Baker Street, often evince such details pointing to the quiet comfort and safety of indoor practice as opposed to the wandering on the moor Watson is reduced to carrying out in The Hound of the Baskervilles (Figure 15).

11Sidney Paget thus provided very faithful representations for Sherlock Holmes’s feats of deductions, but we saw that not only did he illustrate the stories and their assumptions in a Victorian context (pointing for instance to the helplessness of women) but he also supplemented these stories with his own vision of them. In that sense, Paget’s pictures hold a discourse that is superimposed on the explicit discourse of the stories themselves; the pictures add up a meaning to the texts, and that meaning does not necessarily correspond to the denotative meaning of the stories. Beyond a mere conformity to the Victorian frame of reference—to which they only partly adhere—the pictures also depart from the ideological reading of crime and punishment and suggest deeper interpretations of the texts, for instance through an unexpected likeness between Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty, the arch-criminal. It has to be noted that this double discourse is present in the texts themselves which fail to abide entirely by the Victorian standards they seem to sustain, as was shown by Catherine Belsey, dealing with the problematic nature of realism in the Sherlock Holmes stories:

Through their transgression of their own values of explicitness and verisimilitude, the Sherlock Holmes stories contain within themselves an implicit critique of their limited nature as characteristic examples of classic realism. They thus offer the reader through the process of deconstruction a form of knowledge, not about “life” or “the world,” but about the nature of fiction itself. (p. 387)

12Bearing in mind that potentially self-subversive relationship of text and image (a relationship that also exists, then, within the texts and within the images), we shall go on to study the characteristics of Sidney Paget’s illustrations beyond their mere social conformity.

Illustration and Interpretation

13How could we then characterize Paget’s personal vision of Doyle’s detective fiction as it is expressed through his illustrations? A first element to be highlighted has to do with the way Paget illustrated the scenes involving physical violence, as those scenes are bound to appear in the genre (e.g., during the narration of a crime or the arrest of a criminal). In Silver Blaze, for instance, the description of the dead body of John Straker, the trainer who got killed while trying to lame a racing horse he was in charge of (so as to gain money through betting), is given as follows:

About a quarter of a mile from the stables, John Straker’s overcoat was flapping from a furze bush. Immediately beyond there was a bowl-shaped depression in the moor, and at the bottom of this was found the dead body of the unfortunate trainer. His head had been shattered by a savage blow from some heavy weapon, and he was wounded in the thigh, where there was a long, clean cut, inflicted evidently by some very sharp instrument. It was clear, however, that Straker had defended himself vigorously against his assailants, for in his right hand he held a small knife, which was clotted with blood up to the handle, while in his left he grasped a red and black silk cravat, which was recognized by the maid as having been worn on the preceding evening by the stranger who had visited the stables. (p. 294–295)

14Yet, Sidney Paget’s picture corresponding to that scene (Figure 16) appears as much less gruesome than what the text suggests, especially as John Straker’s wound in the head could be only a slight injury and his skull is by no means “shattered”. His right arm is raised (which is not specified in the textual description) and still conveys the impression of life, while the two characters standing in the distance (a stable boy accompanied with Mrs Straker herself) are too far for the reader to perceive any distinct feeling of horror on their faces. The overall impression resulting from that picture is that the artist refrained from giving a too-realistic depiction of the corpse—which could still be interpreted in the line of the conformity to social standards related to death and its representation. Violence is also represented in that euphemising fashion in The Solitary Cyclist for instance, when Holmes boxes in a pub with a Mr Woodley, whom he suspects of evil intentions (Figure 17): the characters in that picture look stiff and unnatural (especially Woodley, whose tilted head makes him look, strangely enough, not directly towards his opponent), so that it looks as if we were faced with a technical drawing dealing with a particular wrestling figure and not an actual fight.

  • 11 This theatrical dimension of the texts was noticed and commented upon, noticeably by Pierre Nordon.

