Wow – Canada!

Canada through the eyes of world literature

A Canadian at Baskerville Hall?

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Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902)

The action of the novel begins with the arrival in London of Sir Henry Baskerville, the heir to Baskerville Hall; Sherlock Holmes is the first speaker in the following passage:

“Then how can I assist you?”
“By advising me as to what I should do with Sir Henry Baskerville, who arrives at Waterloo Station” – Dr. Mortimer looked at his watch – “in exactly one hour and a quarter.”
“He being the heir?”
“Yes. On the death of Sir Charles we inquired for this young gentleman and found that he had been farming in Canada. From the accounts which have reached us he is an excellent fellow in every way. I speak now not as a medical man but as a trustee and executor of Sir Charles’s will.”  (31-32)

We have come across a similar view of Canada before, though from a slightly different perspective: in Dickens’ Little Dorritt, Canada represents a fresh start for Tip, the ne’er-do-well brother; here, Canada again represents a new opportunity, though in this case it is for a gentleman who comes from a good family but is unlikely to inherit the family estate.

It’s a bit surprising that he would become a farmer in Canada, which isn’t the most gentlemanly pursuit – why not, for example, take up law in London? Farming in Canada seems like more of an option for English farmers who can no longer farm successfully in England (such as Bunting’s Morpethshire farmer) – but perhaps we shouldn’t inquire too deeply: Conan Doyle’s plot requires the new Baskerville heir to have been stashed somewhere out of the way … and Canada is certainly out of the way. By keeping Sir Henry off the scene until he is actually required, Canada has served its purpose in the novel, and to an English reader of the time the idea of farming in Canada would likely accord well enough with their existing impression of our country as essentially a wilderness where a few rural settlements have been carved out.

The lifestyle of the Canadian farmer is alluded to later in the novel, when Holmes admires the portraits of the Baskerville family, and Sir Henry reveals the sort of expertise he acquired during his years in the New World:

“…these are a really very fine series of portraits.”
“Well, I’m glad to hear you say so,” said Sir Henry, glancing with some surprise at my friend. “I don’t pretend to know much about these things, and I’d be a better judge of a horse or a steer than of a picture.”  (202)

You can almost hear him aspirate the initial “p” on that last word, as if spitting it contemptuously out. This makes it clear what people concern themselves with in Canada – and it’s not paintings, or the arts in general. Sir Henry’s Canadian life has been that of a stolid farmer with knowledge of livestock and no interest in the finer things, such as paintings.

And yet there is a curious bifurcation in the character of Sir Henry. At moments like this, Conan Doyle seems almost at pains to portray him as a rough colonial who knows about livestock but couldn’t care less about art. By contrast, in other parts of the novel Sir Henry is described as a true English gentleman, one who has taken naturally to his inheritance of Baskerville Hall and seems to have an innate understanding of his role and an instinctive sense of how to conduct himself as the leader of his community.

We could interpret this as an illustration of the “blood will out” idea: no matter how much time he spent in the wilds of Canada, Sir Henry is an English nobleman by blood, and as such is always ready to take up his birthright and exercise his prerogatives.

I’m afraid I’m inclined to settle on a somewhat more prosaic explanation: Conan Doyle doesn’t have a particularly strong sense of Sir Henry as a character, and so his portrayal of him changes to suit the immediate needs of the plot. Likewise, Conan Doyle isn’t really interested in the life of farmers in Canada or in describing the sort of person who follows that lifestyle; Sir Henry’s colonial sojourn is simply a way of explaining his absence from England so that his arrival can be used to start the story.

An Aside: Conan Doyle vs. Nancy Mitford

At this point we can pause to compare Conan Doyle’s image of an heir to a large British estate living in Canada with another writer’s portrait of a character in a similar situation – Cedric Hampton, in Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate. The comparison is a little tricky because, as noted, Conan Doyle’s characterization of Sir Henry is somewhat inconsistent. As regards the scene with the paintings, however, we can say Conan Doyle’s portrayal of Sir Henry is much closer to what the English characters in Love in a Cold Climate imagine Cedric will be like – that is, an unsophisticated colonial.

Of course, Cedric turns out to be quite the opposite. Perhaps, over the decades between The Hound of the Baskervilles and Love in a Cold Climate, English perceptions of Canadians evolved; perhaps Mitford’s desire to use Cedric’s character for satirical purposes led her to the unexpected; perhaps Mitford is simply more focused on character as a writer – whatever the reasons, Love in a Cold Climate has a similar set-up but offers a notably more nuanced portrayal of a Canadian than The Hound of the Baskervilles.

The Boot

Then we come to the matter of the boot. Sir Henry, shortly after his arrival in London, complains that one of his boots has been stolen from his hotel:

Sir Henry smiled. “I don’t know much of British life yet, for I have spent nearly all my time in the States and in Canada. But I hope that to lose one of your boots is not part of the ordinary routine of life over here.”  (49)

It would be a gross disservice to Henry James to refer to this moment as “Jamesian,” and yet, in its portrayal of the New World innocent horrified by the corrupt ways of the Old World, it does seem to contain, in a radically simplified form, a germ of one of the themes that fascinated the master.

It is Sir Henry’s stolen boot, of course, which the murderer will use to put his hound on the scent of the Baskerville heir when he walks the moor at night in the novel’s climax, and so the theft of the boot marks the beginning of the process by which Sir Henry will become enmeshed in a scheme that involves the commission of murder in order to inherit a fortune. (When you put it that way, The Hound of the Baskervilles does begin to sound like a very faint echo of a James novel).

The boot crops up again at the end of the novel, when Holmes and Watson are tracking the fleeing murderer through the deadly Grimpen Mire:

Only once we saw a trace that someone had passed that perilous way before us. From amid a tuft of cotton grass which bore it up out of the slime some dark thing was projecting. Holmes sank to his waist as he stepped from the path to seize it, and had we not been there to drag him out he could never have set his foot upon firm land again. He held an old black boot in the air. “Meyers, Toronto,” was printed on the leather inside.
“It is worth a mud bath,” said he. “It is our friend Sir Henry’s missing boot.”  (228)

At least Conan Doyle knows the name of a major Canadian city. The boot shows Canada is not completely rural: boots are made here, which suggests industry at least at a minor level – more likely something closer to a cobbler’s shop than a boot factory, but still, Canada is capable of producing some of the finer needs of a gentleman for itself – and doing so well enough that he would wear the boots in England – and is not just a land of farms.

Incidentally, it is in honour of this small plot point that the Canadian branch of the Sherlock Holmes Society is known as The Bootmakers of Toronto (better than, say, “The Farmers of Canada,” which is the most obvious other option suggested by the novel).

Overall, The Hound of the Baskervilles presents a rather mixed view both of Canada and of Sir Henry himself, and it’s hard not to feel that for Conan Doyle, Canada was merely a distant colony that his readers would know just enough about to allow him to use it in whatever way best suited the requirements of his plot.

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