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Structure in Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Charles Augustus Milverton” (1903)

Charles Augustus Milverton” is among the Sherlock Holmes stories that have gained most attention from adapters, despite being a story almost without the elements of deduction for which the great detective is known. It does have a memorable villain – one who is recognizably and expressly the villain from the beginning of the story, which is relatively unusual in Holmes stories (even in ones like “The Speckled Band” where Dr Grimsby Roylott is pretty obviously the villain from the beginning, he’s not expressly so). But Milverton, before we meet him, we know we hate him, and that Holmes considers him “the worst man in London”. This explicit and direct association of evil with a human embodiment throughout the story is the best reason I can come up with for the prominence of this rather undistinguished narrative in Holmes adaptation history: a 100-minute feature in the Brett-Hardwicke series; the “His Last Vow” episode of Sherlock; “Dead Man’s Switch” in Elementary; to name a few (Wikipedia has more).

Milverton from the original illustrations. As Watson notes, he looks rather like Mr Pickwick.

Milverton from the original illustrations. Watson notes that he looks rather like Mr Pickwick.

In the cheap Wordsworth edition of The Best of Sherlock Holmes (comprising 20 short stories) which is one of the volumes I use for my general reading of the series, “Milverton” takes up 18 pages: 367-384. This is around the median length for the series. If one was to divide the story up into its cardinal functions, a la Barthes in “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative”, it would go something like this:

Milverton secures some of Lady Eva Bracknell’s youthful love letters [implied]

M. threatens Lady E. with disclosure of the letters if she does not pay him two thousand pounds. [implied]

Lady E. approaches Holmes with the problem. [summarily recounted] (368)

Holmes invites M. to discuss the matter. [implied]

M. arrives at Holmes’ apartment for said discussion. [presented] (369)

M. and Holmes discuss the matter, but fail to reach agreement. [presented] (370-372)

Holmes attempts to forcibly take the letters from M., but fails. [presented] (372)

Holmes gains entry to M.’s household as a plumber. [summarily recounted] (373)

Holmes undertakes a romance with M.’s housemaid in order to get information on the layout of M’.s house. [summarily recounted] (373)

Holmes decides to raid M.’s study for the letters. [summarily recounted] (373)

Holmes convinces Watson to help him. [presented] (373-374)

Sequence: Holmes and W. go to M’s house, enter his study and steal the letters. [presented]. (375-378)

They hear someone approaching. [presented] (378)

They hide behind the curtain. [presented] (378)

Milverton enters the study. [presented] (379)

{Here follow various catalysers, all of which signal a waiting on M.’s part; consequently Holmes and W. must wait in hiding: suspense}

A woman enters the study. [presented] (379)

She raises her veil. [presented] (381)

{Catalysing talk between M. and woman. She is clearly a past victim of his blackmailing. She is successively recriminative and threatening. He is successively unrepentant and alarmed}

She takes out a revolver. [presented] (381)

She shoots M. several times. [presented] (381)

W. makes as if to stop her. [presented] (381)

Holmes grabs his arm to prevent him. [presented] (381)

Woman grinds her heels into M.’s upturned face. [presented] (381)

Woman leaves. [implied] (381)

Holmes and W. come out of concealment. [presented] (382)

Holmes locks the door from the inside. [presented] (382)

Holmes and W. hear voices and hurried footsteps approaching. [presented] (382)

Holmes takes all of M.’s letters. [presented] (382)

Holmes and W. hear a banging on the door. [presented] (382)

They exit swiftly. [presented] (382)

{Various catalysers which signal a chase between Holmes and W. and the inhabitants of M.’s house, ending in escape to safety for Holmes and W.}

{Here follows the first section break in the story. Signified is an ellipsis. The night of the story’s main action gives way to the morning after. Suspense mode gives way to epilogue.}

Lestrade of Scotland Yard is ushered into Holmes’ apartment. [presented] (383)

Asks for Holmes’ assistance in M.’s murder. [presented] (383)

{Catalysing dialogue in which one of the presumed murderers is described. Holmes notes that it sounds very like Watson. Mode: humorous]

Holmes refuses to help L.  [presented] (384)

{Another section break, after which a short summary of Holmes and W. going into Oxford St. and stopping outside a shop displaying portraits of celebrities and beauties. W. notes one with certain features; features which recall to the reader the woman of the night before. He notes the great and distinguished name of this person. Holmes and W.’s eyes meet, and Holmes puts his finger to his lips. Implied: they have identified M.’s murderer. Implied also: this is the end of the sequence. Justice is done. The story ends on that gesture of Holmes’}

As a set of cardinal functions, most of the material of “Charles Augustus Milverton” is concentrated between pages 378 and 383. This is the lesson of the structural analysis. What, then, is the purpose of all of this mysterious extraneous matter between 367 and 377? Is this mere padding, or is it, in fact, the real matter that makes the Holmes stories what they are. The rather humdrum and unremarkable nature of the plot suggests the latter.

