Canonical References in “The Abominable Bride”

It’s become a popular tradition in Sherlockiana to go on a scavenger hunt for Canonical references every time a new episode of Sherlock airs. Since the series is made by two self-proclaimed Sherlock Holmes fanboys, every episode is consistently jam-packed with allusions and references to the Canon – so called Easter eggs. Yet, as one of the showrunners, Mark Gatiss, once stated in a DVD commentary, in their adaptation, “everything was Canonical…every version, we’re not just drawing on the stories but the Rathbone films, Jeremy Brett.” That is, the Canon, which, in the Sherlockian world, means the sixty Sherlock Holmes stories penned by Conan Doyle, and is sometimes referred to as the “Sacred Writings” is expanded by Moffat and Gatiss to include pastiches, sequels, adaptations, paratexts, and clichés. Simply put, they’re redefining the “source” of their show as not just the writings by Conan Doyle, but as pretty much every version of Sherlock Holmes that has ever appeared, including the arguably inaccurate version of him in the cultural imagination.  The latter is something that I have referred to in other writings as the “intertextual” Holmes, and which Mattias Bostrom calls the “parallel” Holmes (as opposed to the original Holmes of the stories).


So when I say that this post is about the “Canonical” references in the Sherlock Christmas special, the “Abominable Bride,” I use “Canonical” in the way that Moffat and Gatiss use the term; that is, this post is about (some, as it would be virtually impossible to list every single one) references to every incarnation of Holmes that has any kind of cultural significance. Sherlock is an incredibly layered series, which rarely adapts a plot directly from the Doyle stories, but rather makes layer upon layer of references to both Watson’s writings and retellings. “The Abominable Bride,” however, is striking to me because it’s in this episode that it really became clear to me, I think, just how seriously Moffat and Gatiss take their “everything is Canonical” mantra. In fact, I’m pretty sure that at this point, they’re counting previous episodes of their own show as Canonical, because there’s plenty of Easter-Egg type allusions to them. Here, then, are the Canonical references that, to me, are either thematically significant, intellectually intriguing, or just plain interesting – with some meditations on how their use fits into the larger project of this episode.

The Five Orange Pips

Okay, so this one is arguably pretty obvious: in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, there’s a story called “The Five Orange Pips,” in which, unsurprisingly, several men receive five orange pips in the mail. It’s a coded warning from the KKK, and they all soon end up dead. The story is rather quaint, since to a British audience with no Internet access, the KKK would have appeared appropriately exotic, mysterious, and terrifying. It’s also why it’s transformed the way it is for the episode: a man does indeed receive five orange pips as a warning, but the hoods and chanting serve as a misdirect for those viewers who expect the KKK to be the culprits. Interestingly enough, Sherlock already referenced the pips in “The Great Game,” where they refer to Greenwich Time Signal, alternatively referred to as “the pips.”

“The Monstrous Regiment”

This is one of the titles suggested by Watson for the version of the story he ends up writing based on the events we just watched. A Monstrous Regiment of Women is also the title of the second installment in Laurie R. King’s monstrousregimentkingfamous series of Sherlockian pastiches, centering around the young detective Mary Russell and her relationship with Sherlock Holmes. The series has heavily feminist undertones, with serious explorations upon the limitations placed on women by Victorian and Edwardian society, and aptly forces the reader to confront the fact that if Sherlock Holmes’ brain were in a woman’s body, she’d be far less likely to have his fame and adventures. Given the feminist undertones of “The Abominable Bride,” which focuses on the role of women in the Victorian era and the Holmes stories, I can’t help but think that this is another clever reference.

“No Ghosts Need Apply”

Midway through the episode, we encounter Sherlock and Holmes lurking in the dark, waiting for the next appearance of the Abominable Bride, and discussing the case, and their relationship, at length. Watson keeps referring to the bride as a ghost, and Holmes tells him, frustratedly, “you may, however, rest assured there are no ghosts in this world.” This echoes multiple statements by Holmes in the Canon, who has always been skeptical about the existence of the supernatural. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, he takes the stance that even if “forces outside the ordinary laws of Nature” exist, then “we are bound to exhaust all other hypotheses before falling back upon this one.” However, his statement in the episode even more closely echoes his claim in  “The Sussex Vampire” that “the world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply.”

The Strand Magazine

strandmagazineDuring the (superb) opening credits of the episode, which are a historicized version of the regular opening credits, end with the image of the cover of the Strand magazine, which then transforms into a scene on Baker Street where Watson runs into a newspaper vendor and asks him how “The Blue Carbuncle” (another Holmes story) is selling. Though details about how or where Watson publishes Holmes’ exploits are vague (he refers once to a “brochure”), the Strand was the magazine that serialized the Sherlock Holmes stories and catapulted both him and Conan Doyle to international fame.

Sidney Paget

Sidney Paget was the British illustrator of the Holmes stories in the Strand magazine, and it is his illustrations, with the deerstalker cap and pipe, that have codified that image as Holmes in the popular imagination. In fact, the following silhouette of Holmes is universally recognizable precisely because of Paget:


It looks, rather strikingly, like a particular shot from the episode:


Paget’s illustrations, which would have appeared next to the stories in their original print run, are what contemporary media studies would call a “paratext” – something that is not directly part of the text itself, yet influences the way it is received. Paget has had such a significant influence in that respect that he has become part of what is Canonical, and is thus referenced multiple times in the episode. Moriarty, for example, asks “does he follow you around? Do you pose?” The deerstalker appears in an early scene, when Watson makes Holmes put it on in a scene directly taken from “The Reichenbach Fall” (“you’re Sherlock Holmes. Wear the hat”), another allusion to the hat as part of the “definition” of Holmes.

