[The year 1927 saw the publication of the last three episodes of the Holmes Saga. The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place was published in the Strand in April 1927. The first English edition of The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes was published by John Murray on 16 June 1927. Three weeks later in The New Stateman (July, 9), a weekly political magazine containing high-praised columns of art and literary criticism, appeared a column signed ‘Affable Hawk’. Reprinted in The Saturday Review of Literature, No. I, January 2013.]
The New Statesman, July 9, 1927, p. 408.
Books in General
I have been re-reading those books in which are recorded all we know of the adventures and achievements of Sherlock Holmes. As I read, I thought that by noticing certain details, which the idle reader passes over, I might possibly clear up some difficulties which I divined to be lurking in the chronology of those records. The modest concentration of this aim appealed to me. If successful in such a task, might I not go on to peg out a small and apparently barren claim among the mountains of history? Alas, my efforts have not increased my confidence in myself as a researcher. Almost at once I found myself involved in perplexities. These may seem elementary to such ripe Sherlock Holmes scholars as Father Ronald Knox, his brother “Evoe,” Mr. Frank Sidgwick, Mr. Maurice Baring, Lady Kirkwhelpington and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but nevertheless I will air them.
* * *
Our records stretch from the year 1879 to the year 1914, covering thus thirty-five years; and, not counting a few uncollected stories, the canonical books are seven in number: The Study in Scarlet, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Sign of Four, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, The Return of Sherlock Holmes, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and His Last Bow. The Study in Scarlet is, of course, our earliest book. Though to be quite positive about the date of the events recorded in it, it is necessary to know the precise date of the battle of Maiwand—and I do not—I think it is fairly safe to date the installation of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in their rooms in Baker Street, at the end of February, 1879: February, because it was on the morning of March 4th that Dr. Watson read in a magazine the anonymous article upon “Deduction,” by Sherlock Holmes, after they had been living together a very short time; 1879 because the second Afghan war broke out in 1878. In 1878 Dr. Watson had gone straight from Netley Training College to join his brigade at Kandahar. At “the fatal battle of Maiwand” he had been struck in the shoulder by a Jezail bullet, the effect of which he was to feel when walking, even as late as 1888, in his Achilles tendon (see The Sign of Four); and a worse mishap had followed. At the base hospital at Peshawar he had contracted enteric fever, and for the next few months he lay between life and death. We do not know the date on which he landed from the troopship “Orontes” at Portsmouth, or, precisely, how many months were spent in London before that lucky encounter took place at the Criterion Bar which led to his introduction to his future friend; but while to project The Study in Scarlet into March of 1880 would be to allow, in my opinion, too much time for the above events, Dr. Watson’s short experience as a soldier (which he was later inclined to make too much of), his confinement in hospital, his month’s voyage and his sojourn in London, are compatible with the earlier date. Unless I find, on having access to books of reference, that the battle of Maiwand took place right at the end of 1878, I shall continue to believe that February 1879 is the date at which our researches should begin.
* * *
There is no difficulty in dating some of the adventures. We have, for example, in the case of The Speckled Band, Dr. Watson’s definite statement as to when those events occurred: “It was early in April in the year ’83, that I woke one morning to find Sherlock Holmes standing, fully dressed, by the side of my bed.” But in far the greater proportion of cases the dates of events can only be ascertained from some incident or detail mentioned in the course of the narrative, and made perhaps more precise by some reference to the weather or the season. Let me give a few examples. If it had not been for the date inscribed upon Dr. Mortimer’s stick, presented to him on leaving Charing Cross Hospital, we should not know the date of the adventure of The Hound of the Baskervilles. But that date, “1884,” coupled with Sherlock Holmes’ comment, “he left five years ago—the date is on the stick,” enables us to assert confidently that we are reading about the year 1889; while Dr. Watson’s reflection upon the falling leaves, while driving to Baskerville Hall, “sad gifts, as it occurred to me, for Nature to throw before the carriage of the returning heir of the Baskervilles,” shows that it was the autumn of that year. Again, although in the case of The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor, the chronicler is content with saying that the events took place “a few weeks before my marriage” and that “high autumn winds” were blowing, we can discover their date. Sherlock Holmes, on looking up Lord Robert St. Simon in Debrett discovered he was born in 1846. “He is forty-one years of age,” he added, “which is mature for marriage.” The date of these events is therefore the autumn of 1887. This fact is of great importance, because it points to Dr. Watson’s marriage having taken place in the last quarter of that year. And if we can once fix that date we can arrange a great many of the stories in chronological order, for Dr. Watson uses his own marriage as a sort of B.C., or A.D. in recounting events. But, alas, it is precisely this date which it is most difficult to determine. A slight mystery hangs over Dr. Watson’s marriage.
