The Dissecting Room . . . May 1993
The Writing Watson
Once again the column deadline has come and gone like a telegraph pole whizzing past your window on the train en route for Exeter. Editor Burr bears down on me like a vengeful Jefferson Hope, demanding I fill these two center pages with all the eloquence of Grimesby Roylott. And all I have standing between myself and the Reichenbachian precipice of failure are a few Canonical metaphors, hastily used up in a vain attempt to fill this space.
John H. Watson never had writer's block at moments like these. By the time he had finished writing his first novel, in April of 1886, he had already spent five years with Sherlock Holmes. Watson wrote another novel, and more time with Holmes passed, in which he had only recorded two of their adventures together. Already his backlog had begun.
Whenever Watson couldn't think of anything to write about, he even had Sherlock Holmes to send him a telegram saying "Why not tell them about such-and-such, most obscure and forgettable case I ever handled." (Which is why we have the occasional "The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter.") But even those times were surely rare. Most of the time, Watson probably had to sit and ponder his choices: "Do I feel like 'Six Napoleons' this week or 'Cardboard Box'? BmmCTtBti."
Conan Doyle would come knocking on his door, Watson would knock off "The Solitary Cyclist," and Doyle would be gone for another month.
"But, Brad," you ask, "wasn't Watson out on the moors for a month with the Baskerville business? Wasn't he gone quite a while when they were on the run from Moriarty? How could he keep up while running off with Holmes all the time?"
A quick glance at the publication dates of the Canon will tell you the answer to that. Watson didn't write while running around with Holmes. Almost all of the short stories came out from 1891 to 1893 or after mid-1903. Both periods are distinctly notable for Holmes being absent from Watson's life at the time. If anyone ever tries to tell you that Conan Doyle actually wrote Holmes's cases, you might want to point this little fact out to them. If Doyle was writing the cases it wouldn't matter a whit whether Holmes and Watson were together or not. He had time to write no matter what Watson was doing.
But I digress. Maybe I wasn't digressing, but it sounds so Sherlockian to say that. In any case ...
Watson wasn't writing when there were adventures to be had. He was out adventuring. And when things dropped off, well, then he could dash out some tales. Holmes's retirement, for example, gave him decades of scribbling time. Holmes's hiatus gave him a good three years. And what of the first two novels, A Study In Scarlet and The Sign of the Four? I think that we have in them evidence for Watson's two 1880's marriages.
He is married briefly in late 1885 and early 1886, and that gets him out of Baker Street for just long enough to write STUD. A couple of years later, he marries Mary Morstan, moves out again, and writes SIGN in 1889.
In an earlier treatise on Watson's writing periods, I theorized that Watson only wrote and published during those times when he thought being on public display would not hurt Holmes's career. Now I begin to wonder if it wasn't just because he had the time to kill, and reliving the glory days was one of his favorite ways to spend it (which explains why his marriages didn't last). The Granada television portrayal of Watson writing stories while living at Baker Street, like so many other screen adaptations, may be a bit exaggerated.
I realize that the idea of Watson filling up his doldrums by chronicling his adventures with Holmes is not the kind of revelation that will set the world on fire. But I'm not out having adventures at the moment, you see, and I have to do something to fill my own slow spots.
Of course, taking a boat train to the coast and a ship for Europe might add a little excitement to my life if I don't get this column in to Editor Burr very, very soon ...