The name Barbara Rusch was one I'd hear long before I actually got to meet this lovely person. She is a very active Canadian Sherlockian, being a Master Bootmaker and Vice Chair of The Friends of Arthur Conan Doyle Collection at the Toronto Public Library. You'll also see her on the roll for the Baker Street Irregulars and the Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes and her byline appears all over the place!
But I got to meet Barbara through email last year when she was recruited to be part of an anthology I co-edited. And just like she did with her interview questions below, Barbara goes above and beyond when it comes to talking about this hobby of ours! And I typically ask for 4-5 pictures to go along with interviewees answers, but Barbara sent along more than double that, and there were too many good ones to pass up! I also got to meet Barbara and her delightful husband, Donny, at the Minnesota conference in 2019, and let me tell you, they both wonderful people. So settle in, and get ready for a fun interview with the queen of Victorian ephemera, Barbara Rusch!
How do you define the word “Sherlockian”?
A question I’m asked every time I use the word amongst the uninitiated. Specifically, “A wha?” “Well,” I respond, “a Sherlockian is anyone interested in the tales of the world’s most iconic detective.” Of course, for me, it extends far beyond a casual study. I’ve been devoted to exploring the stories on a variety of levels – from their literary and cultural components to psychological and socio-sexual perspectives – in addition to the life of their creator, which I find equally fascinating, for decades now.
How did you become a Sherlockian?
I read my first Holmes tale as a teenager, when my grandmother’s tenant, Mr. Ash, passed away, leaving his library behind, and along with it a legacy of incalculable value. Amongst the books was a slim volume of The Adventures, and I recall “The Speckled Band” as the first story I read, inducing a terrifying nightmare of a whistling snake slithering down the wall and into my bed. Not sure if it was no more than a Freudian dream sequence brought on by puberty or a frightening re-enactment of a Sherlockian vision, but horrifying nonetheless. In addition to the enthralling mystery, I found the Paget illustrations riveting, their fifty shades of gray dissolving at the edges, leaving me to wonder what might have been happening just beyond the margins.
Years later, when I was pregnant with my son, and suffering from morning sickness 24 hours a day for 3 months, I went looking for a book – any book – to take my mind off the nausea. By the end of the first trimester, I had finished off all 60 tales and was feeling a good deal better, in addition to having discovered a lifelong superhero.
In 1983, I was doing some research on 19th-century ephemera and its relation to social and commercial history. The librarian at the Toronto Reference Library, Janice McNabb, suggested that I might find the Bootmakers of Toronto, the Sherlock Holmes Society of Canada, of interest, since it delves into all aspects of Victorian and Edwardian life. At the first meeting I attended, the speaker was modelling Victorian women’s clothing, which she was removing layer by layer, stripping down to her corset and knickers. This is the group for me, I thought. And the rest, as they say, is history – at its finest.
What is your favorite canonical story?
I’m drawn to those stories which I find particularly intriguing, opening up to questions that lead down unexplored paths. Just what was the subject of that infamous photograph of Irene and the King of Bohemia? Surely it couldn’t be a simple image of the two of them posing sedately together. Upper class gentlemen, including royalty, married or not, were notorious rakes, and an armload of mistresses was a sign of virility rather than notoriety. Edward, Prince of Wales, the Illustrious Client, never allowed his marriage to Princess Alexandra to interfere with his love life.
So what did that photograph contain of so scandalous a nature? My opinion is that it was not simply scandalous, but salacious, perhaps more suitable for a French postcard than a royal memento. I’d love to have a copy of it in my collection.
Who is a specific Sherlockian that you think others would find interesting?
I have great admiration for Dan Posnansky, both as a learned and dedicated Sherlockian, and as a collector of all things Doylean. I regard him as something of a mentor. My husband, Donny Zaldin, another Sherlockian I admire, and I were privileged to take a tour of that splendid collection before it went up for auction a few years ago, and I’m honored to now call a few of his prized pieces cherished treasures which have now found their way into my own collection.
I also have tremendous admiration for Sherlockians who singlehandedly run entire societies, amongst them: Mike Ranieri of the Bootmakers of Toronto (Canada), Steve Mason of The Crew of the Barque Lone Star (TX), Ben and Sue Vizoskie of The Three Garridebs (NY), Ron and Carol Fish of Mrs. Hudson’s Cliffdwellers (NJ), Monica Schmidt of the Younger Stamfords (IA), Phil Dematteis of the Hansom Wheels (Columbia, SC) and Jay Ganguly of the Sherlock Holmes Society of India. Noteworthy Sherlockians all.
What subset of Sherlockiana really interests you?
Anything that resonates of 19th- and early 20th-century culture is of interest to me. The Holmes tales are, as Watson observes, “a perfect quarry for the student not only of crime but of the social and official scandals of the late Victorian era.” I’m intrigued by certain aspects of “Black Peter,” which led me to an examination of domestic violence in Victorian England, while “The Creeping Man” forged an unexpected connection to eugenics and the subject of the monster in Victorian literature.
I’m also fascinated by Conan Doyle’s belief in Spiritualism and what led him to place his trust in two young girls who claimed to have taken photographs of fairies. I’ve written a novella on the subject of the Cottingley Fairies, beautifully illustrated by Laurie Fraser Manifold. I’m currently searching for the right publisher.
What things do you like to research related to Sherlock Holmes?
