Neo-Victorian Review – Sherlock’s ‘The Abominable Bride’: Recreating Nineteenth Century Illumination in Neo-Victorian Space

Richard Leahy currently teaches as a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Chester, and is a PhD Graduand after successfully defending his thesis entitled: ‘The Evolution of Artificial Illumination in Nineteenth Century Literature: Light, Dark and the Spaces in Between’. His research interests include uses of light in Nineteenth Century Literature, Victorian Consumerism, The Gothic, and Neo-Victorianism. Follow him on Twitter: @RichardLeahyLit

Images taken from Sherlock, ‘The Abominable Bride’ Promotional Gallery at

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock in ‘The Abominable Bride’.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock in ‘The Abominable Bride’.

The BBC’s Sherlock, after spending its first two series masterfully updating classic Holmes tales, moved on in the subsequent third series and 2016 special to approach the aftermath of his apparent suicide, and deal with the realities of a man who is very much entrapped within his own stories. ‘The Abominable Bride’ delivers a story that seems at first a diversion from the ongoing narrative creators Mark Gatiss and Stephen Moffat are keen to predicate. Although there are inestimable positives to be drawn from the episode – Victorian London looks fantastic, and there is, as always, excellent performances from the whole cast – the intention of bringing the intelligent modern adaptation together with Holmesian heritage does not work as well as it should. This is partially due to an awkward resolution to the mystery that attempts to be both a socio-political statement and the denouement of a snaking detective story, while also tying it to the ‘current’ Sherlock narrative. More successful however is something that probably goes unnoticed by many: the use of artificial illumination and the lighting design of certain scenes. The historical accuracy of the forms of illumination used is mostly excellent. More crucially though, ‘The Abominable Bride’ recreates the way artificial light functions symbolically in Doyle’s original Holmes stories, as it becomes a signifier of the liminality between concepts of known and unknown, as well as truth and falsehood, that are essential to the progression of a detective narrative.

Judith Johnston asserts that ‘Perception is a key concept in considering detection. Detection embraces the practices of discovering, uncovering, noticing, investigating’.[1] Johnston’s analysis suggests the binary dialectic of detection – it is a journey from unknown to known, or to quote Franklin Betteredge’s description of the detective process in Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone, it is ‘the slow and toilsome journey from darkness to light’.[2] It is easy to envisage the dichotomous echoes between such binary concepts of light/dark and known/unknown, but it is important to emphasise the liminality of artificial light within these binaries. Artificial light in the nineteenth century, bridged the very natural divide between day and night, or light and dark, and so consequently it started to be used in a literary sense as something that could embody much more complex ideas than just one side of a metaphoric archetype.

In the Sherlock Holmes stories the liminality between oppositional concepts is vital to the movement of the narrative, and artificial light became a tool of both Holmes’s deductions and in Doyle’s creation of atmosphere and place. For example, in ‘A Study in Scarlet’, Holmes recreates the crime scene through the inferences he takes from the ‘stump of a red wax candle’.[3] When confronting Lestrade over what he had missed, Holmes asks him ‘Why was that corner chosen to write it on? I will tell you. See that candle on the mantelpiece. It was lit at the time, and if it was lit this corner would be the brightest instead of the darkest portion of the wall’.[4] Sherlock Holmes reads the candle; from its physicality he draws out the potential human presence inferred by its waning wax, as well as recreating the illuminated space in his mind. A. Roger Ekirch suggests that artificial light in this period ‘signified human activity’.[5] As much as the candle may illuminate, it may also entrap, following a certain dualism that embodies both aspects of safety and threat, as well as knowable and unknowable.

Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) in 221b Baker Street.

Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) in 221b Baker Street.

