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Comfortable Chairs and
the Latest Periodicals:
A Look at that Queerest of Clubs
By Brad Keefauver
(Originally published in Wheelwrightings, No. 3 (January 1983), Page 28-30)
Consider the Diogenes Club.
As with anything having to do with Sherlock Holmes, the club's image has grown to be larger and more important than the simple reality that did exist. Numerous theses have been presented furthering this aggrandizement to sometimes comical proportions. The best example of this is the popular theory that the Diogenes Club was really a front for a covert operations branch of Her Majesty's government (one would surely hope that after a hard day at Whitehall, Mycroft Holmes could find a better way to spend his evening than working for another part ot the government, as this theory implies). There have been those, of course, who have merely wished to find a “real life” identity for the Diogenes. Clubs suggested in such a role have been the Athenaeum (intelligient folk, no doubt, but hardly Mycrort's style), the Travellers' (true, its members did not speak to one another, but the name alone points out why Mycroft did not fit in), the Unionist (too topical), and the Playboy Club of London (heresy!). The basic failure of all these theories comes down to one simple flaw. Each assumes that the Diogenes Club is a pseudonym, a fictional cover for Mycroft Holmes’s true club. But the Diogenes did exist, as surely as Simpson's, St. James Hall, or Baker Street itself.
If one reads the Canon carefully, that person will also Find that there is nothing mysterious about the club at all, no room for flights of investigative fancy. The club's basic floorplan, its reason for being, and its rules are all put forth very clearly by the good Dr. Watson.
Somewhere in Pall Mall, a short distance from the Carlton Club, is a door, a rather ordinary door, if we are to gather anything from Watson’s failure to describe it. Through that door lies a hallway, probably running perpendicular from the street. Glass panelling makes up part of the wall on one side of the hallway, not only allowing Dr. Watson a view of the club's heart, the large main room; but also allowing any members who so desire a forewarning look at any incoming members. Across from the panel is the doorway to the Strangers’ Room into which Watson was quickly ushered. The Strangers’ Room is described as “a small chamber” whose prominent feature seems to be a bow window looking out on Pall Mail.
Aside from the main room and the Strangers’ Room, Watson could tell us no more of the club's layout. Following the basic logic of the club’s reason for being (which we will get to in a moment) few other rooms were needed. A room or two for the necessary conveniences, as well as a cloak room and a small office for the secretary would make the club complete. A dining room, as many clubs had, would hardly have fit in at the Diogenes. Watson does refer to a waiter performing a service for Mycroft, but the word has not always been so confined to restaurant help as it is today. A bar would also have been out of place, especially since most clubs of the Victorian era did not add bars until a later date. A library, however, would have been apropos, and may have been added later if one did not originally exist.
Given the needs of the Diogenes Club, it is unlikely that they bought a building for their rooms. Like many other clubs they probably leased, and, at that, not even a whole building. One floor would surely have sufficed .
The needs of the Diogenes were quite simple, but then, its raison d'etre was rather simple as well. The men who founded the club did so for the love of three things: solitude, comfortable chairs, and the latest periodicals. They wanted the benefits of a club, yet none of the social interaction. To get away from mankind for a few hours of quiet in which one could read, meditate, and pursue the truths of life as Diogenes pursued his honest man; that is why the club was founded.
In implementing their desired state, the founders set up a few steadfast rules. As Sherlock Holmes explained: “No member is permitted to take the least notice of any other one. Save in the Strangers' Room, no talking is, under any circumstances, permitted, and three offenses, if brought to the notice of the committee, render the talker liable to expulsion.”
To further aid in the keeping of these rules, each member was assigned a chair selected from those still available in the number of small nooks the main room was arranged to provide. This avoided the slightest confrontations between members over favorite chairs. Dr. Watson showed unusual observative powers when he commented on the members he saw through the glass sitting “each in his own little nook.”
Solitude was maintained for the members in every way possible. The well-informed Watson had never heard of the club when Holmes first told him of it, and so it was to most of London outside the club, as today's lack of historical evidence attests. Members were undoubtedly enjoined to let the club's address be known only to their closest confidants as the need arose. In a club where the members do not even wish to speak to one another, guests would hardly be welcome.
It then follows that when Sherlock Holmes said, “I have myself found it a very soothing atmosphere,” he was saying that he himself was once a member. Guests were surely not allowed in the club outside of the Strangers’ Room, so membership was a must, even for a founder’s brother. As many clubs had lower entrance fees and yearly dues for younger members, it is possible that Sherlock joined under Mycroft’s sponsorship when he was still in his Montague Street rooms. Mycroft would have undoubtedly been proud of his brother's membership . . . for a time.
But there was always that dramatic streak in Sherlock Holmes’s nature. Combined with his omnivorous power of observation, the younger Holmes could hardly have helped but "take notice" of the other members. It may have been that mischievous part of his personality, or simply out of sudden boredom; but in any case, an infraction of the "no talking" rule by Sherlock Holmes is easy to imagine. Three infractions can be imagined with little more difficulty. So when he says, “I have myself found it a very soothing atmosphere” rather than “I am myself a member,” it can be interpreted as a sign of explusion by the committee. Brother Mycroft, as a founder, and well known to the members of the club as well, probably had the unpleasant experience of being on that committee at the time his brother was kicked out of the Diogenes.
Little did they know at the time that they were giving the boot to the member of the club who would one day be the most famous. Rules, however, are rules, as the saying goes.
Does the Diogenes Club exist today?
In keeping with the club's policy of enforced group hermitage, the location was undoubtedly changed from time to time as members' relatives, spouses, and other unwanted visitors (including vengeful ex-members) learned its address. Due to this well-cared-for privacy, it is hard to say whether the club still exists or not. Mycroft Holmes may spend his evenings there even now. And perhaps, on a rare night or two, his bee-keeping brother pays a call for a chat in the Strangers' Room, before Mycroft returns to his comfortable chair. Silence is not only golden. It's timeless.
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