“I am lost without my Boswell”

While writing my previous post pooh-poohing the idea of Holmes as autistic, I mentioned my belief—one shared by many—that Holmes’ quirks are studied eccentricities. That is, he made them up, like his indifference on the question of whether the Earth circles the Sun or vice versa. Or his sudden declarations on the beauty of flowers, which is seemingly at odds with Watson’s belief that Holmes has no interest in natural beauty.

If he is just acting, however, what is his purpose? Is it just to befuddle the good Watson? Or is he playing to an audience, because he’s one of the few detectives I can think of with his own press agent.

Just think about that: Sherlock Holmes has his own publicist in Dr. John H. Watson. And if we allow that Holmes consciously uses Watson as his flack, then every little quirk becomes a studied attempt to make himself more interesting to the reading public. In fact if you think about it too much, one can actually get incensed at Holmes’ cynical exploitation of the media. It’s most baldly exposed where in The Adventure of the Naval Treaty Holmes shows that he keeps a running tally of how often his name appears in print:

“On the contrary,” said Holmes, “out of my last fifty-three cases my name has only appeared in four, and the police have had all the credit in forty-nine. I don’t blame you for not knowing this, for you are young and inexperienced, but if you wish to get on in your new duties you will work with me and not against me.”

He is here admonishing a young Scotland Yarder on his reluctance to work with Holmes. And he is saying this before his faithful recorder who is scribbling all this down in his notebook, and thus ensuring he gets credit for those 49 cases.

You might argue that Holmes cannot control his friend, but let’s be realistic: he could either tell Watson not to publish his stories or he could just not bring Watson. After all, before he met Watson, he had functioned as a detective without a Boswell.

And Holmes is aware of exactly what Watson is writing; he often makes remarks, usually disparaging, of Watson’s literary efforts. Of course, some of this makes sense if we accept that Holmes had some difficulty reading or writing (I find absurd claims that Holmes was illiterate). Holmes may have been happy to keep Watson around to chronicle his investigations, even if it might arouse unwelcome notoriety, because for some reason Holmes was unable to do so. But it’s pointless to speculate on Holmes’ reading and writing problems—could presbyopia explain his fondness for the magnifying glass—because as I’ve already explained, he could just be putting on an act for Watson.

It’s true that Watson occasionally makes an effort to obscure the identity of a client or mentions that the parties involved are past caring, but he really does surprisingly little obfuscation. It is true that some of the stories don’t always put Holmes in the best light—yes Five Orange Pips, I’m looking at you—and sometimes the stories expose Holmes and Watson engaging in criminal activity. Presumably the stories where Holmes takes the law into his own hands were unpublished.

And I suppose it’s also possible (actually for our Holmes reality to work this has to be the case) that the Holmes stories we are reading are not the stories that Watson published, which adds a nice meta-ness in our attempts to divine the real Sherlock Holmes.

Whatever the reality, however, it remains true that Holmes was a savvy manipulator of public opinion, as shown by his decision to keep an unpaid publicist detailing his exploits. One wonders if Holmes had actually vetted Watson’s writing skills before he manipulated Stamford into arranging their meeting. But that’s for a future post.

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