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Two immortal characters, a chance meeting, a visit to 221B Baker Street. The beginners of the most famous friendship ever recorded.
Sherlock Holmes and Dr John Watson, famous for their crime-solving capabilities, are mysterious figures themselves. What is known about their pasts, and the reasons behind their very different personalities? What led two strikingly different individuals to form a relationship which would last for over forty-six years? This detailed and enthralling ...
Two immortal characters, a chance meeting, a visit to 221B Baker Street. The beginners of the most famous friendship ever recorded.
Sherlock Holmes and Dr John Watson, famous for their crime-solving capabilities, are mysterious figures themselves. What is known about their pasts, and the reasons behind their very different personalities? What led two strikingly different individuals to form a relationship which would last for over forty-six years? This detailed and enthralling account ponders answers to the many uncertainties and enigmas which surround the pair.
And there are other puzzles to be solved. When did the case of the Hound of the Baskervilles actually occur? Who was John Watson’s mysterious second wife? And what is the real location of the legendary 221B Baker Street? A thorough investigation commences as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous creations are placed under the magnifying glass...
HOLMES AND WATSON
`My dear fellow, life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent.'
Holmes to Watson: A Case of Identity.
Holmes and Watson: their names are inextricably linked while their friendship is known throughout the world, a fame which is largely attributable to Watson who, as Holmes' chronicler, was to write over half a million words about their relationship and their adventures together. These accounts, which have never been out of print, were later translated into most languages and used as the basis for numerous films and plays as well as television and radio programmes which have assured their continuing popularity.
And yet remarkably little is known about their early lives before their celebrated meeting in 1881. Not even their dates of birth can be established with any certainty.
It is not altogether surprising. Holmes was deliberately reticent about his past for reasons which will be examined in more detail later in the chapter. As for Watson, he was more concerned with recording Holmes' exploits and publicizing his friend's unique skills as a private consulting detective than with thrusting his own personal reminiscences upon his readers. However, there are clues within the canon and, where evidence is lacking, some of the gaps can be filled from other sources of information.
Holmes was probably born in 1854. In His Last Bow: The War Service ofSherlock Holmes, dated August 1914, Holmes is described as a man of sixty. Therefore, he was, like Watson, a Victorian, born within the reign of Queen Victoria, who succeeded to the throne in 1837. The month of his birth is unknown; so, too, is the place although some commentators have put forward various theories about both.
Little is known either about his immediate family apart from the fact that he had one brother, Mycroft, who was seven years his senior. However, his background was what his fellow Victorians, with their fine distinctions over such matters of social status, would have defined as upper middle-class. Holmes himself has provided some information about his antecedents. His ancestors, he tells Watson in The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter, were country squires `who appear to have led much the same life as is natural to their class'. In other words, they were more concerned with running their estates and following such leisure activities as hunting, shooting and fishing than in scholarly or artistic pursuits.
Holmes ascribes his own and his brother's quite different interests to his grandmother, the sister of Vernet, the French painter, from whom both had inherited their less conventional natures.
As Holmes remarks, `Art in the blood is liable to take the strangest forms.'
Holmes does not say whether this Mlle Vernet was a paternal or maternal grandmother nor which Vernet was her brother. There were several Vernets, all artists, but the most likely candidate, as many commentators agree, is Horace Vernet (1789-1863), the son of Carle Vernet (1758-1836), who was awarded the Légion d'Honneur by Napoleon for his painting, Morning of Austerlitz. Horace Vernet was himself a distinguished artist. Holmes' grandmother was most probably a daughter of this same Carle Vernet and was therefore Horace Vernet's sister. The dates agree and there is further confirmation in a comment made by the composer Felix Mendelssohn on Horace Vernet's extraordinary memory, which he compared to a well-stocked bureau. `He had but to open a drawer in it to find what was needed,' he is quoted as saying.
This gift was inherited by both the Holmes brothers, by Mycroft with his capacity for storing and correlating facts which he was to put to good use in his future career, and by Sherlock in his ability to recall information at will, a talent which is remarkably similar to that of his great-uncle Horace Vernet.
`I hold a vast store of out-of-the-way knowledge, without scientific system, but very available for the needs of my work,' he was later to say of himself.
Some commentators have expressed surprise that Mycroft Holmes had apparently not inherited the family estates. But Holmes makes it quite clear that it was his ancestors who were the country squires, possibly as far back as a great grandfather or even a great-great grandfather. If he and Mycroft were descended from a younger son, they would have belonged to the cadet branch of the family and therefore Mycroft would not have been a direct heir. Or they may have descended through the female line, in which case `Holmes' would not have been the ancestral surname.
