Revisiting the entire Canon of Sherlock Holmes, as one does reading the appreciative essays of About Sixty, one gets reminded of some pretty wonderful passages of the Watsonian narrative. And one key piece lies at the beginning of the little tale called "The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger":
"When one considers that Mr. Sherlock Holmes was in active practice for twenty-three years, and that during seventeen of these I was allowed to co-operate with him and keep notes of his doings . . ."
A very interesting passage in many ways.
First, seventeen years of Holmes and Watson working together.
Of January 1903, Holmes writes in "Blanched Soldier" that, "The good Watson had at that time deserted me for a wife . . . " which follows Watson's statement that "Creeping Man" in September of 1902 was "one of the very last cases handled by Holmes before his retirement from practice."
So we know from Holmes's return in "Empty House" and the following tales that 1894 through 1902 were eight of the years that Holmes and Watson worked together. The nine that remain?
Well, we know the first run definitely came to a close in May of 1891. And we've got nine years left to play with. A straight calculation would put May of 1882 as the time the Holmes started allowing Watson to keep notes of his cases. And that fits in with the bulk of Watson's case writings, that, for the most part, are dated 1887 forward, with one set in 1883.
That one, which is definitely included in "my notes of the seventy odd cases in which I have during the last eight years studied the methods of my friend Sherlock Holmes," as Watson writes in its opening, is "The Adventure of the Speckled Band." He also writes that it occurred "early in April in the year '83."
So we are left with an eight year span between 1883 and 1891, where Watson took notes of seventy-odd cases . . . leaving us to assume there was one year when Watson was not allowed to "keep notes of his doings" as mentioned in "Veiled Lodger," but still "studied the methods," as stated in "Speckled Band."
But just because Watson wasn't specifically keeping notes of Holmes's doings during that period does not meant that notes weren't being kept. Recall the subtitle of A Study in Scarlet which reads "Being a reprint from the reminiscences of John H. Watson, M.D." Pre-1893, Watson was just keeping notes for his own auto-biography.
June of 1889 through May of 1891 could be the two missing years. as Watson is married and in private practice, and the one case that definitely takes place in that period is "The Adventure of the Red-Headed League," in which Watson is only stopping by Baker Street and actually tells Holmes he'll wait in the next room until Holmes is done with the client.
So the seventeen years of prime Holmes and Watson partnership roughly 1882 to 1891 and 1894 to 1902 . . . and then four years of Holmes operating solo before that, indicating an 1878 start on Montague Street.
It's a fun little mental exercise to work through, stumbling through a few bad calculations and the occasional little side-jaunt into other bits of Watson's writings. So many Sherlockians have worked through the above since the 1930s, but it doesn't take away from the fun of doing it yourself, if you're of that sort of mind. Hope I didn't spoil it for you with this little walk-through, but this, of course, is just the start . . . as anyone with a true mind for chronology knows.
And anyone with that sort of mind, well, they're already picking this essay apart in any case. The only problem is, once you start focusing on the numbers, you start skipping the rest of it -- I was actually intending to write this blog about that weird phrase "allowed to co-operate" and what it said about the relationship between Holmes and Watson. What about the years Watson wasn't allowed to cooperate? What was going on there?
Well, since I wasted all this time on numbers . . . whoops.