On The Question of Sherlock's Oldest Brother

Willis G. Frick

Reprinted from The Baker Street Journal

One of the most familiar quotations in the Canon is Holmes remark on the probable and the impossible, ". . . when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." (BERL) Implicit in this statement is the assumption that the ordinary and probable have already been excluded. Since Sherlock Holmes received cases after the public and private detectives in London failed, this was a valid assumption. Simple, ordinary cases did not reach Sherlock Holmes.

Unfortunately, certain Sherlockian scholars, including some of considerable note, have overlooked this assumption when discussing the family and early life of Holmes. These distinguished scholars have extrapolated from the few facts given in the Canon, invented the improbable and pressed toward the impossible, while ignoring the obvious and ordinary. The results have included adultery, murder, poverty, madness and a variety of imagined physiological problems. I have taken a fresh look at the few pieces of information available about the family of Sherlock Holmes and reached very different conclusions.

My inquires on the nature of Holmes' early life began with the chance reading of an article on primogeniture. This Feudal principle is an important difference between how property was transmitted from generation to generation in Great Britain and the United States.

In the United States it was and is usual to divide the property of a man on his death between his wife and children or among the children equally. All issue are treated equally unless specific arrangements are made by a will. Most wills are drawn in this way and the laws of the states on the disposition of a man's estate when he dies without a will (i.e., intestate) follow this pattern.

In contrast, the traditional English practice left all the property to the oldest male heir. Likewise if a man died intestate, all the property automatically went to the eldest son. In a few of the very wealthiest families the second son inherits some titles and lands, though always much smaller that those of the eldest son. An interesting example is Lord Peter Death Bredon Whimsey, second son of the Duke of Denver.

After I completed the article and understood primogeniture, I reexamined the few scraps of information in the Canon about Holmes' family, and developed an entirely new picture of Holmes' early life. In The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter is found the sole description of the Holmes Family, "My ancestors were country squires, who appear to have led much the same life as is natural to their class." Holmes discusses this in an off hand way, making nothing special of his ancestry or their status in the social structure of the age. In the same adventure Mycroft is described as "my brother Mycroft". Note that he is not "my only brother Mycroft" or "my oldest brother Mycroft" only as "my brother Mycroft". We do not hear of Mycroft again until The Final Problem where he is only described as "a very massive driver in a dark cloak." In the sequel to this tale, The Adventure of the Empty House, he is again only "my brother Mycroft". In The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plan were Mycroft is described simply as "Brother Mycroft" in two places. It is clear that Sherlock regarded Mycroft as his older brother. No mention of "only" or "oldest". There is nothing in any of these quotes to rule out additional males among the siblings of Holmes' father.

We know that Sherlock and his brother had to earn a living and thus, by the standards of their time, were not gentlemen. Some scholars have deduced from this single observation that Holmes' family was penniless. When combined with Holmes' statement that his family was composed of country squires the same scholars have developed calamitous histories for the Holmes family. Drunkenness, addiction to gambling and social or economic scandal have been invented to explain the dissipation of the family fortunes and need for Sherlock and Mycroft to work. Infidelity of father or mother has been invented to explain the destruction of the Holmes' family and to lend credence to Freudian theories about Sherlock Holmes psyche.

However, a more careful examination suggests something much more straightforward and very different. I propose that the Holmes family consisted of three sons: An unnamed eldest brother, the second son,Mycroft, and Sherlock, the youngest brother. Instead of being a penniless family, ruined by scandal, the Holmes' were modestly well off country squires, exactly as Sherlock described them. There was sufficient money to enable the second and third sons to attend University and, after graduation, neither was destitute. Holmes was able to live in London in modest circumstances before his career as a consulting detective took hold. Mycroft was able to land a position in the Foreign Office. Neither a mysterious benefactor or an un-mentioned scholarship are needed if we accept that Mycroft and Sherlock were the second and third sons of a "country squire" of modest means. Although the entire estate would have passed to the eldest son on the death of their father, the history of Sherlock and Mycroft as young men show that sufficient funds were available to provide for their education and to give them a small start in life.

The usual path for second and subsequent sons of modestly well off families was the army or the clergy. A career in business was barely considered acceptable, unless it was with "The Company" in India. A final option was other government service. Sherlock led off on a course unique to his remarkable faculties. Mycroft chose government service.

This explanation I find to be the most likely, as it is the most probable. No miracles, sins or scandals are needed to explain this structure for the Holmes clan.

But what then of the eldest son? Why did we not hear of him? What was his name? For reasons that will be obvious later I have believe his name was Nigel. Nigel's childhood would have been a difficult one. Although older than his brothers, by how much we do not know, he would have often been in their shadow. Mycroft was large and powerful and after a few years would be able to best his brother in the inevitable physical confrontations among siblings. Certainly, he could not have been smarter that Holmes or Mycroft and would have been unable to surpass them in their studies. Their remarkable powers of intellect and observation would have been apparent at an early age and Nigel would never be able to measure up in any contest of mental capabilities.

I think his retreat, his area of superiority would have been his age. He was the eldest son! He would inherit the estate! He would become the next lord of the manor. The more that he was surpassed in physical and mental competition by his brothers, the more he would retreat to a field of battle where he held in insurmountable advantage. Since he could only excel at being a country squire, I think he would have gradually developed into the very stereotype of a country squire.

In my mind's eye I see him tramping along the edge of one his fields in spring. His attire would be rubber boots, a bit muddy, tweeds, respectfully worn, and a cloth cap square on his head. He might stop to talk to one of his tenant farmers about the plowing or the weather or a fine horse. His pride and joy would be his ancestral estate. He would probably marry the daughter of another "country gentlemen" and in turn raise a family. He would in manage the estate well and prepare it to be turned over to his eldest son.

To help picture Nigel I would like to suggest, as a model, a British actor of the 1940's, Nigel Bruce. He has all the qualities we are looking for: bluff, hardy, honest, very, very British and a gentleman of the old school, although perhaps not terribly bright. It was a role that Nigel Bruce was called upon to play many times in his long film career and one at which he excelled. If he was the prototype Watson, he would be the prototype Nigel Holmes.

Why do we not hear of brother Nigel? Neither Sherlock nor Mycroft were likely to enjoy visits to Nigel's house. All the comforts of the old estate would mean little to Mycroft, who preferred the pleasures of the Diogenes Club. After deducing the life history of the new parlor maid or cook at a glance, Holmes would have instantly become bored during a quiet visit to the country. Both Sherlock and Mycroft would probably have retained a certain animosity to brother Nigel as a results of his constant boasting that he would soon be lord of the manor. Nor would Nigel look forward to the arrival of his brothers. They would dominate any conversation at the diner table or over port after dinner. He would be reminded of his youth when he was bested at every turn by his brothers. Consequently, I do not find it surprising that we hear nothing of Nigel.

Unfortunately, my explanation is not exciting. It would not be a good story for a full length book or a screenplay. No drama, no scandal, no sex and no Freudian complexes are included.

It is the normal, the ordinary and the usual for the family of a country squire. For before we invent the improbable or impossible, we must first exclude the probable.