Praxis

A case study of early British Sherlockian fandom

Katharine Brombley

University of Portsmouth, Portsmouth, United Kingdom

[0.1] Abstract—Previous studies of Sherlock Holmes fandom have concentrated on fan letters as being exemplary of the early beginnings of the Great Game: a fantasy played by fans that acts upon the belief that Sherlock Holmes exists. Fans, while fully comprehending that it is indeed a fantasy or a game, perform fan activities such as historical and literary analysis as if Holmes were real. This paper shifts the focus away from letter writing as the central means of the expression of this ironic belief and looks at the example of collecting autographs as a means of celebration of the canon. It places the autograph in its historical context of being the meeting point between the remnants of the Romantic theory of genius, the development of pseudosciences such as the interpretation of handwriting, and the literary, cultural, and commercial landscape in which Holmes appeared.

[0.2] Keyword—Autographs; Celebrity; Collecting; Fan letters; Graphology; The Great Game; Sherlock Holmes; The Strand Magazine

Brombley, Katharine. 2017. "A Case Study of Early British Sherlockian Fandom." In "Sherlock Holmes Fandom, Sherlockiana, and the Great Game," edited by Betsy Rosenblatt and Roberta Pearson, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 23. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2017.0861.

1. Introduction

[1.1] When Sherlock Holmes first appeared in the pages of The Strand Magazine, the immediacy of his popularity with readers prompted a number of visible consequences: the circulation of The Strand Magazine grew as a result (and conversely, it shrunk by 20,000 subscribers when Holmes was killed in 1893); libraries were forced to stay open longer on publication days to meet the demand of readers (Pound 1966, 92); and writings about Holmes began to appear in newspapers and periodicals from all kinds of sources. These included fan letters to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Holmes, and Watson; "interviews" with Sherlock Holmes, the first being in The Observer in 1892; and essays and letters critiquing the canon, an early example of which was written by Frank Sidgwick in his open letter to Dr. Watson for the Cambridge Review in 1902 that questioned Watson's consistency.

[1.2] These are historic instances of actions we recognize as being fan activity, which Cornel Sandvoss defines as "regular, emotionally involved consumption of a given popular narrative or text in the form of books, television shows, films or music, as well as popular texts in the broader sense" (2005, 8). The fans of Sherlock Holmes of the 1890s demonstrated a high level of emotional involvement in the text—most famously, the outcry at Holmes's death led many to write to Conan Doyle to plead for his return (Conan Doyle [1924] 1989). These readers were invested in the life of Sherlock Holmes and consumed all manner of texts about him, interacting with them in a variety of ways, such as collecting postcards, writing letters, and reading pastiches and parodies. However, a Sherlock Holmes fandom did not emerge fully formed and so it is important to bear in mind the historical context in which it developed. The Sherlock Holmes canon was written at a time when fans were able to interact with the canon through a much larger number of texts due to an influx of mass media. Kate Jackson has pointed out that this was the result of a number of factors, including the development of New Journalism, print technology, and a "consumer revolution" (2001, 33), all of which aimed to extend the readership of periodicals and other print media to include the lower and middle classes.

[1.3] As far as we know, Sherlock Holmes fans in the 1890s interacted with the canon as individuals rather than in formal communities or groups, and readers showed much of the same enthusiasm and behavior toward Holmes as other readers did for texts such as Trilby (1894) by George du Maurier, writing letters to the author and buying Trilby merchandise (Ormond 1969). However, unlike the readers of Trilby, fans of Sherlock Holmes became more coordinated over time, forming official organizations such as the Sherlock Holmes Society of London (established in its early form in 1934 (Green 1986, 38)). The fans of Sherlock Holmes in the 1890s were not a cohesive community, but there is evidence of a community that echoes Benedict Anderson's conception of imagined communities (2006). Sandvoss has further applied Anderson's theory to fandom and describes fan communities as being "imagined in terms not only of structure but also of content, not only in terms of who the other members of such communities are, but also in terms of what such communities stand for" (2005, 57). We see this in the way that fan letters place their authors as part of an imagined community and in the way that the editor of The Strand Magazine, George Newnes, cultivated a community among readers (Jackson 2001, 95).

