In The Beginning Was Ronald Knox

By Jody Baker

In the beginning was Ronald Knox

It all started with Knox's (1) lecture on "Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes." Interestingly, that lecture was not so much a scholarly exposition upon Sherlock Holmes as it was a pseudo-scholarly satire upon a ponderous, exegetical style of scholastic writing.

On the second day of creation there was Christopher Morley (2).

He recognized Father Knox's work for what it was -- a tongue-in-cheek, spoof-n-poof on labored scholarship. It captured his interest in Sherlock Holmes, and the Grand Game was begun.

That seed germinated during the well-lubricated, three-hour lunches of the literary and intellectual elite of New York. From there it has flowered forth into all that we Sherlockians are today. It began in sophisticated fun and play, and it thrived in the collegiality which the founders enjoyed together.

To trace our heritage to its beginnings, we must go back to a time before the origin of the BSI or its organ, the BSJ. Venerable as those institutions may be, the heritage of Sherlockians predates them both, and the movement has now spread far beyond them into cyberspace of today.

Christopher Morley had a particularly keen, and sometimes bawdy, sense of humor. This is the man, after all, who carried on a fictitious exchange of letters about Sherlock Holmes with an imaginary correspondent named "Jane Nightwork." If you suspect that "nightwork" is wordplay upon the lady's profession you may be right. (See Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 2, III ,ii.)

Armed with a vast knowledge of literature, a keen sense of humor, a playful imagination and an enormous amount of joi de vivre, Mr. Morley sallied forth to have his fun. Little did he know that he was creating a cult. Those of us who subscribe to his principles call ourselves Sherlockians. ("Sherlockimus" is that affliction which turns an otherwise normal and sane person into a Sherlockian.)

Sherlockians greatly exceed in number, and now in universal scope, the relatively small sub-set who call themselves Irregulars. Sherlockians include all those who adhere to the principles espoused by Christopher Morley and his small band of intellectual ruffians. It is impossible to enumerate all of these principles. Some were put in writing, e.g. the Buy-Laws (designed by Elmer Davis). Others, however, just grew to fit the mold. For now, it must suffice to examine but three of Morley's principles.


Morley's Principles


Have fun, above all else, have fun; and take neither yourself, nor anyone, seriously.

From his desk as editor of The Saturday Review of Literature and wielding his pen along the avenues of "The Bowling Green," Christopher Morley was able to stimulate superior intellects of the time to join him in his rollicking frolics and his mischievous good fun.

Early on, Morley embraced the cause of playful frivolity in making comments on the Writings; and he recognized Father Knox's "Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes" for the lampoon that it was intended to be: "The device of pretending to analyze matters of amusement with full severity is the best way to reproach those who approach the highest subjects with too literal a mind. This new frolic in criticism was welcome at once...." ("The Standard Doyle Company, by Steven Rothman. Subtitle, "Christopher Morley on Sherlock Holmes." 1990, Fordam University Press, pp.6-7)


The characters in the stories are not fictitious creatures of some author's imagination. They are real people. "Surely it is a unique tribute to an author.... The traditional mystique is that Holmes and Watson are so much more real than their creator that except by privilege from the Chair...the Agent is never mentioned by name." (See Rothman, Ibid., p. 74)

These real people led real lives. They made real mistakes and committed real blunders -- they sometimes jumped to wrong conclusions. No room for imaginary or ephemeral characters here, mind you. They must be held personally accountable for their mistakes.

It is wrong to seek to blame these faults upon the mental lapses of some author of fiction. If things were out of order or confused, if dates were wrong or if John was sometimes called James, these were not the fault of Arthur Conan Doyle. We have too much love and respect for him to permit that. Put the blame where it belongs, squarely on the shoulders of John H. Watson.

As part of our mission in playing the Grand Game we search out the errors and the inconsistencies and seek to assign reasons for them. It would be intolerable to suppose that we were criticizing Sir Arthur when we do that. If the characters are real, and we believe that they are; and if Conan-Doyle has any part at all, then he must be assigned some remote and protected niche such as the literary agent. Yes, that's it - the Literary Agent. That's good enough. Let's just leave it there.


Another belief of Morley's was this: "Myself, I do not wholly agree with the tradition that A.C.D. should never be formally mentioned. I loved him long before his heirs and assigns and agents were born....As I have often said, how ridiculous he was only Knighted -- he should have been Sainted." (Ibid., p.76)

Now, it has been suggested that the present "tradition-of- silence" resulted from a dispute with Adrian Conan-Doyle. That it was, in effect, giving him the razzberry by omitting any mention of his father, ever.

