It seems sometimes that John Watson is holding back a lot of details about his personal life in his chronicles of Sherlock Holmes. The details of his marriage. His on-again, off-again medical career. His own retirement. But early in his writings, when he thought he might still be chronicling "The Reminiscences of John H. Watson," his pen was a bit more forthcoming.
"What's the matter?" Sherlock Holmes asked him in A Study in Scarlet. "You're not looking quite yourself. This Brixton Road affair has upset you."
"To tell the truth, it has," Watson replies. "I ought to be more case-hardened after my Afghan experiences. I saw my own comrades hacked to pieces at Maiwand without losing my nerve."
"I saw my own comrades hacked to pieces."
That is not a statement to breeze past. "Case-hardening" is that method of blacksmithing a weapon's edge that's been around since well before 1000 BC. But Watson is no edged weapon. And seeing his fellow Englishmen carved up by Afghan knives and swords, barely escaping by being thrown over a pack-horse and led to the safety of British lines.
He spoke of his health being ruined beyond recovery, but there was plainly a level of PTSD there that we barely glimpse in his writings. And consider how those writings came along.
John Watson moved in with Sherlock Holmes in early 1881. That spring he would learn of Holmes's occupation and go with Holmes to Brixton road, to follow the investigation that would eventually be written up as A Study in Scarlet. We don't know exactly when he wrote that novel, but it apparently wasn't in shape for a publisher until 1887. And what of his other cases with Sherlock Holmes?
Well, we know for certain of one in 1883. ("Speckled Band," a mystery with no dead bodies on the ground until . . . well, things went a little sideways there at the last.) And the next one after that?
1887. "The Reigate Squires" was something of a break-through for Watson, a case he didn't want Holmes to take, as Sherlock Holmes was recovering his own health.
John H. Watson had a long road to full recovery, something I don't think we always appreciate. There's a tale in those years between 1881 and 1887 that Watson was not ready to share with the Victorian reading public, it being a time when showing vulnerability was not something men did. Were he writing today, I think John Watson would have an autobiographical tale of that period that would have been his most inspiring work.
Someone out there in this world of Watsonian manuscripts might have already discovered such a thing, as tends to happen, and I'm just not aware of it. Do I want to read it? There's a question.
It could have been a very hard journey. There's a reason we don't quote that "hacked to pieces" line a lot.
John H. Watson will always be a more complex fellow than we can easily ponder.