Today, we take a musicological stab at getting to the bottom of an enduring mystery: when exactly John H. Watson, M.D., late of the Army Medical Department, met Sherlock Holmes. (Real mysteries aren’t seeming quite esoteric enough—we’re going after fictional mysteries now.) Sherlockiana scholars and mavens have long debated this point. The most commonly cited date is 1881, first calculated by William S. Baring-Gould, but 1884 has its adherents as well. In fact, I’ve found every year between 1881 and 1885 proposed somewhere. Here’s the problem: the only date of reference we know for sure from Watson’s account of their meeting (as written by Arthur Conan Doyle in the first Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet) is July 27, 1880—the Battle of Maiwand in the Second Afghan War (Maiwand is a village northwest of Kandahar). Watson was wounded in the battle, convalesced in a military hospital at Peshawar, and made his way back to London, where, after an unspecified passage of time, was introduced to Holmes in the laboratories of St. Bart’s Hospital.
Watson gives us a date, but no year, for the events in A Study in Scarlet:
It was upon the 4th of March, as I have good reason to remember, that I rose somewhat earlier than usual
Later, Watson paraphrases newspaper accounts of the murder at the heart of the story, including this report on the whereabouts of the victim from the Standard:
He was accompanied in his travels by his private secretary, Mr. Joseph Stangerson. The two bade adieu to their landlady upon Tuesday, the 4th inst., and departed to Euston Station with the avowed intention of catching the Liverpool express. [emphasis added]
This has become the main point of departure for those who reject the 1881 date, as it wasn’t until 1884 that March 4 fell on a Tuesday.
What muddies the waters on this point, though, is Holmes’s love of music. As Watson tells it, on that March 4th, on the way from the murder scene to an interview with the constable who found the body, Holmes remarks:
“We have a good working basis, however, on which to start. We must hurry up, for I want to go to Halle’s concert to hear Norman Neruda this afternoon.”
And later, after the interview:
“I might not have gone but for you, and so have missed the finest study I ever came across: a study in scarlet, eh? Why shouldn’t we use a little art jargon. There’s the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it. And now for lunch, and then for Norman Neruda. Her attack and her bowing are splendid. What’s that little thing of Chopin’s she plays so magnificently: Tra-la-la-lira-lira-lay.”
Holmes knew his violinists: the Moravian-born Wilma Norman-Neruda was one of the most celebrated soloists in Victorian England. Her association with the German-English conductor Charles Hallé was long and fruitful, to the point where, after the death of her first husband, Norman-Neruda and Hallé would marry in 1888.
The problem is, Norman-Neruda never played a London concert on March 4th in any of the years in question. One solution to the discrepancy is that Watson conflated two dates into one. (Certainly, in the telling, Watson and Holmes pack a lot of coming and going into that March 4th.) Madame Norman-Neruda performed on the 5th of March in both 1881 and 1884. From an advertisement in the Times on March 2, 1881:
SATURDAY POPULAR CONCERTS, St. James’s-hall.—On Saturday afternoon next, March 5, the PROGRAMME will include Mendelssohn’s quintet in B flat; Beethoven’s Pianoforte Trio in E flat, op. 70; Mendelssohn’s Variations Sérieuses for pianoforte alone; and Handel’s Sonata in D major, for violin (by desire). Executants—Mme. Schumann, Mme. Norman Neruda (her last appearance this season); MM. L. Ries, Straus, Zerbini, and Piatti. Vocalist, Miss Marian McKenzie. Accompanist, Mr. Zerbini. Commence at 8.
(Yes, that’s Clara Schumann at the piano.) The 8 o’clock time is a typographical error. The Saturday Popular Concerts always started at 3. What’s more, on March 5, 1881, St. James’s-hall was otherwise occupied at 8:00, with Hallé conducting Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust (a work he introduced to Britain the previous year.)
Proponents of an 1884 date have a one-day-off afternoon concert to point to as well. As advertised in the Times on February 29, 1884:
MORNING BALLAD CONCERT, St. James’s-hall, on Wednesday next (the Last Morning Concert of the Series), at 3 o’clock. Artistes:—Madame Carlotta Patti, Miss Carlotta Elliot, Miss Mary Davies, and Miss Damian; Mr Edward Lloyd, Mr. Maybrick, and Mr. Santley. Pianoforte, Miss Margie Okey. Violin, Madame Norman-Neruda. Mr. Venables’ Choir. Conductor, Mr. Sidney Naylor.
