The British Critics Take Their Shot

Private Life, Chapter 6: Cyril Connolly says Starrett is nuts.

A portion of Robert Bell's extensive review, published in The Observer, one of London’s oldest papers. This is one of several British clippings Starrett pasted into his personal scrapbook. The writing on the clipping is Starrett's.

Pre-publication Publicity

Starrett received a clipping of this brief news item from bookshop owner Cecil Hopkinson. I'm guessing Starrett purchased books from Mr. Hopkinson in the past.

The Times, February 6, 1934

Starrett must have been quite pleased that even before his book was published, The Times ran two items promoting it. Here is an unsigned item announcing the book's anticipated publication.


“That complex branch of scientific research for which the word “Sherlockholmitos” has been coined will shortly produce a new work, entitled The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, by Mr. Vincent Starrett, announced by Ivor Nicholson and Watson. Having ransacked the adventures from end to end, the author sets forth afresh all the available evidence as to Holmes’s ancestry and education, together with a list of his monographs, including the famous treatise on the hundred and forty varieties of tobacco ash. There are snapshots, too, of Dr. Watson and even of Mrs. Hudson, all rounded off by a critical study of their creator, and a full bibliography.”

Much of this language was taken from the catalogue Ivor Nicholson and Watson issued announcing Private Life's publication. See below. (Not so sure about the “snapshots” of Dr. Watson and Mrs. Hudson. The catalogue says there will be a “thumbnail sketch” of Mrs. Hudson, not a photograph. Ugh, the press.)

The Times, May 15, 1934

A second item appeared in The Times just three months later, on May 15, 1934, with the same headline. This time, Starrett's book was promoted as part of trend of books about Holmes on the British market.


“The biographical problems created by the adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson continue to excite keen interest among all Holmesian students. Besides The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, by Mr. Vincent Starrett, which Ivor Nicholson and Watson will have ready on June 1, Mr. H.W. Bell, whose memorable essay in fantastic scholarship Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson: The Chronology of Their Adventures, appeared in a limited edition in 1932, is editing a series of Baker Street Studies. Mr. S.C. Roberts adds to his earlier Prologomena to this provocative study a chapter on ‘Holmes’s Attitude to the Female Sex.’ Mr. Vincent Starrett discusses ‘Mrs. Hudson.’ Other contributions are devoted to ‘Sherlock Holmes as an Undergraduate,’ by Dorothy L. Sayers; ‘Dr. Watson’s Practice,’ By Helen Simpson; ‘The limitations of Sherlock Holmes,’ by Vernon Randall; ‘Professor Moriarty,’ by A.G. Macdonnell; ‘Holmes on His Travels,’ by Father Ronald Knox; and ‘The Date of The Sign of Four’ by H.W. Bell.”

Ivor Nicholson & Watson's catalogue, with the page advertising the publication of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. From Starrett's scrapbook of newspaper and magazine clippings.

The Critics Speak

The full review from The Times of London, from Starrett's scrapbook.

Private Life was published on June 10 and was reviewed in several publications, including all three Incarnations of The Times: The Times (daily), The Sunday Times and The Times Literary Supplement.  Here are tidbits from each.

The Sunday Times was the first out of the chute on June 10, 1934 with J.M. Bulloch's decidedly lukewarm review under the headline, “Sherlock Holmes Saga: His “Private Life”

“What Mr. Starrett, a devoted (Chicago) disciple, who has been writing on the subject for nearly 20 years, has done is to compile a rough-and-ready guide to the Sherlockian saga. It is not a very satisfactory book, as it appears to fall between two stools; it is not quite explanatory enough for the beginner, or advanced enough for the expert.”

He goes on to fault Starrett for not enumerating translations into foreign languages in his bibliography or giving more information on Dr. Joseph Bell. Bulloch felt Bell deserved a deeper biography, but he did grant Starrett a point for recognizing that Doyle was in fact, as much a model for his detective as was his old University of Edinburgh professor.

The Times Literary Supplement was up next with its June 28, 1934 by D.L. Murray. It appeared under the headline “Sherlockismus," a term coined by Ronald Knox in his essay "Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes."

“It is the distinction of Mr. Starrett’s book that while joining in the fooling, it also indicates more soberly some of the reasons for the spell that Conan Doyle’s detective, eclipsing all others, exercised and still exercises over the general imagination.”


“(Sherlock Holmes) is the spirit of yesterday’s London, and, no doubt, as time goes on, his adventures will be for his fellow countrymen as well, voyages of exploration into a city and a social order that have passed away.”

After pointing out Starrett's speculation on several topics, Murray concludes with this thought:

“Yes the game of guessing could clearly go on forever. Sherlockismus will last as long as Holmes himself.”

Last comes The Times with an unsigned review on June 29, 1934, whose author seemed surprised that an American has shed fresh light on the topic.

“His methods, his life, the documents in which his career is related, his friend and biographer, Dr. Watson, have all been investigated and made the topic of mock-scientific hypotheses, till it might almost seem as if a good joke were being run to death. The latest book of the kind, however, by an American author, has the advantage of not being written entirely as a burlesque.”


“Best of all, perhaps, is Mr. Starrett’s attempt to explain how (especially for an American reader) the Holmes stories have come to stand for the spirit of Victorian London, with its foggy mysteriousness and picturesque contrasts of comfort and squalor. Quoting yet another critic of his own nation, he declares that ‘Sherlock is he who answers when you ask the air, Who lives there, I wonder? What is the story behind that drawn blind in London?’

"He could hardly have summed up the enchantment better."

A portion of the Times Literary Supplement's Private Life review, pasted into Starrett's scrapbook. Notice how he edited the reference to Hornung in the second column.

