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"I should have suspected a mere vulgar intrigue" [REDH] 

There was an argument on Twitter the other day (ma nishtana) about whether Sherlock Holmes and John H. Watson were lovers. It wasn't about the characters by those names in the BBC's "Sherlock" television series — that war has finished, with both sides declaring victory. This time, it was about the Holmes and the Watson of the original stories, written between 1887 and 1927 by Arthur Conan Doyle.

I'm not here to take a position in that argument. Anything I have to say about the issue, I said three years ago in The Baker Street Journal, in an article that may not have been particularly original, but represented the first time the case for a potentially gay Holmes and Watson had been set out for the readers of that relatively conservative Sherlockian journal. (The text of the article is available on my website, for those who don't have the winter 2014 BSJ at hand.)

I'm just here to riff on something one participant in the conversation mentioned: after she wrote something about Conan Doyle's intentions, and whether or not they're relevant to readers these days, the Twitter software urged her to "tag" ACD (that is, mention his Twitter name explicitly) so he could join in the discussion.

Arthur Conan Doyle died in 1930, and Twitter began in 2006, but that isn't necessarily an obstacle for a man who believed in Spiritualism — communication with the dead — and in fact wrote a book posthumously (The Return of Arthur Conan Doyle, 1963). However, there might be a little difficulty finding the authentic man among Twitter's millions of users, and while the actual user of Twitter name @acd is, among other things, a beekeeper, there's no indication that he is also a novelist, a Briton, or dead.

The more interesting issue is, if we did manage to get into electronic communication with Sir Arthur, what would we ask him? "Did you intend for Holmes and Watson to be gay?" I think we know what his response would be, consisting mostly of spluttering. And, as another participant in the recent Twitter conversation, observed, "the author is both literally and figuratively dead and you do not need his permission." So.

Way more interesting, I think, would be to ask Doyle about daily life in the era he lived in and wrote about. It's generally accepted that his stories are, in most ways, a realistic portrayal of how people lived. Indeed, one thing that made the Sherlock Holmes stories stand out from earlier "detective" tales is their setting in everyday London, with familiar streets, trades and allusions. Arthur Conan Doyle knew Pope's Court and the Serpentine Mews well, even if he gave them pseudonyms, and he wrote about ostlers, stockbrokers and typists convincingly because he had observed them.

Well, then, what about the habits of impecunious single young men in English cities in the Victorian era? We weren't there to observe, and we have a tendency to impose today's norms and categories on those who dwell in a different century. But Conan Doyle was there, and we have to assume that his portraits are accurate ones. Wouldn't it be helpful to hear a bit more explanation, not about Holmes and Watson specifically but about men and their housing generally?

When Doyle was in the young-and-impecunious category himself, setting up as a doctor in Southsea in 1882, he rented a house and did his best to provide for both himself and his younger brother — a "bachelor establishment" for sure, to borrow a phrase from "The Reigate Squires." Victor Hatherley [ENGR] was a bachelor who lived alone, and so was Jonas Oldacre [NORW], but they both could afford it. The Canon does however, offer at least one bachelor who took on a roommate for financial reasons: Mr. Roundhay, the vicar in "The Devil's Foot."

As for gays on the London scene, Conan Doyle was certainly aware of them. He knew Oscar Wilde at the time of the historic Lippincott dinner in 1889, though I am not aware of any evidence that they were particular friends after that. Also in 1889, he must have been aware of the Cleveland Street scandal that horrified London, though he was not a member of either social class that was involved (aristocracy on the one hand, post-office messengers on the other). Much later, he got to know Roger Casement, worked with him in the Congo Reform Association, and based a character in The Lost World on him. When Casement's homosexuality became known following his conviction for treason, Doyle described it as a "mania."

It seems reasonable to think that if Arthur Conan Doyle wanted to make a character appear gay, he would know how to do it — as he did, arguably, with John Scott Eccles and Aloysius Garcia of "Wisteria Lodge." Other authors certainly did, including Wilde, and including Conan Doyle's own brother-in-law, E. W. (Willie) Hornung, whose stories about the gentleman burglar A. J. Raffles and his sidekick "Bunny" Manders began with A Thief in the Night in 1899. That book was dedicated to Conan Doyle.

Surely he read it, and surely he recognized that the bond between Raffles and Manders was not entirely fraternal. Wouldn't it be illuminating to hear what he thought about it?