The Weekly Forum

Doctor Watson speaks of Mary Morstan with a great deal of love in SIGN. In fact, one could posit that Doctor Watson was struck by ‘love at first sight.’ Was his love (or her’s) enduring? Was he successful as a husband? Like so many other matters, we have no definitive answers for these questions. But we have evidence, a great deal of implied and sketchy evidence.

There are many threads concerning Dr Watson’s marriage(s). Some propose multiple marriages, but little in the way of their histories.  Is it possible for us to cooperatively take up the threads and find a supportable chronology of the good Doctors marital status and indicated lodgings and offer an overarching theory for his marital history? 

And, as a second bit of theorizing, perhaps we could catalog the evidence and from it formulate the positive and negative aspects of his personality in order to answer the question: “What would it have been like to be married to Doctor John Watson?”

17 Replies to “The Weekly Forum”

  1. One of the best ways to initiate discussion is to begin with an extreme position and then let cooler heads prevail. Mary Morstan has always been an enigma. From her original appearances in the Canon to her current incarnation on the BBC series, there are more questions than answers about this intriguing lady. When I was in my early twenties, I was able to make my initial appearance in the Sherlockian literature with an article about Mary Morstan, entitled “Mary Morstan Moriarty”, published in the BSJ in 1977. As the title implies, I suggested that Mary was secretly an agent of The Professor, foisted upon Watson in order to spy on Holmes. Her disappearance likely represented incarceration rather than death. Les Klinger, in his annotations, noted the “audacity” of this concept, which pleased me greatly. But this is only one viewpoint, and a radical one at that. What was Mary’s relationship to Watson, what was it like to be married to the Boswell to Holmes, what really happened to Mary? The Watsonians undoubtedly have interesting thoughts on this important subject.

    1. That sounds like a fascinating article! It’s interesting that it was regarded as an audacious concept, but it is now being given more thought: with the “true” nature of Mary revealed in the latest BBC series, I’ve read many BBC Sherlock fan discussions on whether Mary could possibly be closely tied with Moriarty, perhaps an assassin for hire, or even be the true “Sebastian Moran.”

      The fate of the original Mary Morstan is such a mystery. If she really were a clever agent for Moriarty’s network, that sort of betrayal would explain why Watson does not mention her in his writings from then on and why he chose to move in with his old friend Holmes again without considering marrying and leaving 221B Baker Street until much later in life.

  2. I submitted a paper to Sandy looking at the “Mary Morstan Problem” by looking at the first 26 stories. It’s rather long, but I come to the conclusion that, based on Adventures and Memoirs, there’s no reason to suppose that Watson is living at Baker Street when he should be at home with Mary.

    1. Can you expand a bit for the Forum without giving away the treasures of your paper for The Watsonian?

      1. As you know there are cases that would seem to take place during the period that Watson was married but Watson is living at Baker Street–COPP and FIVE are two examples of stories that were published before 1894 in the Strand. COPP has Holmes and Watson discussing cases that took places after the marriage and FIVE mentions Mrs. W. was visiting her mother (or aunt). I’ve looked at those cases and come to the concussion that Watson used editorial license to date them post-marriage but that they actually occurred before that event. Scholars have long posited that these post-marriage disappearances were indications that Mary was a consumptive and the reason behind Watson’s sad bereavement in EMPT. As I find that when Watson says he’s married and when he doesn’t mention Mary, marriage or his practice in the 26 stories (HOUN is outside of consideration in my paper) that is exactly the case.

        By the way, Ian McQueen’s “Sherlock Holmes Detected” has a theory that there was trouble in the Watsons marriage and lists a long string of passages from the Canon to back his thesis.

  3. The happy coincidence of Bob Katz’s elevation to the purple and this interesting discussion of Watson’s wives will remind many readers of this forum that Bob was called upon annually by Tom Stix to deliver the toast to The Second Mrs. Watson at the BSI dinner. Bob’s toasts were marvels of creative speculation on this mysterious character, and were always one of the highlights of the dinner. I believe he went so far, in one toast, to propose that The Second Mrs. Watson was really the First Mrs of the Second Dr Watson. After that, there is little left to say….. Except thanks, Bob, and congratulations.

    1. Don’s kind remarks are most gracious and appreciated. In fact, I did suggest that Holmes went through several companions over the years. Watsons were killed off by The Devil’s Foot, gunshots from Killer Evans, etc. It was just convenient to identify each successive Boswell as Dr. Watson. So Second Mrs Watson was really the first Mrs of the Second Dr Watson…..It helped to have been there….

      1. I have never thought of the possibility of there being more than one Watson. Wow!

    2. This mind-blowing idea gives some serious credibility to the use of David Burke and Edward Hardwicke each playing Doctor Watson in the Jeremy Brett series on BBC.

  4. After thinking about this a great deal, I believe I tend to accept the text as it is written. That is, Doctor Watson is deeply in love with Mary Morstan, as beautifully written in STUD, and places honour in the equation when the promise of great wealth is raised. His willingness to sacrifice his love rather than have money come between them in any way is, to me, a signal characteristic of his personality throughout the Canon: Doctor Watson always comes second, generally by choice.

    The evidence of his medical practice supports this. Rather than devote himself entirely to becoming a “Harley Street Consultant” Watson frequently leaves his practice to other physicians and makes himself available to Holmes. Textually, there is evidence that Mary understands this need and this bond. Therefore, she–like John–is willing to sacrifice something for his happiness. Their marriage is a textbook example of giving each other freedom while remaining happy. And, Watson’s own word “bereavement” quietly speaks of his loss when Mary is gone whether by death or other reason.

