A Study in Sherlock

There can be no doubt – Sherlock Holmes is the most famous literary detective of all time, and one of the most famous literary characters of all time, full stop. So how did, in the space of four novels and 56 short stories, he so firmly establish himself as the definitive fictional detective?

It is important to acknowledge that he is not the first detective in fiction. However, Sherlock Holmes is the first detective who solves crimes with techniques and approaches – forensics, crime scene investigation, character analysis – that we still see in detective fiction and TV crime dramas (think the CSI series) today.

The author of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was not impressed how, in detective stories up to this point, the detective seemed to obtain the results by chance, rather than by meticulous scientific observation and analysis. He was heavily influenced by his mentor Dr Joseph Bell, whose superhuman powers of observation and deduction very much formed the basis of Holmes’ super-sleuthing character.

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Dr Joseph Bell

We should emphasise that Holmes is far more of a complex character than an emotionless automaton with superhuman deductive reasoning skills. If that was all there was to him we would not have the fondness for him we do! The seemingly rigid, rational and often conceited figure who uses deductive reasoning in a single-minded manner to solve puzzles actually has human frailties. He takes drugs because he is bored. He plays the violin because he has a sense of beauty and aesthetics. And, though he would be reluctant to admit it, he is very fond of Watson.

Speaking of Watson…great character that Holmes undoubtedly is, the stories simply would not work without Watson to complement him. He is an essential narrative device, as he frames the seemingly superhuman attributes of Holmes with a sense of wonder and astonishment. But he also is the everyman figure that adds warmth to the narrative, and indeed to Holmes himself.

Other significant characters in the Holmes canon are Irene Adler, notable for being a female whose intellect is equal to Holmes and the closest thing he has to a love interest, and, of course, Professor James Moriarty. He symbolises what Holmes could have become had he used his talents for amoral criminality rather than societal justice.

Every bit as brilliant as Holmes, Moriarty actually has Holmes on the run in The Final Problem. Holmes, so often the hunter, becomes the hunted. Moriarty pursues him across France to Switzerland, and they have their final, fateful showdown at Reichanbach Falls in Switzerland. A place I have visited, and this plaque commemorating their final, fateful encounter can be found there:

Doyle resolved to kill off Holmes as he was tired of his creation, for all the mega-success it brought him, and wanted to focus on his other literary endeavours. But overwhelming public pressure – some 20000 people cancelled their subscription to The Strand, the serial in which the Sherlock stories appeared, in protest – forced him to resurrect the Great Detective. We should be grateful for this, as it immediately resulted in the best-known and best-loved Holmes story of them all: The Hound of the Baskervilles.

What makes this story stand out is the Hound itself – a seemingly fantastical and terrifying beast that haunts the wilds of Dartmoor. It represents an invasion of the supernatural on Holmes’ ordered, rational world where everything can be logically explained. It is also, of course, a fantastically exciting tale and mystery in its own right!

There have also, of course, been a slew of film and TV adaptations. The Jeremy Brett TV series is seen by many as the first truly nuanced depiction of Holmes, and also the most faithful too. And then, of course, is the phenomenally popular – and really rather good – 21st Century updating of Holmes with the TV series starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman.

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What makes it work so well is that it, in updating Holmes’ ‘science of deduction’ to a contemporary, technologically-enhanced context, really proves that Holmes is for all time. Holmes foibles are given a 21st Century makeover; e.g. ‘I’m a high-functioning sociopath’. There are more narrative changes – for instance, Myecroft Holmes is almost a permanent presence with a greatly enhanced role, whereas he only appears twice in the original books (although he is a vastly intelligent figure with a role of supreme national importance there too). But all these changes enhance rather than diminish the Sherlock legacy.

This series is just one of many instances of the legacy of Holmes living on. As well as statues, museums and a whole Underground station being covered with his likeness, there are legion societies and fan clubs dedicated to Holmes, and Holmes-mania shows no signs of abating. That’s some legacy!

 

The Seven Basic Plots

On the hottest night of the year, Lit Sic convened in the Beaumont Garden to discuss the Seven Plots which Christopher Booker suggests are the basis of all stories, ranging from classical times through to the present day.

According to Booker, the seven basic plots are Overcoming the Monster, The Quest, Rebirth, Rags to Riches, Tragedy, Comedy and, last but not least, Voyage and Return. The Lit Soc family rose to the challenge and were each assigned one of these to research and discuss.

We began with the oldest, the Monster, which can be traced back to a clay tablet found in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) dating from approximately 5000 years ago! This was the Epic of Gilgamesh, and continued with the likes of Beowulf, in turn inspiring modern tales such as The Lord of the Rings. Rather neatly, this segued in to our fabulous Year 7 girls discussing The Quest.

Their thoroughly researched discussion took the motifs of this plot and applied them to the hugely popular Harry Potter stories. Motifs such as the hidden hero, the companions, the journey, the experience of disbelief, the profound alteration of the protagonists and the eventual success and completion of the quest were covered.