To quote Holmes’s chronicler again, “The problem has always been not to find but to choose.” Unlike Seinfeld, which was “a show about nothing,” the Canon is a treasure trove of everything, a place where I have been fortunate enough to find an outlet for my insatiable curiosity of all things Victorian. As Nathan Garrideb expressed it, “I am, in fact, the student of many subjects, and you may be surprised at the universality of my interests. The general effect is amiable though eccentric. One day a profession might be made out of what up to this time has been the merest hobby.”
For the past three years I have been pleased to contribute a regular column in Canadian Holmes, the quarterly journal of the Bootmakers of Toronto. “The View from the Bow Window” is an examination of various aspects of Victorian and Edwardian life as they relate to the Holmes tales, often illustrated with treasures from my collection. As our detective himself observes, “To anyone who wishes to study mankind, this is the spot.” The subjects I’ve explored include: pipes, brandy, the London Underground, cursed gems, the history of wax figures, Prince Albert watch chains, commonplace books, Stradivarius violins – and bow windows. I am eternally grateful to the Sherlockian movement for affording me a platform for my creative urges.
Your collection of Victorian ephemera is unbelievably impressive. How did you start collecting items from this time period and what are one or two of your favorite items in your collection?
My fascination for the period led naturally to amassing objects, mostly of paper, and representative of their time. Their significance cannot be overstated. Maurice Rickards, founder of the Ephemera Society UK, wrote in his landmark book, Collecting Printed Ephemera, “In every fragment of ephemera resides the genius papyri, the spirit of the paper – the abiding essence of its message, origin and content.” It presupposes that the paper is somehow possessed of its own DNA – and an immortal soul. My treasures began with a collection of commercial culture – advertising trade cards, calendars, and posters – then progressed to photo albums, valentines, and holographic material such as illustrated friendship albums, private journals and personal letters, anything to do with Queen Victoria, (who, after all, was the centrepiece of the age to which she lent her name), Houdini, and, naturally, Sherlock Holmes and ACD.
Like Horace Harker, “All my life I have been collecting other people’s news.” How to pick one or two choice items? It’s as if you’re asking me to choose a favorite from amongst my children. However, I, like Sherlock Holmes, “will dive my arm down to find something a little recherché … a small wooden box, a crumpled piece of paper and an old-fashioned brass key.” The wooden box features a brass plaque on the lid which identifies it as a gift proffered in 1872 by ACD’s mentor and the inspiration for the great detective, Dr. Joseph Bell, to his prized pupil, Edwin St. George Baldwin, a medical student from Toronto attending the University of Edinburgh, and contains a gruesome-looking set of surgical knives.
The crumpled piece of paper? Sorry, but it’s impossible to choose just one from amongst several: a letter from Conan Doyle to Bram Stoker, writing to connect on the subject of a project together (which somewhat fancifully feels like correspondence between Sherlock Holmes and Dracula), another to a friend of Houdini’s stating that he and his Spiritualist crew were foretold of his impending death, one to Sidney Paget sending greetings and regrets that the artist wasn’t illustrating his next story after all, and a cheque signed by Charles Dickens and sent by his granddaughter to famed actor William Gillette in exchange for a signed photograph.
The old-fashioned brass key is an easy one: for many years I have worn one of Houdini’s handcuff keys around my neck, its provenance a fascinating story in itself. Whether or not it helps me escape from tight spaces and dangerous situations is anybody’s guess, but as a good luck charm it sure beats a rabbit’s foot. And I would be remiss if I didn’t at least make mention of my collection of eclectic undergarments, specifically the oversized knickers of “a certain gracious lady,” and a boxful of Lady Conan Doyle’s intimate apparel culled from her bedroom drawer at Windlesham, Crowborough.
How did you decide to bring Edgar Allan Poe, Oscar Wilde, and Harry Houdini together to hash out their issues with Arthur Conan Doyle in your play, "The Crossing: Three Authors in Search of a Character?"
It’s difficult to know whence such inspiration – or craziness – originates. I was aware that Poe, Wilde and Houdini, three literary and cultural titans with enormous egos, all had unresolved conflicts with Conan Doyle. What I could not have imagined when I embarked upon this journey was just how much they had in common – how similar their narratives, their insecurities and their recriminations. It began to feel as though they were always meant to find themselves in a room together (in this case a barren chamber in the afterlife), engaging in this dialogue, their resentment and appreciation for Arthur Conan Doyle their common point of intersection. A Mystery Interloper (guess who?) only adds to the tension and suspense. Moreover, it was very gratifying to be able to incorporate relevant images from my ephemera collection into the text.
What book would you recommend to other Sherlockians?
I read some of Conan Doyle’s lesser-known short stories in preparation for a pastiche published in an anthology of the Crew of the Barque Lone Star, and was enthralled by his tales of mystery and some of the so-called uncollected tales. The man had a way of gripping you by the hair follicles and carrying you along to the end. His tales of horror, like “The Leather Funnel,” which in my opinion rivals Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum,” on a similar subject, and “The Brazilian Cat” are absolutely terrifying.
While we’re all aware that The Lost World was the inspiration for “Jurassic Park,” “The Ring of Thoth” which essentially forms the plot of the first “Mummy” film, is rarely credited. Some of his novels, like Rodney Stone, are hilarious. The man had a great sense of humor. I highly recommend a glance beyond Sherlock Holmes.
Where do you see Sherlockiana in 5 or 10 years from now?
The popularity of Sherlock Holmes will never wane, and each succeeding generation has a new take on the quintessential detective. It’s my fervent wish that our current infatuation with Benedict Cumberbatch, Robert Downey Jr. – or whoever comes next – will not overshadow our hero. As thrilling as the films and television shows may be, no visual medium can hope to surpass the canonical writings and the wonderful adventures Conan Doyle leaves to our imagination.