3 o’clock would require some alacrity on Holmes’s part, but even a late return would still be around the dinner hour.
But notice what Holmes says: “I want to go to Halle’s concert.” Which means he probably wasn’t referring to the Wednesday afternoon Ballad concerts. Throughout the 1880s, Hallé was most associated with Saturday popular concerts and Wednesday evening chamber concerts—the Ballad Concerts were run by the Boosey brothers, of the publishing firm, and it was their name that most often turned up in reference to them. Holmes was obviously a habitué of London concert halls; his reference to “Halle’s concert” would most likely have meant either Saturday afternoon or Wednesday evening.
Now, in 1882, March 4th did fall on a Saturday. The problem is, Mme. Norman-Neruda didn’t play. As advertised in the Times on March 2, 1882:
SATURDAY POPULAR CONCERTS, St. James’s-hall.—On Saturday afternoon next, March 4, the Programme will include Beethoven’s quintet in C major, op. 29; Schumann’s pianoforte trio in D minor, duo concertante in A minor for two violins, by Spohr; and pieces by Scarlatti, for pianoforte alone. Executants—MM. Joachim, L. Ries, Straus, and Piatti. Pianoforte, Miss Agnes Zimmermann. Vocalist, Mr. Harper Kearton. Accompanist, Mr. Zerbini. Commence at 3.
So here’s the possibilities:
- March 4, 1881. The Standard is wrong (or Watson has misread it), and Watson has conflated two days into one.
- March 4, 1882. The Standard is wrong (or Watson has misread it), and Holmes is mistaken about the performers on the day’s concert.
- March 4, 1884. Watson has conflated two days into one, and Holmes is mistaken about whether the day’s concert is a Ballad Concert or a Popular Concert.
Two discrepancies for each date: which are the most easily explained away? My vote is for 1882: Holmes’s assumption that “Halle’s” concert will feature Mme. Norman-Neruda is understandable, and, moreover, one that would only be made by someone who was an avid-concertgoer—a Saturday Popular concert without her during this period is the exception, not the rule. Furthermore, there’s this report from The Musical World, dated February 18, 1882:
Popular Concerts.—The engagement of Mdme Norman-Neruda, begun so recently and terminating so much sooner than anticipated, has in one sense been satisfactory, and in another unsatisfactory, to the constant patrons of Mr Chappell’s excellent concerts—satisfactory, because the highly-gifted lady violinist was never pliying with more technical finish, or more admirable expression, than now; and unsatisfactory, because the curtain closes in so unexpectedly brief a time upon a delightful episode in the present season.
(“Mr Chappell,” by the way, was the owner of St. James’s-hall, so any concert given there could conceivably be referred to as his.) The implication is that Mme. Norman-Neruda was scheduled to continue appearing at the Saturday afternoon concerts for some time longer than actually occurred in 1882. Holmes’s assumption seems more reasonable. Indeed, when Holmes returns from the concert, he doesn’t mention who performed:
He was very late in returning—so late, that I [Watson] knew that the concert could not have detained him all the time. Dinner was on the table before he appeared.
“It was magnificent,” he said, as he took his seat. “Do you remember what Darwin says about music? He claims that the power of producing and appreciating it existed among the human race long before the power of speech was arrived at. Perhaps that is why we are so subtly influenced by it. There are vague memories in our souls of those misty centuries when the world was in its childhood.”
“That’s rather a broad idea,” I remarked.
The 1882 date clears up the difficulty of physically getting Watson from Maiwand to Baker Street in less than a year, but also corresponds with Watson’s glancing “over my notes and records of the Sherlock Holmes cases between the years ‘82 and ‘90” in “The Five Orange Pips.”
Now, there’s another point of contention among Holmes experts about the mention of Norman-Neruda, and that’s the piece that Holmes hums to illustrate her abilities. “What’s that little thing of Chopin’s she plays so magnificently: Tra-la-la-lira-lira-lay.” This detail bugged Raymond Chandler no end; as he wrote to a friend in 1950:
. . . what did Chopin ever write for the violin at all? And even if in those comparatively civilized days (compared with ours) violinists had already descended to the vulgarity of arranging music for the violin which was never written for it, I find it hard to believe that so astute a lover of music as Mr Sherlock Holmes would pick out such an item out as worthy of mention, much less going to hear.
