Life & Letters

Finding Fact in Fiction

Ishrat Syed and Kalpana Swaminathan are surgeons who write together as Kalpish Ratna. Their book Room 000 (Picador, 2015) is an eclectic narration of Bombay’s 1896 bubonic plague epidemic. They are at work on a book about the Zika phenomenon
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Real life intrudes on fiction all the time. Kalpish Ratna indulge in some literary detection as they search for clues to the true character of Arthur Conan Doyle in Sherlock Holmes’ life and movements

The Centre’s recent goof-up on Section 377, nearly three years after the landmark judgment decriminalising consensual same-sex relationships, brings up the old question: which records truth—fact or fiction?

Section 377 is a British construct, one of the many evils thrust on us by Macaulay. It’s now long forgotten in Britain. Officially dead since the Sexual Offences Act of 1967, yet shockingly proximate to our cyber-real present when you consider it killed Alan Turing in 1954. The law that criminalised Turing’s homosexuality, and humiliated him with its brutish punishment, was Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act which made ‘gross indecency’ a crime. Do we remember any of the mayhem that was common knowledge around this law?


But we do remember and read De Profundis and The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

Oscar Wilde’s trial and incarceration, leading to his miserable death, are synonymous with that inhuman and punitive law. We would have forgotten these facts if we didn’t have The Picture of Dorian Gray to remind us of a love that dare not speak its name.

Dorian Gray shocked reviewers in 1890. It was anonymously reviewed, with outright scorn, in The Scots Observer as ‘suitable for none but outlawed noblemen and telegraph boys’. The reference was to the notorious Cleveland Street scandal that broke in 1889. Young employees of the Post Office (telegraph boys) were being sent out to a brothel in Cleveland Street where they moonlighted as rent boys for rich clients (the outlawed noblemen). It was a scandal that provoked moral outrage, a so-this-is-what-you’ve-been-up-to-behind-our-back fury from the plebs towards the aristos who made every attempt to gag the press, the police, and even, it appears, Mr Sherlock Holmes.

Now that we have read Anthony Horowitz’s The House of Silk, we may forgive Holmes’ silence, but to be fair to Conan Doyle, he had Dr Watson comment upon it in The Veiled Lodger, a story set in 1896—‘...there are dispatch–cases filled with documents, a perfect quarry for the student, not only of crime, but of the social and official scandals of the late Victorian era … I deprecate, in the strongest way the attempts which have been made lately to get at and destroy these papers.’

Conan Doyle’s own life was at something of a variance with the sympathies he invested in Sherlock Holmes. Doyle, when he was not writing, was an extrovert, Pickwickian in his altruistic adventurism. He was also deeply convinced of the moral values of his time, and endured great personal torment to uphold them. These two facets, often conflicting, subdued the man. Julian Barnes, in Arthur and George, his masterful account of the Eduljee case, brings out this paradox in Conan Doyle’s character more intelligently than most of his biographers have.

 It was only when he shut out the world and its demands, and picked up his pen, that Conan Doyle could say what he really thought of it. He could stop being the nice guy he was, and just be Sherlock Holmes.

It is on record that Conan Doyle met Oscar Wilde at the Langham Hotel in London, at the invitation of the American JM Stoddart, who was trawling for Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. The two writers had not met before. A greater contrast is hard to imagine—Conan Doyle, in his Dr Watson persona, and Wilde very like his caricature in Punch. Then again, perhaps they weren’t, because they seem to have hit it off, and parted inspired. Wilde went home to pen Dorian Gray, and Conan Doyle got to work on The Sign of Four. Doyle’s novel made him famous in the United States and assured Sherlock Holmes immortality. Dorian Gray, Wilde’s work of staggering genius, treacherously condemned him to infamy.

Looking back on that evening, one wonders how much of it moved Conan Doyle’s decorous pen. He may have been more perceptive, and empathetic, than the hypocrisies of his age permitted him to appear. Again, where Conan Doyle couldn’t, Sherlock Holmes could. There are references to Vere Street (Holmes was attacked here by Moriarty’s men) in The Final Problem.

