Readers of any of my seven Sherlock Holmes novels or the collections of my short stories will realise I have very considerable admiration for Dr. John H. Watson. I’m not the first to deplore the traditional Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Hollywood portrayal of the former Army surgeon and wondrous chronicler as bumbling, slow-witted, and given to gasping “Gad, Holmes! How on earth did you deduce that!” If he did do such gasping in the original adventures, it was to address a serious weakness in Holmes’s mentality: the latter’s extreme need for flattery. Watson said of himself, “If I have one quality upon earth it is common sense.”
Ask almost anyone in the world to describe Sherlock Holmes and what do you get? A columnist in Britain’s Guardian newspaper wrote that Holmes is ‘callous, arrogant, bad-tempered, never has love affairs, and shuns society,’ and that ‘Sir Arthur Conan Doyle described his character as ‘a calculating machine’.’
So, not that high up on the Likeability List.
The Guardian writer added, ‘Perhaps this is his appeal—Holmes is not just a solver of mysteries, but a mystery himself.’
By contrast, the only mystery attached to his faithful Dr. John H. Watson is what that initial H stands for. Only Arthur Conan Doyle himself could have known, and he didn’t tell us.
It was good to come across the dedicated, America-based literary group known as the John H Watson Society (motto Insperata floruit), dedicated to Sherlock Holmes’s amanuensis. Its aims are to ‘foster and encourage the introduction of youth to the writings of John H Watson in The Sacred Canon with a goal of keeping the memory of 221B Baker Street and 1895 forever green through the recruitment of successive generations of Watsonians and Sherlockians.’
In ‘Notes From The Author’ in Sherlock Holmes And The Sword of Osman, I wrote, ‘If Watson had not taken on the task of chronicling Holmes’s cases, the latter’s career as a Great Detective may never have taken off. It was sheer kismet the former Army doctor on a wound-pension needed to find and share the cost of digs in London in 1881 at the precise time the peripatetic young Sherlock Holmes did, too. Watson is also eager, chivalrous, and courageous. Far more than Holmes, he reflects his creator, Conan Doyle. Watson has the qualities of a good doctor— kindliness, optimism, and a healthy scepticism. Watson has another value to Holmes. Medicine is said to be as much the ability to gain the confidence of the patient as it is an abstract science.
“Your best friends would hardly call you a schemer, Watson,” Holmes once told him, adding (presumably as a rare compliment), “I never get to your limits. There are unexplored possibilities about you.”
It’s not possible to trace the various paths by which Conan Doyle created Watson. While writing the notes for The Sword of Osman I was on the train to London Charing Cross from deepest East Sussex reading The Crooked Scythe by George Ewart Evans, an anthology of memories of British men and women of a past era—farm laborers, shepherds, horsemen, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, sailors, fishermen, miners, maltsters, domestic servants. The introduction by a David Gentleman described the author Evans as follows:
‘George Evans was in his mid-fifties when I first saw him… upright and vigorous, with an open and friendly manner and a clear, piercing gaze. He looked the part of a countryman, in a tweed jacket, a hat also of tweed, drill trousers, and stout brown shoes. As I grew to know him, I discovered he was sympathetic and generous with help and encouragement. He was intelligent and shrewd; his judgements, though seldom sharply expressed, were acute and rational. In conversation he was tolerant and unassertive, but it was soon clear he held independent views with firmness and conviction.’
For George substitute John. I’m certain this is how Watson’s many friends at the Junior United Services club and at the Gatwick races would have viewed him, too: a man of gentility while of limited means and no property. We should all have friends who wear stout brown shoes.