Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Adventure classics -- Look to the femme, not the chien

The Hound of the Baskervilles

by Arthur Conan Doyle


“From the chamber where she has been locked for hours, the young woman hears shouts and laughter rising from the great dining hall below. . . Her anxiety mounts at the thought of the fate intended for her,” Pierre Bayard writes in his retelling of the legend underlying Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1902 gothic detective tale, The Hound of the Baskervilles.

In desperation, the woman climbs out the window of her prison and flees across the moor. Her attacker, Hugo Baskerville, sets his hounds on her track. As she lies dying of fear and exhaustion, her attacker reaches her. Now he becomes the prey, his throat torn out by “a great black beast, shaped like a hound, yet larger than any hound that ever mortal eye has rested upon.”

“The thoughts of characters in literature are not forever locked up inside their creators. More alive than many living people, these characters spread themselves through those who read their authors’ work,” Bayard writes.

image: Wikimedia commons
So, with moxie worthy of Sherlock Holmes himself, University of Paris literature professor and psychoanalyst Bayard undertakes to reconstruct the dying woman’s thoughts and trace their influence through Doyle’s book. “There is every reason to suppose that the generally acknowledged solution of the atrocious crimes that bloodied the Devonshire moors simply does not hold up, and that the real murderer escaped justice,” he writes in Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong.

Every Holmes fan knows Doyle killed Holmes in 1893, plunging him over the Reichenbach Falls. But when a friend of Doyle’s told him a corking good story about the legendary Devonshire hound, he realized Holmes was the perfect vehicle for the story. Except that he was dead. Doyle’s solution: set the story in 1888, before Holmes’ death. The idea worked so well Doyle resurrected his legendary detective for real in 1903, when Holmes explained away his supposed suicidal plunge to old pal Dr. Watson.

In the canonical version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, the heir to the Baskerville
estate and baronetcy has died under mysterious circumstances. A friend enlists Sherlock Holmes to prevent a similar fate from befalling the new heir, Sir Henry Baskerville. Claiming a previous engagement, Holmes sends Watson, who hits on resident lepidopterist, i.e. butterfly chaser, Jack Stapleton--or rather, Stapleton’s mysterious dog--as the murderer. Along the way, Watson notes Stapleton’s alleged sister, the luscious Beryl “a very fascinating and beautiful woman,” but never considers her a suspect. Of course, Holmes fans also know that as a detective, Dr. Watson is a pretty darned good ophthalmologist.

To our surprise as well as professor Bayard’s, when Holmes reappears in the story, he swallows Watson’s theory whole. Like Hercule Poirot to Caroline Sheppard in last week’s post, the usually misogynistic Holmes accords Beryl Stapleton every courtesy. He never checks her alibis, taking all her statements at face value. What gives?

In last week’s post, Bayard offered a reason for Poirot’s atypical behavior. He offers no concrete reason for Holmes’ refusal to consider Beryl, who is actually Stapleton’s wife, as a suspect. But every fan of Doyle
’s can suggest an answer. Since 1897 at the latest, Doyle had been romantically, if not physically, involved with family friend Jean Leckie.

Doyle’s wife Louise was dying of tuberculosis. He was too sensitive to his wife’s
feelings--and to Victorian morality--to parade Leckie openly, his hidden relationship haunted him. Did he realize that Leckie, who became the second Mrs. Doyle, had as much of an agenda as Beryl Stapleton (who we, as well as Bayard, know has designs on Sir Henry)? Was it possible Doyle didn’t want to admit either woman’s agenda, even to himself?

In the end, Bayard ingeniously ties his solution the hope for justice that must have passed through the mind of the dying young woman who started the whole business. But I won’t spoil your enjoyment, either of the original Hound or Bayard’s revisionist version. Get to a library, bookstore or Amazon and weigh the evidence for yourself.

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics begins a May of historical fiction with Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. And argue about what constitutes historical fiction.)

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