By Jamie Clark, Graduate Student, History Department, New York University
Featured image by Sam Nystrom Costales
Sherlock Holmes, the beloved consulting detective borne from the mind of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the late-19th century, recently returned to widespread and fevered fame through the 2011 BBC adaptation Sherlock. In many ways, Holmes was a walking contradiction, both representative of the wealthy elite class he originated from, but enigmatic – affluent, yet a man of the people; well-dressed and notably hygienic, yet bohemian. He interacted with every sect of society – and assisted them – from world leaders to the unhoused. Sherlock Holmes established himself as an accessible character for all – undeniably imperfect, but also a definitive moral guide, even when that morality took him outside the law (as in “Charles Augustus Milverton” and “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle”). However, consistent across his reiterations, Holmes’s infamous drug habit remained one of his few flaws. Drug use, in both Victorian times and today, was socially acceptable to the elite, but also signaled moral degradation largely associated with the lower classes. From Arthur Conan Doyle to Sherlock (2011), as a gentleman – and even further, as a “genius” above society – Holmes had the ability to justify his drug addiction to an audience that regarded him as a moral compass.
A Study in Scarlet begins with Dr. John Watson, a recently returned war veteran from the Second Afghan War, setting his sights on London, which he describes as “the great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire irresistibly drained.”1 Immediately, Watson recognized a certain decay in the society to which he returned. In the first episode of BBC’s Sherlock, John underwent a similar disillusionment which ultimately led him to meeting Sherlock. Through Sherlock, an energetic moral guide to London’s “cesspool,” London was cleansed and John found hope again. As the audience insert, John Watson observed Sherlock Holmes as well-dressed, clean, preternaturally skilled at the violin, and vastly intelligent. He noticed that Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s older brother, also had significant status in society as governmental consultant and club owner. Even John Watson, as both a doctor and returned war hero, held a higher social rank than many of the criminals and clients alike that the pair encountered. Through Watson, the audience establishes an understanding of Holmes as a respectable figure.2 However, Holmes’s contradictions occurred to Watson too, most evidently through Holmes’s drug addiction.
Drug-use among the Victorian (and contemporary) elite was not unusual and even characteristic of the class. Holmes first uses drugs by injecting himself with a “seven percent solution” of cocaine in Doyle’s second Sherlock Holmes novel, The Sign of Four. Watson detests his drug use: “Count the costs!” Watson tells him. “Why should you, for a mere passing pleasure, risk the loss of those great powers with which you have been endowed?”3 In “A Study in Pink,” BBC Sherlock’s pilot episode, John appeared shocked to learn about Sherlock’s past drug habit and even invoked Sherlock’s status as gentleman-genius by disparagingly referring to him as a “junkie.” Implicit in these statements is Holmes’s status – why should Holmes, as a gentleman who should be above such urges, use drugs as a “mere passing pleasure”? The question of drug addiction did not enter public policy in England until 1916.4 In the first half of the century, opiates were regularly used medicinally and “society in general had no particular fears about their use.”5 By 1868, when the Pharmacy Act came into effect, stories and statistics concerning deaths from opiates circulated, causing some public concern. Views began to shift, especially in medical circles, with the increased use of hypodermic morphine – the method Holmes utilized – and a fear of addiction among the gentlemen class specifically.6 According to Virginia Berridge, the “typical” candidates for addiction at this time were gentlemen (and often, medical professionals).7 By the end of the century, British society viewed opium addiction as a “form of moral insanity” or a “moral failing of the addict.”8 Thus, to Watson and the audience both, Holmes becomes both moral guide and moral failure. This is true for both the published stories and the BBC series. Watson warns Holmes against drug-use for his health as a doctor, but also for the sake of his profession. At the heart of Watson’s criticisms are his moral expectations of Holmes’s class, occupation, and tied into that, his race. As industrialization advanced and cities like London grew exponentially, the societal view of drug-use gradually became associated with the working-class, dangerous “recreational” use, and foreigners.
Opium dens in literature have been historically littered with racist descriptions and language. As hostility towards drug-use increased throughout the century, the white, wealthy members of the British elite associated drug addiction with Chinese seamen working in London’s East End.9 In one swoop, the deviant perceptions of both drug-use and lower class foreigners combined into a single moral debasement. Racist and xenophobic attitudes dominated British literature, largely in relation to nativist fears regarding the British Empire and a perceived threat that immigrants posed to the British elite, including authors like Arthur Conan Doyle. Often, those authors depicted their xenophobia in relation to drug addiction. Oscar Wilde, who wrote in the same period as Arthur Conan Doyle, depicted a stereotypically racist opium den in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Dorian Gray, a wealthy gentleman himself, visits an opium den just as he begins to succumb to the hedonistic behaviors that ultimately lead to his downfall.10 Drug addiction and complications with race are readily apparent in “The Man With the Twisted Lip.”11 The story begins with a woman seeking Watson’s help in finding her husband, a drug addict, in an opium den. Watson, in a moment of shock, then also finds Holmes undercover at that same opium den in search of another man. It ends with the discovery that the businessman whom Holmes sought had been moonlighting as a beggar for money, which he claimed earned him more than his salary. Class dynamics throughout the stories represent poor people as dirty, angry, and drug-addled. In a story surrounding addiction, there is a question that lingers in the mind: had the man been a true beggar – that is, not a country gentleman, but a working-class man – would the audience have held the same sympathies meant to be aroused by the tale? Further, what if he’d been any race other than white? It should be noted that in BBC Sherlock’s interpretation of this story, the drug addict in the den is a young black man. Although Holmes mostly seems indifferent to the status of anyone, from his clients to his network of unhoused people from which he enlists help, Watson’s racism is obvious. In both Dorian Gray and “The Man With the Twisted Lip,” the other occupants of the dens, referred to as “Malay,” are described as “crouching” and “sallow” respectively.12 In the Holmes story, they directly “beckon” Watson towards the drugs.13 Upon meeting the Irregulars, Holmes’s network of unhoused people, Watson remarks that they are “half a dozen of the dirtiest and most ragged street Arabs that ever I clapped eyes on.”14 His distaste is for their class, but he uses racialized language to further degrade them. Race and class, especially regarding drug addiction, have always been intertwined.
