The Diogenes Club is one of those key identifiers that form the character of Mycroft Holmes in canon; even the most casual readers of Sherlock Holmes stories can probably tell you that his older brother is fat, intellectually brilliant but lazy, and that he spends almost all of his time in a club full of anti-social types who are forbidden from talking to each other. Well, BBC Sherlock’s Mycroft may be on an oft-mentioned diet but Mark Gatiss is decidedly not “corpulent”, and he may sneer at the prospect of legwork but is seemingly willing to put considerable energies towards running the British government on the quiet, moonlighting with the CIA and arranging aeroplanes full of corpses to thwart terrorist plans, not to mention keeping a watchful eye on what his wayward brother is up to. So in what ways is the BBC Sherlock approach to the Diogenes Club similar or markedly different to canon, and what may it tell us about the character of our modern, 21st century Mycroft?
To begin, membership of an exclusive gentlemen’s club signifies quite different things today than compared to Victorian England. And just for clarification - we are talking clubs frequented by gentlemen here, not euphemistically-named clubs frequented by guys with a pocket full of single dollar bills looking for a “good time”. At the time Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was writing, membership of a club would be expected of men of a certain station – being unable to find a club that would take you and being literally “blackballed” meant social exclusion. When Holmes first describes his brother’s habits to Watson it is the particular nature of the Diogenes club and its rules of silence that mark Mycroft out as an eccentric character, rather than his belonging to a more normal, social club – this is a club for those who are made “unclubable” by their solitary natures. One of the main reasons (if not the most important reason) for joining a club in the first place was to socialise with your peers; for companionship and to both see and be seen by those who mattered in high society, so the idea of a club full of men who concertedly ignored each other was quite unusual.
In Victorian London there were clubs that catered to all tastes and social backgrounds; some were reserved for current or former members of particular branches of the armed services or for those with particular occupations, others for the alumni of particular schools or universities, while yet more were established to bring together gentlemen who shared interests such as particular sports or social activities, or even eclectic interests such as the Eccentrics Club. Clubs acted as second homes – spaces where men could relax and socialise with their fellows (and notably not with their wives and children) in convivial surroundings. Many clubs were based in grand buildings, had accommodation where members could stay for the night or for more extended periods of time, they could get a good meal in the dining rooms and enjoy port and cigars over a hand of cards or a game of billiards. Essentially this was a recreation of the social side of boarding school life for a group of aristocratic or upper/upper-middle class men who would have all been sent away to single-sex schools as children.
Traditionally clubs were men-only affairs, though some women-only clubs sprang up in response to this restriction. In recent years some surviving London clubs have finally relaxed their rules on admitting female members or at least permitting female guests to use the public areas of the club. Guests would usually only be allowed in certain areas, exemplified by the “Stranger’s Room” within the Diogenes where rules on silence were relaxed, while the private areas of the club would be kept strictly to members only. Today, it must be acknowledged, there are far fewer such traditional gentlemen’s clubs still in existence and most of those that remain have had to move with the times at least a little. (Wikipedia has an interesting list of London gentlemen’s clubs that are still in operation, along with details such as what level of subscriptions they charge and whether women are permitted.) Belonging to an old-fashioned club now signifies a certain outlook on life – an attachment to the traditional, the establishment, the old-boy’s network and the old school tie. Belonging to a fairly eccentric version of such a club where the members won’t even look each other in the eye – well, you get the sort of reaction that John had upon venturing into the Diogenes for the first time.
So, canon shows Mycroft to be a devoted affiliate of his club as well as a founder member, with Sherlock stating that his brother could be found at the Diogenes from a quarter to five to twenty to eight every evening. There, one supposes, he could peruse either government files or newspapers and other periodicals in comfortable silence and maybe take some dinner before returning to his own home for the evening. I certainly doubt there was much silent billiards or card playing going on amongst the members, who we are told must take absolutely no notice of each other and not merely keep the noise down.
