Occult Doyle


Sherlock Holmes and the femme fatale

Victorian Britain may be remembered for prudishness as much as for the supremacy of its empire and machine age industry. The prudishness was only a veneer. Behind it, repressed things steamed and hissed. Among these were alternative religious views, sex, and concerns about the power of women. Arthur Conan Doyle tingled readers by weaving all of these into his third Sherlock Holmes case, "A Scandal In Bohemia." It is an unchristian story, as easy to underestimate after the passage of more than a hundred years as it was for Holmes to underestimate the woman, Irene Adler. But Victorian readers would have recognized Doyle's sly allusions and grasped Irene's character. Holmes, the cerebral genius, was up against a femme fatale, the most frightening female type of the era. 

The Victorian ideal of woman as the well-mannered and subservient wife had already been scandalized in 1862 by Mary Elizabeth Braddon's popular and pioneering detective novel, Lady Audley's Secret. We learn in Chapter XI that the beautiful and doll-like Lady Audley, who wears a ruby heart on one finger and an emerald serpent on another, turns out to be a bigamist who believes she killed her first husband by pushing him down a well. She attempts to murder the second by setting fire to the inn where he's staying. Because she is declared mad, she isn't prosecuted for her crimes. Instead she is sent to a French insane asylum where she dies.

Braddon's dangerous beauty was followed in 1887 by Ayesha, the immortal queen of the H. Rider Haggard novel, She. Ayesha, the original She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, is a high priestess of Isis who abandons Egypt for South Africa. There She gains immortality by walking through a pillar of fire. She tries to tempt her lover, Kallikrates, away from his wife and into immortality with her. When he refuses, she kills him. For two thousand years She rules her ruined and lost kingdom, waiting to be reunited with Kallikrates' reincarnation. He appears in the form Leo Vincey, a descendent of Kallikrates. Leo and another adventurer, Horace Holly, have sought her out with the aid of an ancient potsherd inscription. It demands Ayesha's death in retribution for her ancient crime. Holly describes the Queen like this:
She lifted her white and rounded arms--never had I seen such arms
before--and slowly, very slowly, withdrew some fastening beneath her
hair. Then all of a sudden the long, corpse-like wrappings fell from
her to the ground, and my eyes traveled up her form, now only robed
in a garb of clinging white that did but serve to show its perfect and
imperial shape, instinct with a life that was more than life, and with
a certain serpent-like grace that was more than human. On her little
feet were sandals, fastened with studs of gold. Then came ankles more
perfect than ever sculptor dreamed of. About the waist her white
kirtle was fastened by a double-headed snake of solid gold, above
which her gracious form swelled up in lines as pure as they were
lovely, till the kirtle ended on the snowy argent of her breast,
whereon her arms were folded. I gazed above them at her face, and--I
do not exaggerate--shrank back blinded and amazed. I have heard of the
beauty of celestial beings, now I saw it; only this beauty, with all
its awful loveliness and purity, was evil--at least, at the time, it
struck me as evil. —Chapter XIII

Ayesha's attempt to coax Vincey into passing through the pillar of fire ends in disaster. She demonstrates the safety of her request by walking through it again herself. But this second passage undoes her immortality. She ages, dies, and turns to dust before his eyes, prefiguring the fate of Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray.

Wilde, Doyle's brother Freemason and literary acquaintance, pushed the envelope of the femme fatale farther in 1893 with Salome. In Wilde's theatrical version, IoKanaan (John the Baptist) is imprisoned in a cistern. Salome performs the serpentine dance of the seven veils for her stepfather/uncle King Herod and then makes her demand for IoKanaan's head. She wants it because IoKanaan has refused her advances. Her lustful speech to the head horrifies Herod so much he orders Salome's immediate death.

Exotic dancer and courtesan Mata Hari brought the femme fatale to life during World War I. In 1917 the French executed her as a German double agent.

The irresistible seductress with power over life and death has thousands of years of mythic history behind her in the form of the lunar goddesses of Sumer, Crete, Egypt, Greece, Rome and the mystery religions associated with them. In most of these traditions, the life of the goddess's male consort isn't worth much. After fulfilling his manly duties, his fate is often to be ritually murdered and then reborn in a new virile body. Although we're most familiar with the relatively benign Persephone version of the story—a seasonal return to the underworld is hinted at in "Scandal"—Victorian society was just as impressed by Egyptology, Isis, and Osiris, her repeatedly killed and restored husband. Doyle published "Scandal" in 1891. Around this time he was also turning out horror stories including references to the Egyptian pantheon. Link Link

The serpent is closely associated with these antique religions. Venomous and visibly capable of death and rebirth by virtue of shedding its skin, the serpent held the knowledge of the hidden lands beyond the boundaries of earthly life. In Egypt, a two-headed serpent guarded the entrance to the underworld. The serpent was also a source of healing. Moses used a brass serpent to cure the viper-bitten children of Israel. That particular use of the symbol persists today in the twining snakes of the caduceus. Patriarchal religions, including Christianity, reworked the serpent and the lunar goddesses as evil incarnate. But although St. Patrick cast the snakes from Ireland and the Church hounded purported witches for centuries, the symbols of the mystery religions survived underground.

