'A Master of Disguise'
Guest Post by Timothy Miller
The Strange Case of the Dutch Painter
There are two kinds of actors. One acts to reveal himself. The other acts to hide himself. The first has no protection from the world. She is all blood and bone and sinew and nerve, like an illustration from Grey’s Anatomy. She is always herself, on full view for the world to witness.
The second is all armor, though the armor is constructed of quicksilver. We never get a glimpse of him. He is the hero with a thousand faces, a chameleon.
It’s a well-known fact that Sherlock Holmes was a master of disguise, using his talent for transformation in some fifteen stories in the canon, from a sailor to a priest to an old woman, often delighting in showing off his talents by fooling Watson, who knows his face better than any man, having captured it in print in its every mood. Indeed, some, such as Captain Basil in The Adventure of Black Peter, seem to be regular characters with shadowy lives of their own. It has been conjectured that he must have had an early career on the stage. Watson at one point even bemoans when he opted to become a consulting detective—“The stage lost a fine actor”, he says in A Scandal in Bohemia.
Well, if we had to choose what kind of actor he is, I think all hands would go up for the latter, the concealing kind. Sherlock Holmes gives nothing away. His heart, his history, even his very thought processes are meagerly doled out to even his closest friend, John Watson. He’s more than ready to give credit for his work to Scotland Yard bumblers, to efface himself from the record books. He would have vastly preferred Watson’s accounts of his adventures to be pared down to scientific case notes, to let himself be equal to x. And the only woman he shows any warmth for at all is an actress who bests him by means of a disguise, while he never socialises with his own (even more unsociable) brother.
But where does his fascination with disguise come from? His need to erase himself? Does Sherlock Holmes hate Sherlock Holmes, and if so, why?
For the answer, or at least a conjecture, I think we have to delve into Holmes’s past, and we have little enough to go on there. We know that his father was a country squire, settled in his ways, yet he chose a French woman, from a family of prominent painters, as his wife. It’s an odd match.
Perhaps she brought money to the estate? The Vernets were certainly wealthy. Or perhaps it was a second marriage for Mr. Holmes, and he needed a new mother for his children from his first. For her part, she could not be choosy at her age.
Because since we know her family, we can find her in the family genealogy. She was almost certainly Louise Vernet-LeComte, whose mother Camille was the sister of Horace Vernet. She would have been about thirty-two when she gave birth to Mycroft, thirty-nine when Sherlock was born. Both her age and the gap between births suggest stillbirths in between, or at least children who did not live to majority. It’s entirely possible that she died giving birth to Sherlock. If not, she would likely have been a very protective mother to her youngest son. But if so, his father, and even Mycroft, might have blamed her death on him. There’s reason to want to hide, estranged from his very birth from his family, carrying guilt as his original sin.
And if he came from a family of country squires, where is the family seat? Neither Sherlock nor Mycroft seem to have inherited a country estate. Did his father lose it, either through drink or mismanagement? Or is there an older brother, whom they are so estranged from that neither ever lets his name pass their lips?
We know Holmes did not finish university. Could his father have died without leaving him a penny to his name, forcing him to “live by his wits?”
Or could it be that Mr. Holmes was not his father at all, that Louise was sent back to live with her brother Emil when she could produce no more children after Mycroft, and she had an affair? The clue to Sherlock’s actual father may then be hiding in plain sight. After Moriarty’s death he seems to have undergone some crisis of the soul, traveling from one guru to another, ostensibly in the guise of a Norwegian explorer named Sigerson. Perhaps his father was a Norwegian explorer named Siger, and his wanderings after the death of Moriarty were actually for the purpose of seeking him out? Or (and this I will admit is stretching it to the limit) perhaps his father was George Sigerson, Irish neurologist, politician and poet, who visited France often in his youth. He would have been thirty-two at the time Sherlock was born. Illegitimate birth still held the stain of bastardy in the 19th century. That would have been reason enough for Holmes to plant a palisade around himself.
Indeed, we have to ask ourselves why he ever abandoned the stage to create his own unique profession. I think it’s because there is a third type of actor. Most actors are self-absorbed. They shouldn’t be censured for it. It’s actually a necessary trait when one’s only instrument is oneself. But some actors are concerned more with the play than their part. They cannot see the tree for the forest. Because they are so caught up in the mise en scene, on every part, they cannot focus on themselves. Such actors make excellent directors.
I think Sherlock Holmes was so concerned with hiding his secrets that he made a profession of uncovering the secrets of others. Even his clients must unmask themselves before Holmes will take them on, even if you’re the King of Bohemia. Holmes became a pioneer semiotician, carefully brushing away his own footprints in the snow.
Perhaps we should just respect Sherlock’s privacy. But let’s look at this another way: he chooses Watson as his friend and foil precisely because of his lack of artifice. Yet it is Watson who exposes him, over and over. I think that too is a deliberate choice on Sherlock’s part, that he can only reveal himself when translated into third person. In that case, all this conjecture makes fertile soil for more stories, more encores.
He’s amassed hundreds of encores. Let’s just give him a thundering ovation.
About the author
Timothy Miller is a native of Louisiana and a graduate of Loyola University in New Orleans. The Strange Case of the Dutch Painter (Seventh Street Books) is his second mystery that features none other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most beloved character — Sherlock Holmes.
Miller has directed and designed lighting for plays in New Orleans and Chicago. The feature film of his screenplay At War with the Ants won a Silver Remi Award at Houston’s Worldfest. His screenplays have placed in several contests including five times as a semifinalist in the Academy’s prestigious Nichol Fellowship. He has taught English in Milan and has written for the Italian design magazine Glass Style.
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