Charles Augustus Milverton: Never happened?

Those that have read the works commonly attributed to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle have, no doubt, among them come across the accounts that originate from the pen of one Dr. Watson.

Among these accounts of the exploits of the detective Sherlock Holmes, and Watson his aide and chronicler, one is rather out of place: the tale titled “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton”.

In the tale, Holmes does no detecting, no proud tracking-work. No, the tale sees the brilliant detective cast first as a base Don Juan (first seducing, then betrothing a serving-maid, and presumably then running away), and then with Watson as a burglar! The target of this first criminal act is a maid of the Mr. Milverton of the story’s title; of the second, Mr. Milverton himself, a rather base blackmailer.

Even when the burglaring pair is in Milverton’s house in the middle of the night, let in by the poor betrayed girl, Holmes does no detecting, no clever deducing-work: no, he jimmies open a safe, and the duo then slip to shadows as a masked lady enters, shoots Milverton dead, and then flees. Holmes and Watson are almost caught as they, too, flee, after having committed to flames the safe’s contents — the weapons of Milverton’s blackmailing business, whose unwilling “customer” the grieved lady in question had been.

The story ends with Holmes and Watson unwilling to aid the police in seeking the “murdering two”, for obvious reasons, and smirking over the murderess’s identity, assuring each other she is of too lofty position to be touched even if her identity was revealed, even after the disaster Milverton’s villainy had brought on her.

Why would Watson tell such a story? A churlish user of an innocent woman, a burglar, and a bystander to murder — is this sordid account the best tale of Sherlock Holmes he had?

This petty investigator thinks Watson wrote the story — that much is certain beyond all reasonable suspicion — but that the story itself never took place — not in the form the story is told. Other investigators have confirmed the existence and murderous death of Charles Augustus Milverton, but the story itself is false — from the very beginning, with Holmes, a remarkably agnostic, even atheistic, man (see note), talking of the Evil One in quite uncharacteristic fashion, to the very end, with Watson smugly suggesting the real murderess should not be sought.

How much, then, is known to be true from sources outside the story? Charles Augustus Milverton was shot dead; two people were seen fleeing from the scene, one of which could have, from the hazy descriptions, been Watson himself; and finally, Holmes did not investigate the murder, which went unsolved.

It is the suggestion of this investigator that Holmes was never involved in this case — indeed, Holmes might not have even been present in London during it, or then might have been persuaded to not investigate it because of the way Dr. Watson blanched and swooned when Inspector Lestrade came to Holmes seeking for help in solving the killing.

What if the two seen fleeing Milverton’s house weren’t Holmes and Watson, but instead Watson, a brash ex-military man, and a woman of his acquaintance — maybe even a former lover — who, like the untouchable noblewoman of the story, was unpleasantly entangled with Milverton the Blackmailer? The two entered his house during the night — probably the woman had been there before, pleading with Milverton, so no seduced serving-girl was needed to give guidance and leave doors unlocked — found Milverton with his safe open, killed the man, destroyed his injurious letters and photographs, and fled, but not before being spotted by servants alarmed by the gunshots.

Years later Watson, burdened either by guilt or by the fear of his murderous misdeed being revealed, concocted and published the story of Holmes’s involvement, and either out of misunderstanding the great man’s limits or intending to make his part in the crime seem lesser, attributed to Sherlock Holmes these sad calumnies of burglary, seduction and jilted bridery. By adding the anonymous “Lady Untouchable”, he quite heavy-handedly suggested that further investigation was futile: Sherlock Holmes had been there, and wherever he was, justice was served.

And, by the tables of contents of all collected accounts of Sherlock Holmes’s true (Watson-Doyle) exploits, Watson got away with it! No doubt Holmes was, by the time of the story’s publication, either dead or then unwilling to reveal the real, sad truth — he knew he could survive injust slander better than Watson could take the ruinous reality.

* * *

Note — Holmes the Atheist: This investigator cannot recall Holmes, a man of those miserably religious Victorian times, ever expressing any religious sentiments beyond those common in the idioms of the day. Even when, in the Adventure of the Naval Treaty, Holmes goes quite out of his character —

“There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion,” said he, leaning with his back against the shutters. “It can be built up as an exact science by the reasoner. Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its color are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.”

