Friday, April 13th, 2012...9:30 am

You’ve Got Mail: “So do the Sacred Writings shew still another usefulness”

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Sidney Paget illustration from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, 1892. *EC9 D7722 892abSherlockians have long recognized the wisdom and practical utility of the “Sacred Writings,” the four novels and fifty-six stories that comprise the Sherlock Holmes canon. This letter from Baker Street Irregulars founder Christopher Morley (1890-1957) to Edgar W. Smith (1894-1960), a vice-president of the General Motors Export Company and prominent Baker Street Irregular, illustrates a novel application of the canon to the sacrament of marriage. Contemplating a finer point of etiquette on the eve of his daughter Helen’s wedding, Morley took down his copy of the first American edition of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes for help – specifically, to examine the frontispiece illustration of a wedding scene by Sidney Paget for “The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor.” “We have just checked, in the frontispiece of the old Harper edn of The Adventures, the perfect demeanor of arm and hand (illus. for the Noble Bachelor). So do the Sacred Writings shew still another usefulness.”

Arthur Conan Doyle. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, 1892. *EC9 D7722 892ab

Harper’s edition of The Adventures features a curious design blocked and printed in dark blue on the cover, at the center of which is a Gordian knot. Morley carefully deciphers the design in the second paragraph, hoping that Smith might make use of it in a future publication of Pamphlet House, his private imprint. In a suprascript he indicates that he has shared a carbon of the letter with Vincent Starrett (1886-1974), another prominent Sherlockian. As Morley pondered the significance of the Gordian knot that day at Green Escape, his daughter prepared to tie a new one.

Christopher Morley, ALS to Edgar W. Smith. Baker Street Irregulars Archive, MS Am 2717.

This letter is one of many exchanged between Morley (writing as Shinwell “Porky” Johnson from “The Illustrious Client”) and Smith (as Dr. Thorneycroft Huxtable from “The Priory School”) in the Baker Street Irregulars archive at Houghton Library.

This post is part of a weekly feature on the Houghton Library blog, “You’ve Got Mail,” based on letters in Houghton Library. Every Friday this year a Houghton staff member will select a letter from the diverse collections in the Library and put that letter into context. All posts associated with this series may be viewed by clicking on the You’veGotMail tag.

[Thanks to Peter Accardo, Coordinator of Programs, for contributing this post.]


  • Morley’s letter appears on pp. 137-38 of my IRREGULAR PROCEEDINGS OF THE ‘MID FORTIES, and prompted me to remark: “The last letter of 1944 doesn’t have strictly to do with the BSI. It is offered instead as convincing proof that despite Christopher Morley’s occasional protestations of declining Irregular zeal, he was still a crazed Sherlockian at heart. Who else but a crazed Sherlockian would take time to write such a letter the day before his daughter’s wedding — itself just two days before Christmas?”

  • What an interesting letter and comment!

    To Lord St. Simon, Hatty Doran might well have seemed a cherub when the sun rose on their courtship, but more like a Medusa when the sun sank on his ambitions to marry her for her money. His Lordship would have found it easier to cut the Gordian knot than tie the marriage knot.

    That “leafy sort of pattern” is a myrtle wreath, a Victorian symbol of faithfulness in marriage.

  • This blog post appeared just days after Helen Morley Woodruff’s death, at age 91, on 9 April. Helen Morley, Jr., was born in New York City on 28 September 1920, the third of Morley’s four children. She attended Smith College. She was interested in the theater directing children’s programs for NBC TV in Manhattan and directed theater companies in Long Island, Atlantic City, and Minnesota. She was the founding director of the Junior Theatre in Eveleth, Minnesota, and the Northern Lights Players of Virginia, Minnesota.

    Helen was married to then-Midshipman Whitney Woodruff the day after this letter is dated. They had three sons, the late Twain, and John and Tony who survive her.

    In a bit of Morleyan synchronicity, the letter is dated on Helen’s elder sister ouise’s birthday. Louise, who died this past February, had come in from London to be matron of honor at her sister’s wedding.

    Finally, Morley’s last collection of essays, The Ironing Board, took its name from the wedding hubbub. “He went to the local hardware and bought an Ironing Board. He put it in the far end of his study and draped it with a fair linen cloth. There he set out a dozen of that rare and noble Scots whisky Loch Fyne, with adequate ice-cubes and crystal.” The ironing board afterwards was used as a sort of filing case for casual things he had written and from which he selected the contents of the eponymous volume.