Queering Sherlock Holmes

I know, right? I can practically see the eyes rolling. “Pick something difficult!” the people cry. “Set yourself a challenge.”

Face it, Holmes and Watson have been done to death. I know it, you know it, we all know it. ‘Nuff said, right? Wrong. Because I was involved in a discussion on a forum recently that suggests that actually most people don’t know what’s queer about them at all. It’s like received wisdom: everyone sniggers and says they’re a couple, ergo they must be. But most people couldn’t tell you why. Here’s what someone actually said to me about the Holmes canon:

I could be made to believe there is a romance relationship subtext to S and W but I have never read the stories looking for the “clues” to that before…and having no knowledge of the cultural hints of the period I bet I’d miss it all even if I was looking for it. Though obviously, I’ve heard the claim made before, just never substantiated.

Well fret no more, and allow me to substantiate away…

How about this for starters, it’s the description Watson gives of his reaction to Holmes’ return from the dead:

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 after-taste of brandy upon my lips. Holmes was bending over my chair, his flask in his hand.

Seems innocuous, right? The poor man suffers a shock and faints. Let’s think about that “tingling after-taste of brandy” on his lips. Why his lips? Brandy has long been used medicinally, and was noted for the speed with which it revives people who have fainted. So not necessarily significant from a queer context, right?

Well let’s think about how that brandy would be administered. Either it would be used in a similar fashion to smelling salts, in which case we’d expect Holmes to have opened the flask and held it under Watson’s nose until he revived. No lip contact necessary. Or, alternatively, he could have administered it orally (behave at the back!). Watson has collapsed into his chair in a dead faint, therefore we have to imagine him lying with his head lolling back. To get any liquid in his mouth Holmes is going to have to hold his face steady and his mouth open – the most obvious way to do that is to grasp the face by the sides of the mouth with one hand, squeezing slightly on the cheeks. Then he can tip a bit of the brandy straight into Watson’s mouth. Again, no lip contact necessary, or even likely. Watson’s mouth will be held wider than the opening of the flask and the contents likely poured in from a little way above.

Had the brandy been used like smelling salts Watson wouldn’t taste it at all, but only smell it. Had it been administered orally, in quantity sufficient to wake him from his faint, isn’t it more likely he’d note either the taste in his mouth, or a burning sensation of the alcohol in his throat? It’s also more likely he’d awake coughing and spluttering, which he does not.

So what the hell happened? Well here’s my theory. Holmes returns, no doubt apprehensive about Watson’s reaction to his reappearance. That’s just plain natural however platonic their relationship, and his possession of the flask of brandy rather than a bottle, which could have come from Watson’s room (the flask indicates Holmes was carrying it on his person and brought it with him) confirms that. Holmes was not noted for carry alcohol with him when he went out in the normal course of things, so this is clearly an exceptional circumstance. He reveals himself to Watson, who faints – “for the first and last time in [his] life”. So that’s bound to be a shock, right? Watson isn’t a fainter, Holmes wouldn’t – couldn’t – have predicted that reaction. He rushes over to his friend and loosens his collar (as Watson notes when he comes round), which is again common sense. But where would he be positioned when he did that?

Watson is in his chair behind his desk. Holmes is in front of the desk. Watson faints. Holmes must move closer in order to loosen Watson’s collar and must have leant over his prone body. Watson notes that Holmes is still bending over his chair when he revives. That’s going to put their faces naturally close. Isn’t it likely that Holmes himself has taken the drink of brandy – either to steady his nerves before entering Watson’s room, or upon seeing Watson faint, or even both – and has kissed his friend? On the lips. I think so.

Not only is it a perfectly logical sequence of events, but, given Watson’s description of the scene, it is the only logical sequence of events.

One kiss does not, however, a romance make. So how’s this little snippet:

Sherlock Holmes pushed him down into the easy-chair and, sitting beside him, patted his hand and chatted with him in the easy, soothing tones which he knew so well how to employ.  (My emphasis).

That’s taken from the beginning of The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet. Their client has arrived, exhausted and much distressed. Holmes is trying to calm him in order to get his story. What’s with the soothing tone? More to the point, what does Watson mean by that last little hint of familiarity? Up to this point, Holmes has not once in the entire canon been described as speaking ‘soothingly’ to any client, yet Watson clearly infers that it’s something he’s familiar with. This is not, therefore, a description of Holmes’ usual professional manner, but rather an insight into his personal interaction with Watson. Watson is familiar with the tone, and well aware of its effectiveness, because Holmes has used it in the past with him.