Here's a sampling from a few other publications:

The Observer

Robert Bell's review for The Observer on June 10, 1934, under the headline: “The Great Sherlock: A Myth Come to Life"

“The end of the century had its statesmen, its poets, its philosophers; but how many of them do not look like ghosts against the solid fame of the great Sherlock? If our civilization met with an accident, and our system of records were a little disarranged, a future life delving among the rubbish might easily come to the conclusion that Mr. Holmes was one of the leading figures of the Victorian Age, a terror to evildoers, a doughty, though unconventional, champion of the oppressed, a notable testimony to the morality and fundamental rightmindedness of the English people”


“There is little the admirer would wish to know about the Sherlock legend that is not to be found in Mr. Starrett’s pages.”

The Saturday Review

The Saturday Review was a London-based weekly, not to be confused with The Saturday Review of Literature, Christopher Morley’s home base. Ashley Sampson's review was published July 21, 1934 under the headline, “The Man of Mystery.”

“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 pictures galleries, and his deplorable mania for cocaine.”


“Mr. Starrett gossips delightfully the whole time—never forgetting our private curiosities.”


“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, school-boys, bishops, postmen, judges, doctors and an innumerable company of women, judging by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s postbag. 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.”

Manchester Guardian

Ivor Brown's regular "The Immortal Memory" column for June 9, 1934 had a few comments worth noting:

“Of course, there were contradictions and inconsistencies and a considerable confusion of dates. But neither the muddled traits of the former nor the muddled dates of the latter can interrupt their hold upon eternity.”

And when he recalled how Holmes and Watson had often been shelved by Conan Doyle, only to be recalled to service, said:

“But the game will go on. Such old soldiers never die.”

The Bookman (London edition)

The improbably named Eustace Portugal, wrote a few graphs about Private Life for the July 1934 issue.

“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.”

Starrett’s insistence of using Robert Moriarty rather than James annoyed Portugal.

“To this reporter, Professor Robert Moriarty is as unthinkable as Sherrinford Holmes or Ormond Sacker—the names that Conan Doyle first conceived for the Baker Street immortals; but much 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.”

The New Statesman and Nation

A portion of Cyril Connolly's caustic review from The New Statesman and Nation of July 21, 1934.

Which brings us to Cyril Connolly's sharp tongued July 21, 1934 review for The New Statesman and Nation, a political and literary magazine. Connolly, an Eton graduate, came from a line of military officers. A frustrated writer, he took up criticism. He clearly felt none of the emotional enchantment with Holmes that Starrett felt. Indeed, in the second paragraph, he is already questioning Starrett's sanity. After quoting from a paragraph where Starrett speculates on what it would be like to spend a day with a famous figure, Connolly sighs:

"Since the passage is taken from Mr. Vincent Starrett's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, the answer can only be what we fear it to be, and, as such, must give rise to a real anxiety about the author's condition. There are other passages in this book which suggest that it is fitter material for an analyst than a reviewer, but it may be possible to discover the more superficial processes at work behind this extraordinary cult."

Connolly, who calls Sherlockian idolatry a drug, but not a dangerous one, is clearly bewildered by the joy some find in playing the game. "Why should the Holmes and Watson stories differ from these as much as heroin and morphia from bromide and aspirin, and reduce their addicts to the maudlin state of Mr. Starrett or the pedagogy of Father Knox?

"This stampede back to the Watson womb is not as distressing as the effects on the intellect of the Holmes legend. It is a pity that Wilde and the Yellow Book aren't good enough for Mr. Starrett. … But, granted the nineties are chosen for an escape, a spiritual home, it is in detective stories, which must convey a great deal of information about people people in a very short space, that the circumstantial detail, the minutiae of living can be studied."

Father Knox wrote "a perfectly legitimate piece of undergraduate brilliance" which then "became the occupation of grown men." He grumbles that "the commentators on Doctor Watson are chiefly those who have been in and out of colleges without actually belonging to them." I wonder if he knew Starrett left high school before graduating and never attended college?

"Thus the Watson cult now combines an intellectual with an emotional escape. Back to Baker Street, where there are muffins for tea, a settled income for the middle class, no danger of getting run over, and Mother Watson, the goddess of Mediocrity, triumphant, of Not having to make up one's mind, there to welcome us."

Connolly is not impressed with the work of his fellow Scotsman, Conan Doyle.

"What is the place in literature of Conan Doyle's books when the homesickness and precious fooling they engender is set aside? As far as detective fiction is concerned, the stories are hopelessly out of date. They are not funny, nor probable, nor thrilling, nor intellectually honest. They contributed far less to the art that their predecessor The Moonstone, and to the great claim of the modern detective story, that it is the most perfectly constructed form of contemporary writing, they can make no pretence."

"Mr. Starrett's book will not enhance their reputation. He is an amiable middlebrow, concerned not with the intricacies of textual criticism with the emotional fervours of a labour of love. He is a bibliophile and full of information on the 'untold tales of Dr. Watson' and the first editions of his hero."

Connolly concludes by saying that Starrett only gives a glimpse of the "real story, the tragedy in the Jamesian sense—the struggle of Conan Doyle to kill of the character who was making him so much money in order to devote his time to 'serious' work."

As painful as Connolly's review must have been, Starrett nonetheless pasted it into his scrapbook. Calling Starrett "an amiable middlebrow" must have felt like a good shot to Connolly, but I wonder if Starrett much cared. Starrett was largely an autodidact and never claimed to be an intellectual. Besides, most of the British reviewers jumped on the "Watson cult" bandwagon and encouraged their readers to do the same.

For Starrett the bibliophile, his first major book to be published in Britain showed his idea was a success. Writing about Sherlock Holmes could be both popular and profitable. But like many books, it soon was to fade from the shelves. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes was about to enter its own Great Hiatus.

Next time: The Great Hiatus: 1934 to 1960.