No Country for Dead Authors

Dave McLaughlin, an AHRC-funded PhD Candidate at Emmanuel College, Cambridge University, explores how fans can (dis)place an author.  

Arguably the most hallowed of grounds for fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories is not in London, nor in any of the southern English towns in which the author lived. It is in the small, Swiss village of Meiringen. More accurately, it is a spot near the ledge of a viewing platform over the Reichenbach Falls. It was in this place, so we learn in The Final Problem, that the Great Detective Holmes apparently met his end at the hands of Professor Moriarty, the ‘Napoleon of Crime’, as both fell from the ledge into the watery abyss below.[1]

While reports of Holmes’s death were greatly exaggerated (he was, of course, resurrected almost a decade later in The Adventure of the Empty House[2]), the importance of Meiringen and the Reichenbach Falls in Sherlockian lore has not been. Fascinatingly, the place’s popularity came about not because but in spite of its connection with the author Doyle.

Figure 1: Members of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London. Courtesy of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London

Figure 1: Members of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London. Courtesy of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London

The first recorded ‘pilgrimage’ to the Reichenbach Falls, in 1968, was made by members of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London.[3] (Fig. 1) They trod a path already laid by one rather obsessed fan: Philip S. Hench (he claimed the ‘S’ stood for ‘Sherlock Holmes’). He and his wife visited the area around Meiringen each year throughout the 1950s, where Hench examined the area by the Falls, taking meticulous measurements and cross-referencing with Doyle’s stories. From this, he produced an enormous, pencil-sketch map of the Falls and surrounding area, annotated to mark the precise locations of events recounted in The Final Problem. (Fig, 2) Later, Hench agitated for a plaque to be placed at the spot he identified as that where Holmes and Moriarty struggled; the spot which became a later site of pilgrimage for fans.[4] (Fig. 3)

Figure 2: Philip S. Hench's map of the Falls. Case 8, Philip S. Hench Papers, University of Minnesota Special Collections and Rare Books, Minneapolis

Figure 2: Philip S. Hench’s map of the Falls. Case 8, Philip S. Hench Papers, University of Minnesota Special Collections and Rare Books, Minneapolis

Figure 3: Hench's plaque. Case 8, Philip S. Hench Papers, University of Minnesota Special Collections and Rare Books, Minneapolis

Figure 3: Hench’s plaque. Case 8, Philip S. Hench Papers, University of Minnesota Special Collections and Rare Books, Minneapolis

If Hench relied so heavily on the text of The Final Problem to interpret the geography of the Reichenbach Falls, why have I said that he and his fellow fans displaced Doyle? The answer lies in the long-standing fan tradition, led by the Baker Street Irregulars, the world’s oldest Sherlockian society, of ‘playing the game’. This involves approaching the Sherlock Holmes stories in the belief that Holmes was a real, Victorian man. Central to this game is the displacement of Doyle from his role as author and creator of Holmes and Watson. For how could Holmes have really lived if he was the literary creation of another man?

Yet, for Sherlockians, Doyle is never cast aside completely. Rather, he has been written into the world of Sherlock Holmes, as the character of ‘the literary agent’. In this telling, Doyle did not write the stories but rather helped to popularize Watson’s records of his and Holmes’s adventures. By allowing fact and fiction to support and deny each other at the same time, fans like Hench have been able to indulge in the idea that Holmes really lived whilst recognising that he exists between the pages of books – books which have Doyle’s name stamped all over them.

This double-displacement of Doyle, from his role as author and from his real-world identity, is most clearly seen in Sherlockian writings about Switzerland. Following in Hench’s footsteps, for instance, was Sherlockian fan and travel writer David Hammer. Exploring sites of Sherlockian significance in Europe for his travel book A Dangerous Game[5], Hammer, like Hench, drew on the events of The Final Problem and The Adventure of the Empty House, to shape his route. (A good, Sherlockian-produced illustration of this route can be seen in Julian Wolff’s map Operation Reichenbach, from 1948.[6]) (Fig. 4)

Figure 4: Julian Wolff's map of Operation Reichenbach, The Sherlockian Atlas, (New York: Private printing, 1952), from the Library of Congress general collection