My own feeling is that Watson/Conan Doyle misheard Holmes, who was referring not to Chopin, but to Spohr—Mme. Norman-Neruda made a specialty of Spohr’s virtuoso violin works throughout her career. Maybe Holmes was humming this theme from Spohr’s 7th Violin Concerto:
Maybe not. But Chandler is right about how astute a music-lover Holmes is—all the more notable, since, as Watson notes, the rest of his knowledge is entirely along practical lines, to the point where he isn’t even aware of the Copernican theory of the solar system. In “The Red-Headed League,” Holmes takes a break from a progressing investigation to see Pablo Sarasate in concert (there has been some scholarly speculation that it was Holmes’s mention of both Sarasate and the future Lady Hallé that inspired the teenaged crime-story aficionado and aspiring poet Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto to adopt the name Pablo Neruda); in “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box” we learn that he is an expert on Paganini; and at the end of “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans,” Watson tells us:
As to Holmes, he returned refreshed to his monograph upon the Polyphonic Motets of Lassus, which has since been printed for private circulation, and is said by experts to be the last word upon the subject.
Now, if you’re wondering as to the practicality of nearly 2000 words on the real-world accuracy of what is, after all, a work of fiction, first off, I say to you: you’re no fun anymore. But there is a philosophical point. In his 1993 Norton Lectures at Harvard (published as Six Walks in the Fictional Woods, Umberto Eco similarly gets under the hood of The Three Musketeers, trying to figure out exactly where d’Artagnan and Aramis live in Paris—the hang-up being that they seem to live on different streets, but it’s actually the same street with different names—the rue des Fossoyeurs and the rue Servadoni—in different historical periods. And this says something important about the susceptibility of us, the readers:
That [Sherlock] Holmes isn’t married we know from the Holmes saga—that is, from a fictional corpus. In contrast, that the rue Servadoni couldn’t have existed in 1625 we can learn only from the Encyclopedia; and the Encyclopedia’s information is, from the point of view of the textual world, irrelevant gossip. If you think about it for a moment, it’s the same sort of problem that was posed by the wolf in “Little Red Riding Hood.” We know very well as empirical readers that wolves don’t speak, but as model readers we have to agree to live in a world where wolves do speak. So if we accept that there are speaking wolves in the wood, why can’t we accept that there was a rue Servadoni in Paris in 1625? And in reality that’s what we do and what you continue to do if you reread The Three Musketeers, even after my revelations.
For Eco, the Encyclopedia represents our understanding of the actual world, and fiction isn’t built to expand that Encyclopedia. “The encyclopedic competence demanded of the reader,” he says, “is limited by the fictional text.” Or, as Eco puts it later, “fictional texts come to the aid of our metaphysical narrowmindedness”—which is a problem when fictional narrative strategies start to bleed into our perception of the actual world.
Eco tells the story of the British submarine Superb, which numerous press outlets reported as racing towards the Falkland Islands on the eve of that 1982 British-Argentine conflict, even though the ship, in reality, never left its base in Scotland. “Everybody cooperated in the creation of the Yellow Submarine,” Eco muses, “because it was a fascinating fictional character and its story was narratively exciting.” Eventually, Eco gets to the literary heritage of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and how that fiction’s perniciousness was reinforced by fitting a pre-existing narrative pattern that had wormed its way into popular consciousness. Eco warns of fiction’s habit of shaping our perception of life:
At times the results can be innocent and pleasant, as when one goes on a pilgrimage to Baker Street; but at other times life can be transformed into a nightmare instead of a dream. Reflecting on these complex relationships between reader and story, fiction and life, can constitute a form of therapy against the sleep of reason, which generates monsters.
“Our quest for the model author,” Eco proposes, “is an Ersatz for that other quest, in the course of which the Image of the Father fades into the Fog of Infinity, and we never stop wondering why there is something rather than nothing.” The fictional Dr. Watson caught a hint of this in “The Boscombe Valley Mystery”:
I walked down to the station with them, and then wandered through the streets of the little town, finally returning to the hotel, where I lay upon the sofa and tried to interest myself in a yellow-backed novel. The puny plot of the story was so thin, however, when compared to the deep mystery through which we were groping, and I found my attention wander so continually from the action to the fact, that I at last flung it across the room and gave myself up entirely to a consideration of the events of the day.