* * *
The Sign of Four gives us the circumstances which led up to that marriage. We know with certainty the date of their engagement. When Miss Morstan called at Baker Street with the letter asking her to be at the third pillar from the left outside the Lyceum that night, Holmes asked to see the envelope: “Postmark, London, S.W. Date, July 7. Hum!” The date of her visit was therefore July 8th. Nor is the year less certain. “About six years ago—to be exact, on the 4th of May, 1882—an advertisement appeared in the Times asking for the address of Miss Mary Morstan,” she told them. From this remark “six years ago” many have concluded that A Sign of Four must be assigned to 1888; simple arithmetic seemed to demand it. But in that case how could we account for Dr. Watson’s statement that the affair of The Noble Bachelor (Autumn 1887) took place “a few weeks before his marriage”? They have failed to notice a significant fact. From May 1882, onwards, every year, on the same day, Miss Morstan had received “a very large and lustrous pearl” from an unknown benefactor. If, as in speaking hastily, she asserted, the first had arrived on May 4th, “six years ago,” she would have received by July 7th, 1888, seven pearls. But the box she showed Dr. Watson only contained “six of the finest pearls he had ever seen.” The date of Dr. Watson’s engagement is, therefore, the second week of July, 1887. How long it lasted we do not know. But there is a second small difficulty connected with A Sign of Four. Although it was on the evening of July 8th that they accompanied Miss Morstan to the porch of the Lyceum, later to the house of Thaddeus Sholto, and finally to Upper Norwood, Dr. Watson, in describing that drive, says, “It was a September evening . . . and a dense drizzly fog lay low upon the great city.” What are we to make of this?
* * *
But though I am nearly at the end of the column I am far from the end of my chronological perplexities, indeed only at the beginning of them. The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb “took place in the summer of ’89, and long after my (Dr. Watson’s) marriage.” A Scandal in Bohemia opens with the confession that he had neglected his friend. “My own complete happiness, and the home-centered interests which rise up round a man who first finds himself master of his own establishment, were sufficient to absorb all my attention,” which is clearly the language of a most recently married man; yet Dr. Watson continues, “One night—it was on the 20th of March, 1888 . . . . !” And I have just shown that there are good reasons for believing that the marriage took place in the late summer, or early autumn, of 1887! The biographer of Dr. Watson will no doubt clear this matter up, but until it is unraveled it is impossible to date some eight or nine of the stories with any certainty. The Crooked Man opens with the words, “One summer night, a few months after my marriage, I was seated by my own hearth,” which suggests that the writer had been married in the spring of that year. I confess I am looking forward with some curiosity—there is a small mystery here—to Mr. Desmond MacCarthy’s life of Dr. Watson.
The New Statesman, September 10, 1927, pp. 676-677.
To the Editor of The New Statesman.
Sir,—The superficial dabbling of “Affable Hawk” with problems of Watsonian chronology in your columns some weeks ago, a subject for which he is ill-suited by temperament and training, makes one glad to think that these problems will soon be illuminated by the ripe scholarship and profound learning of Mr. Desmond MacCarthy, whose authoritative Life of Dr. Watson will, I gather, appear this autumn.
“Hawk,” I regret to say, belongs, in the matter of Dr. Watson’s marriage, to the “1887 school”—the school which holds that the Doctor was married, for the first and last time, in 1887. As the Master would have said, “It won’t do, ‘Hawk.’” Watson obviously married no less than three times. (1) In 1887. The Scandal in Bohemia takes place in March, 1888, and Watson has then been married, we are told, some months. (2) In late 1888 (pace Hawk) he marries en secondes noces, Miss Morstan (Sign of Four). (3) She dies before 1894. In the “Adventure of the Empty House,” which took place in that year, Holmes has “heard of my sad bereavement.” (4) Of the year 1903 Holmes himself informs us that “the good Watson had at that time deserted me for a wife.”
For a detailed elaboration of this view, see Professor Nitot’s Vie Amoureuse du Médecin Watson, especially volume III. Meanwhile may I anticipate one objection? “Hawk” will question my point (2). He will say the marriage to Miss Morstan was the marriage of 1887. I make him a present of his ingenious point about the six pearls, which certainly favours that view. But this frail inference cannot be allowed to prevail against Miss Morstan’s categorical statement, when she first enters Holmes’ consulting room on a certain July 8th, that her father disappeared “in December 1878 . . . almost exactly ten years ago. The July in question was unquestionably that of 1888.
