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Holmes/Watson (Sherlock Holmes)

A Century's Worth of Subtext: Holmes/Watson
Fandom: Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Pairing: Holmes/Watson
Spoilers: The whole entire bookverse, especially Study in Scarlet, Sign of Four, "The Final Problem," and "The Adventure of the Empty House,"

Well. I'm incredibly honored to be writing this essay, and I'm not sure I can actually do it justice. There's so much incredible fan-created work for this pairing, not to mention the fairly academic study of Holmes's sexuality, Watson's wives, and other issues related to the pairing, that I'm a little bit cowed. But here I go, plunging bravely into the Canon.

Like so many great relationships, that between the Master and his loyal archivist is a study in opposites. Sherlock Holmes is incredibly intelligent, arrogant, emotionally distant. He has intentionally closed himself off from feelings in order to make himself a more effective detective. He has an extensive knowledge of the minutiae relevant to his work, but he ignores most other branches of knowledge. He has a ready insult for everyone whose intelligence is less than his: which, according to him, is everyone. Holmes is morally ambiguous. It is hinted that it is only accidental that he is working on this side of the law: Holmes could easily turn his great mind to crime. He has more than a vested interest in crime occurring, and he often laments the lack of interesting crimes. His intellectual interest in crime seems to undermine his sense of right and duty-although when push comes to shove, Holmes has a relatively evolved sense of morality. For instance, in "The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton," Holmes makes a complex judgment about the wrongness of blackmail, a moral decision that puts both him and Watson on the wrong side of the law. Holmes thinks of himself as a great force for justice, transcending the laws of England and the laws of God.

John Watson, MD, is unlike Holmes in every particular. While he is sufficiently intelligent for a member of the middle class-he is literate, he is apparently a competent doctor, and he seems to appreciate the finer things in life-his commonsense is almost nonexistent, and despite his claims, he has, in his long years of association with Holmes, learned not one jot of detecting skill himself. Watson is a family man, and he often shows empathy for Holmes's clients when Holmes himself does not. Watson is exceedingly self-deprecating; given that he is the author of all but two of the extant stories, it is indeed remarkable that we should be left with such a poor opinion of his intelligence! Watson's morality is rooted firmly in the middle class English norms in which he is embedded. His sense of rightness is easily affronted; he is easily shocked and scandalized, and he never seems to become case-hardened. At Holmes's urging and at Holmes's urging only is he willing to violate the laws of his country. On the other hand, his moral sense seems more personal than Holmes's; Holmes is hardly affected by other humans, while Watson is easily moved.

So, how do these two very different men come together, and what exists in their relationship that encourages the fandom to believe they are ever so in love? What kept them together for all those years, and why are they still beloved almost a century later? Their relationship is in fact incredibly complex even in Canon, and when one adds the dynamics of romantic and/or sexual love on one or both men's parts, the complexity is almost overwhelming. I shall attempt to outline here the Canonical timeline and the elements of the relationship explored therein, then run through some of the issues most often addressed in fanfic.

A Timeline, of Sorts

Watson is introduced to Holmes by a mutual friend, Stamford, in around 1882. Both Holmes and Watson are looking for someone to go halves with in renting a set of rooms, and although Watson immediately finds Holmes rather peculiar, he is intrigued, and their personal habits seem compatible, so Holmes announces the thing is settled. Watson thanks Stamford for introducing them, and the 'shipper does as well.

Watson immediately becomes obsessed with Holmes. "As the weeks went by, my interest in him and my curiosity as to his aims in life gradually deepened and increased" (9). Watson acknowledges his obsession to be perhaps slightly unaccountable, and apologizes to the reader, saying, "The reader may set me down as a hopeless busybody, when I confess how much this man stimulated my curiosity, and how often I endeavoured to break through the reticence which he showed on all that concerned himself" (9). No, dear Watson, we just set you down as a hopelessly infatuated young man. Watson continues to observe Holmes (most unsuccessfully) for several weeks before he discovers the secret. When he does, he is at first incredulous, he is rapidly convinced. He will recollect the date in later years, March 4th, as the changing point of his whole life. Within minutes, his "respect for his powers of analysis increased wondrously" (16).

Watson and Holmes live together for several years (an attempt to determine an exact chronology is both time-consuming and inevitably fruitless. Watson obviously didn't keep as careful records as he would like us to believe), with Watson occasionally accompanying Holmes on cases, until 1888, when The Sign of Four is set. As you may recall, it is during this case that Watson meets a certain Mary Morstan, whom he falls in love with and marries at the end of the novel. Holmes "really cannot congratulate" (172) Watson on his engagement; while he thinks Mary is a fine choice, he is secretly jealous of her, he is opposed to love on principle. "Love is an emotional thing, and whatever is emotional is opposed to that true cold reason which I place above all things. I should never marry myself, lest I bias my judgment" (172). It is easy to imagine Holmes, suffering from a long unrequited passion, announcing his disdain for love in a fit of sour grapes. It is equally possible to imagine poor Watson, hopelessly in love, further and forever discouraged by the knowledge that Holmes will never return his affection.