[1.4] What the Sherlock Holmes fandom stood for in its early conception was based upon immersion in the canon: Michael Saler has established that "some actually believed that Holmes existed—'naïve believers'—but most were 'ironic believers,' who were not so much willingly suspending their disbelief in a fictional character as willingly believing in him with the double-minded awareness that they were engaged in pretense" (2003, 603). This would later become known as the Great Game, where fans of Sherlock Holmes maintain a knowing belief that Holmes was (or is) real and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was Watson's literary agent. In this way, the early fans foreshadowed the ironic belief in Sherlock Holmes's reality that became the oft-taken stance of the official organizations such as Baker Street Irregulars (United States) and the Sherlock Holmes Society of London (United Kingdom).

[1.5] The aim of this article is to explore the history of Sherlock Holmes fans in Britain through the example of autograph collecting as a form of fan practice. As Lincoln Geraghty argues, "collecting is an active and discerning process that relies on many of the same strategies and processes fans employ in poaching and creating new texts. The collection can and should be read as a text" (2014a, 14). This article will look at the collecting of autographs as a historically transitionary activity, which was founded on an increased interest in collecting (Belk 2001). On the one hand, autographs encapsulate a historic fascination with the mark and the imprint of personality on writing, which was influenced by the Romantic notion of the genius, and it is also a well-established fan practice that has survived to the modern day. The hunt for Sherlock Holmes's autograph in particular is a unique example of how familiar collecting practices were played upon by early Sherlock Holmes fans through their ironic belief in his reality and their pursuit of immersion in the world of the text.

2. Handwriting as sign

[2.1] Autograph collecting was a popular activity in the late 19th century (Morgan 2012), and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle received requests from fans for Sherlock Holmes's signature, despite Holmes being fictional. Autograph collecting had its roots in the idea that handwriting was a sign of character. Gerard Curtis calls it the "sense of a hand" (2002, 26), and asserts that "the increase in autograph collecting provides further evidence of the value placed on the 'original' line in the nineteenth century… Autograph albums became the popular register of a homeowner's guests, while children had their own special volumes, all in a celebration of the fixity of the line over the transience of life" (24). The permanent nature of the written line allowed a person's character to be kept as a souvenir beyond the existence of the person, which as Susan Stewart argues, "temporally…moves history into private time" (1993, 138). Collecting autographs was a personal endeavor, and most of the autographs collected at this time were of friends and family, not celebrities, in order to demonstrate the reach of one's social circle (Morgan 2011). Autograph books temporally encapsulated an account of a person's life through the collecting of a series of souvenirs; thus, they had a greater meaning to the collector than the handwriting alone: they represented memory and nostalgia.

[2.2] Despite autograph collecting having its origins in personal circles, by the Victorian era there were many who were collecting the autographs of celebrities; some of the collectors did so to show an association to renowned circles, but others requested autographs with no prior connection (Morgan 2011). This behavior was a sign of the commodification of well-known figures, as the collecting of all kind of ephemera related to celebrities became popular. Publications were closing the gap between the private and public lives of famous people through a surge of interviews, photographs, and features investigating how they lived. These included articles such as the Tit-Bits feature "Recreations of Great Authors" in 1897 (volume 32), which divulged the various sports famous authors played, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's interest in cycling. In the pursuit of biographical information of celebrities, the handwriting of public figures became a popular image to sample, present, and write about in the periodical press in the 1890s, fulfilling the fascination with the sense of hand through reproductions of manuscripts, letters, and signatures. Such articles included Marie Corelli's "My First Book" in The Idler (Vol. 4, 1894), which exhibited a facsimile of Corelli's manuscript, and "The Handwriting of Our Kings and Queens" by W. J. Hardy in The Leisure Hour (1891) that presented facsimiles of letters and signatures written by royals.

