Friday, April 1, 2011

Some Thoughts on Setting: St. Bartholomew’s Hospital

“St. Bartholomew’s Hospital Medical College, known popularly as ‘Barts’ or ‘Bart’s,’ was founded in 1123 by—legend has it—Rahere, a jester at Henry I’s court.  Having taken ill in Rome, Rahere prayed on the banks of Tiber, on the island of St. Bartholomew, that he might recover in time to die on his native soil.  St. Bartholomew appeared to him a vision, commanding him to return to London and build a church and a hospital in his name.  By 1896, the hospital had grown to 678 beds, treating some 6,500 in-patients and 16,000 out-patients annually.”
—From “A Study in Scarlet,” page 16, in “The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes,” edited by Leslie Klinger
All great heroes have an origin story.  They cannot exist in a vacuum; their journeys must have a starting point.  And Sherlock Holmes and John Watson are no exception.  Most readers know the story of Holmes and Watson’s first meeting, which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle presents to us in A Study in Scarlet.  And more recently, some talented writers have been revisiting and rewriting that source material, in the form of the comic book: “Sherlock Holmes: Year One,” which re-imagines Watson as a twenty-something police surgeon (sans mustache, but still an ex-soldier), who meets a likewise youthful Sherlock Holmes for the first time at (naturally) a crime scene.  This adaptation includes some new, intriguing back-story for the Great Detective, and Holmes and Watson’s youthfulness lends new color and spirit to their adventures.
But Holmes and Watson didn’t meet at a crime scene.  They met at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital Medical College on January 1, 1881.  The story is as a familiar as an old coat: Dr. Watson, newly returned from Afghanistan, injured and ill, finds himself living beyond his means in a London hotel; he meets “young Stamford,” an old acquaintance, at the Criterion Bar, where the Doctor tells him about his need for affordable lodgings; Stamford, surprisingly, has met another fellow that very day in need of a roommate, and he takes Dr. Watson to the chemical laboratories at St. Bart’s to meet him.  And the rest, as they say, is history.
But St. Bart’s is an important location, perhaps one of the most important in the canon—outside of 221B Baker Street.  By having the two men meet at the hospital, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle says quite a bit, intentionally or not.  He certainly could have shoehorned them into a meeting at a restaurant, a park, or even one of their current lodgings; but instead, we have “young Stamford,” who leads Watson to Holmes, like Virgil leading Dante to Beatrice.  By having Holmes and Watson meet for the first time at St. Bart’s, we not only get a glimpse of the men that they will become, but also the men that they might have been, and, most importantly, the men they already are.
Stamford has no idea what Sherlock Holmes does in the chemical labs, or even what his course of study might be, but he takes Dr. Watson to see this odd fellow anyway.  According to the Doctor:
“This was a lofty chamber, lined and littered with countless bottles. Broad, low tables were scattered about, which bristled with retorts, test-tubes, and little Bunsen lamps, with their blue flickering flames. There was only one student in the room, who was bending over a distant table absorbed in his work” (STUD).
Alone, and bent over his work—these are our first impressions of Sherlock Holmes, and the ones that will color our interpretations of him eternally.  Impressions that are further enforced by his first spoken words: “I’ve found it! I’ve found it!”  In this instance, he is speaking of his hemoglobin test, but we see many variations on this moment throughout the canon—the moment of realization and discovery unique unto Sherlock Holmes—which he marks in various ways, ranging from unsettling laughter to dramatic disclosures.  From his first appearance, before his first word, the reader knows Sherlock Holmes to be a man driven by the pursuit of knowledge, and consumed by his work.  Although Watson seems to believe that Holmes is addressing Stamford as he describes his new discovery, there is the underlying implication that, at the moment, Holmes would have told anyone and anything about his breakthrough—a Bunsen burner, the cleaning lady, a particularly nice chair.  The solitary chemist of St. Bart’s is clearly in search of an audience.
