Dr. Ashley D. Polasek is an Honorary Fellow of the Center for Adaptations at De Montfort University, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, and an Instructor of English at Tri-County Technical College. Her PhD is on the evolution of Sherlock Holmes across screen adaptations.
In the final moments of the much-anticipated holiday special of BBC’s Sherlock, ‘The Abominable Bride’, a 19th-century Sherlock Holmes, clad in his dressing gown and smoking his pipe, gazes out his window and states, ‘I’ve always known I was a man out of his time’. The camera tracks away from his face, and out over the open view of 21st-century Baker Street. This juxtaposition of the past and present is a fitting microcosm of the whole episode, in which the Sherlock of the regular series imagines himself and his companions solving a 19th-century cold case in order to discover how Moriarty survived his apparent suicide in the series two finale.
True to form, of course, the plot and pacing were not quite that straightforward. There were dreams within drug-induced dreams, the future bleeding into the past via intentional anachronisms, and, memorably, the Victorian Watson inside the modern Sherlock’s head realising he was in a story and prompting his Victorian Sherlock to jump off the Reichenbach Falls in order to wake up in the present. It should be no surprise to regular viewers of Sherlock, and, indeed, of the Stephen Moffat-helmed Doctor Who, that the structure of the episode disappoints through its self-aware, self-referential cleverness.
The choice to integrate the special into the larger arc of the programme is one that has put the cat among the pigeons in the Sherlock Holmes fandom, with opinions ranging from delight, to acceptance, to frothing rage. I won’t rehash these arguments, but if you’re interested, I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere offers a digest of several, running the gamut. Suffice to say that for many, the Victorian setting, which places the characters in their original Doylean milieu, was the most anticipated element of the supposedly ‘one-off’ special, and many felt that the jump to the 21st century mid-way through betrayed the charm and appeal of the episode’s 19th-century first act.
I was neither impressed at the intended cleverness, nor upset at the showrunners for electing to make the episode part of the larger continuity. The episode is layered in its setting, though, and critics are certainly correct in their claim that the best that the episode has to offer viewers lies in its immersive Victorian atmosphere, not its plot.[i]
We begin by establishing a timeline for the Victorian Holmes and Watson with a parallel of their first meeting in the programme’s first episode, ‘A Study in Pink’. It’s worth noting that the period version is remarkably close to Conan Doyle’s rendering in ‘A Study in Scarlet’, which is less a statement of value than a recognition that Sherlock‘s contemporary vision really hasn’t altered the characters much: Cumberbatch and Freeman’s portrayals slide easily into the 19th century without much friction at all. Cumberbatch muses that this is likely because he’s ‘tried to implant the Victorian in the modern’ all along.[ii] I can’t argue with this; Sherlock Holmes is ‘a man out of his time’ regardless of what time he’s in.
The timeline then jumps ahead, and through mention of Watson’s publications in The Strand Magazine, viewers are brought to a point in the characters’ timeline roughly parallel to the modern versions. Publication timelines aside,[iii] this is a welcome way to please fans of the written Holmes as well as help Sherlock fans recognise that the relationship of the modern Sherlock to his blogger John has a period equivalent.
The primary mystery surrounds a woman who apparently commits suicide in public, then rises from the dead to murder her husband and a series of other men. After much sleuthing, Holmes, Watson, and a satisfyingly mutton-chopped Inspector Lestrade find themselves in a torch-lit vault surrounded by suffragettes in purple Ku Klux Klan-style robes and hoods. The earlier use of orange pips as warning, alluding to a short story featuring the KKK, suggests this was not an oversight.
The episode highlights silenced, underestimated, and ignored women standing their ground throughout, which could have resolved into a positive feminist conclusion, but the writers badly misjudged, and are clearly in desperate need of a consciousness-raising. To even imply that the impetus of first wave feminism was seeking personal revenge against wicked men is, at best, to wildly misunderstand the last century and a half of the fight for gender equality. This problem is glaring, but as I mentioned, the plot is not the draw of this episode, rather, the interest is in the atmosphere.
