Sherlockian Problems in Chronology

Sherlock Holmes canon prompts a lot of consideration and study, which is why there are so many articles and essays about Holmes’ world. The following essay by the late Peter H. Wood explains some major issues with the chronology of the canon, and offers guidance on structuring a Sherlock Holmes timeline. Read on to learn more about the problems in Sherlockian chronology and enter the world of Sherlockian scholarship.

Why are there chronologies of the Canon?

Are not the dates of each story indicated in the text? A complete date (day/month/year) is given in roughly one-half of the stories. Several others are not dated at all; in some we know the season, or perhaps the month. Some are partially dated (day or month or year) by reference to other cases or events. The most common of these is Watson's marriage (about which there is no information whatever in the Canon). As a result, one of the great unsettled questions in Sherlockian scholarship is "How many times was Watson married, and to whom?"

If the story dates are not indicated, why do we require them? The short answer is "We don't," but there are other points to consider. If we believe that the story is the essential thing; in other words, we treat the Canon as simply entertainment, then background details are not essential, and we need not trouble ourselves with them. However, for many readers of the Canon, there is always the temptation to try one's hand at reasoning as the Master does. As he observed: "You know my methods, Watson . . ." With such a problem as discovering the date on which a story occurred, we have a situation in which there is a certain amount of data to provide the clay for our bricks. So we try to discover "When?". Let's take an example -- the first one in the Canon. In A Study in Scarlet, we are told how Watson landed on the quay at Portsmouth, still convalescent from his campaign wound(s) and subsequent attack of enteric fever. When we know that date - and it is possible to find it from the local newspapers, as the S.S. "Orontes" was an actual troopship -- we can then estimate how long it took him to drift up to London, to find that the cost of living there exceeded his means, and at length to decide that he would share lodgings with the somewhat strange individual to whom his old friend Stanford had introduced him. On the fourth of the following March he is invited to join his flat-mate in investigating a murder case. What was the year? It is a puzzle-solving problem - the answer turns out to be 1881, by the way - and can be the first of many we are faced with in studying the Canon. But, unlike number puzzles, crossword puzzles, "JeopardyŞ" and "Trivial PursuitŞ", it can involve knowledge from many different fields. As the puzzle becomes more complex the pleasure in solving it increases.

So if we are to have chronologies, then . . .

How many chronologies are there? At the time of writing, there are some seventeen complete chronologies, in all of which every one of the four long and fifty-six short stories has had a date (more or less complete with day, month and year) assigned to it, and the reasons for this selection explained, sometimes in considerable detail. All are published separately in book form, some of course being rarer than others. However, at least one summary volume providing an overview of the dates (without the justifications) is available on the second-hand market (Peck & Klinger 1996).

How much (dis)agreement is there between them? Oh dear. As one might expect, there is less agreement on average than there is disagreement. The greatest level of agreement between two chronologists is exactly two-thirds (40/60). The lowest is under one-quarter (13/60) from Dr. J. F. Christ (see below), whose views on the question of "When?" were not often shared by other writers. Nevertheless, he argued his cases with considerable skill. For a comparative table of agreements, see Peck & Klinger (1996).

Why are there these disagreements? As noted above, some story dates are not given at all, some can be deduced from internal evidence, some are stated to be disguised, some are given but may be disguised; only one is inarguable (the outbreak of World War I in LAST) though all chronologists assign the same dates to a few stories. Of those that depend on internal evidence, several relate to a single event -- Dr. Watson's marriage, which raises a further question relating to another topic - "How many times was Dr. Watson married?".

Compiling a chronology

What are the items to consider when attempting to date a story? Andrew J. Peck (Peck & Klinger 1996) surveyed what others in the field had proposed as criteria, and suggested the following list in order of reliability:

  1. citations from newspapers, letters and official documents such as Hansard, Bradshaw, and Whitaker's Almanack.
  2. statements by Holmes or Watson that can be corroborated elsewhere in the Canon.
  3. any statement that can be confirmed by outside sources.
  4. unverifiable, uncorroborated statements.

In particular, it is necessary to first decide whether Watson was married once or twice, as we noted above that frequent reference is made to events as being before or after his marriage.

If there is a logical contradiction between items of the evidence, what weight do we give to these different items? Generally speaking, the kind of weight which the "reasonable man or woman" beloved of the legal profession would put on a statement offered as evidence in Court. One must always remember that Watson was a paid author writing for publication, and therefore strict accuracy is always likely to be sacrificed to the demands of the well-told tale. ACD's own words on this question should be always borne in mind; "One must be masterful in these matters." If the story required a railway line where there was nothing of the kind, then he invented one. It is the task of the chronologer to solve the often almost-insuperable problems that this involves. But we can lead ourselves astray in our reasoning, and an example of misleading evidence follows. Prof. Zeisler's chronology relied heavily on Watson's descriptions of the weather as though these held good for all of southern England on a particular day. He would then compare Watson's descriptions with those printed in The Times for southern England, and search until he found a close or preferably an exact match. Unfortunately for his argument, any Englishman or woman could have warned him that the only constant element in the English climate is its changeability, and likewise its variation from one place to another; what are now termed "microclimates." A sunny day in West London could have been a showery day in the adjoining county of Buckinghamshire.


Two examples: Conflicts in chronologies can sometimes be resolved. In The Sign of the Four, we read in Chapter II that: "It was a September evening" when Holmes. Watson and Miss Morstan set out on their adventure. Yet only that morning she had received a letter postmarked July 2nd! All sorts of explanations have been offered for this phenomenon, but in the end we find that in a letter to his publisher, Arthur Conan Doyle noted "this obvious misprint", and instructed them to correct it in future from "July" to "September."

By way of contrast, in the story "The Cardboard Box," sixteen out of seventeen chronologies assign a date of 1889 or earlier to the story. Yet contemporary railway timetables show that New Brighton railway station, which is categorically referred to, was not built until 1891. We also know from other stories in the Canon that Holmes had vanished at the Reichenbach Falls in April 1891. The story occurs in August. A solution to this is left as an exercise for the reader.

Reference sources: Contemporary reference books such as Bradshaw's Railway Timetable are hard to come by save at inflated prices, though a reprint of the August 1887 Bradshaw was put out by David & Charles in 1968, and can be found in many reference libraries. Baedeker's Guides from the Canonical period are more easily and cheaply found in second-hand bookstores.

Whither now?

If, despite the obvious difficulties, the reader wishes to try his or her hand at Canonical chronology, a recommended overview of comparative chronologies is The Date Being...?, Peck & Klinger, Magico Press, 1996. An outstanding single text is A Sherlock Holmes Commentary, D. M. Dakin, David & Charles, UK 1972 or Drake Publishers, NY 1972, which besides containing a chronology has a great deal of fascinating background information.

The most recent complete edition of the Canon is the Oxford University Press 9-volume edition, which has many annotations dealing with chronological points. Gasogene Press is steadily turning out another annotated edition under the editorship of Leslie Klinger, which has so far reached four volumes: STUD, SIGN, the Adventures and the Memoirs. But as always, the best research tool is an alert and interested mind.

Stabs at Sherlockian chronology

Watson's marriages, and other inconsistencies

Take a look at the "Canonical Cruxes" page provided by "Inspector Hopkins". About the marriages specifically, some notes by Brad Keefauver.