The fact that this episode is set in Victorian times, however, also gives the episode the opportunity to adapt the Paget illustrations in another way: by creating scenes that are direct replicas of certain particularly famous Paget illustrations, such as the following:

Watson’s an Unreliable Narrator

The fact that Watson is an unreliable narrator has been a running gag in the Sherlockian fandom since, well, pretty much forever. In the Canon, Holmes constantly complains that Watson romanticizes the “exact science” of detection, which is akin to working “a love-story or an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid.” Plus, there’s the fact that Sherlockian chronology is notoriously persnickety, since Watson constantly messes up dates and can’t remember if his wife is alive or dead in a particular story – something often explained away by Watson’s terrible memory. This becomes a different kind of running gag in “The Abominable Bride,” where the difference between the real Holmes and Watson’s Holmes is made painstakingly obvious every time someone (usually Sherlock) argues with Watson about the verisimilitude of his stories (Mrs. Hudson complains that she never does anything but show people up the stairs; Sherlock constantly points out that he doesn’t “say that” or “talk like that,” etc…) By the end, however, it becomes clear that this difference is manufactured by Watson in purpose, who follows Holmes around, pretending to be stupider than he actually is to make the detective look smart. Watson might be romanticizing Holmes just as much here as he does in the Canon, might be presenting a certain version of Holmes to the public, but it is an entirely calculated move.

“The Great Falls of the Reichenbach”

fallsfothereichenbachturnerNo, not the place in Switzerland, the Turner painting. It shows up several times in this episode, including hanging in Mycroft’s room. This painting has previously appeared in Sherlock in “The Reichenbach Fall,” where Sherlock recovers it after it’s stolen. There, of course, it serves as a reference to “The Final Problem,” in which Holmes confronts Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls. Here, it serves as a reference both to this confrontation (with which the episode ends) and to “The Reichenbach Fall,” since the conceit of the episode is to explore the possibility of Moriarty surviving the end of that episode.

“The Crack in the Lens”

While awaiting the ghost of the “Abominable Bride,” Holmes and Watson get into a rather heated (and suggestive) argument, as Watson insists that Holmes has feelings that he won’t open up about. In response, Holmes claims “all emotion is abhorrent to me. It is the grit in a sensitive instrument. The crack in the lens.” This, of course, is a direct quote from A Scandal in Bohemia, the first Holmes story, which Watson starts off by explaining why Holmes is not in love with Irene Adler:

It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind. He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has ever seen, but as a lover he would have placed himself in a false position. He never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer. They were admirable things for the observer – excellent for drawing the veil from men’s motives and actions. But for the trained reasoner to admit such intrusions into his own delicate and finely adjusted temperament was to  introduce a distracting factor which might throw a doubt upon all his mental results. Grit in a sensitive instrument, or a crack in one of his own high-power lenses, would not be more disturbing than a strong emotion in a nature such as his.

That paragraph is perhaps one of the most problematic in the entire Canon, because if one reads the stories closely enough, it becomes clear that Holmes does, actually, have feelings. He cares very deeply about Watson, as he proves in “The Three Garridebs,” and the queer readings of Holmes never tire of pointing out that there’s ample subtext in the Canon (perhaps that’s why this conversation between two men in the dark is so suggestive). Furthermore, these lines were written by Watson, who, as discussed above, is generally accepted to be a pretty unreliable narrator of the Canon, which makes them even more problematic.

That’s probably why, in response to Holmes’ words, Watson snaps “No, I wrote all that. You’re quoting yourself from The Strand Magazine….Those are my words, not yours! That is the version of you that I present to the public. The brain without a heart. The calculating machine. I write all of that, Holmes, and the readers lap it up.”

Just as Watson is, Canonically, an unreliable narrator that makes paragraphs like the above difficult to interpret, “The Abominable Bride” has amply established that Watson is, indeed, a (purposefully) unreliable narrator, which is perhaps why this allusion works so well. It points to one of the most difficult-to-interpret paragraphs of the Canon and practically shouts “it’s not accurate! Watson’s misleading you on purpose! Don’t believe it!”

“I always survive the Fall”

Sherlock Holmes makes this statement right before jumping off the Reichenbach cliff. The jump itself is a re-enactment of “The Reichenbach Fall,” in which he jumped off the roof of St. Bart’s. In fact, the two were so similar they may very well have re-used footage. So, this is a nice little network of references, since Holmes here at the setting of “The Final Problem” is re-enacting his fall from the Sherlock episode that adapts “The Final Problem.” However, his jump is also a refusal to answer Watson, who asks how Holmes could possibly survive that kind of fall. I see two references here. The first is to the 1964 Study in Terror, which was referenced in “The Empty Hearse” in the same context: that of explaining how Sherlock could’ve survived his death. Like in the film, where Holmes refuses to explain how he could’ve escaped from a blazing inferno, Sherlock refuses to tell us explicitly how he survived, leaving us to use his methods to deduce it (“You know my methods. Use them,” he says in the film). At the same time, it’s a reference to the fact that Holmes, as a character, will always survive and live on in the cultural imagination. If Moriarty tried to destroy the myth of Holmes by killing him, then he failed yet again, as Sherlock Holmes survives to live on.

Screencaps are taken from here. Episode transcript here.


Posted on January 4, 2016, in BBC Sherlock, Sherlock Holmes and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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