I wonder that “Hawk” passed over this crucial indication. To have done so is sloppy Watsonology, to call it no harder name.
Nor is this the only instance in which “Hawk” has disregarded the familiar slogan of the Master (who is happily still “bee-farming in Sussex,” within a few miles of me as I write), “You know my methods, ‘Hawk’: apply them.” For “Hawk” dates the events of the Study in Scarlet in 1879. That story chronicles the murder of Enoch Drebber, and in the course of it we are told that the Standard newspaper, commenting on the murder, observed that these outrages “only occurred under a Liberal administration.” As the Liberal Government did not assume office till 1880, the murder cannot have been before that year.
But as “Hawk” shows a real, though ill-balanced, enthusiasm for this subject, he might with profit investigate the following unsolved questions:
(1) At what college of what University was Holmes educated? The only recorded incident of his two undergraduate years is that “young Trevor’s bull-terrier froze on to his ankle on his way to Chapel.” On the strength of this incident I have always mentally claimed him for Balliol, where this sort of accident was not uncommon in my time; but the evidence is inconclusive. Attendance at Chapel was not common.
(2) How comes it that Holmes is in London, solving the mystery of “Wisteria Lodge,” in 1892? (See His Last Bow.) He spent 1891-1894 shamming dead in Tibet, Mecca and elsewhere. (Final Problem, May, 1891, disappearance: Spring, 1894, reappearance, see the “Return.”)
(3) Was Watson’s Christan name James (as in “Hawk’s” excerpt, last week, from the Man with the Twisted Lip) or John, as elsewhere passim? Possibly “James” was a pet name of Miss Morstan’s. But she generally calls him “my dear” simply.—Yours, etc.,
[The “Affable Hawk” writes: The questions raised in this letter are too intricate to be dealt with in a note. I must write another article on the chronology of the subject, but I can deal with a few points straight away. (1) The date of The Study in Scarlet depends upon that of the battle of Maiwand; when I wrote (being away from my books of reference) I explained I was uncertain on the point. The month is given in the text as March. Watson was wounded in that disastrous battle (July, 1880); he caught enteric afterwards; he was probably invalided home at the end of 1880 and met Holmes early in 1881. March, 1881, is therefore the date of this case. (2) The dating of “The Wisteria Lodge case” is obviously wrong. Watson is living in Baker Street. In all probability 1892 is a misprint overlooked by Watson, and the case belongs to the period when he rejoined Holmes after the death of Mrs. Watson. March, 1895 is probably the date of “The Wis-teria Lodge case.” (3) Watson was very properly christened John James. (4) Mr. Cyril Asquith as a Balliol man is in favour of the hypothesis that Sherlock Holmes was educated there. To me he appears a Cambridge type. Bull-dogs, though lamentably common at Cambridge, were seldom seen in the colleges. The probability is that Holmes was in lodgings during his short residence, and bitten on his way to college chapel in the streets.]
The New Statesman, October 22, 1927, p. 47.
Books in General
September 10th, 1927: yes, that was the date on which I received my wound. I am afraid my readers have not forgotten, it is impossible for me, the severe letter of Mr. Cyril Asquith which then appeared in this paper and began—the words are graven on my memory—“The superficial dabbling of Affable Hawk with problems of Watsonian chronology in your columns some weeks ago, a subject for which he is ill-fitted (sic) by temperament (sic) and training (sic) . . .”; the letter in which he practically told me to hold my tongue on one of my favourite topics until Mr. Desmond MacCarthy’s Life of Dr. Watson appeared. I am sure that no one awaits more impatiently and respectfully the publication of that book than I do; but among the brief, if embarrassed, comments which I made upon his letter, I expressed a promise to return to the problem of the chronology. I would rather have waited till the Life in question had appeared, but I feel I owe it as much to my readers as to myself to redeem that promise. I am heartened to do so by the assistance I have received from a correspondent. This correspondent, in whose judgment I place implicit trust, and of whose indefatigable and cautious investigations I have had ocular evidence, for I have perused his work, insists, as indeed, I could hardly have failed to do, on the crucial importance of fixing the date of Watson’s marriage; so many of the stories are mentioned as having occurred “before,” o “after my marriage.” But once that date is fixed, the problem is often narrowed down surprisingly; for not infrequently Wat-son states how many weeks or months it was before or after his marriage that an “Adventure” took place. We final also such phrases as “the July which immediately succeeded my marriage,” or more vaguely, “one summer night a few months after my marriage”; and even when those indications are absent the seasonable state of the weather may give us a clue.
