Saturday, June 1, 2019

Insignificant John Watson

There's a very weird statement that begins one of the chapters of The Valley of Fear, written by the hand of John H. Watson, and it reads as follows:

"Now for a moment I will ask leave to remove my own insignificant personality and to describe events which occurred before we arrived upon the scene by the light of knowledge which came to us afterwards."

Now, maybe it's just because I recently watched HBO's Deadwood revival and final episode all in one, but this elaborately phrased bit of subservience reminded me of the toadying mayor of Deadwood, E.B. Farnum, played to perfection by William Sanderson. (Best remembered by old sitcom fans as Larry of brothers Larry, Darryl, and Darryl on Newhart.) Who it completely didn't remind me of was John H. Watson.

John Watson, of course, always focused more on Sherlock Holmes than himself, and gave us very meagre details of his own lift in the Canon of Holmes. But to have him come out and beg the reader's permission to "remove my own insignificant personality," well, that smacks of some severe self-esteem issues of the sort we would, perhaps optimistically, never associate with the good doctor.

Or is it just Victorian politeness?

The Valley of Fear started coming out in September 1914, a good decade after the Victorian era was done. It was also the year that World War One began, and a month after the events described in "His Last Bow" took place.  So when Watson began writing up the novel, his friend Sherlock Holmes had been on his second hiatus -- that two year stint undercover in America, and John was surely feeling completely deserted by his old friend. If he tried to reach out for word of Sherlock via brother Mycoft, whatever response he received was surely nothing to salve those wounds, either.

So for John Watson to be feeling pretty low about himself in early 1914? Not all that surprising. Trying to fight those feelings by writing a new novel of better times with Sherlock would not be all that surprising either, even if some reflections of his darker moments showed through in the text now and then, as in that "insignificant" line.

But by the time the novel was out, Sherlock Holmes was back, there was a war to deal with, and Watson had no time to be so insignificant. Because he had to be John H. Watson, after all.

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