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THE WATSON PROBLEM by S. C. Roberts (1932)



THE WATSON PROBLEM

“Sherlock Holmes: Fact or Fiction?” By Thomas S. Blakeney. (Murray. 2s. 6d. net.)
“Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson: The Chronology of Their Adventures.” By H. W. Bell. (Constable. Limited to 500 copies. 15s. net.)

(BY S. C. ROBERTS)

The Observer, Oct. 30, 1932


Parturiunt mures, nascetur magnificus mons. Thus, adapting what Holmes would have been swift to recognise as a line familiar to all students of classical antiquity, are we tempted to exclaim on beholding two considerable works of scholarship inspired in some measure, as we are tempted to infer, by certain modest Prolegomena put forward in the spring of last year. Certainly, all serious students, as well as amateurs, will welcome the evidence afforded by these two volumes of the vigorous condition of modern Watsonian scholarship.

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Both authors recognise that the central question is a chronological one; Mr. Bell, indeed, confines himself also entirely to this aspect of the problem; Mr. Blakeney, in spite of a less pretentious format, is not afraid to make certain psychological inferences with a view to “revealing hidden depths in Holmes’s life and character.” Mr. Blakeney divides his study of Holmes into three parts devoted to his personality, his relations with Scotland Yard, and his professional career respectively, adding a section on the literature and a number of appendices. In his discussion of Holmes’s early life Mr. Blakeney reverts to the problem, first approached, we believe, by Father Ronald Knox, of his university training. Arguing from his enthusiasm for chemistry and from the fact that his college friend, Trevor, belonged to a Norfolk family, Mr. Blakeney inclines to the belief that Holmes was a Cambridge man. While nothing would give us greater satisfaction than to be able honestly to subscribe to such a belief, we are compelled to remark that the further evidence with which Mr. Blakeney seeks to fortify his argument is of an extremely dubious character. To accept the “Camford” of “The Creeping Man” as “a somewhat transparent alias for Cambridge” is, in itself, an instance of credulity not wholly worthy of Mr. Blakeney’s high standards of criticism. Of the autumnal habits of other universities we profess no accurate knowledge, but what Cambridge professor was ever known to lecture on September 11?

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Here we touch upon the intricate question of Watson canon. Mr. Blakeney’s general view that “all the stories record true events in the life of Holmes, but that the collections in ‘His Last Bow’ and ‘The Case Book’ come to us through the hand of an editor” is commendably cautious, but we confess that we regard with some misgiving his desire for a J. M. Robertson in the Watson field, “sifting the accretions of the pseudo-Watson from the hand of the veritable John Henry.” The prospect of the chaos of textual disintegration which might result from the work of such a commentator is one to which we cannot look forward with equanimity. Mr. Blakeney should reflect on the course taken by Homeric criticism in recent years and, in particular, upon the fact that a distinguished scholar, whom his severest critic would never have accused of conservatism, was led to emphasise of the “increasing number of critics who believe in an original unity of authorship and design.” A minute example may be taken from Mr. Bell’s book, now before us. The title of the work, in accordance with custom, appears on the title-page, the half-title, and the jacket. Each of the three titles shows variants, in wording or punctuation, from the other two. Are we here to discern the work of a deutero- and a trito-Bell?
A phrase in the sentence quoted above from Mr. Blakeney is an instance of the need of scrupulous accuracy in critical investigation. In the canon there is no record, so far as we are aware, of Watson’s second name, though the combination “John Henry” was put forward conjecturally in our “Prolegomena.” However keenly we may be gratified by Mr. Blakeney’s “veritable,” we are bound to insist, as Holmes would have done, upon the distinction between objective data and legitimate surmise.
Mr. Bell, on the other hand, protests against this particular conjecture on the ground that Newman joined the Church of Rome about seven years before Watson was born, and that Mrs. Watson, as a devout Tractarian, would not have named her son after him. This does not convince us; long after his secession Newman remained an object of reverence and affection in the hearts of many Anglicans.

