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  • pinaki roy
    Mar 13, 2008
      Dear Sherlockians,

      Tim has raised an important question – about Arthur Conan Doyle’s initially calling his first Sherlock Holmes story “A Tangled Skein” after a phrase from one of William Shakespeare’s plays. William S. Baring-Gould, in the first volume of “The Annotated Sherlock Holmes” (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1967) has specified the word to be ‘skein’ (pp. 11), and I am sorry that I spelt the word erroneously in my earlier post. But Baring-Gould himself has not had provided any details regarding how “A Tangled Skein” was changed within a month to “A Study in Scarlet.” I am waiting for the valuable suggestions of other Sherlockians regarding why the name was so abruptly changed. As for Tim’s suggestion, it was easy and natural for Doyle, a much-read person, to be influenced by Shakespeare. However, in the Second Act of “Macbeth”, Shakespeare has not exactly used the term ‘tangled skein’; he has actually used, through Macbeth, ‘ravell’d sleave’ (as a metaphor for the kind of
      frustration human beings experience when they have so many problems that they cannot see the end to any of them). May be Doyle was intending to write a story with so many twists and mysteries that the investigators would feel helpless.

      Interestingly, the concepts of both the ‘tangled skein’ and ‘study in scarlet’ exist within the text of the first Sherlock Holmes story. In the fourth chapter of “A Study in Scarlet”, subtitled ‘What John Rance had to Tell’, Sherlock Holmes lectures to Dr. John H. Watson about his murder-investigation being a ‘study in scarlet’. To quote Holmes – that is, Doyle – “There’s the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it.”

      As Sridhar has already pointed out, “The Tangled Skein” is also the 1907 altered title for “In Mary’s Reign” (1901), the second novel written by the Hungarian-British litterateur Emma M.R.M.J.B.O. de Orczi (1865-1947), better known as ‘Baroness Emma Orczy’. Orczy’s stirring novel is distinguished from Doyle’s initial Sherlock Holmes adventure by just an article. In her novel, Orczy does not actually paint Queen Mary in her supremely negative self. Rather, the queen is passionate and loving; she is a woman of strong emotions. But the ‘tangling of the skein’ occurs due to her pretentious love for Robert d’Esclade, fifth Duke of Wessex.

      Thanking you,

      Yours sincerely,

      (Pinaki Roy, Ph.D.)





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