As a contributing member of society, Sherlock Holmes embodies his class, but he also stands apart from it, which allows both John Watson and the audience to ultimately accept his drug addiction. One notable exception to the Victorian view of drugs as a moral failure, which Sherlock Holmes epitomizes, was the “stable addict” who maintained functional “control” over their addiction. Instead of a failure of morality, “stable addicts” were considered diseased and, thus, treatable.15 When Watson criticizes Holmes in The Sign of Four, Holmes proclaims, “my mind rebels at stagnation.” To Holmes, his drug use, albeit frequent (he uses three times alone in The Sign of Four), is not addiction, but a mental aid for his genius. In the episodes “His Last Vow” and “The Lying Detective,” Sherlock repeatedly states that his drug use is not a slip back into addiction, but purposeful usage to help his mental process. Holmes’s justification actually mimics myths about the working-class using opium as a “stimulant” for working. Holmes was not the only character written in the Victorian era to partake in drugs; it was actually a popular trope in detective stories. According to Marty Roth, “early detective fiction is deeply, perhaps constitutively, steeped in drugs.”16 From stories by Edgar Allen Poe to Charles Dickens to Oscar Wilde, drugs – specifically cocaine and opium – filled the pages. Fiction of this period can indicate the general “moral and political character” of society.17 Just as Holmes used drugs to stimulate his mind, other detectives in Victorian fiction used drugs to vitalize or to ease their anxiety, or to aid dream scenarios in efforts to solve their cases.18 Holmes’s privilege as a gentleman, and even further as a “genius,” allows him to partake in drugs aesthetically.
Sherlock Holmes may be representative of his class in some respects, but he also notably stands outside of class entirely. Before Holmes is considered a gentleman, he’s considered a genius. The idea of “genius” is inherently obscure, marking Holmes as something “other” which transcends class lines and which Holmes utilizes to rationalize his drug use.19 In “His Last Vow” and then in “The Lying Detective,” Sherlock excuses his drug addiction through the necessity of his “genius” in solving the case and the audience learns later on that this justification was, indeed, accurate. However, even while considered something “other,” as a genius, Holmes is still elevated above the working-class. This distinction allows Holmes to act as he does in the stories without criticism from anyone other than Watson, but is also a direct product of his privilege. In the same way that Holmes’s privilege allows him to not care for politics (as seen in stories like “The Bruce-Partington Plans”), it allows him to operate as a drug user despite increasingly negative public opinion towards it. When Watson critiques Holmes at all, the derogatory nature of his comments lie in their association with the lower classes and foreigners, implying Holmes’s entitlement. Holmes’s addiction could be justified as a “stable addict,” a label reserved for gentlemen, rather than a moral failing. Today, as in Victorian times, the audience accepts such a rationalization, but that is due entirely to Sherlock Holmes’s elite status. Had Sherlock Holmes been written as a working-class man with the same reasoning behind his drug-use, it is likely that both John Watson and the audience would have an entirely different perception of his addiction.
Jamie Clark (she/her) is a graduate student at New York University studying history with a specialization in British, Irish, and American history. She is currently writing her thesis on death customs in Irish-America in the late-19th century. Outside of history, Jamie is a huge nerd for all things Harry Potter, Star Trek, and of course, Sherlock Holmes and other late-19th century literature. She can be reached at email@example.com.
- Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet (United Kingdom: Ward, Lock, Bowden, and Company, 1892), 3.
- Anna Neill, “The Savage Genius of Sherlock Holmes,” Victorian Literature and Culture 37, 2 (2009): 611.
- Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of the Four (Germany: B. Tauchnitz, 1891), 9.
- Virginia Berridge, “Victorian Opium Eating: Responses to Opiate Use in Nineteenth-Century England,” Victorian Studies 21, 4 (1978): 437.
- Berridge, “Victorian Opium Eating,” 442.
- Berridge, “Victorian Opium Eating,” 453.
- Berridge, “Victorian Opium Eating,” 455.
- Berridge, “Victorian Opium Eating,” 458.
- Berridge, “Victorian Opium Eating,” 460.
- Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (New York: Random House, 1926), 209.
- Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Man With the Twisted Lip” in Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1892), 129.
- Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, 340.
- Doyle, “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” 129.
- Doyle, A Study in Scarlet, 87.
- Berridge, “Victorian Opium Eating,” 458.
- Marty Roth, “Victorian Highs: Detection, Drugs, and Empire,” in High Anxieties: Cultural Studies in Addiction, eds. Janet Farrell Brodie and Marc Redfield (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 86.
- Christopher Clausen, “Sherlock Holmes, Order, and the Late-Victorian Mind,” The Georgia Review 38, 1 (1984): 106.
- Roth, “Victorian Highs,” 86.
- Neill, “The Savage Genius,” 611.