In ‘Displaced Memories in Victorian Fiction and Psychology’ Athena Vrettos asks: ‘can memories be transferred between, or exist out of, individual minds?’ In the Victorian era, psychologists such as Frederick W. H. Myers, the founder of The Society for Psychical Research, investigated the possibility that memories were uncontainable and were therefore transferrable between objects and people through different methods including memory displacement, hypnotism, and telepathy. The concept was investigated not just by psychologists, but also parapsychologists and Spiritualists, all asking: is there such a thing a psychic residue? Do minds leave traces on the material world?
Conan Doyle’s short story ‘The Leather Funnel’ explores this theme of psychic residue; Vrettos calls the story ‘one of the most explicit literary accounts of displaced memory from this period’ (Vrettos, 2007: 203). It follows the story of Dacre, a researcher of the psychology of dreams, who performs an experiment on his friend, the unnamed narrator. Dacre leaves a leather funnel by the narrator’s bed and during the night the narrator has a horribly disturbing dream: he dreams he is a woman bound to a bed being force fed water through the leather funnel; the same leather funnel that had been left in his room. This horrifying dream is identical to the one Dacre has when he had performed the experiment on himself. The identical dreams prove to Dacre the certainty that the leather funnel is the transmitter of a traumatic memory – the true story of a woman in the 1700s who was tortured with the leather funnel. The story emphasises the ability of objects to take on memory, particularly traumatic memories, and transmit them to others. It is heavily influenced by Conan Doyle’s interest in Spiritualism and the various methods of communication with the dead through objects, the performing of séances, automatic writing, and materialisation (the manifestation of spirits). Science and Spiritualism for Conan Doyle were one and the same and in later life he became a very public advocate of Spiritualism, writing numerous articles, published letters and monographs on the reality of spirit communication, including telepathy.
Holmes on the other hand is not a person one would naturally associate with spirituality or Spiritualism, as he says in ‘The Sussex Vampire’: ‘ghosts need not apply’ (Doyle, 2011: 85). For Holmes, everything can be explained through observation and deduction. However, there are striking resemblances between Holmes’s observational technique and Spiritualism that I would like to briefly point out: to begin with Holmes is able to pick up an object, observe it and deduce the person’s age, occupation, habits and personality. Holmes’ technique of reading objects is reminiscent of the idea of memory displacement. Objects take on something of the personality of their owners. As Watson says in the Sign of Four: ‘I have heard you say that it is difficult for a man to have any object in daily use without leaving the impress of his individuality upon it’ (Doyle, 2004). What is curious about this statement is that although Watson establishes for the reader that the method is through natural means, he also reinforces the idea that objects have a trace of a living person about them.
If we accept the premise that psychic traces can be left upon object, using someone sensitive to those traces to solve crimes is not exclusive to Holmes; it is also a method used by Spiritualist mediums. Even Holmes claims that his methods are achievable by anyone who has training and mediums were trained in this form of communication, even using their skills to solve crimes like Holmes. In an article called ‘Murder Mysteries Mediums Did Solve’, Conan Doyle describes a number of cases where the police used mediums in their investigations. One such case tells the story of a medium who helped in a murder inquiry; it says: ‘Some articles belonging to the dead girl, a blotting case, and others, were held by the sensitive in order to establish a nexus. She went into a trance. In this case there would appear to have been direct obsession by the victim, for she at once spoke through the medium in her own person’ (Doyle, 1929). This led to the successful conviction of the murderer. Compare this description to that of Holmes in ‘The Golden Pince-Nez’ where Holmes’s observation is centred on his touch of the glasses. As Watson says, ‘Sherlock Holmes took the glasses into his hand and examined them with the utmost attention and interest. He held them on his nose…look at them most minutely in the full light of the lamp’ (Doyle, 2008). Although Holmes does not establish a ‘nexus’ and the terminology is different, Holmes’ actions are strikingly similar, for after holding the glasses he then writes a fitting description of the woman the police should pursue. Like the medium, Holmes has held the object in order to ‘read’ it and has drawn important inferences from it that lead to the solution of the case.
Holmes and the medium are also similar in their use of a trance-like state. In ‘The Man With the Twisted Lip’ Holmes is described as having: ‘his eyes fixed vacantly upon the corner of the ceiling, the blue smoke curling up from him, silent, motionless, with the light shining upon his set aquiline features’ (Doyle, 1996). This state of motionless quiet is how Holmes solves his cases. He oscillates between action and inaction, and Watson comments that after a case Holmes often goes into a period of inertia through sheer exhaustion. This in itself has links to Spiritualist mediums, as A. Owen describes: ‘Spiritualists often commented that most mediums ‘suffer from brain exhaustion’ if pressed too hard’ (Owen, 2004:64). Both Spiritualist mediums and Holmes use trances as a way of connecting to something that is not physical. In The Hound of the Baskevilles Holmes claims to have travelled to Devonshire without leaving his armchair – he uses his spirit to connect to something that he is not physically able to, much as a medium does. Both Holmes and mediums find this intense mental state takes a toll on their physical state.
The significant difference between a medium and Holmes is that Holmes’s method is based on pure rationality, not the communication with the dead. However, this distinction is not always maintained, especially in The Hound of the Baskervilles where the human agency in the plot is undermined by the idea of ancestral influence. Ancestral memory is another form of memory displacement and is the idea that a current person can be influenced by their ancestors. Holmes recognises in Stapleton a familial trace to the evil Baskerville ancestor that is both ‘physical and spiritual’ (Doyle, 1999: 139). So although Holmes has used a natural method in observing a family connection, he has also recognised Stapleton as a spiritual throwback. So although the spectral hound has a fully natural explanation and the curse is not real, ancestry has impacted on the events of the novel through the evil of the Baskerville ancestors predisposing Stapleton to evil.
For Conan Doyle, science and the Spiritualism were not separate issues and although Sherlock Holmes relies heavily on natural methods, his similarities to Spiritualist mediums and his interaction with contemporary debates surrounding memory displacement reflect back upon the author’s beliefs. Although Holmes never claims to be a Spiritualist, the gap between the spirit and material world in Holmes’s life is not as wide as you would expect it to be.