Following a lukewarm reception for the first two Sherlock Holmes novels, Arthur Conan Doyle’s move to the Strand Magazine in 1891 proved the catalyst for the detective’s popular success. Part of this success was Doyle’s collaboration with the artist Sidney Paget, and the manner in which Paget’s images provided a striking new visual identity for Holmes. Indeed, when Strand readers browsed their copies, the competing narratives presented by the sequence of Paget’s illustrations would have been their initial experience of the stories, later displaced or supplemented by Doyle’s words, a displacement that goes unquestioned in much Holmesian criticism.
I argue that rather than being addenda to Doyle’s texts, Paget’s illustrations play a crucial role in the narratives’ creation of meaning. In a periodical setting which emphasised continuity and resolution, the illustrations set up complex chains of visual repetition between themselves and previous episodes, creating a sense of continuity that helped in turn consolidate a reading community.
Breakages in these chains therefore also signal moments of crisis in the stories, which I explore through an analysis of ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ in particular. My intention is not to consolidate the critical truism that the stories privilege sight (which not only limits the sensorium of the stories but also downplays their focus on encyclopaedic or taxonomic forms of knowledge rather than on empirical perception), but to consider ways in which Paget’s images not only parallel contemporary debates in visual culture (in particular Doyle’s intriguing references to linear perspective as the province of the ‘civilised’ viewer), but also later theorisations of the image such as W. J. T. Mitchell’s hypericon (glimpsed in ‘The Speckled Band’) and the Barthesian punctum (especially in ‘The Final Problem’, where Paget signals a crisis in the Holmesian universe at the level of visual com position).
Dr Christopher Pittard is Senior Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Portsmouth. His publications include articles on Victorian culture in 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, Studies in the Novel, Victorian Periodicals Review, and Women: A Cultural Review, and the book Purity and Contamination in Late Victorian Detective Fiction (Ashgate/Routledge, 2011). His next book is The Cambridge Companion to Sherlock Holmes (Cambridge UP 2018), co-edited with Janice Allan, and he is currently working on the book Conjuring Narratives: Secular Magic and Victorian Literature, considering representations of conjuring and sleight of hand in Henry Cockton, Dickens, Gaskell, and Victorian magician biographies. He is a member of the editorial boards of Victoriographies, Clues: A Journal of Detection and The Journal of Popular Culture.