Public & Private Faces

I’ve never read anything on the differing psychological characteristics of various cultures and historical periods. I’ll bet it’s a fascinating field of study. But I’ve been reflecting a bit on the Victorian era.

I suspect that this period — the late 19th century in Western Europe — represents the apogee of a separation between the public and private personae. Respectability in the eyes of society was extremely important, more so than today, and probably more so than it had been a hundred years previous. People were careful to cultivate a respectable public persona, and that sometimes created quite a rift between the public and the private. When you met a person, you could seldom be certain what sort of person you were really dealing with. The private reality might be entirely different from the public presentation.

This observation came to me while reading some of the Sherlock Holmes stories. We tend to think of Holmes as being a keen observer of minute clues — whipping out a magnifying glass to inspect the minute traces on a windowsill, that type of thing. But while those incidents certainly occur in the Holmes stories, they’re not the predominant element.

Again and again, in story after story, Conan Doyle wrote about disguises. About people who were not at all who or what they appeared to be. Holmes himself, of course, often went about in disguise. But his most frequent occupation was unmasking someone else. His penetrating eye was, in essence, the ability to discern truth where others were deceived.

The truth was, at the very least, the revelation that a seemingly good person was a villain. But Doyle’s vision often went far beyond that. In “The Copper Beeches,” a woman is hired as a governess on the condition that she cut off her hair. Her employers want her to impersonate their daughter, and without her even knowing that that’s what she is doing. In “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” a disfigured beggar and a missing middle-class husband turn out to be the same person. In “The Six Napoleons,” a plaster bust of Napoleon (symbolically, the disguise) contains a priceless pearl. In the final scene in “Silver Blaze,” a horse appears disguised, so that its identity is not known. In “The Yellow Face,” a yellow mask conceals a little girl’s black skin. In “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” Stapleton is in fact the missing Baskerville heir, and the woman who lives with him as his sister is in fact his wife.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Doyle was telling us (even if only unconsciously) something crucial about the world he lived in.

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