Sunday, March 22, 2009

Holmes and Helen Stoner

So anyway, I've been editing the SPEC entry on The Slasher's Annotated Sherlock Holmes lately. I know the story so well that I was able to do a lot just off the top of my head before I went looking for Sherlockian books to cite. I had to resist the urge to put in any theories about Helen Stoner that come from my novel, though.

With Holmes, everything always comes back to SPEC for me. I remember once reading a random Sherlock Holmes story in one of my English classes in school, but it didn't interest me one bit. It was old-fashioned and strange to me. However, when the teacher played for the class a dramatized audio recording of SPEC, I suddenly saw the appeal of Sherlock Holmes mysteries. Thereafter I became interested in the canon and read it along with my sisters, who were also Anglophiles. By college, I even got into online Sherlockian communities like the Hounds of the Internet and began writing fanfic. At the time I was still only writing hetero stories, in all fandoms. That's just the way I was. I remember, as a little girl I was teased by my older sister for always playing out wedding fantasies with Barbie and Ken dolls. As a teenager, my desire to find a female soulmate for Holmes was encouraged by my listening to plaintive love songs like Linda Ronstadt's "Long, Long Time" and Heart's "Alone."

So who was I going to pair Holmes with? I'd decided that no canonical woman would do. I would create my own feminist character named Diana Struthers, a woman whose first love was tragically killed, and so was forced into a loveless marriage. After her horrible husband is murdered, Diana is accused, and Holmes investigates the case. She rebelliously begins to meddle and be generally troublesome, but Holmes does eventually catch the true killer. Then Diana returns to her maiden name of Struthers and does not see Holmes for years, until Reichenbach, when she runs into Holmes again, and finally they do fall in love, etc. etc. But it wasn't working! I was trying to bludgeon Holmes with Struthers, but it just wouldn't click into place like the "Holmes and Irene" fic. So what did I do? I went back to SPEC of course. The rest is best summarized by the bit that I previously posted at my old website.

Why Helen?

Well, why Helen Stoner? First, I'm a sentimental romantic at heart, and I had planned from the beginning to find a suitable mate for Holmes. Second, Helen Stoner is just the beginning. Struthers (from the Reichenbach excerpt) is the woman who'll really be lasting. In finding the perfect woman for Holmes, I wasn't going in for Irene Adler, Violet Hunter, or any other canonical woman whom fans have speculated about, but instead started from scratch, trying to devise a woman who could shake up his life enough to keep his attention indefinitely, and not merely for the duration of a case. Diana Struthers has gone through infinite incarnations since I started, changing to satisfy what I wanted out of her and what I felt Holmes would want out of her. It was a tug and pull all the way, and I subjected Holmes to various improbable, earth-shaking crises so that I could soften him up and make him more receptive to surrendering to a smart and independent-minded woman. In the process I found I was warping the canon more and more, and I was losing all sense of the proper times and dates of the cases. It just wasn't working, although I was learning a lot more about Struthers as a 3-dimensional person. Finally, I began reading through the canon all over, trying to figure out just what was REAL, what I ought to begin with.

Then I noticed that "Speckled Band", which I hadn't read since the 6th grade, was much more humorous than when I'd read it the first time. The whole snake poisoning plot by the stepfather was preposterous and obvious to me now that I knew the ending of the story. So I paid more attention this time to the rest of the action, and not just the clues to the solution of the mystery. It was really weird what kinds of things I suddenly noticed. First, there was Helen's reply to Holmes about the repairs to the house. "There were none. I believe it was an excuse to move me from my room." Excuse? Why on earth would Helen say that? She didn't know about the snake or the murder plot, did she? I lost my sense of superiority at knowing her outcome, and at being as smart as Holmes for once. As I read on, the thought kept running through my mind: she knows what's going on; she's got to know. Suddenly the story became even more funny and more interesting, because Helen's words now took on a double meaning to me. I re-read the story over and over, because I found I was forming this highly entertaining picture in my head of what really must be happening. When I also spotted Holmes's inexplicable error of calling Helen Stoner "Miss Roylott" and realized the contradictory way that Dr. Roylott's cheetah and baboon didn't really "freely wander over the estate" night and day, the story looked more and more full of doubtful, strange incidents. I remembered that I had once read, in the Annotated Sherlock Holmes, William Baring-Gould's analysis and opinion of "Speckled Band."