Holmes may have inherited more from his French grandmother than his unusual talents. His mercurial temperament suggests the influence of his Gallic genes rather than those of his more stolid and conventional Anglo-Saxon antecedents. Indeed, the extreme swings of mood from which he suffered in his early manhood, and presumably also in childhood and adolescence, suggest some of the symptoms of manic depression without its psychotic features, although whether this should be entirely blamed on his French blood is questionable. He could have inherited this tendency from one of his English fox-hunting forebears. But, whatever its source, this cyclothymic temperament is undoubtedly part of his personality which may have been exacerbated by his upbringing.
Holmes says nothing at all about his parents. However, his `strong aversion to women', as Watson was later to report, is significant. From various comments Holmes made on the subject, it is possible to form a clear idea of his attitude towards them. They are inscrutable, trivial, illogical and vain. They vacillate, are subject to emotional outbursts and are naturally secretive.
`Woman are never to be entirely trusted — not even the best of them,' he states in one particularly revealing remark. However, he was always polite to them, the mark of a gentleman, and, when he wished, could have a `peculiarly ingratiating way' with them.
This mistrust can only have been formed from personal experience and the most likely cause, as many psychiatrists would agree, is found in the mother/child relationship.
Given Holmes' remarks, it is possible to build up a credible, if speculative, picture of his mother. She was a vain, shallow and self-centred woman, more interested in her own pleasures than in forming a close and loving bond with her children, whom she handed over to the care of servants, as was usual at that time among women of her class.
To a small child, who may well have inherited a tendency towards manic depression, such lack of maternal affection would have had serious effects on his subsequent psychological development. At the very least, it would have given rise to anxiety and tension, evident, in Holmes' case, in such nervous mannerisms as nail-biting, pacing restlessly about, twisting his fingers together or drumming them on the table.
Even his dislike of chess may be traced back to those early childhood experiences. As a game, it has all the intellectual and logical challenges which should have appealed to him. However, it is significant that the most dominant piece in chess is the queen, which alone has the ability to move freely about the board, an obvious symbol of the all-powerful mother.
Such symbolism may also be reflected in Holmes' interest in later life in bee-keeping, an activity in which a queen again plays an important role. However, in this instance, though forming the nucleus of the hive, she is an inert, passive creature whose only function is to lay eggs. In short, although a sex object, she is rendered harmless. He was to write a Practical Handbook of Bee Culture, with Some Observations upon the Segregation of the Queen. Although Holmes himself may have been unaware of the significance of this title, readers will not need to have their attention drawn to it.
A child who is deprived of his mother's love may also find difficulty in forming close relationships. This, too, is true of Holmes who, as a protective shell against further rejection, could have deliberately developed that coldness of temperament which Watson was to criticize on several occasions, unaware that this lack of emotional warmth was a consequence of Holmes' upbringing.
Such suppression of the feelings could also have encouraged Holmes to regard logical and rational thought as superior to the emotions, leading in turn to his interest in science, in particular to chemistry with its emphasis on precise analysis. This analytical turn of mind combined with his undoubted intelligence and an unwillingness to suffer fools gladly made him insensitive to other people's feelings. He was far too quick to see others' weaknesses and too frank in pointing them out, an outspokenness which led Watson to accuse him, not without justification, of egotism.
Watson tempered this criticism by adding that, although callous, Holmes was never cruel. Certainly, there were occasions when he was downright rude and his behaviour hurtful, although it should be said in his defence that he was also capable of great kindness.
Holmes never married and he almost certainly remained celibate all his life. In Victorian times, the opportunities for sex outside marriage were limited either to casual encounters with prostitutes or a more permanent liaison with a mistress. Holmes was too fastidious for the former type of relationship and too wary of women to commit himself to the latter, although he was not entirely asexual. Later, he was to be attracted to one woman in particular and, had events not prevented it, might have married her or at least had an affair with her. But she was exceptional and he was never again to meet anyone who measured up to her beauty, intelligence and strength of personality. Holmes was too much of a perfectionist to settle for second-best. Instead, his sexual energy was channelled into other outlets, principally into an overwhelming need for achievement, the roots of which may also be traced back to his childhood.