[2.3] It was claimed that handwriting could reveal character through a particular kind of reading based upon a mode of scientific inquiry similar to that of phrenology, another rising pseudoscience in the study of personality. J. H. Schooling, for example, wrote an article called "Written Gesture" for The Nineteenth Century, which argued that gesture, of which handwriting is a part, could be subjected to accurate analysis to reveal character because "all expression of mental conditions manifests itself only by physical movement" (1895, 478), and so the body, gesture, and handwriting could be read for evidence of these mental conditions. Schooling brought this analysis to a number of articles for The Strand Magazine, presenting reproductions of the handwriting of past and present public figures such as Napoleon and Tennyson. In these articles, Schooling predominately works on the assumption that his readers can read the characteristics of handwriting as easily as text because the genius and originality displayed is obvious to everyone. For example, in "The Handwriting of Alfred Lord Tennyson," Schooling's language is rife with value-based assumptions, such as "note how pretty a specimen is No. 4—which gives its mute evidence against the popular and mistaken notion that talented men write in a bad 'hand'" (1894, 600). The article concentrates on Tennyson's qualities, such as his talent, which are assumed to be read from his handwriting, but the reader is not given any particular methodology or explicit explanation. Articles such as this, which presented handwriting with little commentary, demonstrated through pictorial representation the belief that handwriting had a hieroglyphic function, as it was ostensibly text but also presented a graphic image that signified a person's character and mental state.

[2.4] The article implicitly emphasizes the Romantic belief that genius could be "discovered and comprehended through examining appearance, personal habits, and private manners of authors" (Higgins 2005, 46). It presents handwriting as an original line that allows the onlooker to peer into the creative process, which is purportedly inspired, and suppresses the reality of the writing process, such as editing and revision, by honoring handwriting as an ideal form that forcibly reveals the genius of the author. However, there is an internal contradiction in Schooling's reliance on the Romantic notion of genius, because it is clear that even within the framework of handwriting analysis, handwriting is affected by the fluctuations in personality over time. This is exemplified in Schooling's article "Signatures of Napoleon" (The Strand Magazine, Vol. X), where he tracks the changes in handwriting throughout Napoleon's life. Despite presenting these samples as archetypal, it becomes clear that the desire for a person's autograph can never truly be fulfilled, as no single autograph is truly representative of the totality of a person. This was rarely acknowledged in the description of celebrities' handwriting, which was offered as fully representational of their character and relied upon the Romantic notion that their nature was inspired and therefore constant.

[2.5] Articles such as Schooling's do, however, encourage the collecting of handwriting samples as a form of biographical record or souvenirs of a point in time. Susan Stewart argues that all souvenirs are objects that serve as "traces of authentic experience" (1993, 135) and evoke memories, either of the collector's personal history or of a historical moment they wish to encapsulate, and through these collections "the past is constructed from a set of presently existing pieces. There is no continuous identity between these objects and their referents. Only the act of memory constitutes their resemblance. And it is in this gap between resemblance and identity that nostalgic desire arises" (1993, 145). Nostalgia is evoked through separating an object from the time or place it belongs and placing it into a personal collection. Autographs allowed collectors to capture a moment in time that could never be regained, both in terms of their own biography and that of the celebrity whose autograph they collected, which made the autographs of famous people a desirable thing to collect.

[2.6] Additionally, by collecting the autographs of famous people, collectors were able to establish a hierarchy of collecting through the rarity of certain signatures. For example, Tennyson's autograph was notoriously hard to obtain, as he disliked the custom and therefore rarely responded to requests; nor did he write many letters (Schooling 1894, 599–600). Being able to attain autographs that were scarce demonstrated a collector's influence, showing off who they knew and who they were socially connected to. Schooling, for example, shows off his privileged access by stating that the accumulation of the samples for the article "The Handwriting of Alfred Lord Tennyson" was difficult and often thwarted by other collectors who were reluctant to share their collection. He was successful only due to "valuable assistance" (1894, 599) from those who were willing to help him. The article establishes that autograph collecting was a competitive activity, as some collectors desired to keep their valued objects private, being unwilling to share information and therefore protecting their status. Schooling proves his status as a collector, overcoming such obstacles, and eventually building his own collection in the form of an article.