Here’s another little excerpt, from the very close of The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor. Lord St. Simon has just learnt that his wife was in fact married to someone else first, that she believed her husband dead but that he reappeared on the day of her second marriage to claim her. After the Lord leaves and Holmes and Watson are alone once again, Watson remarks:

“His conduct was certainly not very gracious.”

“Ah, Watson,” said Holmes, smiling, “perhaps you would not be very gracious either, if, after all the trouble of wooing and wedding, you found yourself deprived in an instant of wife and of fortune. I think that we may judge Lord St. Simon very mercifully and thank our stars that we are never likely to find ourselves in the same position. Draw your chair up and hand me my violin, for the only problem we have still to solve is how to while away these bleak autumnal evenings.” (My emphasis).

This scene takes place “some weeks” before Watson’s own wedding, and it is not clear from the narrative if Watson has met Mary at this point. So how do we take Holmes’ words?

Firstly, “we are never likely to find ourselves in the same position”. What position, exactly, is that? Holmes lists two positions – wooing and wedding; and then deprived. To which is he referring? He could be saying that he and Watson have no fear of being deprived of their wives. Well no unmarried man can claim that, for as St. Simon’s case proved, a marriage can be entered into honestly and willingly by both parties and still be rendered invalid by circumstances beyond their control. So it is not of losing a wife he is speaking, he’s neither that arrogant nor that dense. So is it the wooing and the wedding itself to which he is referring? And why the “we”? Getting married is, to most people, aspirational. We all like to think we’ll meet someone special and settle down in blissful monogamy. Tell an unmarried friend that you and they are unlikely ever to get married and the likely response is going to be “speak for yourself”. There’s an assumption behind Holmes’ words that is interesting, and that works best if marriage is not an option for either of them – if they can’t get married. And, as neither of them are married already at this point, the only reason they couldn’t marry is if the partner they would take is one recognised by neither church nor law: in short, another man.

Then there’s the final line, which is also the conclusion of the short story: “the only problem we still have to solve is how to while away these bleak autumnal evenings.” Do I really need to expand on that one? If your S.O. turns to you and, sighing, laments, “I don’t know what we’re going to do all through these long, dark nights where we can’t go out and have nothing to do…” well, an arched eyebrow is probably going to be the least of your reactions.

Watson does, however, marry, and it would be remiss and reductive of me to ignore that fact. Here’s an extract from The Sign of the Four, the book in which he meets his future wife:

“…Look here, Watson; you look regularly done. Lie down there on the sofa, and see if I can put you to sleep.”

He took up his violin from the corner, and as I stretched myself out he began to play some low, dreamy, melodious air, – his own, no doubt, for he had a remarkable gift for improvisation. I have a vague remembrance of his gaunt limbs, his earnest face, and the rise and fall of his bow. Then I seemed to be floated peacefully away upon a soft sea of sound, until I found myself in dream-land, with the sweet face of Mary Morstan looking down upon me.

So here we’ve got Holmes and Watson in their flat in Baker Street, in the early hours of the morning. Holmes has already said he’s too worked up by their present case to sleep, but Watson is exhausted and fatigued by his old army wounds. Nothing more is going to be learnt about the case that evening. So why doesn’t Holmes pack Watson off to bed? He’s in his own house, after all, it would make perfect sense. Instead he settles him on the sofa and serenades him with a melody of his own composition on the violin. That’s the stuff that women swoon over – a dashing lover playing that most romantic of instruments, and a tune composed by the lover for the beloved, no less. (And on a instrument not noted for lending itself well to aiding composition, either).

Now your average person, when lying down to sleep, would close their eyes, listen to the music and slowly drift off, right? Not Watson. Because his last recollections before he falls asleep are of watching Holmes: his limbs, his face, the movement of the violin bow. Film that in soft focus and you’ve got romantic movie gold, right there.

Except Watson’s contemplation of Holmes then shifts to Mary, the woman who he had met the previous day. Holmes, no fool, we must suppose has noticed Watson’s interest in her. Is this, then, a last ditch effort by a lover fearing he is soon to be replaced in his beloved’s affections? It’s certainly possible.

What does it mean that Watson’s thoughts shift from Holmes to Mary? Firstly it indicates that the romantic air struck by the action of Holmes lulling him to sleep by playing the violin aren’t just the figment of my fevered imaginings, for Watson makes the connection between that event and the more overt romanticism embodied in the person of Mary – the focus of legitimate attraction. In a later story Holmes discusses at length the process by which he can read Watson’s thoughts, asserting that Watson’s expressions are plain to read, and his mental processes transparent. We must take Holmes’ assessment as accurate, for Watson declares it so himself, and the most transparent and logical link between Holmes and Mary is Watson’s romantic interest in them both.