* * * * *
Two dates, apparently irreconcilable, are deducible from the texts. The most relevant document on the subject of the doctor’s marriage is, as every schoolboy knows, The Sign of Four. If this was the only authority the question would be comparatively simple; though there are, as I shall show, internal difficulties as well. The Sign of Four tells the story of Watson’s brief but passionate courtship of Miss Morstan. In The Sign of Four it is stated that Captain Morstan, her father, died on December 3rd, 1878, “nearly ten years ago.” Mark the “nearly.” The adventure of The Sign of Four seems to have taken place in July, for after Miss Morstan opened, in the sitting-room in Baker Street, the box containing six of the finest pearls the doctor had ever seen, the following dialogue took place:
Sherlock Holmes: “Your statement is most interesting. Has anything else occurred to you?”
Miss Morstan: “Yes, and no later than to-day. That is why I have come to you. This morning I received this letter, which you will perhaps read for yourself.”
Holmes: “Thank you. The envelope, too, please. Postmark, London, S.W. Date July 7th. Hum!”
It was, therefore, on the 8th of a July that Miss Morstan entered Watson’s life. July of what year? If Captain Morstan met his end on December 3rd, 1878, “nearly ten years before,” it seems plausible that it was on July 8th, 1888, that this meeting took place. I showed in my last article on the subject that if from May, 1882 (“about six years ago:”) every year, counting that one, Miss Morstan had received a pearl on the same date in May, she would, if 1888 was the year, have received not six pearls, but seven. Is it not more reasonable to suppose that Miss Morstan, who in many respects was a precise young lady, habitually used the words “about so long ago” a little vaguely (she was clearly fond of using the phrase, for in a short conversation she uses it twice) that that she had lost a pearl or said nothing about her loss? But why was I anxious to throw the meeting with her husband and, therefore, the date of her marriage, back if I could? Because, and there is no doubt about this, in June, 1889, according to “A Scandal in Bohemia,” which is expressly stated to have occurred in March, 1888, Watson was already married! I wished to avoid a scandal worse than any which could possibly occur in Bohemia.
* * * * *
But there is mystery within mystery. Are we even sure that the date was July? The date of the postmark noted by Sherlock Holmes points positively to its being July 8th. But note this. After their visitor had departed and Watson, standing at the window, watched “her walking briskly down the street, until the grey turban and white feather were but a speck in the sombre crowd,—What happened? They had arranged a rendez-vous with her “at the third pillar from the left outside the Lyceum Theatre” that night, the spot to which she had been asked by her mysterious correspondent to come, bringing with her two friends. To this rendezvous Watson was looking forward in a condition for which the divining mind of Holmes instantly prescribed a remedy. You remember he impressed upon his attention Winwood Reade’s Martyrdom of Man. They kept that rendez-vous. But how does Watson describe their drive in the cab, all three together? He begins, “It was a September evening, and not yet seven o’clock, but the day had been a dreary one, and a dense drizzly fog lay low upon the great city. Mud-coloured clouds drooped sadly over the muddy streets. Down the Strand the lamps were but misty splotches of diffused light, which threw a feeble circular glimmer upon the slimy pavement.” It is a real September night; the word is no slip of the pen. How do Sherlock Holmes’ scholars account for this? Mr. Desmond MacCarthy, I happen to know, brushes the difficulty aside by saying that Watson was an artist, and knew he was particularly good at fogs; but I should like to know what other authorities think.
* * * * *
This is a by-point. The main point is the choice between Autumn 1887 and Autumn 1888 as the date of Dr. Watson’s marriage. I hold that the six pearls are a strong argument in favour of 1887, and that this hypothesis requires only one absolutely necessary correction of date, namely that of The Sign of Four, while on the second hypothesis worse difficulties arise. Most of the dates of the documents in the case of either hypo-thesis remain unaffected; but what do the eight-eighters male of “The Noble Bachelor?” That adventure we are definitely told occurred a few weeks before Watson’s marriage. Now, de Brett is one of the most accurate of books—as far as dates are concerned. Holmes looked Lord St. Simon up and found he was born in 1846. Making a rapid calculation, he explained “He’s forty-one years old.” The case therefore confirms the date of Watson’s marriage as 1887. But what do the other school make of it? I know there are persons who believe Watson to have been a secret bigamist, living and practicing at Paddington and in Kensington at the same time. Such men know little of human nature; they may be ingenious reasoners, but they are not judges of men or bigamists. I add of bigamists, because is not Mrs. Watson the most perfect wife known to history? Her readiness to find in his slight pallor, or his interest in his old friend, excuses for his constantly abandoning bread-winning and home, alone refute such a supposition.