File this post under “better late than never.”
For some reason, the name of Bliss Austin didn’t stick with me in my reading of early Sherlockian scholarship and history, although I know I read some of his work.
He really came to my attention five years ago when Sonia Fetherston, BSI, talked about him on Episode 75 of the “I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere” podcast. You can listen by clicking here.
Only recently did I finally acquire and read Fetherston’s book, Prince of the Realm: The Most Irregular James Bliss Austin. Why did I wait so long?
Bliss Austin was part of the pantheon of the Golden Age of Sherlockian scholarship, when The Game was fresh and new. There were giants in those days, and he was one of them. He was one of the original 15 invested members of the Baker Street Irregulars, along with such icons as the three Morley brothers, Vincent Starrett, Edgar W. Smith, and Julian Wolff (subject of another Fetherston book).
In terms of scholarship, he ferreted out that there were actually two Watsons, brothers, which explained why Mrs. Watson called him James instead of John. Who could beat that?
And Austin was one of the great collectors, famed not for the size of his collection but for its quality. Among its gems were the original manuscripts of The Valley of Fear and Arthur Conan Doyle’s autobiography, Adventures and Memories – both written in the author’s hand!
Austin was unfailingly kind to younger Sherlockians, whom he took under his wing. One of them was my late friend Paul Herbert. Prince of the Realm is full of quotes from Paul, and I could hear his voice in my head as I read them.
The great Sherlockian was also an avid collector of Japanese art. Even if that doesn’t interest you, be sure not to skip the chapter titled “Japanese Art.” Much of it is about Sherlockian matters – including my favorite anecdote of the book, which is this:
Bliss Austin happened to be on a train from Pittsburgh to New York when he was reading Naked is the Best Disguise, Samuel Rosenberg’s Freudian reading of the Canon. Austin grew increasingly disgusted by the tome until he “closed the book with a loud snap!, stood up, jiggled open a window on the moving train, and tossed the book onto the tracks!”
Prince of the Realm is part of the Baker Street Irregulars biographical series. These are not intended to be in-depth biographies, but they are interesting and entertaining. I’ve enjoyed every one that I’ve read. Click here to learn more.