The detective stories Doyle published in the Strand magazine during the 1890s, including “The Red-Headed League,” are credited with doubling subscribers to the magazine. During the Victorian Age, which stretched from the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign in 1837 to her death in 1901, major writers such as Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Thomas Hardy often published novels serially, in weekly or monthly parts. Doyle, however, was the first to write short stories using a similar method, relying upon interest in a central character rather than an ongoing plot to keep readers coming back for more. The factors that led to this amazing popularity reveal the interests and make-up of the reading public in Doyle’s day.
England had increasingly become a nation of readers in the decades before Sherlock Holmes first appeared, since the Education Act of 1870 and legislation to limit child labor made it possible for a wider segment of the population to attend school. In 1880 all children were guaranteed schooling through the age of ten. Since recreational reading among this newly literate class was often done in short spans of time-while riding the train or subway, for instance-forms of writing that could be quickly consumed flourished, like articles or short stories in newspapers and magazines. Similarly, true or fictional accounts of action, adventure, and crime captivated the attention of lower- and middle-class readers who worked hard for a living and whose lives often contained little of the excitement they sought in literature. Doyle wrote for such readers, often reinforcing through his stories beliefs that his readers would be likely to hold.
Even though a British police force had been established in 1829, the institution was not held in universal high esteem. Early police had often been seen as paid spies, and cases of bribery, corruption, and incompetence made the public skeptical of police honesty and expertise. Due in part to low wages, the police were often drawn from the lowest ranks of society, leading many people who considered themselves socially superior to question their authority and skill. Doyle’s portrayal of police agent Jones and Holmes’ attitude toward him reflect these stereotypes. In other Sherlock Holmes stories, too, the police are depicted as earnest in their desire to promote justice but unable to accomplish this without Holmes’ aid.
Changes in class structure and living conditions of British society are also reflected in Doyle’s stories. London became a world center of industry and commerce during the 19th century, its population rising from approximately 850,000 in 1810 to almost 5 million by the end of the century. Many were drawn to the city by dreams of financial success. In this environment of progress, skill and intelligence became keys to social advancement and prosperity, rather than the prominence of one’s family. Sherlock Holmes represents this new ideal of the gentleman, someone who achieves distinction and respect through his own merit and talents. The average British citizen also began to question why the upper class should be considered naturally superior. On numerous occasions, members of the British aristocracy, including the royal family, had been involved in well-publicized sexual, marital, and economic scandals. Such behavior was little in keeping with the moral standards the middle class was proud to uphold. John Clay in “The Red-Headed League” confirms widespread suspicions of aristocratic corruption. He has turned to crime when his background and education would have opened the doors of more honorable professions to him. His pride in his social rank appears ridiculous, since he has given up all claims to true respectability.
The middle and late decades of the 19th century also represented an explosion in scientific thought. This flowering of the sciences came in the wake of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, announced in his 1859 The Origin of Species and 1871 The Descent of Man. Darwin had proposed that each element of the natural world was not only part of an ongoing and orderly process of evolution but also carried physical signs of these evolutionary stages. His concept, and later theories indebted to it, led to increasing belief that all phenomena could be explained using the skills of observation and reasoning. Sherlock Holmes is seen by many critics as an embodiment of this new faith in scientific reasoning as a way of giving order and meaning to the world. But because science also threatened previous systems of belief, especially deeply held religious beliefs, Sherlock Holmes also presents a reassuring example of the usefulness of the scientist to society. Even though Holmes spends much of his time amassing information that might seem little more than academic or even humorous to the average reader-such as the study of tattoo marks mentioned in “The Red-Headed League”-the same methods of thinking that promote these academic studies prove vital to achieving the goals of justice and social order. Just as advances in scientific thought spread worldwide, the social changes and attitudes discussed above were not unique to England. Growing literacy, urbanization, changes in class structure, and the questioning of police authority and competence typical of British society had especially strong parallels in American culture. This might explain why Sherlock Holmes quickly became as familiar and appealing to American readers as to those in the country where his adventures were first published.