    Textually there is evidence that John Watson is a man of Reason, having a gentle nature, and with a strong emotional and romantic side. He apparently loves women for their nature and beauty and definitely loves Mary for not only her quiet strength, but her quiet beauty and gentle manner.

    If he did marry again, one can project from the textual evidence and, not with too much daring, conclude that John would have felt a similar way about his second wife as he did Mary: love, honour, devotion, respect and a free sharing of lives together and separately. In short, John Watson was a good man, a good husband, a good friend. Mary was equally a good woman, a good wife, and a good friend. When you read STUD closely, I believe we can conclude that Mary had a great deal of Sherlock in her personality and John respected her for that. The John/Sherlock/Mary relationship has at least five combinations of mutual respect, even perhaps love. 1) John respected Mary and Sherlock; 2) Sherlock respected John and Mary; 3) Mary respected John and Sherlock; 4) John and Mary respected Sherlock; and 5) Sherlock and John respected Mary. It’s there in the text.

    John Watson, Mary Morstan, Sherlock Holmes: “Steel True; Blade Straight” [ACD”s epitaph].

    1. I share the same opinion as you. It is interesting that we learn of Watson’s second marriage through Holmes’ literary efforts. Not that he didn’t love the second Mrs. W., but the good doctor seemed to be respecting Mary’s place with his readers by refraining from mentioning it–although there are clues with his resumption of civil practice and moving out of Baker Street.

    2. I like your description of the three of them. I think that is my favorite interpretation of their dynamic. ^_^

      My impression of Mary Morstan is that she is a clever and patient woman. She seemed to encourage her husband to go investigate cases with Holmes, though she could have discouraged him from going into danger and instead concentrate on his medical practice.

      I think the reason may be that she had seen them at work: she knows from first-hand experience how important Holmes’ work is for London and how Dr. Watson is an important element in Holmes’ work.

      I think that is my favorite scene in the BBC Sherlock series: Mary, John, and Sherlock at 221B Baker Street going over details for the wedding. When it gets too overwhelming, Mary is clever and sends them out on a case. I thought that was so cute!

      I wish the Mary Watson and Sherlock Holmes in the Guy Ritchie films could learn to get along and work together for the greater good, but they seem very contentious in the movies – two clever people trying to push each other (in Holmes’ case, he quite literally pushed her off a train!).

      As for Dr. Watson’s second wife (there are arguments that he had more than two and arguments that he had just the one, but for me – I tend to thing that he remarried in the early 1900s), I think she might not have liked Sherlock Holmes, despite his great mind. Perhaps it was in favor of starting a family or simply to keep John safe (3GAR was a close call, even if he did bush it off as scratch), but I think she may have been instrumental in keeping the good doctor from being too occupied at home and with his practice to visit his dear friend often in their later years.

  5. As a representative of the good ship H/W, I must admit that I occasionally and strategically believe that the marriage to Mary Morstan was a fiction to protect our hero and his close companion’s private lives. Hence the discrepancies with who lives where when, how lax Mrs. W was about Watson going off on adventures at a moment’s notice, and how briefly and easily her disappearance is dealt with. Their romance reads a bit thin for me, some days.

    1. That’s not too far a leap when it comes to Sherlockian speculation. It’s interesting to think that perhaps the discrepancies of dates and such in the details found the good Doctor’s case writings might not stem from a faulty memory or mistakes influenced by his literary agent, but purposeful changes made by Dr. Watson to protect his private life from public knowledge.

      He would often change the details about Holmes’ clients in order to protect them, why not change details about himself or Holmes as a means of protection?

      Wasn’t it Rex Stout who proposed that John Watson was in fact a woman? Would it really be too outrageous to propose that Watson and Holmes were two men cleverly hiding a secret in plain view of the Victorian public? It’s an interesting thought.

      I’d prefer to think that Mary Morstan and her story was all as Dr. Watson described… but what if the rich Agra treasure had been found in the box at the end of The Sign of Four and he had only wrote that the box was empty to please his story and to give his readers a romantic conclusion to his tale?

  6. To answer the question of how successful Watson was as a husband to Mary Morstan, we need to consider her background and the times in which they lived. Victorian England was a man’s world. It was not at all unusual for professionals and upper class gentlemen to spend a great deal of time outside the home, socializing at clubs and lodges, pursuing career goals and, in some cases, indulging their baser desires (the latter certainly not the case with the Good Doctor, who had previously sown his wild oats on three separate continents). Mary, as the product of a boarding school education and a governess in an upper-middle-class household, understood the norms of Victorian home life, and as the daughter of an army officer, she understood the call of duty Watson felt. Judged by the period in which they lived, rather than by today’s standards, I am confident John and Mary Watson had a loving marriage.

    1. All great points, Dash. I forgot about the daughter of an army officer part. Yes, indeed she would have understood the call to duty.

    2. Your reasoning makes perfect sense, Dash.

      As a child, I lived on a Navy base in Japan for several years as a “Military Brat.” In time, you come to understand that deployment is a part of life and recognizing the nobility of duty as essential. I think Mary’s patience and understanding stems from her upbringing and that worked well with how Dr. Watson balanced his daily life with his adventures.

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