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These, however, are minor and conjectural matters. Mr. Bell, like Mr. Blakeney, rightly devotes considerable attention to the major problem of the date of Watson’s marriage with Miss Morstan. (We abstain advisedly from the phrase “first marriage,” since the view has been put forward, though not yet published, by one scholar at least, that Watson was a widower when he met Miss Morstan: we are totally unable to accept this view, but, as Holmes would say, “the interplay of ideas and the oblique uses of knowledge are often of extraordinary interest.”) Mr. Blakeney is an able exponent of the view that the dates of “The Sign of Four,” being internally consistent, should be accepted as the basis of any chronological investigation of the Watson-Morstan alliance. Here much seems to depend upon the time when the record was actually written down and upon the degrees of care with which manuscript and proof were revised. If it can be established that the dates quoted in the work were subjected to a thorough revision before publication, then we shall be prepared to accept the year 1888 as the year of “The Sign of Four.” But what are we to say of a narrative which, as the result of Beaune at lunch and love at first sight, confuses September with July, a leg with a shoulder, and a musket with a tiger-cub?
Mr. Bell takes an intermediate course, ascribing “The Sign of Four” to the year 1887, and the Watson-Morstan marriage to the autumn of the same year. In arriving at this conclusion he does full justice to Mr. MacCarthy’s admirable deduction in regard to the number of pearls, and himself argues convincingly for September, as against July, in view of the menu ordered by Holmes for dinner.

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On the question of Watson’s marriage in 1902 or 1903 there would appear by now to be a fair measure of agreement. Both Mr. Blakeney (in a series of reasoned arguments) and Mr. Bell (somewhat cavalierly) dismiss the possibility of the beautiful Violet de Merville having consented to become Mrs. Watson, though it is worthy of remark that neither critic suggests an alternative bride. Mr. Bell, however, introduces what seems to us an entirely unnecessary complication by postulating yet another Watson marriage between the time of Holmes’s return and the marriage of 1902-3. The principal piece of evidence for this curious theory would appear to be the reference, in “The Veiled Lodger,” to the fact that at some period late in 1896 Watson was not living with Holmes. “The only conceivable motive for his desertion of Holmes…” writes Mr. Bell, “is marriage.” It must surely be a somewhat limited imagination which is unable to conceive any other reason for this temporary separation. Why should not Watson have been staying at his club for a week or two, while his bedroom was being re-decorated? The duration of this hypothetical marriage must also have been severely limited: Watson was living with Holmes in November, 1895, and again in January, 1897. Mr. Bell supplementary arguments are still less convincing: Watson, he says, was middle-aged and no longer an active companion for Holmes; yet on a bitterly cold morning in 1897 he was in a cab, dressed and breakfastless, ten minutes after Holmes had wakened him. Again, Mr. Bell conjectures that “Mrs. Hudson’s cooking was not without its influence, and that he (Watson) entertained visions of something more succulent than the ‘nice chop,’ with cabbage cut in cubes, potatoes innocent of butter, and salad naked and unashamed…”[p. 92] Here we are at a loss to recognise the sources of Mr. Bell’s evidence. We do, however, recall the “oysters and a brace of grouse” of “The Sign of Four” and the “curried fowl, ham, and eggs” of the breakfast in “The Naval Treaty.” Mrs. Hudson’s cuisine, as Holmes admitted, was “a little limited” but to talk of cabbage-cubes and naked salad is to cast an unwarranted slur upon one of the great landladies of literature.

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It would, however, be ungenerous to end upon a note of detailed criticism. The great merit of Mr. Bell’s book lies in the care and labour which he has expended in his arrangement of the adventures in chronological sequence. That this sequence may be upset by the findings of later scholarship Mr. Bell would be the first to admit; but the appearance of his book simultaneously with Mr. Blakeney’s encourages us to hope that we are appreciably nearer the time when the definitive “Handbook to Sherlock Holmes Studies,” desiderated by Mr. Blakeney, may be available for the use of students. Nous verrons…, as Holmes would say.

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