[2.7] There are two disparate, yet overlapping, branches of fandom at work here. On the one hand, Belk points out that competitiveness is an important characteristic of collecting: it "brings the collector heightened status…and feelings of pride and accomplishment" (2001, 68). Competition establishes a form of hierarchy within a community of collectors, where the rarity of a signature and the status of the celebrity makes certain autographs more desirable, and the acquisition of such items establishes dominance. It is a "shallower," more commercialized and social fan practice. On the other hand, hierarchy can also be dependent on the acquisition of knowledge as theorized by Jancovich (2002) and Hills (2002). Hills argues that "any given fan culture [should be viewed] not simply as a community but also as a social hierarchy where fans share a common interest while also competing over fan knowledge, access to the object of fandom, and status" (2002, 20). The way in which fans compete for knowledge and access echoes the kinds of competitive behaviors seen among autograph collectors. The pursuit of Sherlock Holmes's autograph, the rarest of autographs because of its nonexistence, established some fans as more dedicated to their object of fandom and to the fantasy of Holmes's reality.

3. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle versus Sherlock Holmes

[3.1] In 1899, The Strand Magazine published an article by Gertrude Bacon called "Pigs of Celebrities." This article displayed numerous drawings of pigs sketched by various public figures, alongside their autograph. It was a light-hearted attempt to replicate the "old drawing-room game" (1899, 338) where individuals were tasked to draw a pig while blindfolded. The title "Pigs of Celebrities" plays on the name of the regular feature of The Strand Magazine called "Portraits of Celebrities at Different Times of their Lives," a biographical commentary that exhibited photographs of celebrities as children or young adults alongside a more recent photograph. The feature was popular, and ran continuously for the first seven years of the magazine's publication. "Pigs of Celebrities," on the other hand, represented renowned figures through their drawings of a pig; these drawings are, Bacon argues, demonstrative of the "genius and strong personality" of the celebrities as "every action, however slight…will bear the unmistakable imprint of his great characteristic" (1899, 338). The juxtaposition of drawing and autograph emphasizes how handwriting supposedly revealed the celebrity's genius, and the similarities between the titles of the two features reinforces the biographical nature of autograph collecting and the desire for privileged access.

[3.2] Many celebrities complied with Bacon's "audacious request" (1899, 338) for their participation, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The example given by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is a notable case study in the development of the ironic belief in Sherlock Holmes in the way that Bacon treats the drawing of a pig by Conan Doyle as an indexical representation of Sherlock Holmes, not his creator. She says of the drawing, "he must be wanting in imagination indeed who fails to trace in Dr. Conan Doyle's spirited little sketch the resemblance to the immortal Sherlock Holmes. That pig is evidently 'on the scent' of some baffling mystery. Note the quick and penetrating snout, the alert ears, thrown back in the act of listening, the nervous, sensitive tail, and the expectant, eager attitude. The spirit of the great detective breathes in every line and animates the whole" (1899, 341). She suppresses Conan Doyle's biography in favor of Holmes, and in doing so implies an ironic belief in Holmes's existence. Her claim that Conan Doyle is the sum of his creation markedly contradicts her treatment of the handwriting of the other celebrities whose writing reveals their own character, not that of their inventions. Despite himself, it seems that Conan Doyle could only reveal his creation, and lacked a personality of his own. Holmes, on the other hand, ostensibly could not help but appear through Conan Doyle, and so Holmes became, of a fashion, more real than the author.