Mrs Stead was up next with Rebirth, looking at Sleeping Beauty, Pygmalion and Silas Marner, among others, but her real favourite was Crime and Punishment, with its tortured antihero Raskolnikov and his “nightmarish rebirth“. 

Sacha’s Rags to Riches discussion also incorporated elements of change, with the likes of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Great Gatsby, via the American Dream, all covered with erudition and enthusiasm. She put a particular emphasis on the difference between European and American plots, with the latter putting it down to hard work, whereas the former focuses on fate.

Miss Handley and Mr Humphreys took on the opposing plot staples of Tragedy and Comedy respectively. Miss Handley centred her discussion on Shakespeare’s King Lear and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, and her “enjoyment” of these family sagas. Mr Humphreys also discussed Shakespeare, albeit his comedies A Winter’s Tale and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as well as the likes of Jeeves and Wooster and Pride and Prejudice, denoting that they were not just witty and humorous but also that the characters go through change to achieve a happy ending…in contrast to tragedy!

Mrs Rusholme brought proceedings to a close with, fittingly enough, Voyage and Return. Looking at Homer’s The Odyssey and Joyce’s Ulysses, as well as her favourite author’s Mrs Dalloway. As with all the basic plots, there are considerable overlaps with The Quest and Overcoming The Monster as well as Comedy, Tragedy and indeed the others!

Our last formal discussion of the year, and a great one. Thank you to everybody and here’s to another successful Lit Soc year!

May the 4th Be With You

Star Wars Day now being a global celebration, we at Lit Soc invited our resident Obi Wan, Mr Webb to lead what turned out to be a stimulating, erudite and musical discussion of the groundbreaking space opera!

Amidst a plethora of film memorabilia – including our resident mascot Paddington Bear reluctantly donning a Darth Vader mask – we learned a series of factoids about the making of the beloved movies. Did you know that Alec Guinness, who played Obi Wan Kenobi, took a small percentage of the film profits, thereby becoming a multi-millionaire? Or that four people played Darth Vader? Or that Peter Cushing loathed his boots so much that he insisted on wearing slippers during filming? Or that the original Emperor was played by a woman who married a person who played King Kong? We could go on…

Being an instrumentalist, Mr Webb had much to say about John Williams’ extraordinary score, which brought classical music back to the movies. Using the fabulous London Symphony Orchestra to record what is now an iconic part of cinematic history. We listened to both versions of the Imperial Storm Troopers’ March – the minor key familiar to us all, and the major disconcertingly jaunty!

Having first seen “Episode IV” as a 7-year-old, Mr Webb went on to discuss the sequels and prequels, and how he feels about the “new crop” of episodes. To general agreement, he felt that the great days were “over”.  But oh what fun was had with the originals, and the fabulous characters, plots and special effects.

Many thanks to Mr Webb for a fascinating tour of the Star Wars Universe!

Snowy Reads and Landscapes in Literature

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan…except we didn’t. Instead, we revelled in Marcus Sedgwick’s delightful meditation on the white stuff, and how wonderful it is. We chose some readings to illustrate his life in the Alps, where he has lived for the past five years to give his family a last, real experience of sublimity.

Books we discussed to accompany his new book were The Snow Child, Doctor Zhivago, The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe, The Snowstorm by Beryl Netherclift, as well as FrankensteinOne Night In Winter by Simon Sebag Montefiore and Kolmynsky Heights by Lionel Davidson. A truly global discussion!

Toward the end of Winter, Mr Conway entertained us with his take on landscape in literature, inspired by his Christmas present of Nicholas Crane’s new book The Making of the British Landscape. Among landscapes discussed were the Valleys of Wales, the moors as described by the Bronte sisters and the landscape of Greenland as depicted in Miss Smilla’s Feelings for Snow by Peter Hoeg.

Mr Conway highly recommended the President of the Royal Geographical Society’s musings on our beautiful land, which as he says, “To care about a place, you must know its story”.

 

You can watch the videos to the above two talks here:

Snowy Reads

Landscapes in Literature

A Surprise Christmas Present…

Sacha produced a lovely, late Christmas present for Lit Soc on a snowy day in January. Around the edge are a series of coded motifs, representing the regular attendees of 2016. Ms Huntley and Mr Humphreys are easily recognisable, but can you spot us?

STOP PRESS: Nobel Prize for Literature 2016

Amazing news on Thursday 13th October when the Nobel committee announced that Bob Dylan, singer-songwriter extraordinaire, had been awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature. Lit Soc got there first when we had our own session on song lyrics as literature, back in 2014, as ever we are cutting edge…

 

National Poetry Day – Messages

Unbelievably, National Poetry Day came around again with the theme of ‘Messages’ for 2016.

As ever, we each brought a poem to read and discuss, and many and varied they were. As well as classics such as The Sentry by Owen chosen by Mrs Richards, we had the immortal Do Not Go Gentle… by Dylan Thomas read by Mr Humphreys in his appropriate Welsh accent.

