‘My mind,’ he said, ‘rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere. I can dispense then with artificial stimulants, but I abhor the dull routine of existence. I crave mental exaltation. That is why I have chosen my own particular profession, or rather created it, for I am the only one in the world.’ ~ Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of the Four
Despite his posh new home, Bartholomew continues to look a bit Dickensian. Which is why I’ve advised him not to reveal the following bit of information. But Bartholomew needs to clear his conscience. Brace yourself, dear reader.
Bartholomew has never been to England.
I know, I know. In the past I’ve not only claimed Bartholomew as the product of a Dickensian orphanage, I’ve also discussed how his name derives from Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair. Bartholomew wears the British flag, he celebrates May Day in the British style, and the birth of the British dramatist Thomas Middleton. Yet Bartholomew has never been farther than Kitchener, Ontario.
It’s all been a lie.
Or has it? Bartholomew and I began having this argument about two weeks ago now, when I first started writing my short fiction submission for my “Writing the Environment” class. Bartholomew wasn’t happy that I set the story in London, England, a city that I, like Bartholomew, have never physically visited.
Yet, reading Ackroyd’s London (London: Vintage, 2008), and thinking about what it means to inhabit an environment, I wonder if I don’t have at least a partial claim to this city. My best friend growing up was British (as, you may have guessed, was her family): spending a good deal of time with their family, I was unsurprisingly exposed to British culture. Besides learning to eat toast with jam and cheese, and watching copious amounts of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, I also (given that reading was one of our favourite weekend activities) read a plethora of British literature: some of my first exposures to Michael Bond, James Herriot, CS Lewis, Roald Dahl, William Blake and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle came from her shelves.
I grew up in literature, then, with an understanding of British grammar, punctuation, and lexicon, and an ear for the rhythms of British prose and poetry. I grew up inhabiting a literary London.
Of course, an actual resident in London is going to have a better sense of the city itself, and, likely, will be able to convey the visceral sense of that city better than I. When it comes to an understanding of how London has been imagined in the history of English literature, however, I feel fairly knowledgeable, and my imaginary London seemed the perfect backdrop for a story of a man who lives almost entirely in his memory of books: especially considering the figure of Sherlock Holmes occupies a central space of those memories.
Sherlock, of course, is one of those odd literary figures whose mythology seems to have consumed his author, both during Doyle’s lifetime and after: Doyle killed Sherlock in “The Final Problem” in 1893, but the pressure of fans and publishers convinced him to revive the character eight years later. Today, one can go on a Sherlock Holmes tour in London and see the Holmes plaque and statue outside Abbey House at 221B Baker Street (an address which did not exist in Doyle’s lifetime: Baker Street only went up to the 100s before turning into “Upper Baker Street”), as well as the Sherlock Holmes Museum (a 19th century home converted to look like the apartment described in Doyle’s work and bearing the postal address “221b Baker Street”).
Sometimes the imaginary is more real than the real.
Canadian literature is, of course, an critical part of my identity: it is important not to neglect the history, politics, theory and art of one’s own geographical landscape. There is more to identity, however, than one’s geography culture (which is one of the reasons I pay such close attention to gender politics and theories in my work as well). It was through British literature and not Canadian, however, that I first entered the “environment” of text, and this is a history and culture to which I will continue to make modest claims.
Despite what Bartholomew thinks.
25 September 2008 ~ St. Catharines
Glossary of Terms:
Bond, Michael (b.1926). Author of the Paddington Bear and Olga da Polga book series. The latter is especially my favourite, as it features a British guinea pig who tells fabricates absurd adventures. As I always suspected, all guinea pigs have Napoleon complexes.