Seeing Sherlock Holmes in the setting of St. Bart’s is also a reminder of the man he might have been.  Stamford describes him as “a first-class chemist,” and Holmes’s hemoglobin discovery seems to verify this assertion.  [Note: Of course, a Sherlock Holmes story is nothing without debate and disagreement.  See, for instance, Remsen Ten Eyck Schenk’s article “Baker Street Fables,” in which he argues that Holmes’s discovery must have been invalid, or it would still have been used today.]  It is not so difficult to imagine Sherlock Holmes as a chemist—the profession would have certainly provided him with enough pretty little problems and complex scientific puzzles to keep his brain occupied for the rest of his days.  But it would have been sedentary, solitary work.  What need does a chemist have of an audience, or of a chase?  So Sherlock Holmes is no mere chemist then, which he already knows when Stamford and his companion walk through the door.
Additionally, by meeting at St. Bart’s, the reader is reminded that Watson is, first and foremost, a doctor.  St. Bart’s is his alma mater.  Watson remained a doctor all of his life, although his practice was frequently neglected for long intervals while he ran after London’s only consulting detective.  A meeting at St. Bart’s reminds us of the ordinary life he could have chosen, with normal hours and a peaceful, quiet house—no strange violin concertos in the middle of the night, no unannounced visits from sinister guests.  As he says in The Sign of Four, “…a tranquil English home in the midst of the wild, dark business which had absorbed us;” a peaceful home would be a natural, reasonable desire for a man who had been ill, a man who be so long away from familiar country.  But then Sherlock Holmes says to him, “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive,” and suddenly St. Bart’s fades away into the background, to the place it should be relegated, in the past. 
Because St. Bart’s is Dr. Watson’s past, not his present or his future.  He hasn’t been a student in a very long time, and he’ll always be a doctor, but more recently he has been a soldier.  War is what he currently knows, and perhaps that is why London is so alien to him, why he is so antagonistic in his description of the city: “…London, that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained” (STUD).
The Doctor is so intensely angry at London; it’s as if it has disappointed him in some way or offended him personally.  “Most people blunder around this city and all they see are streets and shops and cars.  But when you walk with Sherlock Holmes, you see the battlefield,” a recent incarnation of Mycroft Holmes says about his younger brother.  Before Watson met Sherlock Holmes, he had lost the battlefield.  But he gets it back.  Dr. Watson actually makes a very neat little journey in those few paragraphs: he is lead by an old acquaintance to a place from his past, to meet a man who reminds him of who is presently, but is also offering him an extraordinary future.
In 2010, the BBC adaptation “Sherlock” re-imagined the first meeting between Holmes and Watson in a 21st century setting.  Holmes and Watson still meet at St. Bart’s, in the labs; Watson still weary from the battlefield, and Holmes bent over a beaker with a pipette in his hand.  Stamford is still the corner—a smirking, knowing guide—perhaps wondering if he’s done the Doctor a terrible disservice.  There is far more electronic buzzing and digital beeping than there would have been in 1881.  Holmes asks for the use of a mobile phone, and then says to the Doctor, “Afghanistan or Iraq?”  But he’s still able to read Watson from the way he carries himself, the color of his skin, and the state of his possessions (a smartphone, rather than a pocket watch).  Holmes is still mind-bogglingly observant and Watson is still unerringly loyal and long-suffering (now there are body parts in the refrigerator and not cigars in the coal-scuttle).  They are still Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson.  And their story still began in the shadow of St. Bart’s.
Thank you to everyone who entered the recent blog contest, and for sharing your reasons why you read Sherlock Holmes.  Congratulations to Jenny Teo, who was the winner of the “Better Holmes & Gardens Prize Package,” which included a copy of The Chronicles of Sherlock Holmes, by Paul D. Gilbert, and a copy of the soundtrack to Granada Television’s “Sherlock Holmes” series, starring Jeremy Brett, David Burke, and Edward Hardwicke, with music by Patrick Gowers.
Check back here on April 25 for a new contest and prizes.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks a bunch! =) Will let you know when I get the prize in my mail.