The Love That Dares Not Speak Its Name

My apologies, for I meander as only a rambler can meander.

I’ve been rereading some Sherlock Holmes over the past two or three days – specifically His Last Bow, The Casebook and The Hound of the Baskervilles. (I like the short stories better than the novels for instant gratification, but I must admit, the novels tend to be uniformly successful in staying with me, while only three-fourth of the stories seem to have done so.)

It’s been a long time since I read the books – my clearest memory of the detective and the doctor prior to my reread came from a half hour of a serial I watched on a crackly video back in Bangalore, over a year ago. Holmes was tall, aloof, supercilious, judgemental. Bloodless. Watson was pudgy, pompous, bumbling. Comic relief.

Rereading the books has reminded me of the Holmes and Watson in my head, and in the books. Watson is a fairly decent looking man, with experience of women on three continents – Holmes himself has remarked on Watson’s attractiveness. We do not call “bumbling” men whose first reaction to seeing their friend threatened by a large aggressive boxer is to gently but obviously pick up a poker. We do not see as clumsy men who are reckoned fleet of foot, who are called “men of action”. Who care for their friend’s safety when that friend will not – it is Watson who usually carries a firearm. He’s burgled for Holmes, followed Holmes and villains. He’s saved his friend’s life more than once. He weaned that friend off cocaine – and this before the drug was illegal, before “coke addict” was a dirty phrase. He is, in his way, quite observant – more in a romantic than factual sense, perhaps, but that is why he is the writer of the two, while Holmes, with the cruder ideas of art, can see past the totality of a painting to note a strong family resemblance and find the reason for a murder.

Through Watson’s eyes, Holmes is, yes, supercilious, frequently insulting, often aloof. But he is also funny, witty. The word “impish” is used often. The Holmes of the books is alternates between complete lethargic apathy and intense physical/intellectual stimulation and activity. Certainly Watson spends more time describing Holmes’ eyes, lips, expression, even placement of limbs than he ever did on his late and lovely Mary. Watson’s Holmes is carefully detailed: dry factual accounts are expanded into eloquent periods (with Watson explaining the liberty he is taking) where the emotions that Holmes cares not to express are revealed with the biographer’s fond and clear eye.

“To the casual observer, Holmes…” is a frequent line in the books. Watson is not a casual observer.

There can be no question at all that Watson cares for Holmes a great deal. As a physical and emotional being, Watson watches Holmes and tells us, his readers, what he feels for him. I’m not surprised Holmes doesn’t like the stories. Such fondness, placed so publicly, might be embarrassing for the man who cannot reciprocate emotion because his head, by his own account, has always ruled his heart. It is easy to decide that the insulting, sardonic man who, in the two short stories that he writes for himself notes that Watson is not as intelligent as he is but certainly is the better person to be writing for him, does not care for Watson at all. Holmes’ insults are funny, sharp, and for the sensitive soul potentially painful. But one must note that they are always targeted towards intellect, deductive processes – and Watson is not the only target. We can, perhaps with some lingering regret, put aside that as proof of “Watson loves Holmes in an unrequited fashion.“

Furthermore, Holmes does for Watson what he does for no other – he often leads Watson carefully through trivial detection processes, allowing Watson to grasp in time and with added information what he came to so easily himself. Holmes may have no heart, but he shares a great deal of his head with his biographer and friend. Wait for Watson to save Holme’s life, or to fall into danger himself – not all the protesting Holmes does to the contrary will convince you that that heart does not exist.

Holmes cannot write of himself without mentioning Watson. Holmes threatens murder if his friend is killed. For all that Watson cares so deeply for Holmes, it is Holmes who more often expresses emotional concern directly to Watson, rather than directing it to an outside audience because he is just too stuffy to say t out loud. For his last, ultimate and in some ways coolest adventure, Holmes calls his friend – who has a job to do for the government already and so is in no need of charity – to take his side simply for the pleasure of his company – there is no other function for Watson in “His Last Bow”. Holmes mentions meeting Watson on occasional weekends as though it were once a year…

These two men had a relationship that starts before their mutual involvement in detective work, and continues outside of that arena. There can be no disputing that this is a deep friendship, and it would not be wrong to say that that friendship is strong enough to be a loving one.

I’ve read some very intense and detailed arguments as to why it is likely that Holmes and Watson were lovers in the carnal-romantic sense, the two in this case overlapping. If you read fan-fiction – which I have done, sometimes, and still will, though it is not the most gratifying of activities – you will find an enormous amount of Holmes-Watson erotica.

It’s not a completely baffling phenomenon. Arthur Conan Doyle’s works are often intensely concerned with love, and the primary narrator of the Holmes stories is a very romantically minded practical young/middle-aged/(and possibly old) man. And there are those readers who look for emotional bonds, in the works that they read, and some of those readers will require that those bonds be romantic-sexual. And it is so, so easy to fill in the gaps that you think might exist, or to play around just a little bit, have some fun.

I’ve read arguments that there is a great deal of evidence in the canon to support such interpretations. (In a first person narrative set in a time when homosexuality is illegal, tiny hints acts as big signposts.) I’ve read intense and detailed arguments that explain in tedious length the platonic intensity of male friendship in a pre-second-wave feminist, pre-LGBT time. I’ve followed tedious arguments about Holme’s misogyny, bloody Irene Adler, Watson’s three or two wives. People condemn, support, froth at the brain passionately tearing the subject down to its heart. Sometimes they ignore it majestically.

I think they’re all missing the point.

5 responses to “The Love That Dares Not Speak Its Name

  1. Damn you, Roh. You are clearly spawned of some deep pit and sent here to torture me. I HAVE the big red book, and it is already taunting me from just above my head, up there on the bookshelf. And now you must describe the oh so lovely oh so sweet aspects of the relationship between Holmes and Watson and make it so very very clear why I should read them all over again. Damn you.

    I don’t have time.

    Damn it.

    I love the book where Watson thinks Holmes has been killed, and then the opening of the story where he finds out that he has not. They are so sweet.

    Dammit!

  2. So many of them are short stories, and the novels are not very long either. You can do one story a day until you get over it.🙂

  3. I keep returning to this post. It really is amazing. And it never fails to make me want to read the stories all over again. Why, oh why, did I not decide to do my PhD on Holmes? Why did none of my friends nudge me gently in that direction? Why did noone say “well, if you are interested in endings, what is better than detective novels?

  4. I’ve always loved the friendship between Holmes & Watson. I do believe Holmes had more of a heart than most people think. In my opinion, it’s one of the best friendships you can find in fiction.

  5. I’m biased, Bethany, so I’m not sure how seriously I should be taken when I agree with you. Who even come(s) close? Sam and Frodo? Elizabeth and Jane – do they even count, since they’re sisters? Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, surely.

    Hamlet and Horatio? I really dislike Hamlet as a person, so it’s harder for me to judge. Shakespeare liked to give his characters friends, so they wouldn’t be lonely. Antonio, poor Antonio.

    It’s sort of easier to think of fictional groups of friends, on tv or otherwise…

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