The Priory School

Thorneycroft Huxtable, BA, MA, etc., arriving at Baker Street.
Illustration by Sidney Paget.

The Priory School

Musings of Dr. Sheldon Goldfarb, BA, MA, MAS, PhD, etc.

Priory? First of all, what is a Priory School? I’ve looked up “priory,” and it means monastery or convent, but that can’t be what we have here in Victorian England. Perhaps it means there used to be a monastery on the spot? And it is a boys’ school, so a bit monastic perhaps: and with lurid goings-on as in an old Gothic, like for instance The Monk. But still.

And who is the Priory Schoolmaster? A question of moment to me since I have assumed the title for the Stormy Petrels in our monthly discussions of things Sherlockian. In the story both Thorneycroft Huxtable, that pompous fool, and the German master who gets murdered have the title of schoolmaster applied to them. Not sure either is a good role model to follow. I will certainly not go speeding across moors on my bicycle. (Not that I have a bicycle or know where the nearest moor is.)

Moors and Bicycles: Common motifs at this point in the canon. Doyle does like to take us to barren places, and lately he has become interested in cycling. Not sure if that means anything.

Nasty Aristocrats: That’s another common motif, though the Duke at first seems pleasant enough, more so than his secretary, though of course the secretary turns out to be his illegitimate son, and thus from the same class, just a bastardized version of it, you might say. (Who was his mother, by the way? Oh, dear, I’ll be turning into a Great Game Sherlockian soon.)

         But at the end certainly the Duke is rather nasty in wanting to hush up his illegitimate son’s involvement in the kidnapping of his legitimate son, and also in that murder of poor Heidegger. Poor Heidegger. But why did he set off after the young heir? He didn’t even know him. Not a good thing to be a Good Samaritan, apparently. This story is full of questions.

Names: We don’t have to worry about Heidegger the German philosopher because he’s twentieth century, but Wilder is an apt name for the illegitimate son (as Joseph Kestner says). Wilder than whom, though? His father? The legitimate heir? And the legitimate heir is named Arthur! How many Arthurs are there in the canon?*  Poor Arthur, kidnapped and never seen, just like the unseen presence behind Holmes and Watson. How often does an author name a character after himself, and what can that mean? Certainly, Holmes’s main concern at the end is to protect young Arthur. Beyond that he is content to let James Wilder go free and hush up the involvement of the Duke. But we must save Arthur, though from whom? Reuben Hayes is under arrest, James Wilder is on his way to Australia; all that’s left at the Inn is the kindly wife of Hayes. But one can imagine that someone named Arthur would want to protect someone else named Arthur: save him from harm and get his parents back together.

Money: Holmes doesn’t usually care about money, but here he seems eager for it. Is that just a way to get at the Duke? He won’t report him to the police, but he’ll take his money. Hmm. Odd.

The gypsies did it: No, of course they didn’t. It’s never the gypsies (or the butler).**  Some critics say the Holmes stories reflect fear of the foreign, but sometimes they mock that fear. In “The Naval Treaty” there’s almost a celebration of things Italian, and here the “foreign” gypsies are perfectly innocent, while the German character is the well-intentioned victim. We need foreigners to help us, but here we go bashing them over the head. Is that what the story is saying? Be kind to foreigners? It’s the hereditary Duke and his illegitimate son who are the dangers, and also Reuben Hayes, none of whom I think are foreign, though the name Reuben is suggestive: Old Testament after all, but still I think we have homegrown villains here, especially aristocrats. They’re often the villains in the canon.

Children: That’s uncommon, though: the focus on a child. There’s even a reference to a children’s game: Holmes talks of getting warmer or colder when leaving or approaching the Inn, “as the children say,” says Holmes. Are there other children in the canon? Not that young Arthur quite makes it into the canon, being unseen and unheard throughout the story. Still. A concern for children. Quite unusual. I once reproached the author of a Sherlockian pastiche for writing a story in which Holmes is very concerned to rescue boys at a school: Holmes never cares about youngsters, I said, but I’d forgotten this story.

         And there’s the grimy stable boy. For a moment I thought he might be young Lord Saltire in disguise, and now I pause to think: why after all is the stable boy there? Is it to suggest the sort of thing the young lord might be forced into? The horror, the degradation. Is that what Holmes thinks young Arthur needs rescuing from, the decline into servitude? The canon after all is full of stories about respectable people fearing they will be dragged down by some disreputable secret from their past. Is this story expressing a fear that a young lord could be dragged into the muck by the disreputable past activities of his father?

The past: Yes, there is something to dwell on. Some unfortunate passage in the Duke’s past life has produced a serious threat to young Arthur. So it is the standard canonical motif after all. You may be a lord now, young Arthur, but someone could come along to snatch you away from all that and maybe deprive you of your inheritance. In other stories it is this threatened character who is likely to turn murderer or murder victim; young Arthur is lucky to get off with a kidnapping, while it is the German Good Samaritan who dies trying to save him.

Moving on from the past: So we have a priory school, conjuring up the monastic past, and an old aristocratic title, and a schoolmaster who writes about Horace and who ends up collapsing in the parlour at Baker Street. How the mighty are fallen, how the past has decayed, how worrying about inheritance leads into crime. Is this the message? And maybe it’s time to transfer money from the decaying aristocracy to the self-made men of the middle class, the detectives, for instance. And finally remember to protect the children, especially the ones named Arthur.


*   More than I thought, actually. Donald Redmond says there are eight.  Most of them are quite positive characters, either heroes or sympathetic victims (or both, like Arthur Cadogan West in “The Bruce-Partington Plans” and Arthur Holder in “The Beryl Coronet”). There’s also the falsely accused Arthur Charpentier in Study in Scarlet. The most prominent villain among them is Arthur Pinner in “The Stockbroker’s Clerk,” but I note that Arthur is not his real name.

**  Well, it is the butler in “The Musgrave Ritual.” But it’s never the gypsies. Sometimes it’s foreigners, but other times they’re just innocents wrongly accused.

Excerpted from my book of Sherlockian Musings, available at Amazon Canada, Amazon USA, and  Amazon UK. Also at MX Publishing.  The musings were originally written for the Stormy Petrels of British Columbia.

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