Canonical Referencing in Sherlock

by Mark Wallace

Sherlock is becoming an increasingly divisive series, as discussed in this recent post on PopMatters. The special, ‘The Abominable Bride’, shown over Christmas, garnered plentiful criticism, for its patronising approach to feminism, its convoluted plot and its incessant self-referentiality. It’s viewing numbers, though, were huge: 11.6 million in the UK, the most watched program over the holiday period.

‘The Abominable Bride’ brings the self-referentiality in the series to a whole new level. There’s nothing post-modern about the kind of self-referentiality herein: it’s at least as old as Don Quijote. Doyle has it in his stories, too, of course: in the amusing opening dialogue of ‘The Copper Beeches’, Holmes chides Watson with the judgement that ‘You have degraded what should have been a course of lectures into a series of tales’. But Holmes’ awareness of the impression Watson’s stories are making on the outside world is referred to very sparingly by Doyle. Not so in Sherlock, especially ‘The Abominable Bride’:

 

MRS HUDSON: And I notice you’ve published another of your stories, Doctor Watson.
WATSON: Yes. Did you enjoy it?
MRS HUDSON (after only a second’s thought): No.
(She turns and goes inside. Watson follows her.)
WATSON: Oh?
MRS HUDSON: I never enjoy them.
WATSON (pushing the door closed behind him): Why not?
(In the hallway Holmes has taken off his coat and hat and hangs them on a hook near the front door, then walks further into the hall.)
MRS HUDSON: Well, I never say anything, do I? According to you, I just show people up the stairs and serve you breakfasts.
WATSON (hanging up his own coat and hat): Well, within the narrative, that is – broadly speaking – your function.
MRS HUDSON: My what?!
HOLMES: Don’t feel singled out, Mrs Hudson. I’m hardly in the dog one.
WATSON (indignantly): “The dog one”?!
MRS HUDSON: I’m your landlady, not a plot device.
WATSON (to Holmes, who is heading up the stairs): Do you mean ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’?!  (From transcription by Arianna DeVere here. DeVere has painstakingly and sometimes wittily transcribed all of Sherlock.)

So even Mrs Hudson is getting in on the act. This is the sort of material that Doyle couldn’t have written. It wouldn’t have made sense in Doyle’s time. The ghost of contemporary feminist discourse haunts the exchange, and this is confirmed with the use of feminism as an explicit theme later on. There follows a clever reference to The Hound of the Baskervilles (should have been italicized rather than bracketed in the transcription), though perhaps it would have been cleverer and more satisfying not to have spelled it out, so only the cognoscenti would have worked out the reference is to the long section of Hound where Holmes is hiding on the moor, and the reader is following Watson and his investigations at Baskerville Hall.

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This passing Hound reference brings me tangentially on to my point here, such as it is. In my thesis, I coined (I think) the term ‘canonical indicators’ to describe those passing mentions of random Holmes stories in this series. I don’t know of any other adaptation of anything that has done this to the same extent. They work by their randomness, and their subtlety. It’s not about adapting chunks of story, but more about passing mentions, blink and you’ll miss them. What they ‘indicate’ is that the writers have a deep familiarity with the canon, even though they don’t try to produce sustained adaptations of individual stories, diverging very far from ‘faithful’ adaptations. They buy the makers of Sherlock good will from the Sherlockian (not to mention Holmesian), effectively saying: ‘Yes, we’re making odd choices, nothing like Doyle, but you can trust us. See how well we know the stories!’ Or, in other words, their infidelity is not arrived at through ignorance, but is the considered choice of experts in the original stories. If these indicators fade into the background of the story without drawing attention to themselves (as the Hound reference above failed to do) and reveal themselves only to the eagle-eyed, or on second viewing, even better.

I haven’t theorized the term in any great depth, it was more an ad hoc coinage that seems to have particular reference to this series. I guess it’s a form of fanservice, ultimately. I was reminded of this by a quote I came across from Julie Sanders’ Adaptation and Appropriation (Routledge, 2007), as follows: ‘the political aspect of re-visionary writing should never occlude the simultaneously pleasurable aspects of reading into [adaptations] their intertextual and allusive relationships with other texts’ (7). This element of pleasure seems to me important, but I make this as an experiential rather than theoretical point. I enjoy these references. Is it an elitist pleasure? Is it because I know not everyone gets them? Possibly. But with so much silliness in Sherlock, these little pockets of enjoyment are important.

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