15Paget’s way of “understating” violence is indeed part of a whole strategy of representation that departs from any utterly realistic rendering of the scenes taken from Doyle’s stories. In that sense, the illustrations tend to reinforce and enhance the theatrical character of the narration by Watson11 through an equally artificial, somewhat unrealistic set of images. We shall focus here on the text/image relationship in the denouement of The Speckled Band, a story in which Holmes prevents the murder of Helen Stoner by her stepfather (Dr Roylott) through driving the deadly snake trained for the murder back to its owner, who gets bitten instead of his intended victim. The last two pictures correspond to the following paragraphs:

At the moment when Holmes struck the light I heard a low, clear whistle, but the sudden glare flashing into my weary eyes made it impossible for me to tell what it was at which my friend lashed so savagely. I could, however, see that his face was deadly pale, and filled with horror and loathing.
He had ceased to strike, and was gazing up at the ventilator, when suddenly there broke from the silence of the night the most horrible cry to which I have ever listened. It swelled up louder and louder, a hoarse yell of pain and fear and anger all mingled in one dreadful shriek. (p. 227)
It was a singular sight which met our eyes. On the table stood a dark lantern with the shutter half open, throwing a brilliant beam of light upon the iron safe, the door of which was ajar. Beside this table, on the wooden chair, sat Dr. Grimseby Roylott, clad in a long grey dressing-gown, his bare ankles protruding beneath, and his feet thrust into red heelless Turkish slippers. Across his lap lay the short stock with the long lash which we had noticed during the day. His chin was cocked upwards, and his eyes were fixed in a dreadful rigid stare at the corner of the ceiling. Round his brow he had a peculiar yellow band, with brownish speckles, which seemed to be bound tightly round his head. As we entered he made neither sound nor motion.
“The band! The speckled band!” whispered Holmes. (p. 227–228)

16The dramatic quality of Watson’s narration, relying on suspense and impending danger, need hardly be explained here, but we should notice the particularly simple, bare style of Paget’s illustrations (Figures 18 and 19). In both pictures, hardly any setting is visible, save what is necessary to situate the image in its own context, such as the bed on which Holmes’s knee rests or the dog-lash in Dr Roylott’s lap and a table on which his right arm rests. The safe in which he kept the snake is not even depicted and both scenes appear as quite simply drawn, almost stylised. At the same time, the postures of the characters (Watson putting his hand on Holmes’s shoulders, Holmes himself holding up his lamp or striking the snake with a cane) are quite studied to produce not the impression of life but rather a careful composition in which the characters stand still in a somewhat artificial, dramatic way. This stylisation and aestheticizing of the scenes in Paget’s illustrations is not always so remarkable, as he evolves in his work and sometimes includes more elements in the settings for instance, but globally these pictures from The Speckled Band are quite representative of his style. In The Reigate Squire too, Paget produced a particularly striking illustration, whose dramatic quality is still more visible owing to the revealing faces of the characters depicted (Figure 20).

17A final point I wish to make here concerning Paget’s style has to do with his use of light and shade. Although his black-and-white drawings often keep some sort of balance in contrasting shades of grey, Paget also often resorts to the device of introducing darker shades, particularly in his drawings which depict the arrival or the arrest of the guilty party. In The Dancing Men (Figure 21), for instance, the suspect at whose head Holmes is pointing a gun is depicted against a dark background (although the scene does not take place at night). In The Empty House, the capture of the criminal is also illustrated through a particularly murky picture, which is also the case in The Six Napoleons (Figure 22). Though it constitutes no systematic method in Paget’s work, this recurring characteristic of his style also has to be taken into account.

