Tuesday, May 3, 2022

The name of Dr. Watson's umbrella

 We often associate Watson with his revolver, sometimes with his medical things, possibly with a flask. Curiously, we leave off that most useful possession of Watson's from The Valley of Fear.

"By the way, you have that big umbrella of yours, have you not?" Sherlock Holmes asks his friend.

Yes, Watson had an umbrella, and a big one at that. Watson's answer to Holmes:

"Certainly -- but what a wretched weapon!"

Are we to infer that Watson has fought someone with an umbrella before? Maybe. But I think there are far deeper inferences to be made, far more ominous theories to spin 'round that bumbershoot.

One of the key umbrella appearances in the Canon is from the somewhat-disguised tale "The Second Stain," in which Watson refers to the "Premier's thin, blue-veined hands clasped tightly over the ivory head of his umbrella." He's not telling us directly whom that Prime Minister was, but, come on! His key defining trait is that umbrella and his age? William Gladstone was associated with umbrella's both in political cartoon and song for bringing disparate groups together, as I understand it. The umbrella is clearly a signal, an emblem of who that nameless Premier truly is.

Looking at the only other two umbrella references in the Canon, one belongs to John Openshaw, whose life disappeared into the river the very night Holmes and Watson met him. The other belongs to James Phillimore, who went into his house for his umbrella and was never seen again. Umbrella's seem to indicate men who were no more. So what does that make of Watson being the one other person in the canon with an umbrella?

Note that the story "The Problem of Thor Bridge" is from The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, the one collection that shows the least Watson influence. Watson wrote the preface to His Last Bow. Watson's literary agent must do that duty for Casebook. Watson wrote all of the stories in His Last Bow, except for the titular spy tale. Three of the tales in Casebook are non-Watson, and one is actually an adaptation of his literary agent's little play.

And in The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, we get "Thor Bridge"s reference to the unfinished tale of "Mr. James Phillimore, who, stepping back into his own house to get his umbrella, was never more seen in this world."

And what was that line in the missing husband story, "The Man With The Twisted Lip?"

Oh, yes. "Or should you rather I send James off to bed?"

James Phillimore, the husband who disappeared. John Watson, the man whose marriages have never made any sense. Could they have been one in the same?

Remember how Watson thought of himself during his infatuation with Mary Morstan?

"What was I, an army surgeon with a weak leg and a weaker bank-account, that I should dare to think of such things?" And then, "Was it fair, was it honorable, that a half-pay surgeon should take such advantage of an intimacy which chance had brought about?"

Watson has real self-esteem issues about being enough to date a woman. We know he proposed to Miss Morstan. We even are led to believe she accepted. But what if she didn't, or had second thoughts and later took back her "yes?" What might that have done to the poor doctor, who was constantly seeing Sherlock Holmes taking on other roles to do things like woo the maid Agatha in "Charles Augustus Milverton?"

Would it be enough for Watson to set up a practice as "Dr. James Phillimore," who was oh-so-much-more than a half-pay surgeon with a weak leg? ("Oh, no, it's a shoulder wound! Completely different! Not at all near the masculinity area!") Was James Phillimore the man who married, and then later, for reasons that are not quite clear to us, disappeared from the face of the Earth, just as John Watson reappeared at Baker Street?

It's a big umbrella that Watson has, according to Sherlock Holmes, the man whom we know wrote some of the stories in The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes. Might he have written one or two more, and perhaps given us that "James Phillimore" reference as a clue to he absent friend's less noble moment?

In the year 2022, we're learning more and more to accept the failings of those we look up to, their humanity, their mistakes. Perhaps it's time we let Watson have a few honest bad moments as well.

The clues are certainly there, in that Canon that covers many a truth, just like a big umbrella.

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