[3.3] For those readers who were familiar with the Sherlock Holmes canon, Bacon's description provided additional evidence of Holmes's presence through her purposeful echoing of Holmesian tropes. Compare her statement to Watson's description of Holmes in A Study in Scarlet: Holmes appears like "a pure-blooded, well-trained foxhound, as it dashes backwards and forward through the covert, whining in its eagerness, until it comes across the lost scent" (Conan Doyle 2009, 31). It is unknown whether Bacon here is drawing on her own Sherlock Holmes knowledge or the popular characteristics associated with Holmes, but more knowing fans would have made a direct connection between her analysis and the Holmes canon. By referencing A Study in Scarlet, which had never appeared in the pages of The Strand Magazine (though it was published serially in its sister magazine Tit-Bits in 1893), her words nod to the Sherlock Holmes fan and call upon wider knowledge of the Holmes canon. When it was published in 1887, A Study in Scarlet was not an immediately popular book; it had little commercial success compared to other detective fiction published in the same year, such as The Mystery of a Hansom Cab by Fergus Hume (Pittard 2011, 28); and so the relative obscurity of A Study in Scarlet therefore meant that only the more studious of readers would have understood the intertextual implications of Bacon's explanation. It marked a re-return by fans to the original story of Sherlock Holmes and demonstrated a hierarchy between fans: those who had knowledge of and access to A Study in Scarlet and those who did not.

[3.4] Bacon's gesture to the fans of Sherlock Holmes hints that she was aware of a tradition of treating Holmes as real, and contributes to it, fueling the game as well as responding to it by purposefully writing to appeal to the dedicated reader. By doing so, she evidences Michael Saler's claim that a belief in Holmes and his methods allowed imagination and reason to come together in such a way that one could "actively believe, albeit ironically, in fictions" (2003, 606). Her article serves to continue the blurring of the line between fiction and reality, between Holmes and his creator. It also provides evidence of a Sherlockian readership who were desirous of additional texts outside of the canon, had an in-depth knowledge of the canon, and who ironically believed in Holmes's existence. It demonstrates the way the manifestations of fandom overlap, drawing on the commercial interest in autographs (autographs are a commodity to be sold), but also on the fans' immersion in the canon that is not so easily commodified. The article does much in a very small passage of text; after all, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's pig drawing was not the only one to be analyzed in this article. There are 12 other examples exhibited, such as Henry Irving's and Walter Besant's (1899). Her reference to Holmes is but a fleeting comment in among others that were also of interest to the readers of The Strand Magazine. Yet this is what makes her handling of it all the more significant: it shows that the treatment of Holmes as real had, as early as 1899, permeated all kinds of writing, including periodicals. It had become common to discuss Holmes in a knowing way, talking of him as if he were real, yet also acknowledging an author. It also confirms a knowledge of Sherlock Holmes fans' methods of picking up on trivial links to the canon; they were creating a tradition of "treating the ephemeral with the utmost seriousness" (Cranfield 2014, 68).

4. Asking for Sherlock Holmes's autograph

[4.1] The ironic belief Bacon exhibits in her writing is one of the many ways Sherlock Holmes fans were visible in the late 19th century. Another was through fan letters, which have been theorized by such critics as Jonathan Cranfield, who builds on Michael Saler's discussion of ironic and naïve believers in his chapter "Sherlock Holmes, Fan Culture and Fan Letters" (2014) and uses the example of letters to Holmes as a case study of early fandom. He places the tradition of an ironic belief in Holmes within a historical context and points to letter writing as an example of early Sherlock Holmes fan culture that "established a basic pattern for the ways in which later phenomena would function in the future" (2014, 75). Cranfield's work on fan letters has been influential in my research on autograph collecting as fan activity as the two are closely related: it was a common practice within fan letters to ask for Holmes's autograph.