18If we combine this often indistinct, obscure depiction of the murderers with our previous remarks concerning the stylisation and euphemising of violence, what conclusions can we draw? It seems that, far from bringing crime and transgression closer to the reader, Paget’s drawings work as a distancing from the criminals as they are represented in the texts. Poorly outlined against darker surroundings, adopting artificial or dramatic postures in the most striking scenes, the criminals as depicted by Sidney Paget do seem threatening but also far from us, in a world that does not look exactly like ours. Through the exclusion of crime out of the social boundaries of what we recognize as our world, through the artificial quality of his illustrations, Paget reinforces the social cohesion that designates criminals as alien to the community. Thus, he transmits to some extent the orthodox Victorian social discourse of repression against crime, by partly repressing its representation. Yet, at the same time he cannot prevent this representation from being brought out to the readership, so that we can also interpret his drawings as a testimony to the existence of crime—of darker shades, in Paget’s style—within the seemingly positivist discourse of the text, and beyond that within society at large. Darkness thus seems to inhabit our world in spite of repression, and hiding it paradoxically becomes the best way of pointing at it. Paget is here faced with a recurring dilemma concerning detective fiction, i.e. how is it possible to depict the victory of good without acknowledging the presence of evil? Through his personal style, the artist comes to terms with this essential ambivalence that is essential to the genre, in so far as detective fiction contains a contradiction between a denotative celebration of law and order and connotations pointing to the endless task of the investigator and the all-pervading presence of crime in society. This ambivalence between positivism and pessimism, as it appears through the stylistic features of Paget’s drawings, does constitute a deconstruction of the literal, repressive content of the Sherlock Holmes stories. No doubt that the often indistinct, poorly outlined features of many characters in Paget’s drawings, or their impersonal faces, testify to his deep understanding of that generic ambivalence, of that uncertain boundary between conformity and subversion.

Illustrations from the Artist to the Readers

19Paget’s depiction of scenes from the Sherlock Holmes stories thus proves to relate to the genre of detective fiction itself on the ground of a common feature of ambivalence that is brought to light in a peculiar way in the images, mainly through a dramatic and somewhat artificial representation of crime in illustrations pointing both to the condemnation and to the uneasy recognition of criminal acts. As our reading relies largely on the social value of such publications, especially as they were quite widely read in the late nineteenth century, one should wonder about the reactions of readers to that type of illustrations. It is difficult to gather precise testimonies about those reactions but we know that Sidney Paget’s images for the Sherlock Holmes stories became immensely popular—and still are today—mainly owing to the way he depicted the character of Holmes himself. In other words, the attachment of the reading public was centred on the detective and more precisely on what seemed most personal and eccentric in him; i.e. his “props”. Today the deerstalker hat and the calabash pipe have become common symbols for the famous investigator, but it was Paget, himself fond of that type of hat, who gave Holmes that strange headdress—which appears not so often as we may believe and only when Holmes goes to the countryside (Figures 23, 24 and 25).

20The calabash pipe (which was actually never drawn by Paget) only came later on when the American actor William Gillette decided to use that kind of bent, voluminous pipe in his performances of the play he wrote in 1899—with Doyle’s consent and help—staging Sherlock Holmes. Although they are never mentioned anywhere in Doyle’s stories, those objects have become synonymous with any graphic (or cinematographic) representation or staging of Doyle’s character. Our previous remarks suggest an explanation to that strange feature—it is precisely because the readers had no definite, unmistakable representation of Holmes through Paget’s drawings that they attached themselves to those most identifiable elements in his image. It is another sign of Paget’s voluntary vague depiction of the Sherlock Holmes stories, which led the readers to such an imaginary equation between the detective and his conspicuous props. Indirectly, it points to Paget’s strategy of indefiniteness and ambiguity in his work on Doyle’s fiction.

  • 12 See also Joseph Hillis Miller’s comments on that essay in Illustration, p. 19–31.

21Dealing with that strategy of ambiguity, we have to notice that, in the course of the nineteenth century, images become liable to mechanical reproduction and thus lose part of their artistic uniqueness and “authenticity” as the direct expression of an aesthetic vision, they become only second-level productions derived from the original. This phenomenon was analysed by Walter Benjamin in his famous essay,12 focussing on photography (which appears, it must be noticed, simultaneously with the detective novel), and taken up by Ronald R. Thomas:

  • 13 Ronald R. Thomas, op. cit., p. 141.

Furthermore, as Benjamin argues, the “aura” of the original work of art was fundamentally challenged by a mechanically reproducible art like photography, bringing into question invested in the whole concept of authenticity. “The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity,” Benjamin says, and since with the advent of photography any number of prints can be made from a single photographic exposure, the idea of the “authentic” print ceases to make any sense.13

  • 14 See Walter Klinefelter, p. 18 ff.
  • 15 Op. cit., p. 152.
  • 16 That term is to be taken in its optical as well as figurative meaning.