Similar ideas reoccur in The Hound of the Baskervilles, as Watson discovers the criminal Selden’s whereabouts through the reading of an ensconced ‘guttering candle’ within a crevice of rock. Watson remarks that it ‘was strange to see this single candle burning there in the middle of the moor, with no sign of life near it – just the one straight yellow flame and the gleam of rock on each side of it’.[6] Again, artificial light belies human presence and activity, as well as symbolising the movement towards the necessary enlightenment required in the detective story. Sir Henry Baskerville also suggests that his ancestral home Baskerville Hall would be rid of supernatural or criminal occurrences if he implemented electric light. Lars Heiler suggests that Sir Henry ‘reveals a staunchly optimistic belief in the power of electric lighting to exorcise the darkness of the past’, further stating that the illumination is ‘supposed to fortify the man and the house alike, turning the house into a […] site of civilisation’.[7] Complete illumination ensures the area may be visually policed and observed, yet it negates the necessity of the detective. Like the candle, which may operate individually outside of a networked form of illumination like gas or electric, the detective, in this case Holmes, may also ‘reinforce the power of social ordering all the more effectively for being positioned above the crude machinations and self-interest in his society’.[8]

The candle is what aids Watson in the tracking and capture of the criminal Selden. He is photographed in Watson’s perception by the inclusive aura of the candlelight on the moors: ‘Over the rocks, in the crevice of which a candle burned, there was thrust out an evil yellow face, a terrible animal face, all seamed and scored with vile passions’.[9] The light holds Selden in Watson’s gaze, Holmes’s assistant later remarking upon Selden’s capture as ‘it was indeed the same face which had glared upon me in the light of the candle from over the rock – the face of Selden, the criminal’.[10] The candle illuminates and highlights the Lombrosian features of the atavistic criminal, and positions them within a knowable and observable field; indeed, it is important to note that Watson acknowledges Selden as the same person from ‘in’ the light of the candle and not ‘by’ it. The candle’s light holds a spatial power – its light is inhabited, it creates space as opposed to simply just illuminating it. It may capture within its aura of vision, yet also connote suggestions of threat from the frail light and the liminal boundary of darkness beyond. Selden transitions from being agent to object of the gaze, the candlelight captures him in the perception of the detective. Furthermore, it is under the light of a candle that Holmes proves to Watson the facial similarities between Stapleton and Henry Baskerville and uncovers the motive for the crimes. Luminosity is often equated with detection in the Holmes stories; Sherlock is the light, working outside of an established network to provide elucidation to criminal activity and motivations – Stapleton referring to him as he who might ‘throw some light on that which is so dark to us’.[11] Holmes also likens Watson to a ‘conductor of light’, suggesting his deductive capabilities are not as ‘luminous’ as his own.[12]

The contemporary BBC reimagining of the story converts the signal candle on the moors into a meaningless red-herring in the form of flashing lights from doggers’ headlights. Artificial light, as both symbol and illumination, does not carry as much weight in the modern Sherlock. The metaphoric potency of the candle, and other archaic forms of artificial illumination is diminished in the light of our own contemporary mass illumination. Sherlock’s London is lit for all in glaring electric light, Holmes as adept at negotiating the new technocratic, sparkling city as much as his Victorian counterpart was at navigating the gloom and gas. One of the most satisfying aspects of the most recent Sherlock special, ‘The Abominable Bride’, is how it overlays the traditional metaphoric archetype of light and dark, and the liminality of artificial light within such a dichotomy, on the neo-Victorian aesthetics of Sherlock’s homage to nineteenth-century Holmes. The submersion of twenty-first century Sherlock tropes into the murkier depths of both Nineteenth-Century City and country reimbues Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, and the story as a whole, with a revitalised metaphoric centre of light and dark, or elucidation and obscurity.

We first meet the two detectives in a re-envisioning of Holmes and Watson’s first meeting in Sherlock, yet the setting connotes a very different atmosphere. In ‘A Study in Pink’, Holmes and Watson first meet in the starkly white, electrically-lit morgue, yet in ‘The Abominable Bride’, we witness the same scene with a distinctly different atmosphere due to the setting and illumination. The flaring gaslights that hang from the vaulted ceiling create a much more claustrophobic and heady space than the sterile emptiness of the modern morgue. Indeed, we get our first indicator that artificial light may be more than just set-dressing at around 17 minutes, as a rapid camera pan morphs the fire of 221b Baker Street into the gaslights of the morgue, thus suggesting the connection between detective and illumination, as well as the idea of the detective story as a journey from darkness to light. Upon the return to the morgue Holmes also uncovers the word ‘YOU’ through using a lantern to expose the darkness of the cavernous morgue, apparently written in blood on the wall by the Bride – a very similar scene to his uncover of ‘RACHE’ in ‘A Study in Scarlet’.

