Several years ago, when I researching the history of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, I spent quite a few nights hunting through various databases for reviews of the book when it was published in 1933. I wanted to find out if the book’s contemporary readers knew they were looking at a work that would still be read 75 years later.
In the last few years, more newspapers and magazines from the 1930s have had their files come online. Here are three “new” reviews from the 1930s that help fill out the picture of how Private Life was received by a contemporary audience.
The Bookman (London) for July 1934.
In the American edition of "The Bookman," Starrett was able to place one of the first chapters of what would become his classic, just as the book edition was being prepared for publication. The namesake chapter appeared in the December 1932 edition, with its poetic conclusion:
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.
The British edition of "The Bookman" did not contain that chapter, but it did have a lively little review by the improbably named Eustace Portugal.
Portugal (really?) was reviewing the 1934 British edition of Private Life, published in London by Ivor Nicholson & Watson Limited. The contents and illustrations are the same between the American and British editions, although the latter was printed from new plates and the pagination is not the same. The dust jacket is also original, and while I have a romantic attachment to the American edition, I must admit I like the British wrapper better.
In general, the reception among British critics was — surprise, surprise — more reserved than the generally agreeable American reaction. Still, Eustace Portugal (what a name!) thought the book would be popular:
“All admirers of Sherlock Holmes will welcome this book, as much for the warm affection with which Mr. Starrett writes of their hero as for the fresh information concerning him that it supplies,” Eustace writes in a brief review on page 219. “In addition to his analysis of Holmes’s character and methods, Mr. Starrett has many interesting things to say about the obscure seaside doctor, Arthur Conan Doyle, who rose to fame on the great detective’s shoulders.”
After commending Starrett’s book for his comprehensive look at the actors who have portrayed the great detective, Portugal (doesn’t that feel like an alias?) laments that “there are, however, a few errors of taste and fact.”
Portugal points out some minor errors, (Starrett says that "The Retired Colourman" is the only story where Holmes’ eye color is mentioned, when in fact Holmes’ “austere grey eyes” are mentioned in "The Three Garridebs.") and after a few more minor points, which illustrate that Portugal has a very good working knowledge of the Holmes canon, she comes around in the end. “(M)uch can be forgiven an author who is so interested in all things to do with Holmes that he includes in his book a photograph of the Wigmore Street Post Office, ‘where Watson got red mud on his shoes.’ ”
Overall, it’s a positive review. It’s also clear that Eustace Portugal knows more than a bit about Sherlock Holmes. I've done a quick hunt of further mentions of the named, but beyond a few more book reviews, Eustace Portugal is a difficult person to find.
The Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art for 21 July, 1934.
Not to be confused with "The Saturday Review," the American publication that was home to Christopher Morley’s work, the British "Saturday Review" began publication as a London-based weekly in 1855 and continued through 1938. The number for July 21, 1934 dedicates most of page 864 for a review of Private Life by Ashley Sampson.
Sampson quickly discerns Starrett’s purpose:
“It must not be supposed, however, that this is in any sense a Sherlock Holmes anthology, or that Mr. Starrett has merely echoed the Holmes of the detective stories. For the man of mystery here becomes the man of solid reality; and we have peeps into his private habits, his ancestry and education, his pleasure in Turkish baths and picture galleries, and his deplorable mania for cocaine. Still more startling disclosures from the world which he has so vitally penetrated, reveal the locality of 221B, Baker Street, his treatise on one hundred and forty varieties of tobacco ash, and the Baker Street engine which bears his name to this day, and lastly of his creator.”
Sampson takes pleasure in noting that “Mr. Starrett gossips delightfully the whole time – never forgetting our private curiosities.” And while there were those in London producing thoughtful and educated (read: a little elitist) investigations into the Holmes stories, Sampson praises Starrett’s language, born of his newspaper background.
“The book is indeed an exhaustive one; but it is not a long one. Moreover, its style is admirably adapted to suit the tastes of all those lovers of Sherlock Holmes – a noble assemblage of squires, gardeners, schoolboys, bishops, postmen, judges, doctors and an innumerable company of women judging by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s mailbag. For I think that Holmes disclosed just that power of attraction which distinguishes perhaps one character in a generation – a power that compels our curiosity; and so makes brothers of us all.”
It was a real delight to read this review. I went back to re-read that last line a few times. Without knowing it, Sampson has set out a clear explanation of the bonds that come about through a common affection for Sherlock Holmes.
That phrase is as relevant today as when it was written 80 years ago.
The Washington Post for 23 November, 1933.
If the two British reviews found pleasure in the child-like wonder of Starrett’s book, reviewer Theodore Hall was wildly enthusiastic.
Like others, Hall recalls the many letters that have been sent to 221B by those seeking the help of the master detective. “Just that ‘suspension of disbelief’ in Mr. Starrett’s book is at first pleasant, a playful whimsy, and then it become annoying. Simply because it grows contagious.”
Learning of the stuffed dispatch box in the bowels of Cox & Company at Charing Cross produced in Hall a stronger response. “No one can consider that notion without an itching and a pang of regret, precisely like the one felt after learning that a trunkful of Mark Twain’s unpublished writings actually does exist in a New York bank.”
After reading about Starrett’s hope for a collected edition of these unpublished works, Hall sighs. “It is that touch, that graceful insistence upon the reality of Sir Arthur’s imaginings, which unsettles the reason, and gives this book its charm.”
As others did, Hall laments that the book offers little in the way of original information about Holmes’ private life. “It still remains a little too plain that Mr. Starrett has done more gathering than pathfinding,” Hall says. Not that this is bad, Hall notes, since Private Life brings all this information into one place.
Hall ends with one of the best endorsements Starrett received for his little book.
“Here, then is the one book for the Sherlock Holmes fan. All may be found within it. … Unless I miss my guess, you will lay down the book with the utter belief that Mr. Sherlock Holmes is still keeping bees in his quiet Sussex retreat.”
I cannot imagine a more worthy sentiment upon which to end.