The story is not that functional in the narrow sense – just a few simplte moves. What, then, makes up these tracts of unfunctional material. To which of the four Genettian narrative movements to they belong? Summary, Scene, ellipsis, descriptive pause? Or some quite other movement to be established? This will fall to be dealt with in a later post. For now, to return to the issue of the many adaptations this story has engendered. As I went into in a previous post, the Brett-Hardwicke series takes as one of its main points of departure a scene that is not even a scene: not presented by Watson as our homodiegetic narrator, but summarily recounted by Holmes to the narrator. It is a matter of small cues, almost immaterial functionally and in terms of volume of the narrative vanishingly small, but that nevertheless have that kernel of suggestiveness which adaptors can make use of.

But the other notable feature of the story is the working out of justice. Where this differs from other stories, is that justice is done through what is legally murder. Further, the absolute outlier as a scenario among Holmes stories is that Holmes and Watson could have tried to do something.

No interference upon our part could have saved the man from his fate; but as the woman poured bullet after bullet into Milverton’s shrinking body I was about to spring out, when I felt Holmes’s cold, strong grasp upon my wrist. I understood the whole argument of that firm, restraining grip—that it was no affair of ours; that justice had overtaken a villain; that we had our own duties and our own objects which were not to be lost sight of. (381-382)

These lines are the hub of the story, suggesting a moral dilemma adaptors have been quick to seize on, certainly the makers of Sherlock and “His Last Vow”. Watson insists as post facto narrator that they could not have saved Milverton, but, I repeat, they could have tried, and that is where this story has its interest. Note, also, that the quoted passage is given after the murderess has left. The moment of Watson’s almost-intervention is actually just a flashback, a sentence or two later than strict diegetic chronology would dictate. If we had put it in its place, we would note that not only did he not intervene during the shooting, but he also didn’t intervene during the time after, when she ground her heel into M.’s face (and shouldn’t Lestrade have mentioned the detail of the woman’s shoe? Did it not suggest another actor on the scene?). The cathartic power of sadistic violence against a very bad person is fully harnessed here by the use of this deus ex machina of the woman who has been  victim to M at some past time. She does what Holmes would like to do, and what, the author implies, all right-thinking, justice-loving persons would also like. The connection between Holmes and justice is never more strained, more troubled, than in this story, so the scope for ethico-moral readings or for ideological shifts in adaptation is great. All of this is in the context of our cultural love for Sherlock Holmes. The power of “Charles Augustus Milverton” is not of this story alone, but is strongly intertextual: it is its place within the Holmesian canon that makes it of interest, and what it says about this great character. Otherwise, it would simply be a lazily plotted potboiler; which, in a sense, it still is, but once the character of Holmes, with all of his pre-established indices and connotations, is added, it becomes a lot more interesting.

Watching Sherlock Holmes “The Master Blackmailer” (1992): Seduction and Guilt

The classic Granada series with Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes was coming to the end of its run when they decided to tackle Doyle’s story “Charles Augustus Milverton”, a work which features “the most unpleasant villain in the entire Sherlockian canon” (David Stuart Davies, “Introduction”, The Best of Sherlock Holmes, Wordsworth, 2009). Rather than the standard 50-minute episode, they apportioned it a feature-length 100 minutes. How to make a 20-page story last 100 minutes? By simply expanding the acts, in this case, and not really complicating Doyle’s story at all. The story, about how Holmes and Watson decide to burgle the house of a blackmailer too smart to be defeated by legal means, and then witness his murder by an angry victim of his blackmailing shenanigans, is a simple and linear one. It’s notable, too, that there’s no mystery, no clever clues to be unravelled – rather, it gets by on suspense and drama. The reason why it’s a relatively popular Holmes story is not because it’s clever – it decidedly isn’t – but because, as Davies pointed out, it has a nasty and memorable villain.

Given the thinness of the plot, a simple expansion like that undertaken by Granada is going to find it hard to keep the attention. One move typical of this series and apparent in this episode is the use of the spectacle of privilege to create viewer engagement – principally in long shots that subordinate narrative progression to the visual splendour of the character’s possessions, as in the shot below where Milverton himself is in the background and the foreground is crammed with ornamentation and artworks.

Milvertons' House

Milverton’s house

This is a feature too of the non-Doylean scenes that are used in the film to flesh out Milverton’s victims. Rich, beautiful young people, lounging around country house on sunny days spouting mindless, poorly-written dialogue. The film sinks into mediocrity in the episodes in which neither Holmes nor Milverton are present, and makeweight characters fill the scene.

Another spectacle of privilege scene

Another spectacle of privilege scene with Watson meeting Milverton at a society gathering. The painting they’re viewing takes centre-stage in the shot.

