The Misunderstood Bromance Between Sherlock Holmes and John H. Watson
Literature’s most enduring bromance has enjoyed a greater resurgence in the past handful of years—and has earned for itself a new fan base of Tumblr-armed millennials—thanks to two critically acclaimed TV series from both sides of the pond.
Britain’s Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, has taken much of the credit, but the NYC-set Elementary (starring Johnny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu) deserves just as much praise for bringing the Holmes-Watson dynamic into a credible, more contemporary (if angsty yet sass-filled) setting.
The heart of the canon—56 short stories and four long stories (generally considered as novels) penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—has always lain in the friendship between the two. But due to decades of self-indulgent pastiches that feature a genius and his bumbling attendant, it’s easy to box the two into an uneven relationship: hero and sidekick.
It is, at the very least, an acceptable misunderstanding, for even canon-Sherlock insists on this, albeit if only in keeping with his Can’t-Quite-Bother-With-The-Soft-Skills way of interacting with lesser mortals. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, he tells Watson, “It may be that you are not yourself luminous, but that you are a conductor of light. Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it.” Which we must interpret, for purposes of canon-Feels, as Holmes-speak for: You are my deduction-Muse.
The Watson of canon, too, hardly addresses these slights—in The Creeping Man, Watson writes, quite blithely, “[Holmes] was a man of habits, narrow and concentrated habits, and I had become one of them. As an institution, I was like the violin, the shag tobacco, the old black pipe, the index books, and others perhaps less excusable.” And the text only occasionally gives the impression that he’s rolling his eyes as he records his insufferable friend’s words.
But the deeper one gets into Watson’s chronicles, we see that despite his admiration—despite the commingled fascinated and bewilderment at his flatmate’s genius—we see, too, that he knows Sherlock Holmes to be a cold man, “as an isolated phenomenon, a brain without a heart, as deficient in human sympathy as he was preeminent in intelligence.” Holmes may repeatedly accuse Watson of romanticizing the cases, but there’s a clarity to the good doctor’s reportage of the great detective’s character flaws. This is, if anything, what the reader of the canon should be thankful for, with Sherlock and Elementary: Each has been exploring the nuances in the friendship between Holmes and Watson, nuances that the largely unsentimental—despite canon-Sherlock’s accusations—narrative of Doyle mostly overlooks. The two are, once again, on even footing.
In The Three Garridebs, one of the last stories of the canon, Watson gets shot by a desperate ex-convict—and Holmes leaps to concuss the villain, before he gathers the wounded doctor in his arms and keens, “You’re not hurt, Watson? For God’s sake, say that you are not hurt!” And Watson, in one of the most sublime epiphanies of the entire canon, writes, “It was worth a wound—it was worth many wounds—to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask. The clear, hard eyes were dimmed for a moment, and the firm lips were shaking. For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain. All my years of humble but single-minded service culminated in that moment of revelation.”
Watson assures Holmes that he is well, and the story goes on its unsentimental route. But not before Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective, draws out a pocketknife and rips the good doctor’s trousers—all the while, with a face “set like flint,” calmly telling the villain that if his Watson had died, the criminal bastard would never have gotten out of there alive. All this, to the glee of fanfic-penners and the Tumblr-lurkers the world over. It’s canon, you see.