The fact that canon!Mycroft is a founder member of such a club indicates that he was purposefully seeking out such an environment in which to spend his free time, and his younger brother mentions to Watson that “I myself found it a very soothing atmosphere” so perhaps the desire for such a comfortable, companionable solitude ran in the family as a way of calming an over-active intellect. Interestingly Sherlock doesn’t specify whether he is a full member or if he has just enjoyed the atmosphere during a very infrequent visit to his brother at the club – but given that non-members would probably have to stick to the Stranger’s Room which isn’t a true reflection of the environment, it seems more likely that he was a full member. Having an older brother as founder probably wouldn’t have hurt his chances at being accepted.
Now what about our more modern, BBC Sherlock’s Mycroft? He is clearly not a founder member of the Diogenes we see in the series, given that he makes reference to an unfortunate incident occurring at the club in 1972. Based on Mark’s age that would have put Mycroft at six years old – and even a very precocious wee Mycroft wouldn’t have been founding a London club when he was still in primary school (though a no-girls-allowed tree house version of the Diogenes is an adorable mental image). If you aren’t going to found your own club then you need to pick out one that appeals and get accepted as a member – not as simple as signing up to your average gym. For example, to join the long-established Carlton Club you must have both a proposer and a seconder who are both already established members of the club and who have known you for some time – and then you still have to make it through a scrutiny committee as well as a general committee.
So, we must ask why in this day and age would Mycroft have sought out potentially difficult to acquire membership of a gentlemen’s club at all, and why this club – with it’s strange and restrictive rules of silence – in particular? My ramblings are now moving entirely into the realms of speculation and individual headcanon, but I would say that the key factors were likely to have been the establishment of his career and possible family influences.
On the family front, if you subscribe to the commonly held belief that the Holmes family come from a background of old money and high society breeding, then Father Holmes and his forebears may have been members of exclusive clubs themselves – maybe the Diogenes, perhaps others. As far as we know Mycroft is the eldest son of the family, and so may have taken on membership of his father’s club when he came of age or perhaps when his father died and he became the head of the family – either by tradition or out of a sense of duty, feeling that he had a responsibility to continue the Holmes association with a particular club. If his father belonged to a different club then there may have still been an expectation that the young Mycroft join a club of some kind when he came of age – and like the canon!Mycroft who sought out silence and privacy in his chosen club environment, the Diogenes may have just suited his temperament more than the alternatives. With that sort of family background, finding established proposers and seconders to vouch for him shouldn’t have been too difficult a task.
More interestingly I like to speculate about how the young Mycroft’s career plans may have factored in to his decision to join the Diogenes. It has often been mentioned that Messrs Mofftiss are fans of Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, which features a wonderful Christopher Lee as Mycroft in a portrayal that departed widely from most of the Mycrofts that came before or after him. This Mycroft is the de-facto head of the British secret service which operates under the cover of the Diogenes Club – sending off club expeditions to look for the Abominable Snowman or the Loch Ness Monster as a front for covert government activities. This idea of the Diogenes, a stuffy club for eccentrics, being cover for spies has been picked up a few times since then.
So, could the modern Mycroft’s Diogenes Club be a similar front? We know that Mycroft gets up to all sorts of puppet-master activities on behalf of governments and intelligence agencies, and he tells John that half the government front bench (that’s government ministers) and most of the diplomatic service are members. This could indicate that perhaps the club is more than just an (anti)social place for members to spend time in and relax – maybe all sorts of silent government-toppling or stabilizing plans are brokered between members in the reading rooms. But there is little concrete evidence to support this theory, and in the 21st century no one would need the cover of an eccentric gentlemen’s club to arrange a meeting with a colleague from an intelligence agency when there are coffee shops on every corner. Or, really, they could even just Skype one another.