Vere Street was the site of the notorious molly house called the White Swan, which was raided in 1810. The public humiliation of the arrested men makes queasy reading even today. In a tragic miscarriage of justice, the two men who were hanged on charges of sodomy were not even present in Vere Street at the time of the raid.

It was just the kind of injustice that got Arthur Conan Doyle incensed. Unlike his public support of George Eduljee and Oscar Slater, Victorian mores did not permit him to express his empathy with victims of homophobia. But Conan Doyle did permit Holmes to employ Billy, the telegraph boy, as his page. LGBT Holmesians have declared this to be evidence that Holmes was gay. Let’s get real on this—Holmes isn’t real, Conan Doyle was. His support of Roger Casement showed his true character.

Roger Casement was British Consul in the Congo. Following his revelations of the brutal regime of Leopold II, Conan Doyle wrote, within the space of a week, The Crime of the Congo, a ‘pamphlet’ the size of a novel. He was writing, this time, against the establishment. Europe and America remained unmoved.

Conan Doyle also sympathised with Casement’s Irish nationalism—but drew back when Casement began collaborating with Germany. Yet, when Casement was arrested on charges of treason, Conan Doyle paid for his defence.

Casement was sentenced to death and Conan Doyle organised a petition for clemency, arguing that his treason was based on a deranged mind: ‘for many years been exposed to severe strain during his honourable career of public service, that he had endured several tropical fevers … [and that] some allowance may be made in his case for an abnormal physical and mental state.’

By this time, Casement’s diaries, full of details of his same-sex relationships, were being avidly circulated in political circles. They were sent, by an enterprising government, to all those who had signed the petition for clemency. Most of the signatories backed off in horror. Conan Doyle refused to read the diaries and flatly stated they had nothing to do with Casement’s treason.

That cost him a peerage.

Roger Casement was executed in 1916.

The Sherlock Holmes story that appeared the following year, His Last Bow, has the detective masquerading as an Irish American called Altamont—after graduating from an Irish American secret society. Knowing his long and passionate avowal of Casement’s Irish struggle gives the story a more poignant reading.

Literary detection is very different from the game of conjecture one can play with fictional characters. It is a game, but one must establish links with facts. It is different, also, from the voyeuristic conjectures that theorists hazard between lines. Dead writers are the usual victims of this, and Shakespeare, of course, is the worst hit. He isn’t even himself. We’re invited to take our pick from a long list that includes every literate fop of his times and stops just short of Elizabeth I herself (she was literate, but died too inconveniently early to have written most of the plays.) The poor man has been infected with syphilis, gonorrhea, and psychosis, but has escaped incest and self-abuse so far. He’s had enough. Shakespeare must be kept out, but everyone else is fair game.

Literary detection must engage with the real world and real events. Why is the food so dismal in all the Brontë books? I got some very real answers to that when I visited Haworth. Real life intrudes on fiction all the time. Some of these intrusions are seismic to the writer’s mind, events that he has reacted to, very likely, in silent anguish or scorn—until fiction offers sublimation.

In Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, there are many instances with links to real event. Some of these never made it to history—they were curiosities then, and are mostly forgotten now.

The Creeping Man, written in 1923, is the bizarre tale of a respectable professor who appalls his family by going loco. Holmes approaches the problem with the question: ‘Why does Professor Presbury’s faithful wolf-hound, Roy, endeavour to bite him?’

Spoiler ahead, if you haven’t read the story—the Professor has been dosing himself with Serum of Black-faced Langur, supplied by Lowenstein of Prague. The name sends Watson into a dither of recollection: ‘Lowenstein! The name brought back to me the memory of some snippet from a newspaper which spoke of an obscure scientist who was striving in some unknown way for the secret of rejuvenescence and the elixir of life.’

Watson’s vagueness is, of course, a literary device. Conan Doyle knew exactly what that Serum of Black-faced Langur was all about. Just a year ago, Serge Voronoff had been at the centre of a storm at a medical congress at the Sorbonne. He was not permitted to read his paper on xenotransplants because he had communicated his results to the press. On 6 June 1920, Voronoff had made history by surgically implanting the testes of a monkey into the scrotum of a Parisian. The world held its breath—in hope, more than disbelief. Over the next two years, Voronoff had implanted monkey testes in 162 men, among them, Kemal Ataturk of Turkey. The monkey testes (politely alluded to as ‘interstitial glands’ in the press) promised not just sexual and physical rejuvenation, but mental alacrity as well. Voronoff was quoted in a New York Times report as saying “this was especially true in the case of a prominent author, who declared that his faculty for work had improved enormously by the operation”.

