The Lion’s Mane (1926)

Want to read this along with me? This essay is part of The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, published in 1927. I used the epub version found on Feedbooks.com.

“The Lion’s Mane,” right after “The Blanched Soldier,” is the second (and final) story narrated by Holmes. This story is noteworthy because it is the only one set after Holmes’ retirement, and thus doesn’t involve Watson in any way. The loss of Watson is keenly felt by Holmes:

At this period of my life the good Watson had passed almost beyond my ken. An occasional week-end visit was the most that I ever saw of him. Thus I must act as my own chronicler. Ah! had he but been with me, how much he might have made of so wonderful a happening and of my eventual triumph against every difficulty!

In retired life, Holmes references “his old housekeeper,” although never by name. In “His Last Bow” we learn her name is Martha, and there’s nothing here to contradict that fact. Further, Mrs. Hudson is never given a first name, and many fans consider Holmes’ housekeeper to be Martha Hudson. At first it seems a bit of a stretch that Holmes would suddenly stop calling a woman by her last name and use her first one instead, but it was the Victorian fashion to refer to people by their last names whenever possible, using first names only for family (such as in the case of Mycroft). Around the Edwardian era, though, it became more accepted for friends and close acquaintances to use first names instead. It is telling, however, that Holmes continues to refer to his friend as “Watson,” though.

But it is the post-retirement Holmes’ quirks that fascinate me the most. In his late life, he likes to swim and keep bees. This story does a great job of showing Holmes’ methods of deduction a couple of times throughout (inlcuding a mention of photographing evidence, something not previously detailed). It’s not surprising that Holmes remains “an omnivorous reader with a strangely retentive memory for trifles.” What is surprising, though, is how Holmes reacts to the beauty of a woman:

Women have seldom been an attraction to me, for my brain has always governed my heart, but I could not look upon her perfect clear-cut face, with all the soft freshness of the downlands in her delicate colouring, without realizing that no young man would cross her path unscathed…. Maud Bellamy will always remain in my memory as a most complete and remarkable woman.

Later he even mentions that “I value a woman’s instinct in such matters.” What a change from the man who was inherently distrustful of women!

In fact, as you dig into the story, a number of details about post-retirement Holmes feel a bit odd. The Great Detective seems particularly stumped by this case (although likely this is because there would be little other way to provide suspense from Doyle’s perspective), and at one point he admits to being at “the limit of my powers”. More specifically, Holmes admits to being “culpably slow” about whether the victim had been swimming or not, when a simple examination of the body to determine if it was wet would have sufficed. Further, a Holmes that has retired to avoid all mental stimuation seems a very long way from the man who needed cocaine just to get through days of boredom. He also muses on the “beautiful, faithful nature of dogs,” which is a different stance from the man who experimented on dogs in his youth. Finally, Holmes’ description of his own mental processes seem a very long way from his “brain attic” at the start of the canon!

You will know, or Watson has written in vain, that I hold a vast store of out-of-the-way knowledge without scientific system, but very available for the needs of my work. My mind is like a crowded box-room with packets of all sorts stowed away therein — so many that I may well have but a vague perception of what was there.

Much of this can be chalked up to age — we are very rarely the same people in our late years that we were in our youth. It’s not hard to believe that Holmes has merely changed over time, and has convinced himself that he was always this way rather than accept the contradictions in his nature. This is the stance I tend to hold to, because it not only connects with my views on human nature, but it also reinforces the complexity of Holmes’ nature as a man. Of course, other scholars have proposed different theories to explain the inconsistencies. One of my favoritesis from Mary Ann Kluge, who simply believes that the case was actually solved by Watson!

There are two other minor points of interest. Historically, the reference in the story to J. G. Wood and his book are factual, and he really was nearly killed by Cyanea Capillata. As a writer, I appreciate that in the original manuscript for “The Lion’s Mane,” there were several references to a “Dr. Mordhouse,” a naturalist also in the area. He was excised from the story in a later draft, and many of his actions and lines given to Stackhurst and Holmes. Doyle, like many good writers, understood the value of cutting extraneous characters to make a story tighter.

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