This begins with a new credit sequence that mirrors Sherlock‘s usual intro, using primarily 19th-century imagery. In addition to setting the stage nicely for the gothic adventure that follows, this has the benefit of introducing the Victorian version of Sherlock‘s third main character: London. The programme’s usual opening credits feature bustling images of the metropolis, which is as important to the adaptation as it is to Conan Doyle’s stories. Beginning with the titles, Victorian London is treated to the same robust treatment and loving direction as contemporary London receives in the programme’s regular episodes. ‘The Abominable Bride’ would be worth watching without a scrap of dialogue just for the scenery and attention to period detail.
Beyond the streets of this splendidly realised London, the episode moves out into the other special realm of Conan Doyle’s hero: the English countryside. In the short story ‘The Adventure of the Copper Beeches’, Holmes horrifies Watson by claiming that ‘the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside’, and many of the detective’s most memorable cases involve seeking out such sin. ‘The Abominable Bride’ follows suit by placing a locus of the mystery a manor rife with gothic atmosphere in the dead of night.
Much like the episode as a whole, the progression of the narrative that occurs during this sequence is lackluster. The heroes accomplish essentially nothing, failing both to prevent the murder they anticipated and to capture the culprit, but I must applaud it nonetheless. If this episode is really to be unique in its period setting, the choice to include this foray is indicative of the episode’s nature as a kind of pastiche of the entire Victorian world of Sherlock Holmes, and in that sense, it is a spectacular success.
In much the same way that popular series such as Penny Dreadful and Dickensian each concentrate the breadth of Victorian-fiction oeuvres into single, lavishly realised worlds, ‘The Abominable Bride’ offers enticing glimpses of a range of Sherlock Holmes tropes: grimy London back-alleys and drug-dens, silent fog rolling over gothic manors, dangerous midnight vigils, ghostly, gas lit murders, obstructive clients, steam train journeys, and the comfort of a pipe smoked by a roaring fire in Baker Street, all condensed into a 90-minute nugget.
In the end, it hardly matters that the plot is problematic within Sherlock’s Victorian fantasy, nor that it barely advances the action of the contemporary Sherlock. In spite of its missteps, it’s the lure of the excellent characterisations already fleshed out by Cumberbatch, Freeman, and the rest of Sherlock‘s regular cast being brought to life in the 19th century that ultimately makes ‘The Abominable Bride’ a success. According to Cumberbatch, ‘The sort of ghoulish, nightmarish, fog-laden dark corners and alleyways, the dampness, the sort of whole kind of claustrophobic night-world that [Holmes] inhabits: [the episode] is a masterful lens on that whole era’.[iv] And he’s right.
Just before the camera tracks out across modern London in the episode’s final shot, the Victorian Holmes and Watson are enjoying a pleasant discussion by the hearth in Baker Street as Watson is attempting to decide what to title his next adventure. After eventually settling on ‘The Abominable Bride’, he probes Holmes about his own ‘tale’, chiding him that he must have increased the dosage from his usual 7% solution of cocaine. ‘I know I would be very much at home in such a world’, Holmes states, and we are left with the one truly tantalising effect of the convolutions in the timeline: rather than the Victorian Sherlock Holmes existing as the product of the modern Sherlock’s imagination, perhaps the reverse is true.
Like Sherlock, we can but dream.
[i] Many, including myself, have also made a case for reading ‘The Abominable Bride’ as a psychological study of Cumberbatch’s 21st-century Sherlock. For more on this approach to the episode, listen to The Baker Street Babes podcast Episode 70: The Abominable Bride, or read Amy Thomas’ review, which succinctly covers the same ground.
[iii] ‘The Blue Carbuncle’ was supposedly just published, but it was set during the period Holmes was ‘dead’ between ‘The Final Problem’ and ‘The Empty House’, and they discuss ‘the dog one’, i.e. The Hound of the Baskervilles, which was published in 1901 despite the episode being set in 1895.