In Conan Doyle’s story, Lowenstein writes, ‘It is possible that the Serum of Anthropoid would have been better. I have explained to you, I used black–faced Langur because a specimen was accessible.’

Very likely, Conan Doyle had read Voronoff’s paper in International Clinics (1921): ‘… For our experimental work we have used anthropoid apes. The tailless apes are animals which closely resemble man. The only species of apes available for this purpose are the chimpanzee, the gorilla, and the orang-utang.’

Sufficient evidence, one might think, to make a watertight case for Serge Voronoff’s testicular transplants to be the source of The Creeping Man, but for two facts. First, the story is set in 1901, long before Voronoff’s work went public. Second, the technique of rejuvenation in the story is not organ transplant but injected serum.

At the turn of the century, a French savant Charles-Édouard Brown-Séquard, long renowned for his experiments in neurology, blotted his notebook with experiments in rejuvenation. He injected himself with an extract of monkey’s testes, and presented himself as ‘rejuvenated’ at medical meetings in Paris. This caused embarrassment and considerable dismay.

Certainly, Conan Doyle was conversant with Brown-Séquard’s work. His paper on the spinal cord (Experimental and Clinical Researches on the Physiology and Pathology of the Spinal Cord, 1855) is as relevant today as it was in Conan Doyle’s time. In addition, the story of his life would have been irresistible to Doyle.

Born in Mauritius, Brown-Séquard arrived in France at the age of 17, clutching the manuscript of a novel. A kindly publisher advised him to abandon writing and set about finding a vocation. Medicine seemed most attractive to the young man, and he took his time graduating, distracted by his early researches into the nerves of the spinal cord. His genius was recognised early, and so was his passionate commitment against slavery. He fled France, to America, then to England. He eventually returned to France where he was honoured with a chair in experimental medicine and physiology. His work, dazzling in its diversity and pathbreaking in its ideas, made him the most respected physiologist of his time. Failing physical health interfered with his insatiable mental agility, and when well into his seventies, Brown-Séquard injected himself with testicular extract from monkeys. He read papers and published his findings in Lancet, but the idea was commercialised and his genius, tragically, became an object of ridicule.

Brown-Séquard’s humiliating end must have moved Conan Doyle. A commemorative lecture at the National Academy three years after Brown-Sequard’s death reviewed his achievements and superciliously pronounced “theories of this sort can, of course, never be fruitful, for they destroy all hope of making physiology a basis of diagnosis and treatment of disease.”

Today, it is humbling to read Brown-Sequard’s work. The ‘internal glandular secretions’ he investigated are the hormones that form the basis of modern endocrinology. In fact, there was no facet of human physiology that Brown-Séquard did not address in his long and energetic career.

The Creeping Man, the story of brilliant Professor Presbury who makes a complete fool of himself, is surely Conan Doyle’s comment on the debacle of Brown-Séquard. Sherlock Holmes gives voice to Conan Doyle’s internalised panic about rejuvenation: ‘But it may recur. Others would find a better way. There is danger there—a very real danger to humanity. Consider, Watson, that the material, the sensual, the worldly, would all prolong their worthless lives. It would be the survival of the least fit. What sort of cesspool may not our poor world become?’

In 1994, Mauritius, his birth country, honoured Brown-Séquard’s death centenary with a postage stamp. Conan Doyle would have been pleased.

Events are happenstance. Read as news, as history, they are forgotten because their relevance to the present is left unexplored. Fiction, even fiction written in a remote time, has immediacy. It doesn’t work otherwise. It’s happening now in the reader’s mind. That’s because good fiction has the same power as poetry: the words, the plot are irrelevant, the only relevance is the writer’s emotion. It moved him when he wrote it, and it moves us as we read it. What else can it be but truth?