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Living and Writing in the Natural World

A Strange Case of Sherlock Holmes and the Rose

Jeremy Brett's Sherlock

We did a lot of traveling to the Bay Area this past month—February—and I was struck by how many trees were flowering all over northern California. Rarely were we out of sight of the glorious treat of a tree full of blossoms, usually almond, cherry, or peach of the early-blooming Prunus genus. All creation seemed to be bursting with beauty, and even the hard-bitten scientist that I am could understand those who come to the conclusion that not only is life good, but that surely there must be a higher being or force lavishing his (or her?) love on the world via the flowers.

And this in turn reminded me of one of the most bizarre incidents in the entire Sherlock Holmes canon: Holmes’ soliloquy in The Naval Treaty, in which he proclaims moss roses in particular, and flowers in general, as proof of “the goodness of Providence.”

What? Sherlock Holmes saying that?

Yes, and it’s puzzled—and fascinated--many generations of Sherlockians, too. What in the world was he thinking? The cold, analytical “thinking machine” waxing poetic about the goodness of Providence?! Yet when we watch the 1983 Granada Television series with Jeremy Brett as Holmes, the “menu” of every episode is adorned by Holmes/Brett with a moss rose prominently in his hand.

I provide an explanation of this conundrum in my novel The Death of Mycroft: Sherlock Holmes and the Secret History of D-Day (currently being considered by NYC publishers). I’ll here quote a section of the novel in which I present my solution to The Strange Case of Sherlock Holmes and the Roses. Permit me to set the stage. Holmes is in the company of Isadora Klein (the beauty from The Three Gables). They are pursuing the grandson of John Watson, whom they suspect of having stolen the secret plans for the Allies D-Day invasion. This is 1945, and Holmes is 89 years old--spry but, well, still 89. The young Watson is leaving clues as to his path, and the clues point to a series of Holmes’ old cases.

The last clues have sent Holmes and Isadora to Woking, in Surrey, to the very rose-stuffed room where Holmes interviewed the prostrate Percy Phelps, who has had an immensely important naval treaty stolen from his desk the night before, shattering his nerves. It is here that Holmes produces the inexplicable soliloquy on roses which has baffled Sherlockians for nearly a century now. We take up the story in my novel as Holmes and Isadora approach Woking by rail. Holmes is waking from a short nap (he’s 89, remember).

Holmes stirred. Isadora watched him awaken, with a tender and loving eye.
“Ah, I dosed off, then?”
“We were very active this morning.”

“Indeed. And let me see. We are now speeding toward Woking, in Surrey. At...” Here he glanced at the window, watched three telephone poles pass by, then returned his gaze to her. “At fifty-seven miles per hour. And it is raining again. Soon we shall be there.”
“You were going to tell me about your soliloquy on the moss rose.”

“Ahhh,” he said with asperity. “I can put it off no longer, I see. Very well.”
He retrieved his pipe, the black clay, filled it, and settled back with a sigh as he puffed.

“Watson and I were in the room where Percy Phelps’ was convalescing,” Holmes remembered. “His loyal fiancee Annie was at his side. I knew at that point in the case that his future brother-in-law Joseph had intended to meet Percy at his Foreign Office desk earlier that fateful evening to ride the train back to Woking with him. I knew that Joseph had taken the train back, alone, while Percy was rushing about London frantically trying to locate the naval treaty stolen from his desk while he went briefly for coffee, to no avail.

“Percy himself did not arrive back in Woking until quite past midnight. At that point this mind was quite wrecked with anxiety, so poor Joseph was summarily evicted from what had formerly been his bedroom to make way for Percy, who occupied the new room, tended day and night by his loving fiancee, for the nine weeks it took him to recover his senses and call for Sherlock Holmes.

“Very early I entertained the possibility, among six other explanations, that future brother-in-law Joseph in fact had called on Percy for their common train ride, and rung the bell when he found the office unoccupied, as Percy searched for his cup of coffee. The brother-in-law then might have noticed the naval treaty on the desk, instantly realizing its import and its worth to the French or Russian embassies. He grabs the treaty and rushes out of the office by the side corridor. Joseph takes the treaty home—alone—on the train, and quite prudently hides it somewhere in his bedroom when he arrives, until he can sell it to the highest bidder.

“This would account for the treaty not having been passed on to the French or Russians in those nine weeks that Percy was a raving idiot. Having been abruptly dispossessed from his room the evening that the distraught Percy arrived back home, Joseph was agonizingly unable to retrieve the treaty from its hiding place whilst Percy recuperated there.

“Well. It was but one of seven possibilities, but it was one. As I stood on one side of that room and listened to Percy’s tale, I was systematically searching the opposite side of the room for a likely hiding place where the brother-in-law could have thrust the treaty. I found none evident to my visual inspection.

“In order to take a look at the other side of the room, I naturally walked across the room and took up my position there, my back against the shutters as Watson so rightly emphasized. Percy was quite through talking by then. All eyes were on me, as they often are, I must admit. So to fill the silence while I surreptitiously inspected the other side of the room, I grabbed the nearest handy object, which happened to be a flower from one of the room’s many vases, and expounded on flowers and their significance in the universe.

“I have no idea whether Watson accurately recorded my ramblings, because in truth I myself could not have told you ten seconds later what I had said. I was babbling, my dear Isadora, babbling nonsense to fill the silence as my eyes focused quite beyond the flower before me to the other side of the room. I babbled nonsense until I had convinced myself there was no obvious hiding place there either, then I stopped talking and put the silly flower back in its vase.”

A cry of disappointment erupted from Isadora. “But my darling Sherlock, your philosophy was so profound, so telling. I burned your beautiful words into my mind, and they have given me pleasure and solace ever since. ‘Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its colour are an embellishment of life not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extra, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers’.” She sighed at the beauty of the words.

“Oh, really. That is rubbish,” Holmes snorted. “The first clue was my saying ‘and so I say again’—a quite unnecessary repetition, improvised only to gain a few more seconds of inspection, and make a stab at tying together a quite nonsensical string of tomfoolery.”
“But Sherlock—“

“Perhaps a hundred years prior one could defend such rubbish. But this was several decades after Darwin’s work, after all. Every educated person in England was well aware that the function of flowers was not to establish the goodness of providence, but rather to attract insects to the plant in order to effect pollination. Flowers exist to produce nectar to persuade bees to visit them and carry pollen from them to other flowers. Nothing more. They are, if I may put it so crudely, mechanisms to enlist bees to assist reproduction in plants!”
“But Sherlock. They are beautiful.”

“That may be. Some are, some are not. And my dear lady, it is not wrong to appreciate that beauty. It is only wrong, my dear,” he said gently, now, realizing this was not solely about establishing the function of flowers, “only wrong to imagine that their beauty is their purpose for existence, or a proof of the goodness of providence.”

Quite so, Sherlock. Let’s enjoy the loveliness of flowers. Thrill to their beauty. But not demand more of the flowers than they can properly give.

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