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Written by Timothy Sexton
I’ll Take Synonyms for Spinster for $500, Alex
“Drifting and friendless.” “Harmless and most useful of mortals.” “Inciter of crime.” “Helpless and migratory.” “A stray chicken in a world of foxes.” Anyone who ever wondered why landing a good and proper husband was of such vital significance to the young women in the novels of Jane Austen, Sherlock Holmes here provides the answer. In a litany of imagery, Holmes indicates that even in the Victorian/Edwardian transition period, one of the worst things that could happen to a woman was to remain unmarried and yet still be a woman of some economic means. Such women were little more than fodder for opportunistic men of a criminal bent. Here Holmes is leading to a description of Lady Frances Carfax, the imagery is abundantly universalized into a synonym for spinsters with money.
The Three Sisters
In James Browner’s written statement to the police, he details much of what led to the series of events that led to the arrival of “The Cardboard Box” containing two severed ears. It is a rather extended and detailed statement, but in effect can be boiled down to just two sentences. The two sentences are a masterpiece of imagery in that they situate exactly one man’s perspective of the three women central to the story while also providing insight into the type of limited thinking that such a man who would commit such a crime be expected to demonstrate. “There were three sisters altogether. The old one was just a good woman, the second was a devil, and the third was an angel.”
Two Men Under the Influence
One of the most harrowing paragraphs in the entire Holmes canon is practically nothing but imagery. Among the images so described are the following:
"A thick, black cloud swirled before my eyes….all that was vaguely horrible, all that was monstrous and inconceivably wicked in the universe…freezing horror took possession of me… my hair was rising, that my eyes were protruding, that my mouth was opened, and my tongue like leather…tried to scream and was vaguely aware of some hoarse croak which was my own voice…I broke through that cloud of despair.”
These are the images conjured by a brain under the pernicious effects of a hallucinogenic concoction made from the roots of poisonous plants. Drug use was a part of the Holmes mythology from the very first, but this is not Holmes reciting a terrifying litany of images perverted in the transmission from brain to retina; this is Dr. Watson who—in a profoundly ill-advised decision—joins with Holmes in experimenting with potential weapons of murder. The entire paragraph is unbroken and manifests itself as singularly consistent episode that both foreshadows the rise of drug imagery in novels of the 1950’s as well as anti-drug imagery in public service educational films of the 1960’s.
Fog is as much a part of the mythos of Sherlock Holmes mysteries as horse-drawn carriages and walking sticks, but in “The Bruce-Partington Plans” it becomes such an essential component of the story that it is elevated from mere backdrop to imagery of essential symbolism. The very first line of the story constructs fog as an image that will recur and taking both literal and figurative meaning. It is because of this fog that Holmes is so restless by being housebound due to the thickness and pervasive presence that he is even moved to insult London’s criminal class for lacking the imagination to take advantage of it. This absence shall shortly be abated as Holmes is thrust into a world of international criminals for whom the thick fog proves most useful as well as most destruction. The shadowy, shady world of international intrigue is given figurative personality by the consistent references to the fog.
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