An emotionally deprived child may suffer from low self-esteem, a feeling that, if he is not given love, then it is because he is unworthy of it. This, too, can lead to depression or, as the child grows older, to a strong urge for success in order to prove to himself and other people that he is indeed worthy. He may also look for admiration as a means of boosting his self-esteem. Holmes was certainly ambitious and susceptible to flattery, as Watson was to discover, while Watson's unfailing admiration was an important factor in maintaining their friendship.
Another consequence of early emotional deprivation is hostility, even hatred, towards the mother for withholding that affection for which the child naturally craves. Unable to cope with the guilt such violent feelings arouse, the child may sublimate the aggression into more acceptable forms. Holmes' interest in sensational literature, his knowledge of which Watson says was immense, probably originated in childhood. This type of reading matter, with its emphasis on violence and murder, could well have acted as an outlet for the hidden hostility Holmes felt towards his mother. It was to lead eventually to his specialization in the study and investigation of crime.
These aggressive urges were later to find a more direct expression in Holmes' study of anatomy. In the dissecting room at St Bartholomew's Hospital, it was more or less acceptable for a student, in the name of forensic research, to beat dead bodies with a stick in order to discover to what extent bruises are produced after death. However, even Stamford, Watson's former dresser, who, as a member of the hospital staff, was surely not over-squeamish, considered such behaviour bizarre and extreme, as indeed it was. Holmes carried out similar research on a dead pig which he stabbed furiously with a huge, barb-headed spear in an attempt to prove that it could not be transfixed with a single blow. Significantly, he returned from this experiment much invigorated and with a hearty appetite.
This same transferred aggression is seen in his choice of sporting activities: boxing, fencing, singlestick play and baritsu, the latter a Japanese form of self-defence. All are combative sports carried out against one individual opponent, not as part of a team.
Some sufferers learn to cope with their recurrent bouts of depression by immersing themselves in activity so that their minds are stimulated and fully occupied. This is also true of Holmes. He was to become a workaholic, frequently staying up all night and sometimes working for days at a stretch without proper food or rest. On two occasions, he drove himself to the point of physical and mental breakdown. It was only when he was idle that he became prone to depression, when he would lie on the sofa, hardly speaking or moving, staring vacantly up at the ceiling.
As well as work, Holmes became dependent on other stimulants in later life: tobacco, strong black coffee and cocaine, which itself can exacerbate the symptoms of manic depression, causing `high' and `low' states of mind. On occasions, he used morphine as well.
His manic-depressive tendencies could also account for the complexities and apparent contradictions in his character, those light and dark sides to his nature. The brighter, more optimistic qualities found expression in his zest for life, his undoubted charm and energy, his enthusiasm and sprightly conversation, and even in more minor traits such as his enjoyment of good food and wine. The darker side to his character gave rise to pessimism, to feelings that nothing in life was worthwhile and to an ascetic, almost monk-like disregard for his creature comforts. Even his sense of humour had its darker element when the wit turned to sarcasm.
Another contradiction is seen in his personal habits, in his extreme untidiness with his possessions compared with his `catlike love of personal cleanliness' shown in his care over his clothes and appearance.
Holmes says nothing at all about his father, not even obliquely. The impression conveyed by this complete silence is one of absence, either through early death or physical withdrawal. His parents may have lived apart or his father's profession, which Holmes does not specify, may have taken him away from home for long periods. Or, if present, he may have shown little interest in his sons. As they grew up, Mycroft, as the older brother, seems to have acted in some respects as a surrogate father, giving Holmes advice and taking on responsibilities on his behalf. His habit of addressing Holmes as `my dear boy' has a paternal ring to it.
Mycroft was also affected by his upbringing and the same lack of maternal love. Like Holmes, he never married and, while not showing his brother's manic-depressive tendencies, was even more unsociable than Holmes. He had no close friends at all and his later life was restricted to his office, his club and his bachelor apartment. He also lacked Holmes' driving ambition. In this respect, he appears to have inherited more of the phlegmatic qualities of his English forebears.
It is not known where Holmes was educated, whether at a public school, where boys of his class would normally be sent, or at home with a private tutor, as some commentators have claimed. Certainly his sporting interests do not suggest a conventional school, where at that time only team games would have been encouraged. Superficially, his education appeared erratic. After their first meeting, Watson was to draw up a list in which he tried to rate Holmes' knowledge of various subjects, giving him a zero mark for literature, philosophy and astronomy.