It is good for an institution, such as the BSI, to adhere to traditions. That fosters stability and continuity of purpose. I am not prepared to argue the point of the origin of that tradition. However, I do suggest the possibility that some members of the BSI may have agreed to the "tradition-of-silence" out of respect for Sir Arthur rather than out of spite for his son.

To eliminate Sir Arthur from all discussions would avoid any mention of his name during the critiques of the works; and thus we protect him, and his memory, from the assertions of forgetfulness or sloppy writing which we now ascribe to Watson. Let those problems remain where they are, on the broad shoulders of John Watson.

After all, Sir Arthur, himself, once characterized Watson as the "rather stupid friend" of Holmes. So let's continue to protect Sir Arthur's memory and let good old Watson bear the blame. And while Watson is getting the blame for the shortcomings, let him also get the credit for writing the best and wisest stories that we have ever read.

Inspector Baynes

Jody Baker
1511 Lexington Rd.
Chattanooga, TN 37405

May 1998


(1) Ronald Arbuthnot Knox (17 Feb 1888 - 24 Aug 1957), a priest, scholar and author, was the son and grandson of Anglican bishops. A brilliant person throughout his life, he began his literary career at the age of 10 writing Latin and Greek epigrams. He was educated at Eton and (Balliol College) Oxford. He was then a Fellow of, and lecturer at, Trinity College, Oxford, for two years, after which he took holy orders and was ordained an Anglican priest. He served as chaplain of the college for five years. In 1917 he converted to Roman Catholicism and was ordained a priest of that faith in 1919. He was appointed Catholic chaplain in Oxford in 1925, and he served as domestic prelate to the Pope in 1936.

In 1939 he retired from his posts to devote his time to a new translation of the Vulgate, which was published, in parts, from 1944 through 1950. His New Testament Commentary was also published in 1950. Father Knox wrote very heavy and very deep scholarly religious works too numerous to mention here. A book of his sermons has been published, and they, too, are difficult. He also wrote many works in the lighter vein, as well as several mystery novels.

Father Knox's fondness for the Sherlock Holmes tales is well known among the British scholars of the genre. He was a major influence upon the interest of Christopher Morley in this field. He had a fine sense of humor, and his "Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes" published in "Essays in Satire" (1930) is a classic, which is said to have been "responsible for an upsurge in Holmesian scholarship."

(2) Christopher Darlington Morley (May 5,1890 - March 28,1957). Christopher Morley was born in Haverford, Pennsylvania, the son of a mathematics professor at Haverford College. He graduated from Haverford, a Phi Beta Kappa, and was awarded a Rhodes scholarship to New College, Oxford. He arrived there in 1910, and it was in 1911 that his earlier interest in Sherlock Holmes was re-kindled by the lecture of a young don at Oxford's Trinity College, Ronald Knox.

After returning to this country Morley worked as a newspaper columnist and as an editor of several periodicals. He also authored many novels and other literary works. Space does not permit an enumeration of all or even of a fair sampling of the many that there are. Some of the more familiar are "Where the Blue Begins," "Thunder on the Left," "Kitty Foil" (later made into a movie), "Parnassus on Wheels," and "The Haunted Bookshop."

Morley had worked for Doubleday and in June 1914 married Helen Fairchild. In Philadelphia he worked for Ladies Home Journal and the Evening Public Ledger. Then in 1920 he returned to New York and wrote a column for the Evening Post, "The Bowling Green." He was also on the staff of the Literary Review supplement of the Saturday edition of that paper. When that supplement was "dis-established," Christopher Morley moved on and in 1926 formed the "Saturday Review of Literature," where he presided for years.

He established the Three-Hours for Lunch Club, a highly irregular club of people (both men and women) who gravitated to Morley. The club had no regular time for meeting -- just whenever the mood struck. It had no formal membership -- just whichever friends of Morley that happened to be available at the time. From beginnings such as these there evolved the first meetings of the Baker Street Irregulars.

A must-read for any Sherlockian is Morley's classic "In Memorium: Sherlock Holmes." This first appeared in the August 2, 1930, "Bowling Green" and is the Preface to the Doubleday edition of "The Complete Sherlock Holmes." One can learn a lot about Sherlock Holmes from that; and one can gain a love and appreciation of Christopher Morley from it, too.


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