[4.2] It was in these requests for Holmes's autograph that the ironic belief in his reality and autograph collecting converged and imposed the fan's desire for immersion in the text onto the recipient (who was often Conan Doyle) in the full knowledge that the request was futile because the "true" autograph of Holmes was unobtainable. Some, of course, may have been naïve believers in Holmes who misunderstood Holmes's fictionality, but many were double-minded: knowing that Holmes could never reply, but choosing to write nevertheless. Cranfield argues that even while using the most ironic of language, "the intimate phantasies, dreams and fears of the players are still at stake" (2014, 73). So, one has to wonder, what is at stake for early fans in asking Holmes for his autograph? Did senders want a response or would they have been disappointed if Conan Doyle had provided Holmes's autograph for them? After all, as Bacon's description of Conan Doyle's pig drawing shows, the personality of Holmes was supposedly revealed through the writing of Conan Doyle, indicating that his autograph may have been acceptable; but we must also consider that the requests for Holmes's autograph are addressed to Holmes directly, not to Conan Doyle, and are therefore predicated on Holmes's reality.

[4.3] One such letter of request is reproduced in Richard Lancelyn Green's book Letters to Sherlock Holmes:

[4.4] 9 Erswell Road, Worthing

18 November 1904

Dear Sir,

I trust I am not trespassing too much on your time and kindness by asking for the favour of your autograph to add to my collection.

I have derived very much pleasure from reading your Memoirs, and should very highly value the possession of your famous signature.

Trusting that you will see your way to thus honour me, and venturing to thank you very much in anticipation.

I am, Sir, Your obedient Servant.

Charles Wright

P.S. Not being aware of your present address, I am taking the liberty of sending this letter to Sir A. Conan Doyle, asking him to be good enough to forward it to you.

Sherlock Holmes Esq. (1985, 16)

[4.5] Charles Wright is professedly a collector of autographs, and it is his intention to attain Holmes's signature to "add to my collection" (1985, 16). His identification of himself as a collector is significant because it discloses that Holmes's signature is not the only one he wants to possess—he wants the autograph to be placed alongside others (in what form is unknown, although scrapbooks and illustrated volumes were common); these other autographs may have included other public figures, celebrities, and people of note, which depletes the significance of Holmes's autograph as a singular object. Possession is important to him, yet knowing that his request is impossible to fulfill, raises questions about what Wright hoped to achieve and what he did achieve through writing to Holmes.

[4.6] Wright's collecting habits appear to fulfill two of the three types of collecting Susan Pearce identifies: he collects autographs as souvenirs but also in fetishistic way (1992). Pearce argues that souvenirs are "intrinsic parts of a past experience" (1992, 72), which Wright demonstrates when he says: "I have derived very much pleasure from reading your Memoirs, and should very highly value the possession of your famous signature" (1985, 16). The possession of the autograph would be a physical representation of his desire for proximity to a text that is not his own. He is playing out a similar nostalgic desire to that which Lincoln Geraghty argues can be seen at fan conventions: "fans bought things because they meant something, it brought them closer to that very text they were remembering and celebrating" (2014a, 93–94). The act of requesting Holmes's autograph brings Wright closer to the text he enjoys, despite the physical commodity being impossible to obtain. Geraghty refers to tangible commodities; and for Wright, it appears that the closest he can get to Holmes's autograph is an autograph from Conan Doyle. However, the reference to Conan Doyle in the postscript suggests that Wright is aware of the author's role and is writing ironically, in a double-minded state, simultaneously confirming and denying Holmes as a creation of Conan Doyle. As Wright maintains an ironic belief in Holmes, it indicates that only Holmes's signature will do; it is Holmes's signature he wants.

[4.7] One possible motivation for Wright's letter is that he is more concerned with the thrill of the hunt than with the actual acquisition of the autograph. Russell Belk suggests that the hunt is as important to the collector as the object itself; for example, he states that one collector, Mickey, "finds some dilution of her pleasure when she receives nutcrackers as gifts rather than finding them herself" (2001, 93). The joy of collecting comes from tracking down the object and overcoming challenges along the way, reinforcing the satisfaction of possession with feelings of accomplishment. We see this played out in Schooling's article "The Handwriting of Alfred Lord Tennyson," where he describes the difficulty of attaining the sample for the feature and he establishes his superiority as a collector through overcoming such obstacles. For Wright, by writing his letter to Holmes he is engaging in the hunt, and the rarity of Holmes's signature (because it does not exist) makes the hunt all the more enjoyable.

