When you gain knowledge in one area, it almost always enriches other areas of your life.
Recently, I’ve been thoroughly enjoying Eric Metaxas’s Amazing Grace. It’s a fascinating biography (and I’m not one who tends to relish biographies) about the life of William Wilberforce and his role in abolishing the slave trade in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century. Wilberforce has quickly become my new favorite historical character. As I was reading Amazing Grace today, I came upon a passage that made me do a double-take.
Months ago, when I first read The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, I discovered a unique scene in the short story “The Naval Treaty.” I had to read it several times before I could truly believe that it was Sherlock who was speaking. Until then, I’d seen Sherlock’s cold, logical side almost exclusively. But in an instant, Holmes went from earnestly discussing a case with his clients, to exclaiming,
“‘What a lovely thing a rose is!’
“He walked past the couch to the open window, and held up the drooping stalk of a moss rose, looking down at the dainty blend of crimson and green. It was a new phase of his character to me, for I have never before seen him show any keen interest in natural objects.
“‘There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion,’ said he, leaning with his back against the shutters. ‘It can be built up as an exact science by the reasoner. 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 extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.’
“[The clients] looked at Holmes during this demonstration with surprise and a good deal of disappointment written upon their faces. He had fallen into a reverie, with the moss rose between his fingers. It lasted some minutes before the young lady broke in upon it….
“‘Oh, the mystery!’ he answered, coming back with a start to the realities of life….”
I’m sure that my jaw must have dropped as far as Watson’s did when I read that. Sherlock’s deduction about the goodness of God based on flowers became one of my favorite quotes. I’ve read it so many times that I have it memorized. So I’m sure that you can imagine the complete shock I felt when I came across almost the exact same scene in Amazing Grace when reading it this morning.
Wilberforce had been on a mission to persuade Queen Caroline to avoid a public scandal (it’s a long story…), and the Queen had all but kicked him out of the building. According to Wilberforce’s friend Marianne Thornton,
“Mr. Wilberforce came back very low and dispirited, thinking indeed that she [the Queen] would upset the monarchy; when stepping out of the library window before dinner he caught sight of a gorgeous moss-rose that grew up the wall, and seeing how it transfixed him I gathered it. ‘Oh the beauty of it, Oh the goodness of God in giving us such alleviations in this hard world.’ The bell rang for dinner but there was no getting him to go in while he stood worshiping his flower…”
I couldn’t help but think of that favorite Sherlock passage of mine when I read Wilberforce’s moss-rose reverie. Whether or not Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had heard of William Wilberforce’s rose, I don’t know. But I think it very likely. The similarities in both scenes are remarkable: both men are trying to avoid a national catastrophe. Both are suddenly and inexplicably fascinated with a rose (both specify that it’s a moss-rose) beside a window. Both are transfixed for several minutes, and are called back to reality by those near them. Most convincing to me, though, is that both exclaim aloud about the goodness of God being connected to the beauty of flowers. It’s a unique sentiment to make, and the fact that Sherlock Holmes made it is even more astounding.
I’m almost positive that Conan Doyle read about Wilberforce and his moss rose and decided to create his own version of the historical scene with his fictional detective. Though we hear next to nothing about William Wilberforce in American schools, he is a huge part of the history of Great Britain. In 1893 when Conan Doyle wrote “The Naval Treaty,” Wilberforce’s role in English history had only just ended 60 years before. He was guaranteed to have read about Wilberforce. And I think, after comparing the two scenes that it’s safe to assume that Wilberforce was the inspiration for that incredible glimpse into the heart – not just the head – of Sherlock Holmes. I fully acknowledge that I could be wrong. It could have just been an extremely lucky coincidence. But I doubt it.
I’ll never read of Sherlock’s reverie without thinking of another time at another window with another flower that really existed. William Wilberforce inspiring a scene in Sherlock Holmes. Who would have thought?
What a lovely thing, indeed!