Figure 4: Julian Wolff’s map of Operation Reichenbach, The Sherlockian Atlas, (New York: Private printing, 1952), from the Library of Congress general collection

Fascinatingly, Hammer’s text bears only one mention of Doyle – in his displaced form as ‘the literary agent’, when he says on the first page, “there are those who claim they [the book’s locations] were visited not by Holmes but by his biographer or, God save the mark, by his literary agent”.[7]

Hammer displaces Doyle because he is playing the Sherlockian game. Yet, Hammer takes this game further than his predecessors. In his pilgrimage to Meiringen, stopping at various locations on the edges of Doyle’s text, like hotels at which Holmes and Watson might have stayed, Hammer helps to co-produce Holmes the character and his world; adding to the creative efforts of Doyle. With each step towards Switzerland, Hammer widens and deepens the reach of Sherlock Holmes in Europe, well beyond that imagined by Doyle, making Holmes walk in his footsteps. By the time Hammer reaches Meiringen there is little room for Doyle in his version of Sherlockian Europe – as there is no place for Doyle on Holmes’s hallowed ground.


[1] Arthur Conan Doyle, The Penguin Complete Sherlock Holmes, (London: Penguin, 1981, 2009) pp.469-480

[2] ibid. pp.483-496

[3] Michael Saler, As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), pp.121-124

[4] Various Papers, Philip S. Hench Collection 1877-1995, Cases 8-11, University of Minnesota Special Collections and Rare Books, Minneapolis

[5] David Hammer, A Dangerous Game: Being a Travel Guide to the Europe of Sherlock Holmes, (Indianapolis: Gasogene Press, 1997)

[6] Julian Wolff, The Sherlockian Atlas, (New York: private printing, 1952), n.p.

[7] Hammer, Dangerous Game, p.1

200 years of publishing: Charlotte’s postcard from 50 Albemarle Street

Charlotte visits the house of the publisher John Murray, 50 Albemarle Street

Charlotte visits the house of the publisher John Murray, 50 Albemarle Street

Why I went…

There is no fireplace more famous than the one at the house of John Murray, 50 Albemarle Street, London, where Byron’s memoirs were famously burnt in a decision that has haunted historians for hundreds of years. I wanted to see the very site- maybe there were still ashes there, or a telling fragment hiding somewhere in the hearth? Sadly, but rather expectedly, this was not the case, but instead what I did see were rooms that had remained identical to the impressions, sketches and engravings made of them 200 years earlier. To see Byron presiding over the fireplace reminded me that his literary legacy remains as indomitable now as it did when he woke up and found himself famous after the publication of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage in 1812.

What I got out of the experience…

I was not expecting to see as many portraits and familiar faces staring down at me as I did. To see Southey, Gifford, Barrow, and the multitude of Tories who hung from the walls felt like Murray’s old Quarterly Review crowd were still there. A haunting experience indeed. I was also shown the rooms that Lady Caroline Lamb used to stalk and tracked her route through the publishing house, where she would wait for news of Byron both during and after the affair. It really highlighted the sociability of the publishing house; this was not just a space to discuss contracts, quantities and editions, but this was a place where decisions that are still critical to our understanding of literary history were made. It was a reminder that Byron’s publisher was not his alone, but that Jane Austen and Charles Darwin shared the same seats that Byron would have occupied himself, and that an articulate and humorous female writer and a progressive world-changing scientist were indeed Byron’s colleagues.

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Placing the Author: Reflections Part I

By Emily Bowles, University of York
Elizabeth Gaskell’s House Exterior Credit: Jill Jennings

Elizabeth Gaskell’s House Exterior Copyright: Jill Jennings

Placing the Author: Literary Tourism in the Long Nineteenth Century took place on 20 June 2015 in the wonderfully appropriate venue of Elizabeth Gaskell’s House in Manchester, a site that has been beautifully restored and was newly opened to the public at the end of 2014. The conference welcomed attendees from around the world, from undergraduates and postgraduates to senior academics and those working in the heritage sector. Throughout the day, the house itself formed the basis of discussions about what is important when it comes to literary tourism and how houses should be preserved and presented, providing a unique backdrop to the event.