[4.8] Were Wright able to attain the autograph, it would establish his superiority as a collector, and so Wright's collecting becomes a means to define his identity, which makes his collecting fetishistic. As Pearce says: "the collection plays the crucial role in defining the personality of the collector, who maintains a possessive but worshipful attitude towards his objects" (Pearce 1992, 84). Wright's identity is very much entangled in the way he pursues Holmes's autograph; he seems to want Conan Doyle's affirmation of Holmes's reality and for Conan Doyle to engage in the ironic belief he is exhibiting. This anticipates the behavior of recipients in later years, as fans "increasingly found willing recipients…who were ready to 'play' along and reinforce the security of the fantasy" (Cranfield 2014, 70). Wright is seeking the security of his fantasy and a confirmation that his world view, albeit ironic, is acceptable. By imagining Holmes to be real and pursuing Holmes's autograph in light of that, Wright is connecting himself to the character.

[4.9] There is something especially personal about the request for an autograph in the building of the collector's identity, for as Simon Morgan states: "as handwriting could be seen as both expressive of character and a physical trace of the author's presence, letters and autographs carried an emotional charge far beyond the person to whom they were actually addressed" (2012, 143) and could "act to facilitate real or imagine relationships with politicians and other public figures" (145). Wright is facilitating not only his relationship with the text, but also his imagined relationship with Holmes. Wright's collecting is an exercise in playfulness: he writes the letter with an ironic belief in Holmes, but collecting itself is also an exercise in "indulgence and playfulness" (Belk 2001, 76). Paul Booth defines play as an action that occurs within a structure and is a reaction to rules put in place within that structure; it is through play that humans (and fans) can "enact imaginative freedom" (2015, 16). Wright's pursuit of Holmes's autograph is an acting out of a fantasy; it is a futile effort that will have no physical reward, as Holmes's autograph can never be given. Instead, Wright seeks the reassurance of his fantasy that will allow him to continue to play with the conventions of belief systems and systems of collecting. It may be that Wright's letter acts as an invitation for Conan Doyle to join in the fantasy, and is an homage to Conan Doyle's talent that he has created such a real character.

5. The historical belief in fan pathology

[5.1] Through writing to Holmes, Wright is playfully fantasizing a relationship that is based upon what he has read of Holmes's character; but in doing so, he appears to reinforce Cranfield's observation that these kinds of letters were seen by contemporaries as "psychological curiosities that largely conformed to the Freudian theory of underdevelopment, or worse, plain imbecility" (2014, 70). However, though there was a popular belief that treating Holmes as real was a regressive characteristic, it is important to bear in mind that Sherlock Holmes fans were not the only group of people to be dismissed in this way. Wright also classifies himself as a collector, a category of society whose members were also subject to much mistrust and judgment for their "underdevelopment" (Joline 1902). Despite collecting being an increasingly more popular pastime, there was a paradoxical treatment of collectors in the press. On the one hand, magazines like The Strand Magazine sought to perpetuate the interest in popular things and in commodities, such as celebrity's autographs, but on the other, collectors were often portrayed as pathological or diseased. See, for example, Harry Furniss's article "The Autograph Hunter" for The Strand Magazine in 1902, where he calls autograph collecting "autograph fever" and a "disease," yet finds the request for his autograph "flattering" (1902, 542) and presents facsimiles of autographs for viewing. Others also perpetuated the image of collecting as pathological, including collectors themselves, whom Belk reports as using "the medical vocabulary of disease" in order to "justify the self-indulgence of collecting" (2001, 80).

