Holmes Family Rules–Or Not

Mycroft Holmes was a much larger and stouter man than Sherlock. 

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Mycroft Holmes is Sherlock Holmes’ elder brother. In fact, as John Watson knotes in “The Greek Interpreter” Sherlock makes no mention of his family at all. This seems to be insignificant when you consider Mycroft appears not long before Sir Arthur Conan Doyle kills off Sherlock Holmes in The Final Problem. But, Mycroft is an important aspect to our view of Sherlock Holmes and his character. 

In fact, with the addition of book series such as Nancy Springer’s Enola Holmes and even a few that purport to be about Sherlock Holmes’ daughter, it’s perhaps high time that we take a closer look at the elusive and equally reclusive Mycroft. 

If Sherlock is reclusive, then Mycroft is practically a hermit. 

The Diogenes Club is the queerest club in London, and Mycroft one of the queerest men. He’s always there from quarter to five to twenty to eight. The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes “The Greek Interpreter”

The most common place we see Sherlock is in his rooms at 221B Baker Street. This is especially true when he is between cases. The Sign of Four introduces him as a cocain user to keep his brain occupied so that he doesn’t get too bored. As Watson rightly notes, this definitely isn’t the best way to occupy his mind. 

But if we think Sherlock’s ennui troubling, then Mycroft’s is downright startling. Although seemingly harmless. Mycroft, according to his brother, only goes to three locations: his home, his office, and the Diogenes Club. Like clockwork no less. Mycroft is a government official and deals in only the most confidential information. 

He also lacks the same drive and ambition that he brother has. If they were indeed descended from a family of country squires, this perhaps isn’t all that surprising. Mycroft, as the eldest. would have inherited the family seat and so wouldn’t need all that much ambition except to advance his career for his own amusement. 

Sherlock, as second son, would have had to take slightly more daring measures to make his way in the world. Which, of course, he does, as we see in A Study in Scarlet. He doesn’t have the luxury of only cycling between his home, his office, and his club. He has to be out in humanity so that the facts can be properly understood in their context. 

Mycroft’s lack of energy means he leans on his younger brother. 

“By the way, Sherlock,” said he, ” I have had something quiet after your own heart–a most singular problem–submitted to my judgement. I really had not the energy to follow it up save in a very incomplete fashion, but it gave me a basis for some pleasing speculation.” 

In “The Greek Interpreter” Mycroft talks to Sherlock about other cases the two have consulted on. In fact, we learn that Sherlock often bounces ideas off his brother from time to time. And Mycroft also called Sherlock in to do the dirty work so he doesn’t have to break with his routine. 

This means there is a somewhat symbiotic relationship between the two, Mycroft sends Sherlock clients, Sherlock’s work helps keep Mycroft in power in the government. It’s a slightly hidden dynamic, and one which has far-reaching consequences when Sherlock goes over the falls in Reichenbach in The Final Problem. 

For instance, how did Sherlock manage to fake his own death? His brother, Mycroft gets power of attorney and helps keep Sherlock funded. He even preserves his rooms in Baker Street so that Sherlock is able to come back to his old home. 

As I pointed out in my last post on Sherlock Holmes, the only thing we do see is what Watson allows us to see. Watson details as much as he can of the adventures, but he doesn’t know everything about Sherlock, by his own admission. 

And one of the things he knows nothing about his the Holmes family. We have to induce and deduce for ourselves what it was like. 

What it means to be a Holmes. 

Well, unlike the Enola Holmes books, we don’t really have a good view into the family dynamics. We don’t know their parentage, aside from the fact that a grandmother married an artist. This might account for Mother Holmes’ eccentricities in The Case of the Missing Marquess, the first of the Enola Holmes books. 

What we do know is that out of a country family came two brothers, seven years apart, who have very similar gifts for reasoning, logic, and observation. If the family were country squires, that means they owned some land at least. Enough to educate the two boys, but not enough to make them both reasonably well off without having to work. 

Children usually came closer together than 7 years. So that means either the marriage wasn’t a very successful one, the parents were slightly eccentric, or their parents weren’t in good health. Of course, another explanation, and one which my own grandparents employed, was family planning. They might have had the boys that far apart intentionally. That way, they had enough time to fund Mycroft’s schooling so that he was closer to finishing before they had to work too much about getting Sherlock through school. 

This wasn’t uncommon for upper middle to noble classes. Working class families often had more children because more children meant more able-bodied workers to bring in income. It’s almost the reverse of today’s standpoint on family-rearing. The poorer you were, the more children you bore because it increased your income bases. The richer you were, the fewer you had so you could keep the property together. As long as you had a couple of male children, you were good as gold. 

When you look at the family dynamic in that light, Mycroft’s attitude towards Enola when he discovers her lack of education is a little more understandable. It was just how things were back then. Unfortunately. 

Mycroft, in his own way, humanizes Sherlock. 

I found myself regarding [Mr. Sherlock Holmes] as an isolate phenomenon, a brain without a heart, as deficient in human sympathy as he was pre-eminaent in intelligence.

Remember, we know Sherlock through Watson. We don’t know him by any other means. So, hitherto, we have only seen Sherlock in action with a few glimpse into his life at Baker Street. Even those a precious because Watson marries not long after the events in The Sign of Four. 

So, if Watson sees Sherlock has heartless, then we also end up seeing him as heartless. How do we overcome that? Remember, Sir Arthur is getting ready to kill Sherlock Holmes off. Well, the easiest way is to give him family. 

In fact, it’s to give him an older brother who has similar powers to his own, but has founded a club named for a famous Cynic philosopher and dislikes deviating from his routine. In comparison to Mycroft’s grumpy and antisocial tendencies, Sherlock appears practically vibrant. He’s at least interested in other people. 

He’s interested in the doings of small-time businessmen and the criminals who prey upon the weak and the helpless. Mycroft is more concerned with the machinations of government and the shifting landscape of political power. It’s useful when you have to get things done, but it’s even more elusive than Sherlock’s usual ennui and a syringe full of cocaine. 

It’s Mycroft who also makes Sherlock’s long adventures tracking down Moriarty’s associates between the events of The Final Problem and The Empty House. Mycroft administer’s his brother’s business affairs in his absence and makes it possible for Sherlock, when he returns, to continue residence at his Baker Street address and live as comfortably as he did before. 

Ultimately, Mycroft and his interactions with his younger brother are tantalizing looks into the Holmes family. They leave us with only the barest glimpse into what it might have been like. Thankfully, writers like Nancy Springer and her wonderful Enola Holmes series are bridging that gap. It’s still speculation, but it gives a new realm of appreciation to the world’s most famous and favorite detective.

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