But there are a few nice moments that make this, overall, worth watching. One of my favourites comes 26 minutes in, when Holmes and Watson (the avuncular and likable Edward Hardwicke) are inspecting Milverton’s house from the outside, and noting the emphasis on security: locked gates, high walls. Watson notes: “He’s a man who loathes the human race.” Holmes: “What circumstances might bring him to that?” Watson: “Hmmm, boy brought up in lonely isolation, starved of affection, probably in one of London’s outer suburbs.” Cut to Holmes, who’s grimacing uncomfortably at that description of Milverton, obviously relating to those circumstances himself. Then they move on to other things. It’s a lovely moment, nicely underplayed: no actual direct information given on Holmes’ mysterious pre-Watson life, just a bare hint conveyed in a momentary expression.

Holmes

Holmes reacts to Watson’s characterization of Milverton

A further element of the plot which is well explored while being nicely underplayed is the whole Sherlock-Aggie situation. This comes from a rather infamous passage in Doyle’s story, worth quoting in full:

“You’ll be interested to hear that I am engaged.”

“My dear fellow! I congrat-“

“To Milverton’s housemaid.”

“Good heavens, Holmes!”

“I wanted information, Watson.”

“Surely you have gone too far?”

“It was a most necessary step. I am a plumber with a rising business, Escott by name. I have walked out with her each evening, and I have talked with her. Good heavens, those talks! However, I have got all I wanted. I know Milverton’s house as I know the back of my hand.”

“But the girl, Holmes?”

He shrugged his shoulders.

“You can’t help it, my dear Watson. You must play your cards as best you can when such a stake is on the table. However, I rejoice to say that I have a hated rival who will certainly cut me out the instant that my back is turned.” – Arthur Conan Doyle, “Charles Augustus Milverton”, The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1904)

Doyle doesn’t return to this revelation at all, so we don’t know what happens to Aggie. Does she marry the “hated rival” mentioned? But this short passage in Doyle becomes a main thread of “The Master Blackmailer”. There are several scenes showing Holmes and Aggie as they hug, kiss and mess around together. There’s a complex mix of emotions visible in Brett’s Holmes in the scenes: tender, awkward, humorous, but always perhaps still with an eye on the main prize of information about Milverton and his household. In the shot below is the moment when Aggie asks Holmes for a kiss, and he responds forlornly: “I don’t know how”.

Giz a kiss

Aggie: Giz a kiss  Sherlock: I don’t know how

Sherlock’s Guilt

And in some interesting scenes in the aftermath of the seduction scenes, Holmes’ feelings of guilt about his behaviour in seducing the maid are made clear. In the scene where he reveals the scheme to Watson, the contours of Doyle’s dialogue is followed, but Brett plays Holmes as testy and irritable when Watson questions him. At the end of the conversation, Holmes looks out through the rain-spattered windowpane, and pronounces in gloomy tones: “What a splendid day it is!”

"What a splendid day it is!"

“What a splendid day it is!”

Later, a new scene is added where Holmes visits Milverton at his house. This allows him to meet Aggie without his plumber persona. Milverton doesn’t recognize Holmes as his former plumber, but Aggie does. Holmes doesn’t acknowledge her – to do so would blow his cover, after all – but after she introduces him, there’s a long shot of her face as he walks away. Another great shot because of the slow and subtle build-up of emotion in Aggie (very well played in this episode by Sophie Thompson). One might also take this scene as a tacit rebuke to the Sherlock Holmes of the story, and to its author, who left this jilted housemaid as an uncharacterized plot-function.

Aggie sees her affianced lover.

Aggie sees her affianced lover.

And even then, they’re not finished. In the film’s closing scene, Holmes is once again seen in an unfamiliar light: subdued, depressed (Holmes does mention being prey to depression in Doyle, but it’s not really dramatized in the stories or in this series), and, it seems, torn by guilt.

No, Watson. there are certain aspects of which I am not proud. Bury this case deep in your pile.

Then the film ends on a couple of shots of Holmes looking tortured as he recalls something affecting, presumably the Aggie affair.

Holmes looking tortured in the film's closing scene.

Holmes looking tortured in the film’s closing scene.

Finally, then, though this is a very imperfect and sometimes boring film, it does have areas of interest that go well beyond the source text. A small hint in the source is used for an exploration of Holmes’ psyche: his tender side, and his conscience. The tacit and restrained way in which these issues are addressed is effective, and I think compares well to the more overblown explorations of character in recent episodes of BBC Sherlock (e.g. the “redbeard” explanation for Holmes’ oddities – simplistic cod-Freudianism). If not consistently entertaining, it is one of the most memorable adaptations of Sherlock Holmes that have yet been made.

At the time of writing, “The Master Blackmailer” in its entirety is available on YouTube. Embedded below:

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