Friday, January 25, 2019

The dangerous affection of John H. Watson

A trip back through any Sherlock Holmes story always gives new benefits, and this week's look into "The Adventure of the Empty House" at our monthly discussion group was no different. Our limited time kept us from fully exploring a few of the wonderings that popped into my head as we moved through the text, but one of the lines that stuck with me the most is worth a second thought.

When watching a dramatized version, certain parts of the original work don't have the same impact, and I suspect that is the case with Sherlock Holmes's return from the dead. One theme that comes up time and again in this century is the thought that his allowing Watson to think he's dead is both callous and somewhat cruel. And Holmes's initial reasons certainly hit that mark -- he uses Watson:

"I owe you many apologies, my dear Watson, but it was all-important that it should be thought I was dead, and it is quite certain that you would not have written so convincing an account of my unhapppy end had you not yourself thought that it was true."

Which is interesting because Watson had not published any of the short stories at that time. A Study in Scarlet saw print in 1887, and The Sign of the Four in February of 1890, leaving well over a year -- a year in which Holmes and Watson saw very little of each other -- in which Watson writing about Holmes and publishing the stories was something Sherlock Holmes seemed to have little thought of.

Unless, of course, Watson's continued publication of Holmes's work was part of the wedge that came between them in addition to Watson's marriage. Watson was writing and wanting to publish, but The Sign of the Four may have showed just enough popularity that Holmes wanted no more of his biography in print just yet. But Watson was persisting enough that even after a year or so of not being that close, Holmes still knew his death would open the floodgates for Watson's literary career . . . as it did.

From the publishing side, Holmes using Watson this way makes a certain sociopathic sense. But it's the second part of the hoax that makes Sherlock Holmes seem a little less cruel, and makes one wonder a bit about Watson.

"Several times during the last three years I have taken up my pen to write to you, but always I feared lest your affectionate regard for me should tempt you to some indiscretion which would betray my secret. For that reason I turned away from you this evening when you upset my books, for I was in danger at the time . . . ."

Like its predecessor, "The Final Problem," "Empty House" short-changes us on so many details of Sherlock Holmes's battle with Moriarty and his minions. Even though Scotland Yard thinks they've caught the whole gang in "Final," the conditions of Holmes's return tells us that they definitely did not. We know of Moran and Parker still working together, and there are hints that enough of Moran's associates are still out there that Holmes cannot show his face in London until the head of their gang is lopped off. But whatever danger exists for Sherlock Holmes, it seems extreme to Holmes himself, that Watson would definitely betray him. And Sherlock Holmes was not a man who did things for no good reason.

What indiscretion did Holmes think Watson's "affectionate regard" would bring out? Surely not an article in The Strand Magazine going, "Hey, everybody, HE'S ALIVE!" A sudden trip to Montpelier, France to see Holmes seems more probable. But was Watson prone to other indiscretions that we don't know of? Gossipy with his billiards buddy Thurston, or the boys at the club? Sure to tell Mary, who was the real big mouth of the couple?

As always, there are depths to these texts of which we may never know the full extent.

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