One of his major complaints about the story was the utter illogical contrast between what people said and what was going on in the story. If you're Helen Stoner and you think your sister Julia's mysterious death two years ago was frightful, but innocent, and you suddenly wake up one morning hearing the same eerie sound that you had heard when she died, what would be the first thing you would say to Sherlock Holmes? "Mr. Holmes, I have heard the most frightful sound in my room last night. You may think me superstitious, but I really need you to come investigate it and make it go away, whatever it is." Then you tell him all about Julia's death and you beg him to come down to the house. Now, where does mentioning your stepfather's ancestry come into this? Where does your mother's money come into this? Where does your stepfather's lack of objection to your marriage or to Julia's come into this? Helen explained the whole story quite roundabout, and quite illogically. --Unless, in fact, she was already suspecting her stepfather of murder. That would be the only logical reason for Helen Stoner's way of explaining her story. [Note: certain Sherlockians have pointed out that one other logical reason exists--that Helen is the murderer and is trying to frame her stepfather with suggestive words. But I feel that another Hound has successfully argued against that possibility.] And the reason that Helen didn't say outright, "I think maybe my stepfather killed my sister," must be that she's afraid of his temper and afraid that she might actually be wrong. She seemed to be establishing an unspoken (at least not obvious) understanding with Holmes when she said, "I have heard that you can see into the manifold wickedness of the human heart," indicating that she wanted him to test for her the truth of her judgment about the depths of wickedness which existed in her stepfather's heart.

So I took that idea and ran with it, scribbling down a story at a furious pace. I began liking Helen a whole lot more than I did when I thought she was a regular damsel in distress. In fact, she was exceptional, she was calculating, she was--just the sort of woman to bowl Holmes over in a short space of time.

Whereas my drafts for Struthers had always involved lengthy encounters and years of time for either Holmes or Struthers to melt their hearts (her character was evolving to be quite meddling, argumentative, and Holmes-like), Helen was gracefully, quietly, stepping in and stealing the show. I had to keep her. I knew I had stolen her from Doyle, but I had to keep her. But it nearly broke my heart when I looked back at Watson's prologue to "Speckled Band" and saw "I have only been freed in the last month by the untimely death of the lady to whom the pledge was given." Helen Stoner was obviously dead. No one else would have exacted this pledge of silence from Watson, and yet it meant that this lady had been saved from death for only another 9 years after her case. ("Speckled Band" took place in 1883; it was published in 1892.) There was no time for great love affairs, for wild romance, for overcoming the complications of her betrothal to Percy Armitage. She was gone. Then I finally came to my senses and realized that her death might actually be beneficial to me. I bumped it back in time to January, 1891, where it conveniently fit right into my whole Moriarty timeline that I had been developing for Struthers's sake. (A major failure of Holmes against Moriarty in his 3rd year of battling him made Holmes revert to his cocaine habit, and some long stretches of little casework had also worsened his habit.)

After Reichenbach, Struthers was to help Holmes break his addiction, and get him working actively in detective cases again. Knowing, however, that many Holmes fans don't believe that Holmes took enough cocaine to really have a problem, and would scoff at the idea that he would be overcome by addiction, I realized that I now had a much stronger motive for Holmes to feel like literally dropping his whole life at Reichenbach. The way I look at it, both love and drugs have a tendency to mess with your mind. Holmes, who is so acutely set on having complete control of his mind, would, I think, notice the effects of either love or drugs rather quickly and would be in a struggle of willpower to keep from surrendering to either one. However, I don't think he's got the strength to hold out on both, and as he's avoiding one, he's sliding into the other. The more he feels his detective work is suffering because of the cocaine cravings, the more I believe that he would feel the distraction of Helen keeping him from setting his mind straight enough to fully focus on detective work. It goes on like this for years, as Helen continually writes him letters from New York (where she's decided to live after not marrying Percy), having never lost that close understanding with Holmes that she'd had since "Speckled Band". Her lingering presence in his life is something that he's almost afraid of wanting. Finally, he feels like giving in to his feelings for her, and decides to close his detective practice and rush to her side. However, that's unfortunately when Helen dies. For the next four months, Holmes pursues Moriarty with much more reckless measures than he had in the previous 6 years, wanting to deal with Moriarty once and for all, and wanting to end everything at Reichenbach. That's when Struthers comes, and slowly helps Holmes resolve old heartaches and troubles. And this time he finally sees that he shouldn't wait around until it's too late, for love or friendship. So his heart has finally melted, and his relationship with Watson will be stronger too, once Holmes returns to London.

So anyway, I'm going to archive some stuff about Helen Stoner here, once I finish revising and updating it. But I should note, though, that Helen Stoner also led me to slashing Holmes with Watson. As I wrote the novel, I started to develop a sort of love triangle in which Holmes thinks that Watson is after Helen too, and is jealous. So he won't share Helen Stoner's letters with Watson, and he keeps lecturing about love. And then as this love triangle developed, a subtext began emerging about Holmes loving Watson as well, and being torn between the doctor and Helen Stoner. I'll point out certain fics that have this overtone later. Suffice to say that the subtext eventually grew so strong that I became a full-on slash addict, now viewing SPEC in the light of all those hours alone that Holmes and Watson spent at the Crown Inn, and all the whispering and touching during their all-night vigil. So hetero or gay, or bisexual, with Holmes it still always comes back to SPEC.

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