22This is a case in point as regards Sidney Paget’s drawings, which were reproduced on blocks by various engravers before being printed, so that the reader had access not to a reproduction of the original drawing but to the reproduction of a reproduction.14 As a matter of fact, that question of authenticity remains crucial to this day—although differently of course—in so far as it corresponds to a profound unsettling in the vision of art itself. Ronald R. Thomas showed that fictional detectives in that period, including Holmes in A Scandal in Bohemia, dealt with “photograph figures as a contested site of power and representational authority”15 and tried to integrate that new technique within the perspective16 of social order through exerting a definite control over images—a control very well epitomized by Holmes’s omnipresent magnifying glass, likening him to society’s optical device fighting subversion.

  • 17 Op. cit., p. 152.

Realigning the framework of patriarchal power and defining themselves as the rightful replacements for debased legal authorities, Bucket [Dickens’s inspector in Bleak House] and Holmes represent new forms of privilege and power, qualities invested now in a class of professionals (like themselves) who are legitimised by their expertise rather than their birth. These literary detectives not only represent that class but also secure and safeguard it with the high-power lenses through which they observe the world and convert it into images subject to their expert surveillance. Repeatedly, the technology they embody is focused upon the body of a woman, the representation and possession of which either enables the maintenance or threatens the subversion of established categories of class and gender.17

23The need to appropriate this new, photographic mode of representation in a socially repressive perspective does point to the threat photography constitutes as to the stability of social order itself.

24It seems that Paget’s drawings, through the mixture of conformity and subversion they evince, fit into that ambivalent pattern attributed to photography as the sign of social control and surveillance (by the detective) and as a potential place for subversion of the ontological basis of society. If we take for instance Paget’s drawings of Sherlock Holmes’s various disguises used in the course of the investigations (Figures 26, 27, 28 and 29), we are struck by the impossibility of recognizing him behind that disguise—Paget did not try to depict Sherlock Holmes in disguise, he drew some entirely different character. Holmes literally becomes someone else in those pictures, which can be interpreted in two opposite ways. On the one hand, it points to the extremely efficient handling by the detective of some representational technique (disguise) that enables him to fool his enemies—and the readers—only for the benefit of society. But on the other hand, it may also show how fragile our hold on reality is, since a character’s being can appear modified beyond recognition by the reader/viewer of the illustrated text. Offering a vision of reality from which we feel estranged, that text registers its own subversive, representational value, while leaving the possibility for the reader to maintain a conservative perspective on the images as instances of social control by the detective. In this ambivalent reading also lies the disquieting though attractive quality of the drawings, which is no doubt one of Sidney Paget’s greatest achievements.

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Primary sources

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, 1992 (reprinted 1995), The Return of Sherlock Holmes, 1993, The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes, 1993 (reprinted 1994), Wordsworth Classics, Ware (Hertfordshire).

Secondary sources

Baring-Gould, William, The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, New York, Clarkson N. Potter, 1986.

Belsey, Catherine, “Deconstructing the Text: Sherlock Holmes”, in Conan Doyle: Sherlock Holmes, The Major Stories with Contemporary Critical Essays, John A. Hodgson, ed., Boston, Bedford Books, 1994, 381–388.

Benjamin, Walter, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, in Illuminations, translated by Harry Zohn, New York, Shocken Books, 1969.

Borges, Jorge Luis, El Cuento Policial, Buenos Aires, Emecé Editores, S.A., Editorial Belgrano, 1978 (this text is translated into French in Autopsies du roman policier, Uri Eisenzweig, ed., Paris, Union Générale d’Éditions, 1983, 289–304).

Clausen, Christopher, “Sherlock Holmes, Order, and the Late-Victorian mind”, The Georgia review, vol. 28, 1, 1984, 104–123.

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Jann, Rosemary, “Sherlock Holmes Codes the Social Body”, English Literary History, vol. 5, 3, 1990, 685–709.

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Nordon, Pierre, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, L’Homme et l’Œuvre, Librairie Marcel Didier, Paris, 1964 (translated in English: London, John Murray, 1966, New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967).

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Thomas, Ronald R., “Making Darkness Visible[F0BE?]Capturing the Criminals and Observing the Law in Victorian photography and Detective Fiction”, Victorian Literature and the Victorian Visual Imagination, Carol T. Christ and John O’Jordan, eds., University of California Press, Berkeley, 1995, 152 ff.

