Ronald R. Thomas
Victorian Literature and the Victorian Visual Imagination, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS (1995)
Sherlock Holmes, whom Watson refers to in the first tale of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes as “the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has ever seen,” exemplifies the essential Victorian hero who is known above all for his virtually photographic visual powers—the literary detective. The detective’s unique talent is an uncanny ability to see what no one else can see, to “capture images,” as Benjamin says of the technology of the camera, that otherwise “escape natural vision.” Holmes has this power, he tells Watson, because of his specialized knowledge: he knows where to look and what to notice. “You appeared to read a great deal in her which was quite invisible to me,” Dr. Watson notes characteristically to Holmes just as the great detective reveals his observations about a client.
“Not invisible but unnoticed, Watson,” Holmes replies. “You did not know where to look, and so you missed all that was important.” What we see, Holmes says, is governed by conventions, which make portions of the world visible to us and determine what is worth our attention (and what is not). The trained eye of the great detective alters those conventions of vision and exposes to us, as Holmes does to Watson and his clients, what had previously been hidden from view.