The Dissecting Room . . . March 1986
The Watson that was a Woman
Once upon a time in the annals of Sherlockian history, Rex Stout made a famous pronouncement-one for which he was heaved bodily into the snow outside a Baker Street Irregulars dinner. The pronouncement became the title of an article, and it's one of those titles that says it all: "Watson Was a Woman."
Stout, of course, proposed that Watson was really just Mrs. Holmes, Mrs. Irene Watson Holmes, in male guise. Later writers argued against his point, qualified it (one fellow claimed Watson was a woman before 1887, and a man thereafter), or disregarded it altogether. Nobody, thus far, has,simply accepted that statement in and of itself.
Watson was a woman. It says so in the Canon. Her name was Mary Morstan Watson.
That may seem like a fairly stupid point to make, and it is, we won't argue that. But let's play with that one a bit and see what comes of it. Remember, Holmes always called Watson simply "Watson." He never did specify which one.
So let's begin our Watson-play with EMPT, a turning point in the Holmes saga. In that story, Holmes makeshis well-known remark, "Work is the best antidote to sorrow, my dear Watson," referring to what Watson calls "my own sad bereavement." But to which "dear Watson" was Holmes speaking? It is commonly thought that the "sad bereavement" Watson speaks of is his wife Mary's death. But what if it were the husband, and not the wife, who died during the hiatus?
Upon his return, Sherlock Holmes would still find himself in need of a partner on occasion, and who had better qualifications than Mary M. Watson, M.D. (Married Domestic?) As Holmes said of her in SIGN, "she is one of the most charming young ladies I ever met and might have been useful in such work as we have been doing. She had a decided genius that way; witness the way she preserved that Agra plan from all the other papers of her father." Note that Holmes even went so far as to admit that she was "charming" -- these two could certainly have gotten along despite Holmes's usual feelings towards women. And just think how good this Watson would be for business:
"Folk who were in grief came to my wife like birds to a lighthouse," Watson writes of her (back when he was still alive, even considering our current theory). And people in grief were often those in need of Sherlock Holmes.
Sherlock Holmes was as true a friend to Dr. John Watson as a man could have. And if that Watson died, wouldn't Holmes naturally be concerned about the welfare of his friend's spouse? Widow's pensions were not all that common in Victorian England, so perhaps the best Holmes could do by Watson's widow was give her a job in his "agency." A room of her own and all the tobacco she could smoke, just for following Holmes around and writing up his exploits -- what more could a woman ask?
Well, there is one more thing.
Let's read a little bit from 3GAR, just after Watson has taken a bullet at the story's climax (and Holmes has put his arms around his companion in panic):
"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. "
The following evening, over dinner, may have been the moment Holmes proposed to his second Watson, making an honest lodger of her not long after. The Morstan charm finally won out. But wait, the protesting reader must cry; what of Holmes's classic "I should never marry myself, lest I bias my judgement"? It seems that Holmes had finally decided to give up his judgement -- 3GAR took place in 1902; in 1903 Holmes retired to "that little farm of my dreams." His judgement thoroughly biased, keeping bees (and segregating that queen) seemed the best line of work for the large portion of his life remaining.
However, if the series of events laid down by this somewhat whimsical theory have any substance, and Holmes did marry Mary Morstan Watson, of one thing we can be certain: "Mary Holmes" was simply a formality.
To Sherlock Holmes, she was always my dear Watson.
(Printed in Plugs & Dottles, March 1986)