Friday, June 24, 2011

Some Thoughts on Character: Sir Henry Baskerville

“…the clock had just struck ten when Dr. Mortimer was shown up, followed by the young baronet.  The latter was a small, alert, dark-eyed man about thirty years of age, very sturdily built, with thick black eyebrows and a strong, pugnacious face.  He wore a ruddy-tinted tweed suit and had the weather-beaten appearance of one who has spent most of his time in the open air, and yet there was something in his steady eye and the quiet assurance of his bearing which indicated the gentleman” (HOUN).
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle resurrected Sherlock Holmes with The Hound of the Baskervilles, which is reason enough to make it a favorite canon story with many people.  Even if a person has read no other Sherlock Holmes story, he or she most likely read HOUN (or a selection from it) in a high school English class, during a book club, or at the behest of a particularly insistent relative.  Doyle himself termed the story “a real Creeper,” and as Christopher Redmond points out in the Sherlock Holmes Handbook (Second Edition), “…the dominant colors in this story are the black and white of night, the grey of uncertainty, and the green of the moor’s vegetation.  Somehow this grim environment has appealed to Sherlockians…” (24).  The spectral hound and his gruesome errand hold a universal appeal, which keeps readers returning to Dartmoor over and over, on the page and screen.
The plot of HOUN revolves around the young Sir Henry Baskerville, who has inherited his family’s estate and immense fortune, after the suspicious death of his uncle, Sir Charles.  Sir Henry returns to England from Canada, where he has been farming, and immediately finds himself embroiled in a complex and dangerous plot against his family legacy, and his own life.  The baronet has been played by a wide range of actors over the years, including Richard Greene, Christopher Lee, Nikita Mikhalkov, Kristoffer Tabori, and Jason London.  The production team behind “Sherlock” has announced a modern reinterpretation of HOUN in the second season of the show, and fans are eager to see how the role of Sir Henry will be filled in a 21st century capacity.  The character of Sir Henry Baskerville embodies all the characteristics necessary to propel the plot of the novel forward, and therefore stands on equal footing with Sherlock Holmes or Doctor Watson.  Sir Henry is not solving mysteries, but he is the foundation of one.  He moves the story even more so than the legendary hound that stalks him from across the moor.
To begin with, Sir Henry appears to be almost utterly fearless.  When he is finally completely informed of the situation that awaits him at Baskerville Hall, and the dangers that have been dogging him since he set foot in London, Sir Henry’s response is only to say: “There is no devil in hell, Mr. Holmes, and there is no man upon earth who can prevent me from going to the home of my own people, and you may take that to be my final answer.”  If Sir Henry had chosen that moment to refuse to return to Baskerville Hall—a not unreasonable notion in light of everything he has learned—then there simply would have been no mystery, and no story.  He could have liquidated the Baskerville real estate and claimed the financial assets while in London, or from other safer country.  Indeed, if Jack Stapleton had succeeded in his plot, the villain could have attempted to lay claim to the Baskerville fortune from the safety of Costa Rica—which begs the question of why Sir Henry could not have done the same, and why he returned to England at all.
Early on, the reader learns from Dr. Mortimer that Sir Henry had been farming in Canada, prior to his uncle’s death.  And while farming is not necessarily an occupation conducted in total isolation, it is rather strenuous and difficult; furthermore, he is separated from what little remains of his family, and from familiar country, by a vast ocean.  According to Redmond, “In Holmes’s time Canada was still, in British eyes at least, a colony; young Henry Baskerville went there to farm, but had no hesitation about returning to the motherland when his time came” (173).  Basil Rathbone’s 1939 version of HOUN starring Richard Greene as Sir Henry, makes a point of showing a newspaper clipping bearing news of the baronet’s return to England from Canada (the latter country’s name emphasized in a large, bold typeface) as if Sir Henry were a foreigner, returning from some exotic distant locale.  But in truth, he is merely a loyal soldier, returning to his home port for a new assignment.      
In a similar vein, the young Baskerville is also a herald of progress and change.  Upon surveying his new home, and lonely isolation of Dartmoor, he proclaims: "It's no wonder my uncle felt as if trouble were coming on him in such a place as this…It's enough to scare any man.  I'll have a row of electric lamps up here inside of six months, and you won't know it again, with a thousand-candlepower Swan and Edison right here in front of the hall door.”  Such an addition would offset the gloom of Dartmoor in both a literal and a more metaphorical sense.  Watson describes the moors and the country of Baskerville Hall as gloomy and barren, an isolated country:
We had left the fertile country behind and beneath us.  We looked back on it now, the slanting rays of a low sun turning the streams to threads of gold and glowing on the red earth new turned by the plough and the broad tangle of the woodlands.  The road in front of us grew bleaker and wilder over huge russet and olive slopes, sprinkled with giant boulders.  Now and then we passed a moorland cottage, walled and roofed with stone, with no creeper to break its harsh outline.  Suddenly we looked down into a cuplike depression, patched with stunted oaks and firs which had been twisted and bent by the fury of years of storm. Two high, narrow towers rose over the trees. The driver pointed with his whip.
’Baskerville Hall,’ said he.”
The arrival of Sir Henry and his electric lights demonstrates a rush towards modernity.  Baskerville Hall will no longer exist in a darkness and gloom; Dartmoor will abandon its technological isolation.  And Sir Henry will no longer feel as if he has “walked right into the thick of a dime novel.”
Finally, the mystery of HOUN hinges upon Sir Henry’s utter wholesomeness, and sense of traditional propriety.  As Redmond states, “In The Hound of the Baskervilles, much of the dramatic complexity comes from the relations between the sexes: the apparently wholesome attraction between Sir Henry Baskerville and Beryl Stapleton, the sadomasochistic relationship between Beryl and Jack Stapleton…” (64).  Sir Henry’s pursuit of Beryl Stapleton is remarkably proper and respectable, especially given the sinister motivations that dwell just below of the surface of their courtship. 
Surely if the baronet had known that Miss Stapleton was, in fact, Mrs. Stapleton, and that Jack Stapleton was not the young woman’s brother, but her husband, he would have been a bit less affectionate in his description of her: “I tell you, Watson, I’ve only known her these few weeks, but from the first I just felt that she was made for me, and she, too–she was happy when she was with me, and that I’ll swear.  There’s a light in a woman’s eyes that speaks louder than words.”  Indeed, if Sir Henry had been a bit less proper, had pressed his hand or taken advantage of his position a bit more forcefully, Beryl Stapleton may had felt inclined to reveal all (or at least crucial elements) of the machinations of her brother/husband that much sooner.  Sir Henry’s respectability and traditional values are ultimately what keeps the plot of HOUN moving.
I’ve spoken elsewhere about whether or not Sherlock Holmes exists in a vacuum, and whether or not his character creates enough momentum to propel a narrative forward on his own.  Sometimes the Great Detective creates enough force to drive other characters—Dr. Watson, Inspector Lestrade, the Irregulars—into action, which may or may not create the desired consequences.  Sir Henry Baskerville is different, however.  He is already a force in his own right when he enters the narrative of HOUN; he is already acting and being acted upon.  In many ways, Sherlock Holmes is caught up in the momentum of the youngest Baskerville, moved along by the violent current.
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• Redmond, Christopher.  Sherlock Holmes Handbook (Second Edition), Dundurn Press, September 2009.