However, the see-and-be-seen factor of old is still very much alive. We are unlikely to ever find out exactly what Mycroft’s job title is – if he has one beyond the formalities of his minor position – so we can’t know whether it is something you can work your way up to or if you are head-hunted from a more normal civil service/foreign office/government department when it becomes clear that you possess the sort of freaky talents that Holmeses take for granted. There are numerous back-stories to Mycroft’s job explored in fics that range from the classic “wetwork” of of a James Bond-type spy, to him actually auditing the books of government departments (as his canon predecessor did) before his evident skills find him shifted across to a more shadowy, bespoke role behind the scenes. However almost all seem to portray the young Mycroft as having a drive to gain power and influence. Whether he started out as a “secret agent” or a humble civil servant, membership of an exclusive club where large proportions of the front bench and diplomatic service spend their leisure time is clearly going to do his career prospects no harm. While opportunities to whisper words into the right ears may be limited by club etiquette, he would still be seen in the reading rooms and noticed at the tea trolley. In the same way as sharing an old school tie with your superiors earns you a certain automatic camaraderie, being a fellow member of the club would start Mycroft off with the right credentials in dealing with the movers and shakers in government.
So could Mycroft have potentially joined the Diogenes solely as a career-move? Well if he did then there would seem no particular reason to continue attending the club on a regular basis once he is in his forties and secure in the shadowy role he calls his own. We see Mycroft at his club once when Sherlock and John are paying Baskerville a visit in Hounds, and twice during the course of Fall – seemingly content to use the Stranger’s Room as a base to issue John with cryptic warnings about assassins rather than either using his office or a warehouse (or indeed a café now he’s broken that habit of a lifetime). While we can’t deduce the sort of clockwork-like daily club attendance as canon!Mycroft, it would seem that BBC Sherlock’s Mycroft is at least a semi-regular attendee and he has no obvious external drive that forces him to be seen there, so I would say that he at least finds it to be a convenient place to spend time when he is not in the office or elsewhere for work/Sherlock-watching business. After all, he most likely has or could afford to acquire a home office/study he could spend time in, free from noise or interruptions (unless he has a partner and several noisy children at home we just haven’t met yet).
That brings me to my final thought on the matter, which is simply that Mycroft at least partly chooses to belong to an old-fashioned gentlemen’s club for the same reason that he wears traditionally cut three-piece suits with a watch chain, and to carry an umbrella around like generations of British gentlemen before him, and to speak with the careful diction and a turn of phrase that would not be out of place on the BBC news broadcasts from before he was born – it’s all part of the package, the image he purposefully wears and presents to the world. “I am the model of the British establishment.” The British establishment was run from the back rooms of clubs frequented by prime ministers, senior civil servants and military officers for several generations; it would almost be strange if Mycroft wasn’t the member of a carefully antiquated club.
Given that, is BBC’s Sherlock going to be a member of the Diogenes as well? In my opinion probably not – for the same reason that I believe Mycroft chooses to spend his time there, Sherlock would sooner sprawl out on the sofa at Baker Street or lurk in the corner of the morgue at Bart’s, or even sit with John in a normal, everyday café. Belonging to the establishment doesn’t really seem to be a priority – if it isn’t something he actively rejects, as demonstrated by his reactions whenever Mycroft tries to call upon a sense of duty to Queen and country as a motivating factor. But would Mycroft vouch for his little brother if Sherlock ever applied for membership? Now there is a question. Perhaps he would enjoy having Sherlock visiting the club where he can keep a direct watchful eye on what he’s up to and whether he’s smoking again. And perhaps he would consider the environment to be “soothing” for his brother in the same way as canon!Sherlock found it. But then again, if fingers and heads and all sorts of “experiments” ended up being left in the cloakroom of the club it might lead to membership levels dropping rather sharply – and maybe Mycroft actually appreciates a bit of Sherlock-free space where he’s safe from having his security card pick-pocketed…
So that mostly concludes my thoughts. I will just end by adding that there is always that classic, alternative explanation – explored in more than a few fics – and that is that the Diogenes is actually a very exclusive *cough* private members club, if you know what I mean. Basically that it’s either a sex club or a D/s club or something of that nature – catering to the particular tastes of outwardly reserved yet secretly very kinky British upper classes. It certainly gives new meaning to the whole “no talking” rule…