Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Summer of Sherlock: The Naval Treaty

Few of the shorter chronicles of Mr. Sherlock Holmes give us as much personal information about he and Dr. Watson as "The Naval Treaty." There are the big biographical items, like learning of Watson's well-born schoolmate Percy Phelps, and the smaller, personal opinion bits, like Holmes's hopes in the sight of board schools and his obvious value of education. (As if his own example wasn't enough.)

And then there are even more subtle things, like Watson's attitude toward his medical practice.

"I was going to say that my practice could get along very well for a day or two, since it is the slackest time of year." Apparently Londoners were healthier in July, but even with that, it's not like John H. Watson is a picture-framer or scissors-grinder, or any one of a thousand professions that work on an "I'll get to it when I get to it" basis. In other tales, the good doctor mentions who he can get to cover for him. In this one, he seems to be more "Aaaaah, they'll get by without me."

Now we know Watson is a bit younger in the 1880s, and perhaps still trying to impress Holmes a bit, but such a cavalier attitude toward his patients seems unlike him. Which makes one wonder . . . was his practice that non-existent in those days? Or was he, perhaps, engaged in a specialty that had a slightly more predictable ebb and flow, like obstetrics?

Once the province of midwives, the late 1800s were a time when doctors were starting to get into the baby business, and Watson, trained as a surgeon, might have taken an interest in Caesarean sections as a possible specialty. He certainly doesn't seem all that interested in his old schoolmate's brain fever.

Percy Phelps does have the honor of being the first known overnight guest at 221B Baker Street. Of course, his stay does bring up the question of the number of bedrooms at 221B: "Mr. Phelps can have the spare bedroom tonight," Holmes says. Did he mean Watson's now-vacant room, in which case it was assumed Watson would either go home for the night or sleep in Sherlock's room? (And if he went home for the night, he really wasn't worried about Phelps's brain fever!)

Finding Watson spending an evening in Baker Street with someone other than Sherlock Holmes is rather an interesting thing as well. The doctor tries entertaining Phelps with tales of Afghanistan and India, catching him up since last they knew each other. Watson raises "social questions," the likes of which I'd certainly like to hear . . . in fact, all the conversational ploys Watson finds don't work with the single-minded Percy Phelps are probably exactly things we'd all love to hear on an evening at 221B, alone with the doctor.

As we will surely never get that happy circumstance, at least our friend Watson has given us a marvelously drawn-out case like "The Naval Treaty," to help fill at least one summer evening.


  1. I've thought for years that Watson would have done very well at treating addicts. His brother died of alcoholism; since that's a hereditary illness, he must have had other relatives with it as well. He shows in SIGN that he's willing to confront a drug user, Holmes, in the act of using and rebut said user's ridiculous rationalizations with cogent and sensible arguments, even though he has great love and admiration for the person rationalizing. That takes courage, determination, the ability to think clearly on his feet, and the willingness to put another person's long-term well being ahead of his own short-term comfort.

    We also know Watson was interested in "obscure nervous lesions" as well as other mental and emotional disorders. Unfortunately, he was so modest and self-effacing he never mentioned whether he wrote any monographs on these subjects.

    Andarta Woodland

    1. I was going to make a joke about staying with his patients after they get straight, to make sure they stay sober, but I can't; I just can't.

      Korina, embarrassed to even think such a thing