I’m currently engaged elsewhere in a long – and ultimately pointless, I know – discussion about the exact nature of Holmes’ and Watson’s sexualities. While we concur that Holmes categorically is not heterosexual, after that the waters get muddy. Watson clearly feels something for Mary. He calls it love, but in modern novels it would have readers screaming with horror, because he declares that he loves her after he’s met her once, in the company of others, for a duration of about 20 minutes. Instalove, maybe. Yet it has none of the hallmarks of instalove – that sweeping, overwhelming passion. Here’s how he first describes her:

She was a blonde young lady, small, dainty, well gloved, and dressed in the most perfect taste. There was, however, a plainness and simplicity about her costume which bore with it a suggestion of limited means. The dress was a sombre grayish beige, untrimmed and unbraided, and she wore a small turban of the same dull hue, relieved only by a suspicion of white feather in the side. Her face had neither regularity of feature nor beauty of complexion, but her expression was sweet and amiable, and her large blue eyes were singularly spiritual and sympathetic. In an experience of women which extends over many nations and three separate continents, I have never looked upon a face which gave a clearer promise of a refined and sensitive nature.

So she’s plain, a little dowdy, but gives the impression of being sweet and amiable. Is Watson looking for a wife – love – passion, or merely an unassuming beard? Because that’s what she sounds like. And here’s where he first hints of his romantic interest in her:

I sat in the window with the volume in my hand, but my thoughts were far from the daring speculations of the writer. My mind ran upon our late visitor,–her smiles, the deep rich tones of her voice, the strange mystery which overhung her life. If she were seventeen at the time of her father’s disappearance she must be seven-and-twenty now,–a sweet age, when youth has lost its self-consciousness and become a little sobered by experience. So I sat and mused, until such dangerous thoughts came into my head that I hurried away to my desk and plunged furiously into the latest treatise upon pathology. What was I, an army surgeon with a weak leg and a weaker banking-account, that I should dare to think of such things? She was a unit, a factor,–nothing more. If my future were black, it was better surely to face it like a man than to attempt to brighten it by mere will-o’-the-wisps of the imagination.

The “if my future were black” statement is significant. We know from Watson’s own accounts that he is a man of ill health following his experiences in Afghanistan. He’s got a permanent limp from an old bullet wound that occasionally in cold and wet weather flares and troubles him. By his own admission he’s not exactly rich, either. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have prospects. He’s no cripple and he’s not on the breadline – he manages admirably once he is married, purchasing a little practice and devoting himself to it. Hardly a man with a ‘black’ future before him. But clearly, to Watson, marriage brings with it lightness, brightness, public approval. Something, perhaps, he would not gain elsewhere. Yet note that at no point does he indicate he thinks his future would otherwise be loveless. Love, in fact, seems almost superfluous to his contemplation of marriage.

After his marriage, he hardly changes his habits. He moves out of Baker Street, but notes that he frequently stays with Holmes anyway. His wife rarely seems to factor in his life at all. And then, of course, she dies – childless. Children would be a drain on Watson that Dolye could ill afford if it is to be believed that he followed Holmes at the drop of a hat, but it bodes ill for the marriage. There is no mention of the futility of their attempts to conceive, for example, no suggestion that children were wanted or strived for. One would think if the problem were that of fertility then it would have been alluded to. Instead, we are left rather with the suggestion at least that the problem is more of desire.

There was, as Watson notes, only one woman for Holmes – the woman – Irene Adler. Whenever later authors have sought to give Holmes a legitimate heterosexual love interest it is to her they turn. And yet Holmes himself witnesses her wedding. Further, Watson first introduces her as “the late Irene Adler” (my emphasis) – married to another and dead: doubly removed as a love interest in any sense. Watson immediately refutes any deeper sentiment Holmes may have felt for Irene, stating that, “It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind.”

Watson states on more than one occasion that love is anathema to Holmes’ nature. Yet I’ve already illustrated that, where Watson is concerned, Holmes is frequently tender, caring and romantic. Is there, perhaps, something of an in-joke with these statements – evidence that Watson sees, but does not observe. Perhaps, though, there’s an element of truth in what Watson says. It is entirely possible that Holmes is asexual; or demisexual, with Watson as the object; or perhaps he is truly homosexual and suffering from impotency or some other disorder that limits his physical urges. Of course there will never be a right or wrong answer to that. But it’s fun to speculate, as Holmes himself I’m sure would agree.

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Kate Aaron is an author of contemporary and fantasy mm romances.
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