In fact, Holmes was better educated than Watson's list might suggest. He evidently spoke French like a native for later he was able to pass himself off as a French workman. He may have learned the language in France when visiting his French relations. He may also have been able to speak German, which he considered unmusical although `the most expressive of all languages'. He had certainly read Goethe, could quote from his works in the original and he knew `Rache' was the German for `revenge'. His interest in languages was to persist all his life. For example, he formed the theory that ancient Cornish was similar to Chaldean and may have derived from the Phoenician-speaking tin-merchants who had traded with Cornwall in the past.
His reading included the Bible, Shakespeare, Meredith, Carlyle, Poe, Boileau and Flaubert as well as the works of Darwin, Thoreau and the German philosopher Richter.
As for astronomy, which Watson marked `nil', Holmes had studied it in sufficient depth to discuss `the change in the obliquity of the ecliptic' or, in layman's terms, the alteration to the angle at which the sun's circuit stood in relation to the equator. It is doubtful if Watson was as well informed about the subject.
He studied Latin, a prerequisite in those days for boys of his class, and was familiar with such authors as Horace and Tacitus. He may also have learned Italian. In later life, he once carried a copy of Petrarch in his pocket on a train journey.
His ability to play the violin is well attested by Watson, who also states that he composed as well as performed. His interest in music was almost certainly formed in his childhood and reflects the more creative and intuitive side of his nature. He may also as a child have begun to develop those many other hobbies and interests which Watson mentions and which are too numerous to list in full. They included Buddhism, ancient documents, antiquarian books, miracle plays, guns, golf clubs and the effects of heredity, the latter possibly arising from his own family background. Other interests, such as in codes and cyphers and in tracking footprints, both human and animal, which were to prove useful in his later career as a private consulting detective, may also have begun as boyhood hobbies.
The picture which emerges of Holmes when young is of a highly intelligent but solitary child, the age gap of seven years between himself and Mycroft being then too wide to make them close playmates. Lively and energetic, he could at times be moody and withdrawn, apparently preferring his own company while secretly longing for affection and admiration. He may already have learnt to cope with the pain of his mother's lack of interest in him by throwing himself into a variety of sports and hobbies and by avoiding any close contacts with others for fear of further rejection. It is therefore not surprising that, as an adult, he would shun any discussion about his family and childhood, preferring to keep those old emotional scars hidden even from Watson, his close friend and confidant. His Victorian upbringing, with its emphasis on keeping a stiff upper lip, would have further inhibited him from revealing his emotions.
Watson's date of birth is less easily established. For reasons which will be fully explained in Chapter Three where Watson's medical training is more closely examined, he was probably born either in 1852 or 1853 which would have made him a year or two older than Holmes.
Little is known about his family background but it was apparently fairly well-to-do middle-class. Although his profession is not stated, Watson's father was wealthy enough to own a fifty-guinea watch, the only fact known about him. Like Holmes, Watson had an older brother, whose name is not given although his first name began with an H. He was later to become the black sheep of the family, much to Watson's deep embarrassment. This reaction suggests a conventional, respectable upbringing.
Watson appears to have had a normal childhood for he suffered from none of the effects of psychological damage which characterize Holmes' personality. His reticence about his family background and early life is due more to a natural modesty and to his self-appointed role as Holmes' chronicler, not as his own, than to a desire to repress unhappy memories.
Dorothy L. Sayers has suggested he may have had Scottish connections. Whether or not this theory is correct, Watson was clearly educated at an English school, possibly a boarding school although this is not firmly established. Another commentator has suggested that, because of Watson's skill at rugby, he may have been a pupil at Rugby, the well-known public school where the game was first introduced in 1823. This, however, is unlikely. One of Watson's fellow pupils was Percy Phelps, the nephew of Lord Holdhurst, the Conservative politician. Watson and the other boys bullied Phelps because of this `gaudy relationship', as Watson terms it. Pupils at Rugby, or at any other of the famous public schools such as Eton and Harrow, where boys from an aristocratic background were the norm rather than the exception, would not have ragged Phelps about his noble connections. The attitude of Watson and his friends suggests the school was a minor establishment.
The passage in which Watson reminisces about Percy Phelps is also revealing about other aspects of Watson's schooldays. `Tadpole' Phelps was an intimate friend of Watson, indicating that, unlike Holmes, Watson was capable of making close relationships. He was also apparently on good terms with the other boys, joining in the ragging of the unfortunate `Tadpole'. Phelps seems not to have borne Watson any grudge and later was to appeal for his help in persuading Holmes to investigate the case of the Naval Treaty.
