“A CURIOUS COINCIDENCE OF DATES”
Taking matters at face value, one might wonder why Sherlock Holmes’ best and only friend wrote not a word of him during his three-year absence after purportedly going over the Reichenbach Falls.
The reality is that it was during that three-year hiatus that the bereaved Watson did nearly ALL of his writing about his friend. According to dates, Watson had published only two stories before Holmes disappeared.
Consider the dates left by Doyle in Canon, compared to the publication dates of the stories:
The very first story – a novel “A Study in Scarlet,” was published in 1887, six years after Holmes and Watson met in 1881;
“The Sign of Four” was published in 1890, a year before Holmes disappears;
Holmes presumably disappeared over the Reichenbach Falls on April 24, 1891;
The first of the short stories, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” appears in The Strand Magazine two months later, in July 1891. The first anthology of short stories, which would come to be known as “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes,” was first published in October 1892. Holmes - as far as Watson knew - was still dead.
“Silver Blaze,” the first in what would become the anthology of cases known as “The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes,” appeared in The Strand in Dec. 1892. Holmes is still presumed dead. “The Final Problem” appeared in Dec. 1893.
So as far as Watson knew, all the while these reminiscences were being written, Holmes no longer existed in the world! Meanwhile the public was being led to believe that Holmes actually existed!
When riots broke out over the death of Sherlock Holmes, the man himself had already been “dead” for two years without Watson ever letting on!
Let us continue to unravel this scarlet thread:
Holmes revealed his existence to Watson in 1894, yet for seven long years, the public remains in the dark, at least as far as Watson is concerned. Watson writes not a single word of his friend until 1901, when “The Hound of the Baskervilles” is published. This is, of course, about a case that occurred prior to Holmes’ “death.”
The public doesn’t learn that Holmes is indeed in the land of the living until “The Empty House” is published in September 1903.
A month later, in October 1903, Holmes retires to beekeeping on the Sussex Downs and, with the exception of “The Lion’s Mane” (a story Holmes writes himself) and “His Last Bow,” (which is written in third person), we know nothing further of his activities. All of the stories in the last three anthologies of “The Return,” “His Last Bow” and “The Casebook” are cases from earlier days.
What are we to make of these amazing revelations?
My pet theory is twofold:
Holmes was not happy with Watson’s first two attempts as his Boswell. He proclaims as much in the opening paragraphs of “The Sign of Four” when he criticizes how Watson wrote up “A Study in Scarlet.”
Holmes’ displeasure – along with his detestation of the public eye - was so great he forbid Watson from writing anything more about him…and consequently, Watson didn’t.
After Holmes presumably died, Watson probably felt this injunction of silence was lifted from him. He began publishing “The Adventures” and “The Memoirs” with the desire and intention to immortalize his brilliant friend and also, probably, as a form of grief therapy.
After Holmes returned in 1894, he no doubt demanded once again that Watson stop writing about him and so – with the exception of “Hound,” Watson didn’t. So during all the time that the public still believed Holmes to be dead he was, in fact, very much alive and on the job! In fact, according to Watson he had his best year – 1895 – during this second period of publication blackout.
The public doesn’t learn Holmes is alive until a month before his retirement, after which time one presumes Holmes lifts his injunction against Watson’s efforts, and Watson writes the bulk of the rest of the Canon. These later stories, however, are about earlier days.
What are we to make of this astounding situation? How could Holmes’ fame spread across the world, bringing him his most successful cases and providing him with his busiest year (1895), if the bulk of the public still believed he was dead?
If anyone has any brilliant theories, I’d certainly love to hear them!
Uhm… Brilliant? None.