Ah, this pairing, it tears at your heartstrings.

For a few years after his marriage, Watson continues to accompany Holmes on cases only sporadically. The ever-so-understanding Mary freely allows him this liberty, and Watson is always willing to drop his practice, his staid habits, and his responsibilities to go gallivanting with Holmes.

Then in 1891, tragedy strikes. In "The Final Problem," Watson outlines the events surrounding the death of "the best and the wisest man" (555) he has ever known. The judicious will observe that Holmes's growing obsession with Moriarty really takes off after Watson leaves him for Mary, and of course, Watson's portrayal of his friend's death is heartbreaking, as it must be. Holmes has nothing left to live for, and no reason to be in England; he considers his life satisfactorily fulfilled if he can bring down Moriarty with him. He claims in his goodbye note to Watson that "no possible conclusion... could be more congenial to me than this" (554).

However, Doyle's readers were far less pleased than Holmes (or than Doyle himself), and Doyle was compelled to resurrect Holmes. The year, Watson tells us, was 1894. It was spring. Watson has been widowed (no, I mean Mary died too), a fact which does not emerge until several pages into "The Adventure of the Empty House." Watson encounters Holmes disguised as a bookseller, fails to recognize him, and retires to his house. Still disguised, Holmes calls on Watson at his home, then, well, allow Watson to tell the story:

I moved my head to look at the cabinet behind me. When I turned again, Sherlock Holmes was standing smiling at me across my study table. I rose to my feet, stared at him for some seconds in utter amazement, and then it appears that I must have fainted for the first and the last time in my life. Certainly a gray mist swirled before my eyes, and when it cleared, I found my collar-ends undone and the tingling taste of brandy upon my lips. Holmes was bending over my chair, his flask in his hand. (562)

Holmes apologizes for his unnecessarily dramatic reappearance, and Watson clutches at his arm, shocked and delighted. In his words, "My dear chap, I'm overjoyed to see you" (563). For a staid British physician, Watson is overwhelmingly emotional. While the loss of Mary is a hard one, the loss of Holmes was harder, and Holmes's return is indeed the turning point in their relationship.

At Holmes's request, Watson moves back in with him, selling his practice to "a young doctor named Verner" (575), actually a distant relative of Holmes's, using Holmes's money and acting at his request. They take up their old habits; Watson accompanies Holmes on his cases, and their adventures continue. It has been suggested elsewhere (and I cannot for the life of me find the link) that Holmes is kinder to Watson post-Return than he is before, and personally I find this interpretation valid. After the adventure of their younger years, both men are more mature. They have each lived without the other; now it is time for them to live together again, with the experience of their three years apart.

It is during these years that "The Adventure of the Three Garridebs" is set. The year is 1902, and Holmes is working on a case that, well - let's just say my love for this story isn't because of the plot. Watson is shot, and Holmes quickly shoots Watson's attacker, then rushes to Watson's side:
Then my friend's wiry arms were round me, and he was leading me to a chair.

"You're not hurt, Watson? For God's sake, say that you are not hurt!"

It was worth a wound - it was worth many wounds - to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask. The clear, hard eyes were dimmed for a moment, and the firm lips were shaking. For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain. All my years of humble but single-minded service culminated in that moment of revelation.

Um, yeah. Let us just bask in that for a moment. To me, this passage sums up everything that is Holmes/Watson. Holmes's love for Watson, hidden by his emotionless exterior, never expressed save in moments of great peril. Watson's sheer ignorance of how much Holmes cares for him, his desperate desire for more affection. Watson's single-minded service, and the depth of Holmes's love.

Well, it cannot last. Only a year later, in 1903, Holmes himself, narrating one of his own adventures, ("The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier") tells us that "the good Watson had at that time deserted me for a wife, the only selfish action which I can recall in our association. I was alone." This is very true. Without Watson, Holmes is alone. While Watson is jovial and companionable, seems to go out often, has an assortment of friends, and boasts of experience with women that extends across three continents, Holmes has no one but Watson.

