Monday, August 15, 2011

fight like a victorian

*Warning:  Here Be Sherlock Holmes-related nerdiness and some spoilers of Sherlock Holmes stories.  Read at your own risk.*

A few months ago, while reading "The Empty House" in The Return of Sherlock Holmes to my boyfriend Scott, Holmes' amazing resurrection from the death attributed to have befallen him (no pun intended) in "The Final Problem" was just... well, too convenient for Scott's tastes.

"'We tottered together upon the brink of the fall,'" I read aloud, imagining the final epic moments in the immortal struggle at Reichenbach Falls between the world's most brilliant consulting detective and the Napoleon of Crime, Professor Moriarty.  "'I have some knowledge, however, of baritsu, or the Japanese system of wrestling, which has more than once been very useful to me. I slipped through his grip-'"

"Wait, what?" Scott interrupted.  "Baritsu?"

"Yes," I answered, thinking he has just misheard what I had said.  Scott's a smart guy, and I often assume that he knows things of which he, in actuality, has no knowledge.  In this case it was not an unreasonable assumption, as the guy is an armchair military historian with basic knowledge of various sorts of fighting methods.

So I was a little surprised when he asked, "Yeah, what it is?"

"You've never heard of it?"

"No.  Tell me what it is."

"Well..." I began, not having any sort of idea what it was.  "It's... a form of Japanese martial arts, I guess.  It says so here in the text: 'baritsu...the Japanese system of wrestling.'"

"What does it look like?"

"I don't know.  Maybe it's like sumo wrestling."

Scott cut through my reading with a disbelieving guffaw.  "Yeah, like that's going to happen."  (imitating Holmes) "Moriarty almost had me, but I just happened to know some obscure fighting technique called baritsu and karate-chopped my way out of it."

Scott's belittlement of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's plot devices are probably justified  Even though I knew that Doyle had originally intended to kill off Holmes in "The Final Solution" when it was written in 1893 and baritsu was the cleverest way he could justify Holmes not actually falling to his death in the 1902 Holmes story "The Empty House," I didn't realize how much Doyle waxed bullshit on his readers.

Much thanks to The Steampunk Tribune for enlightening me on this fact through its recent article about bartitsu (spelled with an extra t)- the new up-and-coming martial art of neo-Victorian enthusiasts.  Without that article I would not have been directed to The Bartitsu Society's website, where they inform readers of the following:

In the year 1899, an English gentleman named Edward William Barton-Wright created the “New Art of Self Defence” that he called Bartitsu; a combination of low kicking, jiujitsu, fisticuffs and walking stick fighting, designed to beat the fearsome street gangs of Edwardian London and fin de siècle Paris at their own dastardly game.

Bartitsu was the first “mixed martial art” to combine Asian and European fighting styles. It was later incorporated as “baritsu” into the Sherlock Holmes stories...
So either Doyle wants to credit Holmes with inventing this sort of fighting or is responsible for an anachronism in his stories (which, by the way, isn't the first occurrence of such in the Sherlockian world).

Learn more about the resurgence of this Victorian/Edwardian style of fighting in the 21st century at The Bartitsu Society (including information on workshops and seminars!)  Or you can just watch this excerpt from the Society's documentary of bartitsu's history, which depicts demonstrations of this late Victorian martial art below:


  1. lol! I remember reading The Empty House and feeling that the explanation was a bit convenient and out of place... I couldn't recall any martial arts (or physical fighting of any kind) in the previous stories, yet suddenly he announces in passing that he has this hidden skill. I thought Doyle could have done better.

    I also remember wondering why Doyle felt the need to kill Holmes off only to bring him back, in the first place. My assumption was he just wanted to make more money. :) Can't blame him for that though!

  2. I've done a bit of research on the subject of why Doyle wanted to kill Holmes. Mostly it appears that he wanted to get rid of him because Holmes was quickly becoming a pop culture icon of the Victorian era. Doyle, who recognized this growing popularity, did not want to be remembered for creating the Holmes stories- he much preferred his historical fiction stories. So he killed Holmes to pursue other writing endeavours.

    What actually ended up happening was surprising to him- severe fan backlash. Some people wore black cravats in mourning. He received angry fan mail, with one woman starting her letter off with an endearing "You brute-" His new endeavours did not pan out as he wanted, and some editors were making offers to him in the following years for 1000 pounds per story or some such deal just to get him to write another Holmes mystery.

    I imagine it would be similar to teenage girls' reactions to Stephanie Meyers killing either Edward or Bella or both in one of her stories.

    Pressed with money issues, Doyle finally conceded to writing The Hound of the Baskervilles, a novella that he made clear took place BEFORE "The Final Problem." Two years later he caved in to his public's demands and fully resurrected Holmes in "The Empty House," probably unhappily continuing to make good money from the Holmes stories until his death.

    You sort of have to feel bad for him...