Arthur Conan Doyle was no Christian, having abandoned Catholicism as a schoolboy. An indifferent Freemason, he adopted Spiritualism, a late 19th and early 20th century belief system famous for its claims about contacting the dead through séances. For Spiritualists, Christianity was a bastardization of older teachings. After the decimation of Doyle's family in WWI, he wrote two books on the subject. Link Link While "Scandal" is not a Masonic or Spiritualist propaganda piece, it does make free use of elements from the mystery religions.

It isn't an accident that the client in "Scandal" is the King of Bohemia rather than Scandinavia. Bohemian was at that time gaining currency as a term to denote a loose and immoral lifestyle. When we read that the King became "entangled" with Irene Adler, a singer who is "the daintiest thing under a bonnet on this planet," and that even Sherlock considers to have "a face that a man might die for," we're know we're dealing with a special woman. Her cunning, as Holmes discovers, is equal to her beauty. Worthy of a King, no doubt, and she will have him by blackmail if necessary. Doyle cements the mythic connection by placing her home on Serpentine-avenue. Literate Victorians would recognize Irene's relation to Lady Audley and Haggard's She. Like them, Irene is a femme fatale.

In "Scandal", Doyle consciously invokes two timeframes for mythic purposes. The first is time of day. In mystery religions, the sun god gained in power until noon. At night the lunar goddess took over and ruled till dawn. Doyle makes a point of having Irene's bridegroom Norton insist that his wedding to Irene take place before noon. It does, with three minutes to spare. It is midnight when the triumphant Irene writes her letter to Holmes.

"Scandal" also contains an oblique but telling reference to the solar year. Watson accompanies Holmes back to Serpentine-avenue to trick Irene out of her secret at quarter past six in the evening. It is "already dusk." This places the time of year near the spring or fall equinox. The use of "already" suggests the latter. In classic Greek and Roman mythology, Proserpine/Persephone must return to the underworld and her husband, its king, every autumn. In "Scandal" Irene decamps for the continent and, like Lady Audley, is never heard from again.

The strapping King of Bohemia is suitably imposing physically and politically to serve as Irene's consort. Doyle—and perhaps Irene—have given him an emerald serpent ring to wear, signifying his initiation into the deadly mysteries of the goddess. However, the King is unable to see beyond Irene's social class. "Would she not have made an admirable queen?" he says upon reading her letter to Holmes. "Is it not a pity that she was not on my level?" By this time Irene's true nature has dawned on Sherlock. He replies coldly, "From what I have seen of the lady; she seems, indeed, to be on a very different level to your Majesty."

Doyle's resort to the deus ex machina of Godfrey Norton, lawyer of London's Inner Temple, seems a cheap trick. Norton, not Holmes, resolves the threatened scandal by marrying Irene. A satisfying mythic excuse for Norton's appearance and behavior escapes me. However, a few clues suggest that Doyle may not have been as ham-handed as he appears. GODfrey is of the Inner Temple. In London, the Inner Temple occupies grounds formerly home to the Knights Templar. That organization has been linked to esoteric knowledge and Freemasonry. "Inner temple" also refers to the innermost or higher spirit in Freemasonry. Link Irene's letter tells Holmes that after surreptitiously wishing him a good night, she went to the Temple where she and her husband made their decision to flee her "formidable antagonist." Doyle's repetition of the number three may have significance here as well. Holmes has three days to solve the case, and Godfrey's marriage must take place in the three minutes remaining before noon.

Godfrey may have been good enough for Irene, but we are meant to consider Holmes as Irene's proper mate. The story's protestations that he isn't in love with her are patently transparent. Doyle drolly casts our hero as the unemployed groom at her wedding. Irene rewards his witness services with a sovereign. We're told he will wear it on his watch chain. At story's end, Holmes chooses the photograph of Irene in evening dress as a proper reward for his services, declining the King's offer of the emerald serpent ring. This is a second symbolic refusal of the danger she poses. Also noteworthy are the steps Irene takes to keep Holmes at arm's length. Doyle underscores this point by having her care for the satirically disguised simpleminded cleric in her sitting-room rather than the bedroom.

Are we meant to understand Sherlock as a boy who refuses to grow up? Probably not. Doyle wrote "Scandal" at a time when the advancements of the machine age and British Empire must have seemed unstoppable. His respect for the mysteries of the femme fatale and her realm are evident in the story. But in Holmes, the young Doyle is championing the emerging power of science and pure reason.

It is less clear that Doyle himself was free of Victorian inhibitions. Two other early Sherlock Holmes adventures contain serpentine references. As in "Scandal", these occur in relation to marriage. "The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor" is plotted similarly to "Scandal" but stripped of most mythic allusions. An American bride ditches her hapless British groom immediately following the marriage ceremony. Her wedding dress is found floating in a Hyde Park lake called the Serpentine. In this instance, the bride skips out because her long lost American husband has reappeared at the wedding.

In "The Adventure of the Speckled Band", Holmes prevents a murder of a bride-to-be. Her sister has already mysteriously died in her bedroom on the verge of marriage. The murderer proves to be the women's stepfather, who had a checkered history of medical practice in India. His murder weapon is a swamp adder trained to enter the victim's bedroom through a ventilator passage. Holmes' intervention results in the stepfather being bitten and killed instead of the young woman. Curiously, nobody kills the snake. Holmes locks it in an iron safe instead, there to continue wriggling behind the façade of Victorian propriety.

The Soviet government was evidently less tolerant of Doyle's subtexts than the British. According to Wikipedia, Link in 1929 the USSR temporarily banned The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes, the book containing these three stories, on grounds of occultism.

—Michael Hopping
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