21 Nov 2014
Now that “The Early Punch Parodies of Sherlock Holmes” is out in the world, it’s time for some excerpts from the book to give you an idea of why I’m excited about this project.
As you can see from the introduction, what started as a simple, quick book turned out to take longer than expected, and resulted in something more than a book that reprints public domain material. Instead, with the help (and permission) of Punch, Ltd., it became a scrapbook, capturing the relationship between Punch, Sherlock, and Conan Doyle.
Oh, the parodies are still there: R.C. Lehmann’s “Picklock Holes” series, two by a young pre-Bertie Wooster P.G. Wodehouse (“The Prodigal” and “Dudley Jones, Bore-Hunter”), several articles by C.L. Graves and E.V. Lucas that, among others, poked fun at H. Rider Haggard’s belief that his dying dog spoke to him in a dream, a pastiche that drove a four-page ad for blotting paper, and even a combined Sherlock/Ayesha parody by E.V. Knox.
There’s even “The Terrors of War,” a WWI parody that hasn’t been seen since its original publication and doesn’t appear in the excellent spreadsheet by Philip K. Jones cataloging every known parody and pastiche.
This book is a result of hubris. Originally, I intended to publish only the 17 Picklock Holes stories, annotated, along with an essay about R.C. “Rudie” Lehmann and Punch magazine.
But as I started searching through the back issues, I found that Punch did more than treat the Great Detective like a hand puppet for the amusement of its readers. It reviewed Conan Doyle’s books and used his creation as a yardstick to measure his fictional rivals. It praised his patriotic turns and laughed immodestly when he said that fairies existed. It seems as if Punch treated Conan Doyle like a fictional character, and Sherlock Holmes as if he was real.
Much like the rest of us.Then I came across two P.G. Wodehouse parodies, written when he had narrowly escaped from a ruinous career in finance at the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank on Lombard Street. A lifelong affection for Holmes and Conan Doyle did not keep him from borrowing his friend’s creation for his own purposes. Maybe, I thought, I could throw them in as well. Then I read his song about Holmes and an article about William Gillette boxing with New York’s upper crust at a party. Let’s add them to the mix as well. Plum interviewing Conan Doyle? Great, even if it was for another long-defunct magazine.
That inspired the fatal idea: Did Punch do anything else with Holmes and Conan Doyle? By this time, I was hooked. I learned that Conan Doyle debuted in Punch, not because of Holmes, but for a short story about a romance gone wrong. “A Study in Scarlet” and “The Sign of the Four” was ignored, but not a patriotic poem he wrote opposing the sale of Admiral Horatio Nelson’s flagship to the Germans.
Then Punch met “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes,” and it was love at first sight. Satire needs popular icons; simplified versions of people and institutions with most of their flesh boiled away, but still strong enough to be instantly recognizable and bear the weight of the jokes. Holmes’ amazing deductive ability, forbidding demeanor, cocksureness and toys (the pipe! the Stradivarius! the deerstalker!) made him adaptable to any need a writer might have. Holmes could play the hero, straight man, and fool. Best of all, being immortal, he’d never wear out.
Leaving Conan Doyle upstaged by his creation, a role he would play, bitterly at times, for the rest of his life. Hi-ho, as Kurt Vonnegut said.
Punch’s relationship with Conan Doyle varied between admiration and gentle satire. Many on the staff remembered his illustrator uncle, Richard. The magazine had used his cover illustration for decades, so they would already be inclined to treat Conan Doyle kindly.
It helped that he was a good writer. With a few exceptions, Punch’s reviewers loved his books. Also, Conan Doyle, like Punch, was loyal to the Empire. During the Boer War, he risked his health to oversee a field hospital in South Africa and made enemies in the hidebound military for advocating reforms based on the lessons learned in the war. He used his pen to defend Britain against her enemies for which he would receive a knighthood.
He also rarely engaged in public activities that could provide useful fodder for satire. When he was irritated by the self-promoting antics of popular novelist Hall Caine, Conan Doyle sent an anonymous letter of complaint to a newspaper, but he told the editor to give Caine his name should he want to know who wrote it.
It was Conan Doyle’s advocacy for spiritualism in 1917 that changed Punch’s attitude. His embrace of the fake Cottingley Fairies photos made him look foolish. Finally, the writers had something new to hang their punch lines on, and they took full advantage of it.
So when you dip into this book expecting a series of Sherlockian parodies, you’ll find more. You’ll see Conan Doyle as he appeared through Punch’s skewed lens. You’ll see the ways Sherlock Holmes was portrayed, from the butt of jokes to the embodiment of all that was good in the Empire. Plus, you’ll discover a glimpse of Imperial Britain at its height, confident in itself and its future.
And a few laughs, too.