Watson obviously admires Holmes. He has been obsessed with him since the moment they met, and the fact that he chronicled so many of his adventures shows how much he loves him. Holmes's need for Watson is less obvious but just as real. In the other adventure he narrates himself, "The Adventure of the Lion's Mane," Holmes notes that "the good Watson had passed almost beyond my ken. An occasional weekend visit was the most I ever saw of him." He mourns Watson's absence, saying, "Ah! had he but been with me, how much he might have made of so wonderful a happening and of my eventual triumph against every difficulty!" Superficially, Holmes needs Watson to chronicle his adventures, but he needs him for more than that. He needs Watson to be his foil, both for his own ego, and to sharpen his intelligence. He needs Watson as his whetstone.

And he needs Watson because Watson is his tie to humanity. He needs Watson in all his foolishness, ignorance, bumbling middle-class incompetence, because his relationship with Watson is the one thing over the years that keeps him grounded, keeps him human, keeps him real.

Chronologically, the last story is "His Last Bow," which ends with Holmes and Watson, separated for many years but called together for one last great adventure, standing and watching the sea. Holmes, who knows the world, says "There's an east wind coming, Watson." He is speaking of what will be the Great War (and only much later WWI).

"I think not, Holmes. It is very warm," Watson replies, taking him literally.

"Good old Watson! You are the one fixed point in a changing age," Holmes responds gently.

What You Will Find In Fic

If you like slash but like it without the issues, if you like men who love men but don't want them angsting over it, if you like your slash set in Utopias where same-sex relationships are just as valid as opposite sex ones... well, this pairing probably isn't for you.

There is lots of angst. These men do, after all, live in Victorian England. Be prepared for lots of Oscar Wilde references. Be prepared for lots of denial. Be prepared for men who are very, very conscious that their sexuality is reviled and criminalized.

Be prepared, on the other hand, for fic filled with historical nuances, with literary allusions, written by well-read, intelligent authors with a deep knowledge of the Canon and love for these two men.

Be prepared for lots of explanations of Holmes's cocaine habit.

Be prepared for fic where Watson loves his wives, and for fic where he doesn't, for fic where Holmes is jealous of Watson's wives and fic where he arranged the marriages. Fic where Watson was never really married but invented his romance with Mary to cover up his relationship with Holmes.

Fic where Watson is female. Fic where Holmes is female.

Be prepared for lots and lots of "my dear fellow" and "my dearest Watson." Because, hey, it's in canon.

Are you prepared? Here's what's out there.

The Fandom

Well, I would like to believe this is the only extra-canonical pairing where you can start with the published fanfic. You can. Read My Dearest Holmes by Rohase Piercy, which I strongly suspect is the first Holmes/Watson fic ever (at least where both of them retain their gender.)

If you're less adventurous, or too poor, you probably want to start with Sacrilege! the official site where you will find reams of wonderful fic, some lovely fanart, and links to more meta than you can shake a stick at.

On Sacrilege!, you can find "Absurdly Simple", generally thought of as the quintessential H/W fic.

I'd also recommend "Leaving" and "Left" by Telanu.

I've also recommended "The Sign of Change" in the past.

If all the sparkling subtext I left you with isn't enough, there's The Sexiest Lines in Sherlockian Canon, good for a laugh and an occasional sigh of shippy bliss.

Once you've exhausted Sacrilege, the H/W fic at Oblique Publications is all quite excellent.

Elsewhere there is "The Maiden Voyage of the Tiresias".

If you're looking for pretty in the form of vids, well, there's only one, but it's utterly gorgeous. Your Mistake.

The fannish gathering places consist of:
-the Holmesslash Yahoo! group
-cox_and_co

(All page citations from the 1938 De Luxe Edition from Garden City Publishing Company)

Comments

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This is excellent!
I loved this bit in particular:
Watson has been widowed (no, I mean Mary died too)
Thanks for writing this. :)
Thank you! :D ph34r the quirky humor.

:)
You're welcome, glad you liked. :)

(Anonymous)

First of all, my hearty congratulations - you wrote an excellent essay (certainly more eloquent than I could ever hope to achieve) and spreading the word about H/W is always worth the effort :)
Now, having said that I do have to point out some things that just get me bristling every time I see them. Well, actually it's one thing and that is the notion that Watson was barely competent doctor and generally not a very intelligent chap, not capable of irony (that "east wind" comment would be a good example of Watson's sense of humour).
Yes, I know you did try to do him justice, but really... "He needs Watson in all his foolishness, ignorance, bumbling middle-class incompetence..." to quote. True - Watson is not as intelligent as Holmes (but then, who is?), but I doubt Holmes would put up with him for very long if Watson really was so stupid. Especially at the beginning of their association (well, unless, of course, Watson really excelled in other areas :)).
For further reading on the subject, if someone is interested, I'd recommend Jin Katkin's essay (on Sacrilege!):
http://www.hwslash.net/content/collegiate.html

So, this is my small bit of nitpicking, which I hope you don't mind too much, because you really did a great job.
cheers
with_nail (lurker on Cox_and_Co.)
You know, you're right, and I don't think Watson is unintelligent, really, although compared with Holmes, he is less intelligent.

