"Some deep sorrow gnaws ever at her heart." [HOUN]
[Editor's note: the following does not represent the opinion of this site; this is one Sherlockian's opinion about a very complex matter. We'll leave it to you to decide for yourself.]
No doubt you have recently seen testimony on I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere by the numerous authors involved with MX Publishing’s Kickstarter campaign and ambitious undertaking to present the largest collection of Sherlockian writings (The World's Largest New Sherlock Holmes Story Collection). Many of the authors are very dear friends of mine for whom I have much respect; in addition they are all extremely talented, so I have no doubt the collection will be a stellar one. But I will not be supporting the Kickstarter, nor will I be purchasing the books.
The project is being promoted as one to benefit Undershaw, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s former home, which he designed himself, and where he brought Sherlock Holmes back to life in order to get the funds to cover the building costs of Undershaw. While this three-volume set by MX appears on the surface to be a worthy cause—and I believe that MX Publishing has every good intention—to some of us who have been intimately involved with the Undershaw Preservation Trust (UPT) and know the struggles to save this magnificent icon of historic and literary value, the long-term benefit of the fundraising is questionable.
I have been an active and outspoken member of UPT since 2009; I have been the U.S. representative for nearly that long, and have worked closely with the founder and co-founders of UPT. (Note: In this piece I am speaking only for myself; I do not speak for UPT nor any of its officials, though I write this with their permission.) In 2011 I visited Undershaw and saw for myself the deterioration it suffered at the hands of its former owners, whom UPT continued to challenge through legal means to force them to comply with the local requirements of maintaining an unoccupied property.
"the whole history of the settlement" [STUD]In addition, the former owners had plans to convert the home to several townhomes, and to build other townhomes on the property. Those of us who supported UPT and Undershaw worked long and hard to raise awareness around the world that this home, and all it represented for Sherlockians, would be destroyed forever should this be allowed to happen. It was not only the home itself that we wished to preserve, but the land upon which the home was built. As Conan Doyle had sought out a suitable location to build a home to aid his wife in her struggles with tuberculosis, he wrote to his mother in 1895 about the parcel of land in Hindhead, Surrey, “It is because its height, its dryness, its sandy soil, its fir trees, and its shelter from all bitter winds present the conditions which all agree to be best in the treatment of phthisis [tuberculosis]. If we could have ordered Nature to construct a spot for us we could not have hit upon anything more perfect.”
Fast forward--past successful rulings on behalf of Undershaw, victories for its preservation, attempts to find a buyer or buyers to purchase the home and perhaps to create an historic center of all things Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes--to the present, and the purchase of Undershaw by DFN Foundation / Stepping Stones School. [An additional but truncated timeline can be found on Art in the Blood. - Ed.]
Stepping Stones School is an educational opportunity for children with various challenges. In itself, it is a most worthy cause; that Undershaw was bought to house a branch of the school could have been the best combination of historic preservation paired with a cause that no doubt Conan Doyle would be proud of. But at that point the worthiness of the cause gets in its own way, and as a result, Undershaw—for which many of us have worked so long to save—will be sacrificed to a skewed understanding of what “preservation” and “restoration” really mean.
Undershaw has always been more than just a piece of property and a derelict brick home. Undershaw represents Conan Doyle—and Sherlock Holmes—at a pivotal time of their individual existences. The home was designed by Conan Doyle, and named, as he wrote, “Undershaw—a new word, I think, and yet one which described it exactly in good Anglo-Saxon, since it stood under a hanging grove of trees” (“shaw,” meaning a small copse or wood). As the area did not yet have electricity, an electric generating house with a steam driven plant made Undershaw the first house in Hindhead to have electricity. The home is where Conan Doyle lived when he wrote The Hound of the Baskervilles. “The Empty House,” and The Return Of Sherlock Holmes resurrected Holmes from the Reichenbach Falls in Conan Doyle’s study at Undershaw. Inside those walls The Great Boer War was written. The house was where Bram Stoker, J.M. Barrie, and Virginia Woolf stayed as guests; William Gillette traveled to Undershaw to discuss Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes” play. While living at Undershaw, Conan Doyle received the knighthood, defended George Edalji, and met the woman who would become his second wife, Jean Leckie. [For more information on the history of Undershaw, see “An Effort to Preserve It”]
"marked down for destruction" [VALL]The DFN Foundation, or Stepping Stones School, were at first perceived as the savior of Undershaw when the purchase was made. Supporters celebrated listened to promises as UPT founder John Gibson and the Foundation entered discussions, reached agreements and ultimately signed a deal seemingly in support of his mission to keep Undershaw exactly as Doyle knew it.
What happened next is a “he-said-she-said” situation, as the lines of communication were confused, and the destruction of portions of the Undershaw estate began. (It should be noted that UPT continues to fight for Undershaw through the British legal system, with the encouragement of English Heritage and The Victorian Society.) In recent months the electric-generating house has been demolished, the stable (which had been left for 100 years with its iron stalls just as Conan Doyle had made them) has developed to become a small residential facility; the well which served the property has been filled with concrete (again, that had previously been left as it was when the Conan Doyle family was in residence); a tree planted by Conan Doyle himself has been bulldozed, as has most of the “endless sea of greenery” as described by Bram Stoker upon a visit there. The very nature and spirit of Undershaw, along with its name, is being destroyed.
In addition, a structure nearly three times the size of Undershaw will be built adjacent to it, in a modern style which will eclipse the modest Victorian home. Conan Doyle’s home will become a mere shadow of its former self, with nothing remaining of its proud literary heritage, nor of its significance to Sherlockians around the world.
On the Kickstarter page for The World’s Largest New Sherlock Holmes Story Collection the description of the fundraiser says, “The [contributing] authors are donating the royalties to the restoration of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's former home, Undershaw.” Knowing of the destruction—not restoration—of Undershaw which has occurred to date, I have little confidence in just how much restoration we can really count on. The only part of Undershaw which has been slated for restoration as far as I know has been the stained glass windows which Doyle had designed and installed.
There is no blame to be placed on the writers who believed they were contributing to the restoration of Undershaw through their work, nor on the hundreds of backers of the Kickstarter campaign. Nor should Steve Emecz and MX Publishing be perceived as having any ill intentions. This is, perhaps, a disagreement in what one considers restoration and preservation. To me, that entails much, much more than a set of stained glass windows. It involves preserving the integrity of an historic home.
I am in full support of the fine work that Stepping Stones School does on behalf of disabled children, and the educational opportunities offered those children in a safe and comfortable environment. However, any piece of property could have provided the school with its new home; sacrificing Undershaw did not have to be a part of it.
Once the building plans have been completed, there will only remain a shell of what Undershaw once was, and what it could have been. And so, on behalf of the home which I and others have worked for over a decade to save, the home where I touched the actual wall of the study where Conan Doyle wrote about the characters which have meant so much to me, I cannot support the Kickstarter campaign, nor the books which will result from it.
Those of you who are interested in the Undershaw Preservation Trust are invited to view the Undershaw Preservation Trust website at www.saveundershaw.com for updates on the legal battles to save Undershaw. We will continue to fight for true preservation and restoration of Conan Doyle's home until all legal means are exhausted.
"We never understand how little we need in this world until we know the loss of it." - J.M. Barrie, friend to Conan Doyle