In addition, the passage shows that, although about the same age as Watson, Phelps, a brilliant scholar who was to win all the school prizes, was two classes ahead of him, suggesting Watson was a pupil of average intelligence and attainment, an assessment which will be more fully examined in Chapter Three.
Watson's love of rugby, a team game, is also significant, indicating an ability to co-operate with others as well as to enjoy the rough and tumble of a highly physical sport. It also bears out his own statement about himself that he was `reckoned fleet of foot.'
As an adult, he also prided himself on his common sense while admitting to extreme laziness, a judgement which shows a clear insight into his own personality, although in the latter estimation Watson was being a little hard on himself. Although he shows none of Holmes' ambitious drive, when given the right incentive he was capable of aspirations and was willing to work hard to achieve them.
Despite his criticisms of Holmes' accomplishments, Watson was less widely read or educated than Holmes and his interests and hobbies were much more limited, being restricted in later years to billiards and horse-racing. His taste in books extended little further than the sea stories of William Clark Russell. This preference for an exciting yarn was probably established in boyhood and may well have bred in him a love of travel and adventure. It was a part of his personality which, as will be seen later, was to influence his subsequent career as well as form an essential factor in his friendship with Holmes. It was also to contribute to his later success as a writer. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, Watson was to say of himself, `The promise of adventure had always a fascination for me.'
Quite apart from his talent as a writer, an attribute which will also be examined in more detail later, Watson showed this creative side to his personality in other ways. Although not a performer himself, he enjoyed listening to music, in particular to Mendelssohn, a romantic composer. He also possessed a deep love cf the English countryside, which is frequently expressed in his writing, and a sympathy for other people, especially for women, in which that romantic quality is again seen.
His attitude to women was normal. He was chivalrous towards them, admired them and enjoyed their company. He was to marry twice, the first time very happily. His second marriage, about which Watson says nothing, will be dealt with in more detail at the appropriate time.
As well as a romantic, Watson was an idealist. Of the few personal possessions he contributed to the shared Baker Street sitting-room two were portraits, one of General Gordon, the hero of Khartoum, the other of Henry Ward Beecher, the American preacher and supporter of Negro rights during the American Civil War. His choice could well reflect a boyhood admiration for men of courage, distinguished, in Gordon's case, for physical bravery, in Beecher's for the moral stand he took in the name of freedom and care for the oppressed. This tendency towards hero-worship was to play a significant role in his friendship with Holmes.
The sympathetic, idealistic side to Watson's nature, with its concern for the underprivileged, may have prompted him to choose medicine as his future career, while his love of adventure would have drawn him towards the army with its promise of excitement and action.
His upbringing, though stable, may however have been strict, with an emphasis on such middle-class virtues as good manners, modesty, loyalty, honesty and kindness towards others. Certainly Watson shows all these traits as well as the guilt which often results from such an upbringing when the child falls short of such high moral standards. As a result, Watson was to grow up to be a thoroughly nice man.
If this sounds a little too dull and worthy, he could on occasions be short-tempered, impatient and forthright, prepared to stand up for himself and to express his opinions quite forcibly when the need arose. As he himself admits, he also had a tendency at times towards self-importance.
Unlike Holmes, he was also willing to express his feelings openly and references to his emotional reactions are found throughout the canon, whether to the sympathy he felt towards some of Holmes' clients, particularly the women, or his exasperation towards Holmes himself, as well as the horror, excitement or occasional fear his experiences roused in him.
The impression one receives of Watson as a child is of a sturdy, sensible, nicely brought-up little boy, from a stable if conventional background, who was generally on good terms with other children. Although not scholastically brilliant, he was capable of average academic success when he put his mind to it. He may already have shown in childhood that more romantic and idealistic side to his nature in a tendency towards day-dreaming of exciting adventures in exotic places and, as he grew older, of aspirations towards making a positive contribution to the good of mankind.
Much less complex than Holmes, Watson nevertheless possesses far more depth of character than he is sometimes credited with, even by Holmes himself who, in one rather backhanded compliment, suggests that he lacked luminosity.
`It may be that you are not yourself luminous,' he tells Watson, `but you are a conductor of light. Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it.'
Characteristically, rather than being offended, Watson was delighted by the remark.
As a personality, Watson may indeed not glitter quite as brightly as Holmes but nevertheless there is a warm, steady glow about him which was to illuminate their friendship as much as Holmes' more pyrotechnic brilliance. Without it, it is doubtful if their relationship would have survived intact for all those years.