Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Happy Birthday, Doctor Watson?

Nowhere in the dozens of cases that make up the Sherlock Holmes canon are the birthdates of “the world’s first consulting detective” or his loyal biographer, Dr. John H. Watson, supplied. If author Arthur Conan Doyle ever settled on birthdays for his most famous creations, he took that information to the grave with him in 1930.

However, during the decades since, scholarly efforts have been made to pin down the birthdates of both Holmes and Watson, based on elusive and perhaps erroneous clues. Purists often scoff at the findings of such studies, and author Laurie R. King (The Language of Bees) has her own ideas about Sherlock Holmes’ beginnings; but Holmes fans, especially those in the States, seem to have settled on January 6, 1854, as the day the Great Detective took his first breath.

There’s not even that grudging degree of agreement, though, on exactly when Dr. Watson was born.

Brad Keefauver, who used to be the editor-in-chief of an excellent but now apparently defunct periodical, The Holmes & Watson Report, wrote a piece back in 2000 called “Birth of a Watson, Birth of a Canon.” In it, he contended that today--March 31--ought to be celebrated as the birthday of Holmes’ “intimate friend and associate.” But as Keefauver acknowledged, not everyone agrees with his conclusion:
In his pamphlet, Watsoniana, Elliot Kimball placed Watson’s birthday on July 7, 1852. (Of course, he also claimed that Watson’s middle name was “Hubert.”) In his Annotated Sherlock Holmes, William S. Baring-Gould states that several commentators place Watson’s birth on July 7th, based on the fact that Watson took Beaune with lunch to celebrate. It is a horrible date for any Sherlockian to contemplate celebrating ... Watson’s literary agent died on that same day in 1930, and I don’t think it was because he overdid it at Watson’s birthday party. Perhaps Baring-Gould realized this, as in his Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street, Baring-Gould cites August 7th as Watson’s birthday. Later compilers, like Matthew Bunson in his Encyclopaedia Sherlockiana, uncomplainingly follow those two leads, but I have to wonder: Can’t we do better?
As Keefauver explained, his determination of March 31, 1853 (or perhaps the early morning hours of April Fool’s Day), as the date of Watson’s entry into the world was based on “the time-honored hangover system of dating birthdays.”
I would, therefore, like to propose the opening of “The [Adventure of the] Speckled Band” for the morning after Watson’s birthday bash. In that April morning of 1883, Holmes awakens a slightly resentful Watson at 7:15 a.m., the doctor being a bit put out as he fully expected Holmes to sleep in. Daylight, according to Violet Stoner [aka Julia Stoner, the elder sister of Holmes’ latest client], came well before six that morning, so 7:15 is hardly an ungodly hour to be wakened ... unless, of course, one had a rough night before.
South Africa-born British novelist Rafe McGregor (The Architect of Murder) seems less than convinced by Keefauver’s “evidence.” After penning his own rather scholarly analysis of Watson’s history, A Study in Watson: The Extraordinary Life of the Man Behind Sherlock Holmes, McGregor explains in an e-mail note that “If I’m strict according to Doyle’s Canon, then I’m afraid there’s no mention of Watson’s birthday. I’m not actually a believer in the 6th January for Holmes either, although I know this is generally accepted in the U.S. The connection with Holmes is to do with Twelfth Night, I believe; but April Fool’s for poor old Watson ... we can’t have that!”

However, McGregor accepts the notion of Watson having been born in 1853, rather than 1852, as some non-canonical sources assert. In A Study in Watson, he spells out the doctor’s heritage and introduction to Watson’s future sleuthing friend thusly:
John Hamish Watson was born in 1853, a year before Sherlock Holmes. He inadvertently reveals his middle name when his wife calls him ‘James’ in “The Man with the Twisted Lip”: Mary Morstan was brought up and educated in Edinburgh, and Hamish is the Scottish version of James. Watson was born in England and had at least one sibling, an older brother. He probably went to school in London and we know that either then, or while a student at the University of London, he played rugby for Blackheath Club. At some time in this early period of his life his father died. Watson qualified as a Doctor of Medicine in 1878, aged twenty-five. His studies complete, he was commissioned into the Army Medical Service and trained at Netley in Southampton. He was gazetted as a captain-surgeon in the 5th Northumberland Fusiliers and joined his regiment in India early in 1879. At some time in the next 18 months he volunteered for front-line service and was attached to the 66th Berkshire Regiment, serving in the Second Anglo-Afghan War.

Watson was severely wounded at the Battle of Maiwand, on the 27th July 1880. He describes his wound as being in the shoulder in A Study in Scarlet [1887], and subsequently the leg in The Sign of Four [1890]. The discrepancy suggests that it was in fact the upper leg, probably in the abdominal region--the mention of which would not have been considered respectable in 1887, when A Study in Scarlet was first published. Following the harrowing retreat to Kandahar, Watson was sent to a military hospital in Peshawar, where he contracted enteric fever. His health apparently ruined, he was repatriated, arriving in Portsmouth at the end of the year. By this time his remaining family had emigrated. In The Sign of Four Watson mentions that he has visited three continents. We already know two of these (Europe and Asia) and he reveals the third when he notes that he has been to Ballarat (a mining town in Australia), also suggesting the whereabouts of his family.

On his return to England, Watson initially found lodging in a hotel in the Strand in London. He bought a bulldog puppy for company, but quickly found that he was unable to live on his income of ‘eleven shillings and sixpence a day’. He decided he must either leave London or find cheaper accommodation to solve the problem. A chance meeting with Stamford, a colleague from his student days at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, led to Watson’s introduction to Sherlock Holmes early in 1881. They agreed to share the cost of the rooms at 221B Baker Street, and during Watson’s continued convalescence he became aware that Holmes was engaged in an entirely unique profession, that of consulting detective. Their first collaboration was in A Study in Scarlet, and Watson published eleven other cases in which he was involved before The Sign of Four in 1888 (although he indicates that there are a vast number of unpublished cases for this period).
So, it’s with reservations that we celebrate John H. Watson’s birthday on this last day of March. We could be wrong about the date, or we could be right. The only person who knows for sure, if anybody does, died almost seven decades ago--yet the debate continues.

READ MORE:Second to None,” by J. Kingston Pierce
(The Rap Sheet).

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