Watson's intelligence does get underplayed, not only by fen, but by Doyle (see the apocryphal "How Watson Learned the Trick") and by Holmes, and by Watson himself. But I'll wander off and read that essay, and thanks for the concrit, and thanks for the compliment.

Cheers,
Ari
*bookmarks essay*
I read Absurdly Simple. Good rec, thank you.
Great essay!
*pets your icon* Mmm, William.

And glad you liked! Thanks so much.

*bookmarks essay*
*preens*
Oooh, thanks! Holmes/Watson is one of those fandoms that's been on my radar as probably worth investigating for a while, so those recs are most helpful.
You're welcome!

Holmes/Watson was actually my serious introduction to fandom (I read a bit of LotR bookverse slash, but it didn't really capture my interest), and I spent a happy couple of weeks reading everything I could get my hands on. It's a wonderful fandom. :)
I have to correct you on one point; I have never seen a chronology of A Study in Scarlet that placed the tale in 1878. Most scholars place the story in 1881, though I have occasionally seen it placed in 1882. But never 1878.
The battle of Maiwand where Watson was wounded was fought on the 27 th of July 1880, so it was at least 1881.
Lovely essay! And Absurdly Simple is one of my favorite all-time slash stories, plus the photomanip Padgett illustrations on Sacrilege are teh good.
Thanks. :)

I lurves me the photo manips. They are indeed teh_good.
Very well written essay! My knowledge of canon is spotty; I've only read a few books. This makes me want to go devour all of Doyle's work so I can dive into the fandom. Angst, homophobia and historical allusions all sound like excellent things to encounter in a fanfic. Thanks for opening my eyes!
:) Thanks, Shelley.

When I first started reading in the fandom, I was way torn between finishing the Canon as fast as I could and jumping immmediately into the mass of wonderful fic...
Thank you for this excellent introduction to the fandom! I'm a fairly recent convert, and this essay is really a treasure mine.
You're welcome. :) Glad you liked.
What a wonderful essay. I was a huge Holmes geek when I was a kid (i.e., too young to get the slashiness of it), and have been meaning to reread this stuff...
*giggles* The slash is all... pretty like. :)
you know, dude, i read your essay, and i'm not sure i agree. in fact, i'm rather sure i don't agree, and don't get me wrong, i am a huge fan of gay male sex. really, a huge fan. but i think in considering holmes/watson one has to realize the time in which the stories were written, along with the additional hypothesis (which i think happens to be more along the accurate lines) that watson looked upon holmes as a godly figure. i'd cite the lines about revelations of love and the like to support that.

just an idea. would write more, but must be off. michael dukakis just came to my school and we're having something of a political powwow tonight to follow.


cheers,
s
Ta,

Mmmkay, I'm confused. At first reading, I thought you just didn't see the H/W 'cos it would be anachronistic, but that doesn't seem to be it...

What are you disagreeing with me about? That Watson loved Holmes? Was obsessed with him? That Holmes loved Watson back? Needed him? Or that they were having hot gay sex? 'Cos, no, prob'ly not.

But w/e.

-Ari
A really lovely essay. I think my experience in the fandom is shared by many: I read the books a long time ago as a kid, at eleven years old or so, and have only in the last year thought back and took note of the tremendous subtext.

*smiles*

Thanks.
*sighs happily*

What a lovely reminder of why Holmes/Watson always makes me all melty inside. I especially loved the What You Will Find in Fic section--hee! It's so true!

<333333333333
<3333333333 back. :)

Have you read Telanu's H/W fic drinking game? Tis très amusante and I have no idea why I'm writing in French. :p

Melty is a word. :D :)
*APPLAUD*

while he thinks Mary is a fine choice, he is secretly jealous of her, he is opposed to love on principle.

Made me laugh.

And yeah, damn but this pairing KEELS ME EVERY TIME. As you said, tugs on the heartstrings. Plays violin with 'em.

The essay was excellently done. *<3s it*
*grin* *bows*

Glad to amuse, and oh my GOD I love this pairing. It BREAKS MY HEART.

<3 H/W (4evaOMG!!11)

Glad you liked.
...*happy sigh*

I am late. This is fabulous. You rock. I love you. Also Holmes and Watson. I have no idea why I am communicating only in near-monosyllabic sentences.

But, yes. Articulate and amusing; very well done.
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