The conference opened with Professor Helen Rees Leahy (University of Manchester) exploring authenticity and imagination at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House, giving attendees the opportunity to consider the conference setting against the themes that recurred throughout the day: questions of gender and authenticity; how the interior life of the writer and the nature of the ‘tourist’ site are key to our interpretation of literary places; and the process by which certain houses become sites of literary pilgrimage. These themes were explored further during the morning’s parallel panels, the first exploring tourism networks in Italy and the second the ways in which authors and, later, their families, shaped their own legacies.

Following lunch in the Elizabeth Gaskell House tearoom and the chance to discover the exhibitions and objects of the house, ‘The Brontës at home’ panel saw four papers examining different aspects of the Brontës’ legacy, from relics in Kimberley Braxton’s (Keele University) paper on the cultural, economical and spiritual power of the Brontë relics to Dr Amber Regis’s (University of Sheffield) exploration of the ‘fantasied’ parsonage in Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë. The facilitating of discussions and networking between senior academics, postgraduates and even the undergraduate conference assistants was one of this event’s key strengths, as postgraduate presenters were able to share their ideas and research with a diverse and engaged group of scholars and practitioners to gain a new perspective. The setting also encouraged new researchers to think about how their work connects to the heritage and museum sector, and opened up the possibility for future collaborations.

The tearoom at Elizabeth Gaskell's House

The tearoom at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House

The final set of parallel panels widened the thematic debates to include not only tourism relating to Victorian authors, but also nineteenth-century visits to Shakespeare’s house and visits to Victorian sites today in a panel on ‘(Re-)visiting the past’.  In ‘The Business of Literary Tourism’ the discussion centred on the creation, classification and maintenance of sites, from Dr Gillian Hughes’s (Visiting Scholar, University of Edinburgh) paper on the problem of locating James Hogg as a working-class author to Associate Professor Sue Carson’s (Queensland University of Technology) examination of the problems facing Coleridge’s Lime Street cottage. The day ended with an inspiring keynote from Professor Nicola J. Watson (Open University) on ways of animating the author, focused in part on objects and displays in Elizabeth Gaskell’s House. Once again, the venue formed a key part of discussions about the nature of literary tourism and attendees were encouraged to apply their research in a practical way.

Just as the process of literary tourism starts before the reader visits the literary site, the Placing the Author project had been growing and developing before the conference opened on 20 June. The organisers, Dr Amber Pouliot (Bishop Grosseteste University), Dr Claire Wood (University of York), and Joanna Taylor (Keele University) had set up ‘The Postcard Project’ to find out more about literary tourism practices today. During each conference break, attendees were encouraged to discuss different topics and interact with the postcard map, adding questions about approaches to literary pilgrimage based on the responses to the project. This formed the starting point for a closing discussion over wine about the kinds of things that still draw us to tourist sites and the future of the industry. The Postcard Project is ongoing, and will continue to show the fascinating trends emerging in the way literary tourism is thought about today.

The Placing the Author conference is hopefully the start of an exciting conversation about literary tourism that includes figures like Gaskell, the Brontës and Dickens, but also lesser-known figures and sites. I would like to thank the organisers for putting together such an inspiring day, and moulding the traditional conference format in a way that brought together undergraduates, postgraduates, senior academic staff, the museum and heritage sector and others, for engaging and open discussions about the future of literary tourism.

The conference countdown begins!

Drawing Room, Elizabeth Gaskell's House. Photo: Joel Chester Fildes

Drawing Room, Elizabeth Gaskell’s House. Photo: Joel Chester Fildes

We’re looking forward to welcoming speakers and delegates to Elizabeth Gaskell’s House, Manchester for the Placing the Author conference in a week and a half’s time! The programme and abstracts are now online, covering a diverse range of topics related to nineteenth-century literary tourism.

Registration closes on 14 June and there are just a few places left! Student/unwaged tickets cost £35; waged tickets £45. You can book here.

Get in touch with the conference team ( if you have any questions.