Study Guide

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes Contrasting Regions: London and the Countryside

By Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Contrasting Regions: London and the Countryside

The Red-Headed League
Sherlock Holmes

"Let me see," said Holmes, standing at the corner and glancing along the line. "I should like just to remember the order of the houses here. It is a hobby of mine to have an exact knowledge of London. There is Mortimer's, the tobacconist, the little newspaper shop, the Coburg branch of the City and Suburban Bank, the Vegetarian Restaurant, and McFarlane's carriage-building depot" (League.148).

This is a fictional city square that Holmes is investigating in "The Red-Headed League." Yet, Conan Doyle bothers to fill his description of the scene with loads of realistic sounding detail. And there are lots of other locations mentioned, in this story and in others throughout the collection, that are real. Why mix in fictional details with real ones? Why did Doyle fake this London square in particular? And what kind of effects might Conan Doyle be trying to produce for the reader by describing the layout of London streets, train stations, and neighborhoods so precisely?

A Case of Identity

But there was no great difficulty in the first stage of my adventure. Upper Swandam Lane is a vile alley lurking behind the high wharves which line the north side of the river to the east of London Bridge. Between a slop-shop and a gin-shop, approached by a steep flight of steps leading down to a black gap like the mouth of a cave, I found the den of which I was in search. Ordering my cab to wait, I passed down the steps, worn hollow in the centre by the ceaseless tread of drunken feet, and by the light of a flickering oil-lamp above the door I found the latch and made my way into a long, low room, thick and heavy with the brown opium smoke and terraced with wooden berths, like the forecastle of an emigrant ship" (Identity.14).

This passage demonstrates one of the downsides of London: tons of vices. The steps are "worn hollow […] by the ceaseless tread of drunken feet," or, in other words, this is a gathering place for lushes. And the design of the opium den ("like the forecastle of an emigrant ship") implies scary foreignness intruding on British soil.

The Five Orange Pips

It was in the latter days of September, and the equinoctial gales had set in with exceptional violence. All day the wind had screamed and the rain had beaten against the windows, so that even here in the heart of great, hand-made London we were forced to raise our minds for the instant from the routine of life and to recognise the presence of those great elemental forces which shriek at mankind through the bars of his civilisation, like untamed beasts in a cage (Orange.3).

Here we're seeing a more general opposition between "great, hand-made London" and nature. So London is like the ultimate thing that mankind can come up with, the ultimate in "civilisation." Where is the countryside in all of this? Does this mean that, implicitly, rural areas have to be less civilized and more "elemental" than London? How might that affect the types of crimes committed in the countryside?

The Speckled Band

Instead of making friends and exchanging visits with our neighbours, who had at first been overjoyed to see a Roylott of Stoke Moran back in the old family seat, he shut himself up in his house and seldom came out save to indulge in ferocious quarrels with whoever might cross his path (Band.25).

But if the city is a place of mass vice, the countryside is a place of individual nuttiness. Turn to "The Speckled Band" and check out Roylott: he's able, because he's got a lot of power in his village (and because he's really scary) to keep people from prosecuting him for all of his bad behavior there. The isolation of Stoke Moran, and especially of Helen Stoner in her stepfather's house, leaves Roylott's victims without many options for seeking help. Stoner has to travel all the way into London to find a guy to help her out: Sherlock Holmes.

The Engineer's Thumb

"Yes, our little place is quite out in the country. It is a good seven miles from Eyford Station."

"Then we can hardly get there before midnight. I suppose there would be no chance of a train back. I should be compelled to stop the night" (Thumb.72-3).

"The Engineer's Thumb" presents another isolated house outside of the city of London, which happens to house criminals who are working relatively freely. The farther away the action is from London, the more likely that it involves long-term and secret criminal conspiracy that depends on isolation from other people to get done. Other examples include "The Five Orange Pips" and "The Copper Beeches."

The Copper Beeches
Sherlock Holmes

All over the countryside, away to the rolling hills around Aldershot, the little red and grey roofs of the farmsteadings peeped out from amid the light green of the new foliage.

"Are they not fresh and beautiful?" I cried with all the enthusiasm of a man fresh from the fogs of Baker Street.

But Holmes shook his head gravely.

"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 here" (Beeches.90-2).

Holmes states his view on the country vs. city debate pretty clearly here. He warns Watson not to be fooled by appearances (not that Holmes is immune from that himself). The lovely farms they're driving past are far enough away from each other and from the police that they can hide terrible abuses, warns Holmes. This passage resonates with one that starts out "A Case of Identity," in which Holmes sounds really happy about the idea of peeling back the roofs of London's homes to explore the strange events behind everyday life. But everyday life that might seem welcoming to Holmes in London then appears threatening in the countryside. What are some factors that might make Holmes feel more at home in London? How do technologies of communication and transportation contribute to Holmes's London experience?