Why does Jabez Wilson not go down into his own cellar?

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This is a question that the story does not address, so we have to assume that in Doyle's culture it would not have crossed a reader's mind. That leads us back to trying to understand how the society of the late Victorian period differs from our own.

Jabez Wilson, though he runs a pawn shop, a less than reputable business, is described by Watson as a "gentleman." He does own his own business, which puts him in the category of tradesman (generally not considered "gentlemen"), but he is clearly literate and has the portly size and demeanor of a Victorian gentleman, even if his status is a bit incongruous—he once did labor, Holmes deduces, so he must have brought himself up in the world.

While marginally so, he is on the "higher" side of the class divide. He has servants; he is not a servant. In those times, there was a notion called the "green baize door," which referred to the typical door that separated the servants' areas of the house from the masters'. The employers, though this was hardly written in stone, were supposed to stay on their side of the divide. A cellar—we are not talking here about a basement with a clubroom and electric lighting—but a grim, dark, unheated, dirt-floored, probably rat-infested place probably used primarily for storage, was definitely on the "servant's" side of the housing divided. This is indicated by the fact that Spaulding can "colonize" the place for his "photography" without it causing any friction. He is not stepping on his employer's toes by invading any space it is remotely possible he his owner would want to use. Spaulding is in the part of the house he can rest safely assured his employee will not visit.

To add to this, though his employer's life has been sedentary and quiet, Spaulding takes no chances. He wants to get Wilson out of the way so that he doesn't take it into his head to investigate the cellar from hearing noises—or just because Wilson has nothing better to do. That is why the four hours a day job copying the encyclopedia is devised—to keep Wilson busy, far away, and out of the cellar.

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One of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's many problems in plotting "The Red-Headed League" must have been with regard to Jabez Wilson's possible discovery of what was going on right under his feet in his own cellar. He tells Sherlock Holmes:

“Oh, he has his faults, too,” said Mr. Wilson. “Never was such a fellow for photography. Snapping away with a camera when he ought to be improving his mind, and then diving down into the cellar like a rabbit into its hole to develop his pictures."

John Clay, alias Vincent Spaulding, must have been working on his tunnel right under his employer's nose for quite some time before Clay came up with the idea of the Red-Headed League to get Wilson out of the way as well as to enable him to bring his partner in to help him dig. Doyle had to do something to keep the reader from asking himself the obvious question: "Why wouldn't Wilson go down into his cellar at least once out of curiosity?" If Spaulding is supposed to be a photographer, Wilson might at least want to see what his pictures looked like.

Doyle precludes this question by his characterization of Jabez Wilson. When Watson first sees him he describes him as follows:

I had called upon my friend, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, one day in the autumn of last year and found him in deep conversation with a very stout, florid-faced elderly gentleman with fiery red hair.

Wilson is overweight and elderly. He doesn't care to venture down a steep flight of dark wooden steps just to look at some amateur photographs. The fact that he is "florid-faced" strongly suggests that he suffers from high blood pressure, which could make the climb back up the steps not only difficult but dangerous. This would be one reason why Jabez Wilson might never want to venture down into his cellar. It was a lucky thing for him that he never tried to do so, because he would have seen a deep hole in his cellar wall and mounds of excavated dirt all over the floor—and Clay would have had no compunctions about killing the old man with a shovel and burying him in his own cellar.

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