— this flowery outburst can be explained in two ways more plausible than such pap being the genuine feelings of that always calm and rational man.

Both explanations rely on the rather gullible religiosity of his “storyteller”, Dr. Watson. Either Holmes was merely wishing to make some impression, no doubt quite necessary, on the others present, and Watson as so often failed to notice this was the true intent of Holmes’s flowery nonsense, or, as another example of the regrettable behavior described above, this was another fiction of Watson’s, who felt the urge to either proselytize by putting words into the mouth of a man much more admired than he, or then to assure his readers that Holmes was, underneath his cold and eccentric exterior, a Christian of sorts after all. And surely this identification of Holmes as a theist is rather improbable; even more improbable given the embarrassingly witless argument from beauty so clumsily attributed to the greatest deducer of all.

(Final note: This is the sort of a thing that starts boiling out of your mind once you get lost in Klinger’s Annotated Holmes.)

5 Responses to “Charles Augustus Milverton: Never happened?”

  1. Mark Loper Says:

    Interesting take on the CAM affair.

    I’m wondering, though, how you can go as far as to say Holmes is an atheist? An agnostic, yes, but an atheist? Holmes would almost have to be an agnostic (using the conventional meaning of the word) but he clearly believes in something.

    There are multiple examples where Holmes refers to something larger than man but this one from the close of The Adventure of the Cardboard Box comes to mind:

    “What is the meaning of it, Watson?” said Holmes solemnly as he laid down the paper.

    “What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable. But what end? There is the great standing perennial problem to which human reason is as far from an answer as ever.”

    Holmes seems unwilling to accept a universe ruled by chance. Doesn’t that connotate some type of spiritual belief?

  2. masksoferis Says:

    Hmm. I think the Cardboard Box quote is more like a sad musing — “so much pain without a reason would be horrible, but what reason could there be?” — that’s very agnostic, wondering whether the unthinkable that is the only thing that remains might not after all be the correct option; but that’s not (by my hazy definitions anyway) enough to be a spiritual belief: just a suspension of judgment.

    As for Holmes being an atheist, possibly one that didn’t wish to argue the matter with Watson, and enjoyed prodding him now and then, I think that’s something that could be argued quite persuasively, but it might not be the best-fitting interpretation of him. (My words on Holmes the Atheist were, er, somewhat a case of “well, I believe this so obviously he does too, because he’s a bright fellow!”, and somewhat a stylistic choice: I found myself writing the post with quite a trenchant tone.)

  3. Armin Says:

    I’m not sure if you’re serious with all this, but you’re forgetting that Conan Doyle wrote these stories as fodder (as excellent as they are). He would never want us to read into the stories THIS much …

  4. James Quattlebaum Says:

    Discussion of Holmes’ religious views probably should note that Doyle was a spiritualist. This does not show that Holmes was or was not an atheist, but it is interesting that his creator had more complex views than simple atheism or agnosticism, but perhaps later in his life.

    The Milverton story has always been my favorite, and I wonder why. The rebellion and excitement of breaking the law? The satisfaction of destroying the evil one? The intensity of the Holmes/Watson relationship? The beautiful and aristocratic debutante? The extraordinary picture of a romantic Holmes with his finger to his lips?

    Is this anyone else’s favorite?

  5. Regino Says:

    I really have a strong believe that, someone, in somewhere, must have the great answer here. Who in Earth was that woman, the Blackmailer killer? BTW: I believe that your line of thinking it is quite pretentious; almos like if you were trying to be a very bad Sherlock Holmes, but, surely, you just do something like Lestrade. If Doyle offers that story, doesn’t matter if it happend or not. There is a lot of great things to think about that story than that poor point of view. You remind me to Lestrade: always keeping your sight on the trivial issues. Anyhow, I had read every book every story, and history of the age on London and England, trying to find someone in this profile, I mean, the “untochabele lady”. I certainly need answer that quiestion.

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