'221B' and 1895

Michael Kean, BSI, gives thoughtful consideration to Starrett's immortal sonnet "221B" in the Winter 2013 issue of the The Baker Street Journal. He starts by asking a natural question: "Why 1895?" The question is a good one. His thoughts on the matter are valuable and I will not spoil them here.

Naturally, I have my own theory.

The Winter 2013 issue of the Baker Street Journal with actor Herbert Kelcey

It's always a delight to pick up The Baker Street Journal, but it was a special pleasure to see Michael Kean's thoughtful essay on Starrett's sonnet "221B". The last line of this poem has become the tag line for the Sherlockian world. Type in "always 1895" into your favorite web search engine and watch the number of hits grow. And most of them will not direct back to Starrett's poem, or the essay in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes that preceded it. No, the line has come to capture that sense of late-Victorian wish fulfillment that infuses so much of the writings about the Holmes canon.

Without giving too much away, Michael asks what was going in the Holmes world in 1895, to determine if the year is an appropriate for such a weighty role.

I would suggest another means of attack: What was happening in the world of Vincent Starrett in 1895?.

Starrett was born in October of 1886, and would have been 9 or so in 1895. Not a bad year for a boy. We know from Born in a Bookshop that Starrett was "reading furiously" during his boyhood years and he was already collecting books, filling up the shelves of his Mother's china cabinet. (Where was the china kept?, one wonders.)

Several years back, it pleased me to speculate that 1895 might have been the year that Starrett became a passionate reader of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Such an event would link the two forever in his brain, I reasoned, and when the destruction of World War II made him think back to happier days he would naturally select the happy memories of 1895 as a year to contrast with the dark days of the war.

A closer reading of Starrett's memoirs does little to help. He places his age of introduction to Holmes imprecisely: "perhaps I was 10 or so." He recalled being with his relatives in Toronto at the time. The summer of discovery, according to Starrett, was certainly memorable.

"That afternoon I found a leader I could follow and from that day to the present moment my allegiance has never wavered."

But as much as I would like to link 1895 with the moment of discovery, there are problems. The summer when Starrett was 10 was the summer of 1897. He was 8 in the summer of 1895. Could Starrett have been 8 and not 10 when he was introduced to Holmes? If so, and if the year was so important, why didn't he remember the date? It's a question I cannot answer.

There is one notion Michael briefly mentions that we can knock down: The idea that he used 1895 only because it rhymed with the last word in the previous line: "survive."

In Starrett's 1933 book The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, there is an essay by the same name. It ends like this:

"But there can be no grave for Sherlock Holmes or Watson … Shall they not always live on Baker Street? Are they not there this instant, as one writes? … Outside, the hansoms rattle through the rain, and Moriarty plans his latest devilry. Within, the sea-coal flames upon the hearth, and Holmes and Watson take their well-won ease … So they still live for all that love them well: in a romantic chamber of the heart: in a nostalgic country of the mind: where it is always 1895."

Starrett had no need of a rhyme scheme here, although the thought is poetic enough. No, to Vincent Starrett the year 1895 was firmly associated with Holmes as far back 1933. He wrote the sonnet "221B" nine years later, in the spring of 1942. For Starrett as he wrote his poem, as is now true for the rest of us, it was truly "always 1895."