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1 On that notion of a competition between the reader and the detective (and beyond him, with the writer), see Jorge Luis Borges.

2 Joseph Hillis Miller, p. 101–103.

3 The edition of Doyle’s stories that is quoted here is the only one that offers a reproduction in facsimile of the original copies from the Strand magazine, with all the illustrations. See the bibliography at the end of this paper.

4 Walter Paget was intended by the manager of the Strand as the original illustrator from the start, but he failed to get the job owing to some mistake in the sending of the letter that was to propose the employment. For further details on Paget and other illustrators of the Sherlock Holmes stories (from the viewpoint of editorial history only), see the following works: James Edward Holroyd, p. 38-52; Vincent Starrett, chapter 10 (“The portrayers of Sherlock Holmes”, p. 115–127); Walter Klinefelter; Winifred Paget; William Baring-Gould, p. 33–36; Michael Pointer; Christopher Redmond, pp. 61–65; Michael Hardwick, p. 41–46 (chapter 4); John Tyburn, p. 279-282.

5 In The Hound of the Baskervilles, Jack Stapleton intends to attract sir Henry in a trap by using his wife as a “bait”, so that sex is objectively connected to a death threat when the mystery is cleared. Before the solution is reached, though, that connection is only implicit but sensed by the reader owing to numerous clues pointing to the danger surrounding the Stapleton couple.

6 That ideological belief even led some eminent police members, such as the Frenchman Alphonse Bertillon, to set up a whole system of classification of criminals according to their physical traits, a system called “bertillonnage” and grounded on the systematic photographing and categorizing of the delinquents’ faces. On that point, see Ronald R. Thomas, p. 152 ff.

7 Such prejudices in the detective’s deductions were highlighted by several critics. See for instance Christopher Clausen and Rosemary Jann.

8 The two novels that were published before, A Study in Scarlet (1887) and The Sign of Four (1890), were illustrated by D.H. Friston, Charles Doyle and George Hutchinson—for the former—and by Charles Kerr for the latter.

9 In the description of Moriarty by Holmes, no such similitude is explicitly indicated: “His appearance was quite familiar to me. He is extremely tall and thin, his forehead domes out in a white curve, and his two eyes are deeply sunken in his head. He is clean-shaven, pale and ascetic-looking, retaining something of the professor in his features. His shoulders are rounded from much study, and his face protrudes forward, and is forever slowly oscillating from side to side in a curiously reptilian fashion.” (p. 438).

10 This is what the plots of A Study in Scarlet and many stories show, in so far as crime is deeply connected with the British colonies in those texts.

11 This theatrical dimension of the texts was noticed and commented upon, noticeably by Pierre Nordon.

12 See also Joseph Hillis Miller’s comments on that essay in Illustration, p. 19–31.

13 Ronald R. Thomas, op. cit., p. 141.

14 See Walter Klinefelter, p. 18 ff.

15 Op. cit., p. 152.

16 That term is to be taken in its optical as well as figurative meaning.

17 Op. cit., p. 152.

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Christophe Gelly, « Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes Stories: Crime and Mystery from the Text to the Illustrations »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens, 73 Printemps | 2011, 93-106.

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Christophe Gelly, « Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes Stories: Crime and Mystery from the Text to the Illustrations »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 73 Printemps | 2011, mis en ligne le 05 octobre 2015, consulté le 25 septembre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Christophe Gelly

Christophe Gelly est Professeur à l’université Blaise Pascal (Clermont-Ferrand 2), et spécialiste de la littérature policière aux xixe et xxe siècles. Il a publié plusieurs articles et ouvrages sur le sujet, en particulier une étude sur Le Chien des Baskerville de Conan Doyle en 2005 aux Presses universitaires de Lyon, et une étude sur Raymond Chandler, le roman noir et le film noir en 2009 chez Michel Houdiard. Il s’est également spécialisé dans l’étude de l’adaptation filmique et prépare actuellement la publication des actes d’un colloque sur la théorie de la réception au cinéma et en littérature, en collaboration avec David Roche de l’université de Bourgogne.

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