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Historical Context in The Adventure of the Speckled Band

Doyle published “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” in an 1892 issue of London-based magazine The Strand. At this time, crime fiction was a new genre, one whose conventions Doyle was defining with each new Holmes story. In 1892, England was under the reign of Queen Victoria, who created an age of unprecedented wealth and worldwide imperial control. The jewel of the British colonies was India, a region that plays an important role in “The Adventure of the Speckled Band.”

Historical Context Examples in The Adventure of the Speckled Band:

The Adventure of the Speckled Band

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"The idea of a snake instantly occurred to me, and when I coupled it with my knowledge that the doctor was furnished with a supply of creatures from India, I felt that I was probably on the right track. The idea of using a form of poison which could not possibly be discovered by any chemical test was just such a one as would occur to a clever and ruthless man who had had an Eastern training...."   (The Adventure of the Speckled Band)

Throughout “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” Doyle weaves a theme of the exotic as sinister. Specifically, there is a sense that the British colony of India—which would have loomed large in the mind’s of Doyle’s Victorian readership—is associated with a certain kind of wickedness, or at least wildness. The serpent itself embodies the subcontinent while being freighted with all of the sinister connotations of the snake. This idea of India as a place that inculcates wickedness is bolstered by Dr. Roylott himself. When he is first introduced, Ms. Stoner says, “violence of temper approaching to mania has been... intensified by his long residence in the tropics.” The historical backdrop of British colonialism is impossible to ignore, particularly because it contributes so directly to the macabre nature of the story.

"he would give these vagabonds leave to encamp upon the few acres of bramble-covered land..."   (The Adventure of the Speckled Band)

In Victorian England, Gypsy communities were looked down upon for their unconventional social mores and itinerant lifestyles. As Victorian scholar George K. Behlmer has noted, many English people viewed Gypsies as “an intolerable affront to the values of modern civilization.” Doyle’s readers may not have been surprised by Helen’s descriptions of Gypsies as vagabonds or as “wretched.”

Behlmer, George K. "The Gypsy Problem in Victorian England." Victorian Studies 2, no. 2 (Winter 1985): 231.

"and in admiring the rapid deductions, as swift as intuitions, and yet always founded on a logical basis..."   (The Adventure of the Speckled Band)

In the character of Sherlock Holmes, Doyle attempted to create someone guided by pure reason and deduction. Time and again, Holmes expresses his distaste for emotionally driven actions. Doyle based Holmes’s character on his medical school professor, Joseph Bell, whom he studied under at the University of Edinburgh. Doyle admired Bell’s extremely logical methods of treatment. In a letter he sent to Bell in 1892, Doyle wrote, “It is most certainly to you that I owe Sherlock Holmes ... round the centre of deduction and inference and observation which I have heard you inculcate I have tried to build up a man.”

"It was early in April in the year '83..."   (The Adventure of the Speckled Band)

First published in 1892, the events in “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” and Conan Doyle’s writing of it are close to contemporaneous. This time was the height of both the Victorian era in England and British rule over India, a fact important to the story’s plot.

"When Dr. Roylott was in India he married my mother, Mrs. Stoner, the young widow of Major-General Stoner, of the Bengal Artillery..."   (The Adventure of the Speckled Band)

These were the days when the British Empire was at the height of its power and glory. To quote Rudyard Kipling, it held "dominion over palm and pine." Britannia ruled the waves, and the sun never set on British soil. India was called the Crown Jewel of the British Empire.

"we were fortunate in catching a train for Leatherhead..."   (The Adventure of the Speckled Band)

The Leatherhead station was quite close to London. There would be many trains going to London in the morning and early afternoon but few returning with commuters until the workday ended.

"the good sense to light the fire..."   (The Adventure of the Speckled Band)

Most heating was supplied by fireplaces. These fires were often fueled by coal, which caused the air in London to be very bad.

"we hired a trap..."   (The Adventure of the Speckled Band)

A trap was a light two-wheeled carriage with springs meant for traveling short distances. The railway system in England was excellent in those days, but getting from a station to a final local destination could be more difficult. Sometimes Holmes and Watson would have a driver sent to pick them up. Sometimes they would hire someone to drive them to wherever they were going and then leave them to find their own way back. They might even walk or hire horses at the livery stable and go on horseback. Sherlock Holmes frequently travels to outlying districts and seems to know all the train lines and even some of the timetables.

"My evidence showed that the door had been fastened upon the inner side, and the windows were blocked by old-fashioned shutters with broad iron bars, which were secured every night. The walls were carefully sounded, and were shown to be quite solid all round, and the flooring was also thoroughly examined, with the same result. The chimney is wide, but is barred up by four large staples. It is certain, therefore, that my sister was quite alone when she met her end..."   (The Adventure of the Speckled Band)

This story is an example of what is commonly called a "locked-room murder mystery." The biggest question the detective must answer is: How could the victim have been murdered when he or she was locked inside a room? The prototype for all "locked-room murder mysteries" is Edgar Allan Poe's ["The Murders in the Rue Morgue."] ( Arthur Conan Doyle freely acknowledged Poe's influence for the creation of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.

"not less than £1000 a year..."   (The Adventure of the Speckled Band)

That was a very good annual income in Victorian times. Helen Stoner does not say what "annual sum" was to be paid to the girls if and when they married, but she does say that the big house at Stoke Moran "is itself crushed under a heavy mortgage"; so it would be hard for Dr. Roylott to part with a share of the thousand-pounds annual income. This becomes an important part of the story later on.

"Holmes standing, fully dressed, by the side of my bed..."   (The Adventure of the Speckled Band)

The Victorian era was a period of extreme propriety and inhibition. It was unusual for a young lady to call upon a gentleman at his residence. Holmes did not present himself to her immediately. He had to be fully dressed, meaning that he was wearing his suit with a vest, shirt, and necktie. Holmes also asked Watson to dress before he joined him. Both Holmes and Watson were fully dressed before they ever encountered the client, and Holmes was never alone with her for a moment.

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