Artificial light begins to function in a highly similar manner to Doyle’s original stories, particularly The Hound of the Baskervilles, as the action moves to the estate of Sir Eustace Carmichael. As we are introduced to the location, and the deepening mystery of the ghostly bride, around 40 minutes in Holmes states: ‘We all have a past Watson, ghosts; they are the shadows that define our every sunny day’.[13] Again, Holmes is repositioned as one side of the diametrically opposite concepts of light and darkness albeit this time through the dichotomous archetype of natural light and dark. Artificial light, as previously suggested, operates outside of this binary, and creates a tensile liminality between the two states. As Holmes and Watson wait outside of the Hall while investigating the ghost, Watson asks ‘Is the lamp still burning?’, the artificial light signifying human presence in a similar manner to the signal-candle on the moors near Baskerville Hall. The most obvious instance of Sherlock’s historical layering of the symbolic presence of artificial light occurs as Watson, alone while investigating the Carmichael Estate, says aloud: ‘Little use us standing here in the dark. After all, this is the nineteenth century’ (47 mins.). Immediately after the camera takes in the bloom of light from the candle, the action cuts to Sherlock, who is stalking the Hall with a reflective torch lantern in his hand. As well as being a metatextual comment on the repositioning of the modern conception of Sherlock Holmes back to the stories’ nineteenth-century roots, Watson’s statement and the subsequent camera work reinforce both the increase in illumination in a post-Industrial age as well as the metaphorical connection between Holmes and the illumination of a mystery. Artificial light represents the innovation and ingenuity necessary to bring resolve to the tensile liminality between states of known and unknown that dominate detective and crime narratives.

The candle further emphasises the liminality of the detective narrative through the frailness of its flame and the nature of its dim light. It not only enlightens the immediate perceptions of its bearer but also blinds them to potential threat from the darkness beyond its illuminatory boundaries. While exploring Carmichael Hall, and soon after his declaration of light, Watson’s candle is extinguished by a gust of wind accompanied by a scream. This sequence plays with the ambiguous nature of candle symbolism, leaving Watson both ‘in the dark’ literally and figuratively and exposing him to invisible threat. Relighting the extinguished candle traps Watson within the same perceptible aura of the bride, repositioning the candle’s relationship with the individual into something that can entrap as well as illuminate.

The ambivalent nature of candle symbolism, as it blurs the divide between binary concepts of light and dark and by extension the related symbolic archetypes is encapsulated in the figure of ‘Pepper’s Ghost’, an optical illusion that is used to fool Watson and Holmes while they are outside Carmichael Hall. A nineteenth-century invention, it worked through using light to reflect an image onto a transparent glass panel, and ‘when using a candle or smoky oil-lamp, dim ghostly figures were about all that one could see’.[14] The visual trick further reinforces the liminal positioning of artificial light within the Holmes stories, as it exposes how controlled light can betray and entrap, as well as how it can create its own truths and reality. The situation of candles, or other forms of artificial light, in between the narrative dichotomy of concealment and revelation, or safety and threat, helps to recreate the Victorian atmosphere, the detective processes themselves, and the figure of the detective in this new-old Sherlock.


[1] Judith Johnston, ‘Sensate Detection in Wilkie Collins’s The Law and the Lady,’ in The Australasian Journal of Victorian Studies, Vol. 14, No. 2, p. 38.

[2] Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008) p. 329.

[3] Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘A Study in Scarlet’ in Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Stories (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth, 2006) p. 31.

[4] Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘A Study in Scarlet’, p. 31.

[5] A. Roger Ekirch, At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2005) p. 101.

[6] Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles in Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Stories (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth, 2006) p. 249.

[7] Lars Heiler, ‘Darkness Visible: Night, Light and Liminality’ in Dark Nights, Bright Lights: Night, Darkness, and Illumination in Literature, eds. Susanne Bach and Folkert Degenring (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2015) p. 132.

[8] Rosemary Jann, ‘Sherlock Holmes Codes the Social Body’ in ELH, Vol. 57, No. 3 (Autumn, 1990) p. 703.

[9] Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles, p. 249.

[10] Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles, p. 275.

[11] Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles, p. 225.

[12] Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles, p. 153.

[13] Sherlock, ‘The Abominable Bride’ (dir. Douglas Mackinnon, 2016) BBC TV.

[14] Thomas L. Hankins and Robert J. Silverman, Instruments and the Imagination (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009) p. 66.


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