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Intriguingly, from Nicola Evans we were treated to a German First World War poem, which she read in the original, and explained how it was from this combatant’s point of view that she’d gained a clearer perspective of the war from the German side. Jenny Recaldin recited Larkin’s This Be The Verse with no little relish, and also read one of her own compositions. Miss Handley introduced us to Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur and revisited Hilaire Belloc’s Rebecca, a favourite cautionary tale from her childhood.

To round things off, Sacha Eyles-Owen conjured up a reading of Out of the Blue, Eleanor from Year 7 read William Carlos Williams’ direct confessional This is Just to Say and Ms Huntley contributed from the wonderful collection Poetry by Heart, selecting  The God Abandons Antony by C.P. Cavafy and one of her favourite U.A. Fanthorpe’s poems.

Macbeth – Two Lit Soc Members Review An Oddly Jarring Performance

Shakespeare’s Globe – Summer 2016

***/*****

Although a stunning performance from Ray Fearon as the titular King of Scotland, with enough vehemence, aggression and intensity to breathe fearful life into the tortured man, the play was unfortunately hindered by a disappointing and unsatisfying portrayal of Lady Macbeth from Tara Fitzgerald. Hardly the imperious and deranged creature who is ruined by her own ambition, this Lady was oddly comical and often jarring to the tone of the tragedy, sometimes confusing the audience as to whether we should remain on tenterhooks or be laughing at her delivery.

However, hardly a fault can be found with the stagecraft of the opening scene, containing enough dismembered limbs and skulls to satisfy even the most gruesome among us, and the interesting construction of the witches from this smattering of body parts allowing a truly eerie mood, further heightened by the beautiful Celtic-inspired vocals which must garner a special mention for being a brilliant creator of tone throughout the play.

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  But, possibly the oddest element of the performance was a small child, clearly representative of Macbeth in some way, who wandered around the stage, breaking the fourth wall and without a particularly clear purpose or symbolic significance. Was he Macbeth’s soul? Was he a reflection of the troubled man’s innocence? Who knows! He may have been adorable, but he was one of many confusing directorial choices that caused bizarre tonal shifts throughout.

Overall, an enjoyable and entertaining piece certainly, but not a performance for those who love the darkness and desolation of a Shakespearean tragedy.

 

Nicola Evans & Jenny Recaldin

SHS Year 13

 

Featured photo courtesy of Iris Chung

Cooking with Gas – Lit Soc’s First Session

We had a bumper pupil turnout on a warm, sunny evening, which continues to be the Lit Soc tradition in early September.

Delving in to the literary treasure chest that was “What we read on our ‘olidays”, we circled the Globe when discussing the current version of Macbeth, the dystopian and visceral 1984 production at the Playhouse, and even darker theatrical goings on at the Almeida in the shape of another Shakespearean adaptation: Richard III, starring Ralph Fiennes.

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Discussion began with Amelia Bateman’s choice The Girls, which rendered her “catatonic”, unable to pick up another book for five days of her holiday. Another book that has triggered fevered debate in the Sixth Form Common Room is Louise O’Neill’s Asking For It, with its teenage protagonist narrator experiencing many of the growing pains that the age group endure.

Nicola and Sacha contributed their views on The Reader (aka Der Vorleser), which tied in with Mrs Stead’s fascinating description of Berlin and her “enjoyment” of Anna Funder’s Stasiland, originally published in 2001, which details the horrific history of living in East Germany before the Berlin Wall came down. Continuing the international theme, Messrs Conway and Humphreys waxed lyrical on the travelogue genius of Tim Butcher’s Blood River, as both gentlemen were suitably inspired by their respective travels on the African continent.

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Other highlights (too numerous to list all): Mr Sanders deep in law reports, Jenny distinctly underwhelmed by A Tale of Two Cities, a few members had bought Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (“great fan fiction”), Miss Norwood enjoyed Robert Harris’ The Dictator, and Mrs Rendle-Short was really enthusiastic about Doris Lessing’s seminal The Grass Is Singing.

Time considerations prevented us from discussing Mrs Horwood’s summer reads which included The Anatomy Lesson by Siegal and The Essex Serpent which has had great publicity recently. Mrs Richards forgot to attend! However, she sent us her recommendations, which included: Never Let Me Go by Ishiguro, Frost/Nixon and Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens. And last but by no means least, Ms Huntley’s favourite Our Souls At Night by Kent Haruf, a very different love story, and revisiting Dorothy Dunnett’s amazing six books that make up the Lymond Saga.

Next week is will be on the splendiferous Roald Dahl, in honour of his centenary. All welcome!

Once Upon A Time

We were sitting comfortably as Miss Handley began to tell us the long and convoluted story of how fairy tales came to be. Ranging from the Bronze Age through to the contemporary, My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me via Angela Carter’s Bloody Chamber.

During the session with the help of Miss Handley’s erudite leadership we discussed our favourite versions of classic tales, including Roald Dahl’s Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, a bizarre Italian tale about bacon rinds and the Guardian’s version of The Three Little Pigs.

To catch up and enjoy all of our Lit Soc discussions, go to our YouTube channel.