an opinion piece on The University Daily Kansan by Lou Schumaker took great issue with the narrator and individual responsible for bringing Sherlock Holmes to our collective attention: Dr. Watson. He referred to Watson as "underdeveloped," going so far as to say, "the only thing he's really good for is to compliment Sherlock Holmes and propose wildly inaccurate theories at crime scenes. He's boring and slow and lifeless and famous." So we asked one of our contributors to craft a response.
If one wants a biographer, one strives to find the best one. It is the better if he is also your dearest friend. The Great Detective of No. 221B, Baker Street, was that lucky. Without John H. Watson, M.D., the world would know nothing of Mr. Sherlock Holmes.
Opinions run rampant within the arts, and this is a good and wonderful thing. For me the fun of it all is the conjecture itself. But I also love “playing the game,” as Sherlockians love to do. Within that realm, Holmes would be the first to stand up and defend his best pal’s good name. And as an admirer of them both, I shall do no less.
But there is more to this than simply believing in the reality of Holmes, Watson and their adventures. The process goes much deeper. As for me, I adore looking between the lines of the text or the images on the large or small screen. Painting a complete picture of the characters makes me appreciate Conan Doyle’s work all the more, as well as its current incarnations.
Indeed it could be argued that Watson (or John as he is now called) is uninteresting or even downright dull. Well, if a wounded Veteran come home from service in Afghanistan (yeah, no relevancy to our times there!) to a glum future who by fate moves in with a wacky genius who fills his life with enough adrenaline-packed adventure to sustain ten lifetimes isn’t interesting, then I guess it isn’t interesting.
As for Watson being ordinary? Yes, that is true. However, that is precisely the point. He is not a superhero, nor does he have the lightning mental reflexes of his best friend. He is normal, just like the viewers/readers. As the lens through which the audience sees Sherlock Holmes (or just plain Sherlock), the late Edward Harwicke said it best when he remarked that Watson “is the audience…Watson really is everyman.” Compared to a genius like Sherlock Holmes, most people would look dull. The differences between these two characters make them all the more intriguing. Yes, scenes without Holmes can tend to be less than stellar at times. In those circumstances, I remember the old phrase about absence making the heart grow fonder.
With the flatmates of 221B Baker Street, it’s all about balance (yes, even when they’re arguing). As ying is to yang, the two men complement each other. Particularly in the BBC’s Sherlock, their weaknesses are largely balanced by their strengths. It serves as both a point of conflict and as a plot carrier. They are so vastly different in all the obvious ways while being strikingly similar just underneath the surface. Like we all are. And who doesn’t love seeing them tell each other off? The witty banter between Sherlock and John is genius script writing, and pays homage to some of the conversations that surely their Victorian counterparts must have engaged in.
Upon a further look beneath the surface of both the text and screen versions, questions arise (at least for me): When Holmes had an injury, who dressed his wounds? When he craved the cocaine bottle, who took him out for a walk or some other nonsense to get his mind off of it? When Mrs. Hudson had an ache, who helped her to soothe it? When one of the Irregulars had a sprained ankle or an infected foot (from not wearing shoes), who tended them and asked for no money? When Sherlock says something a little too snarky for polite conversation, who is there to jerk him up short? Holmes himself might have said that such contemplations are “of course, a trifle, but there is nothing so important as trifles” [TWIS].
If I had to select one enduring quality about John Watson, it would be this: he doesn’t give a rip about the spotlight. The man knows himself and is comfortable in his own skin. True, his blood pumps at the thrill of the chase, but that is true for many people. Watson’s observation (and participation) in Holmes’s cases gives us that bird’s eye view of the Great Detective. As for doing nothing, he was a writer. This meant that he was prone to observation. While he did not possess the ability as adeptly as his associate, it still paid off. After all hanging in the background and later committing what he saw to paper (or to his laptop) made Holmes’s name a household word. I would hardly consider that a fault.
Furthermore, Watson makes up half the crime-sleuthing duo that inspired countless others ever since. Sherlock Holmes and John Watson have one of the most enduring friendships in the history of English Literature. Without that, the stories mean very little.
If my closest friend, the greatest detective who ever lived, regarded me as, “the one fixed point in a changing age” [LAST], let me just say I wouldn’t be worried about what anyone else thought. Enjoy the stories, the films and the episodes for what they are, and take from them what you will. Holmes and his Boswell will continue to be reincarnated in countless adaptations. There will always be those, as Holmes would say who turn what “should have been a course of lectures into a series of tales” [COPP]. Some directors and actors will get it right for our personal tastes, and some will not. Some adaptations will find favor, some will not. But this is immaterial. For as the penultimate lines of Vincent Starrett's poem declare, “though the world explode, these two survive...”
And that is all that matters.
Editor's note: Jennifer has had a life-long interest in English and American literature (particularly of the 19th century), and grew up watching both the Rathbone/Bruce & the Granada incarnations of Holmes and his Boswell. Some of her favorite authors are Charles Dickens, George Gordon Lord Byron, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Washington Irving and Edgar Allan Poe. One of her two current efforts include research into the Holmes Canon for a collection of short stories centered around Dr. Watson. The other is a historic fiction novel-in-progress dealing with reform methods for London prostitutes in the Victorian Era. She has a decade of experience in the field of 19th century living history, and enjoys sharing little tidbits and musings on her blog.