[5.2] The imagery of mental degeneracy and the fears that collectors collected in bad taste recur repeatedly in articles on both collecting generally, and autograph collecting more specifically, which foregrounded the pathology that later came to be seen in academic and popular theorizing of fans more widely. Matt Hills has explored how the cultural identity of the fan is tied up within dichotomies of "us" and "them," which "imply different moral dualisms" (2002, 42) and he argues that "academic practice…typically transforms fandom into an absolute Other" (21). Fans have therefore been subject to readings that sees their behavior as childish or pathological. As Joli Jensen has pointed out, "dark assumptions underlie the two images of fan pathology [obsessed loner and frenzied fan in a crowd], and they haunt the literature on fans and fandom…Fans are seen as displaying symptoms of a wider social dysfunction—modernity—that threatens all of 'us'" (1992, 15–16). Her analysis is of late-20th-century fandom, but there is a striking resemblance to the social commentary surrounding collecting in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

[5.3] Of course, collecting was not limited to personal collections alone, and it must be delineated here that institutional collecting was also on the rise in the late 19th century, and was seen as being a civic benefit. It stemmed from a "conviction of progress towards superior understanding, both created museums and was created by them" (Pearce 1992, 109). Autograph collecting, therefore, represented a very different kind of collecting that was based upon the collecting of things more mundane in their physicality. They were mementoes of personal history and demonstrated a desire to establish the limits of one's social circle. Collecting is and was a leisure-time activity and was inextricably linked with the rise of the popular press that helped make personal collecting more popular. Pearce argues that "collections lend themselves to make-believe and the construction of fantasies" (51) and those who pursued Sherlock Holmes's autograph did so on a number of levels: they immersed themselves in the world of the text through the ironic belief in Holmes's reality and attempted to "make other times and other places open" (51) to them by collecting the hand of Holmes. Yet they did so in the knowledge that this was not possible and, as such, fans played on the conventions of collecting, pursuing an object for the thrill of the hunt, and they established themselves within a hierarchy of ironic believers, actively demonstrating how far they were willing to go to live out the fantasy.

6. Conclusion

[6.1] Early Sherlock Holmes fans were visible from the moment the stories were published in The Strand Magazine. These visible readers provide ample opportunity for academics to explore the ways current fan theory can be retrospectively applied to early example of fans or fan activity, and plotting how fandom developed out of the historical context of the rise in celebrity, a growing commodity culture, and an increased interest in collecting. It is essential to be nuanced and culturally and historically sensitive when applying theory back, for as Lincoln Geraghty has argued: "if fandom and collecting are about formations of the self, then they are also products of the cultural environment—how we are influenced by culture and what parts of culture we take into our own lives" (2014b). This is equally true of those fans and collectors of the 1890s whose culture and motivations would have been greatly different from our modern understanding of celebrity.

[6.2] This case study has attempted to understand how the desire for Sherlock Holmes's autograph developed out of a context of a developing celebrity and collecting culture, as well as the lasting belief in handwriting analysis, which influenced the increased interest in the collecting of the autograph of public figures. The example of Sherlock Holmes presents a particularly unique case in that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's fame was purposefully suppressed by journalists and fans alike in favor of his creation. Letters to Holmes demonstrate an early ironic belief in his reality, which has been explored by other critics like Cranfield and Saler, but whose theory has not yet been applied to the example of autograph collecting. The theoretical and historical emphasis so far has been concentrated on writing, such as pastiches, parodies, and letter writing, giving these types of creative fan activity a greater preeminence. Case studies such as this one demonstrate the greater need to utilize archives in the application of fan theory to historical fandoms. Archives such as the Arthur Conan Doyle Collection, Richard Lancelyn Green Bequest, Portsmouth; the Sherlock Holmes Collections, University of Minnesota; the Arthur Conan Doyle Collection, Toronto; and others that may become available in the future are an invaluable resource in opening up further discussions and investigations.

7. Acknowledgments

[7.1] I am grateful to the Arthur Conan Doyle Collection, Richard Lancelyn Green Bequest (Portsmouth, UK) for access to their archive and I wish to thank their staff, Dr. Jane Mee, and Michael Gunton for their help. I also wish to thank Dr. Christopher Pittard and Dr. Lincoln Geraghty from the University of Portsmouth for their valuable input and feedback. This article would not have been possible without the funding provided by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Portsmouth City Council.

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