  1. I know I'm going to make enemies in the Holmes world but I found 'The Hound of the Baskervilles' to be one of the most boring stories I've ever read!! I know, I'm terrible. As I read it, I kept hearing my own voice shout, "It's a moor - I get it!"

    I loved (most) of the other Holmes stories - in fact, I absolutely adore most of them - but this one I just plain did not like. I wonder how on earth it became so popular and so famous when Doyle wrote so many other cool stories. 'Silver Blaze' comes to mind or 'The Empty House'. 'The Man With The Twisted Lip' is one of my favs.

    I just watched the Grenada version of 'Hound' and found it to be just as boring as the text which really surprised me. It must be me - we're all different.

    But I love your Blog Post about Sir Henry Baskerville and agree with you whole-heartedly that he was a great (and different) character. If he did opt to leave and liquidate his assets, you're right, there would be no mystery. Or perhaps he would have been killed outright so the bad guy could get his hands on his prize and Holmes would be investigating his murder instead of the puzzle he nearly didn't solve in time.

    I really like Sir Henry Baskerville. When I read the book and it was announced that the dead body was his, I was pretty upset (and for a moment, liked this story even less).

    As usual, a great, well-thought out Post I thoroughly enjoyed reading. (Far more so than 'The Hound of the Baskervilles'. I really am awful, aren't I!?)

  2. @Live Out Loud:

    Thank you for your thoughtful comment! Actually, at the meeting of "Watson's Tin Box" last night, one of the members admitted that he hasn't read HOUN in over thirty years for much the same reasons, so you're in good company! HOUN is not one of my favorite stories either, and I'll usually recommend another story to someone who has never picked up the Sherlock Holmes canon before. I've personally never thought that HOUN was a good place to start the canon...mostly because Sherlock Holmes really isn't in this particular story (for the most part)!

    The Granada version has a few really good merits (for instance, I like their use of a young Dr. Mortimer, as the original text indicates, rather than an older gentleman, as he is usually cast), but on the whole it was a rather disappointing showing from the series. If I remember correctly, Jeremy Brett wasn't thrilled with how the episode turned out either, and he had something characteristically witty to say, but I can't seem to find the quote.

    But I'm so glad you liked the post! I think in a story like HOUN, where the (supposedly) main character is absent from most of the plot, a story really needs excellent supporting characters to move it along, and Sir Henry fits the bill completely. It's really interesting how he invokes such a strong level of sympathy...I wonder if many of Holmes's other clients can make the same claim?

    Anyway, thank you again for reading and commenting! I'm so glad you enjoyed it!