(Or, The Merry Wives of Watson):
A Recapitulation of Research on the Marriage(s) of Dr. Watson
Presented to The Cremona Fiddlers on September 7, 1997
by A Pure-blooded, Well-trained Foxhound
"Plover-freckled or Gruner-crazy,
We all know Watson's predilection for members of the opposite sex. He remarks on their beauty and dress an uncountable number of times throughout the canon. We know from him that his experience with women extends over "many nations and three separate continents." We know from Holmes that the fair sex is "Watson's department." I will review the various theories on how many wives Dr. Watson had, and bring you to what I believe is the most logical conclusion. It should be an interesting area for exploration. It is also an area, in my opinion, that has barely been tapped.
In 1944, Dorothy Sayers said:
There is a conspiracy afoot to provide Watson with as many wives as Henry VIII, but, however this may be, only one is ever mentioned by him and only one left any abiding memory in his heart.Less devout scholars than Ms. Sayers wanted Watson to have multiple wives so much that they invented them for him. William S. Baring-Gould points out that Watson marries the American Constance Adams in Doyle's unpublished play "Angels of Darkness." In 1978, Hartley Nathan purportedly found Watson's will and testament in Toronto, Canada, proving that the good doctor had twin sons (Clarence and George) by his first wife Constance, a daughter (Gertrude) by his second wife Mary, and another daughter (Elsie) by his third wife, whose name we do not know.
In any case, it is certain that Watson had at least one wife. Mary Morstan is explicitly mentioned in several places throughout the canon, starting with "The Sign of the Four." In 1888, Mary Morstan walked into Dr. Watson's life and swept him off his feet. Watson writes:
She was a blonde young lady, small, dainty, well gloved, and dressed in the most perfect taste. There was, however, a plainness and simplicity about her costume which bore with it a suggestion of limited means. . . .Her face had neither regularity of feature nor beauty of complexion, but her expression was sweet and amiable, and her large blue eyes were singularly spiritual and sympathetic. In an experience of women which extends over many nations and three separate continents, I have never looked upon a face which gave a clearer promise of a refined and sensitive nature. (SIGN, pp. 11- 12).Later in the narrative, Watson says of Mary:
My mind ran upon our late visitor -- her smiles, the deep rich tones of her voice, the strange mystery which overhung her life. If she were seventeen at the time of her father's disappearance she must be seven-and-twenty now -- a sweet age, when youth has lost its self-consciousness and become a little sobered by experience. So I sat and mused until such dangerous thoughts came into my head that I hurried away to my desk and plunged furiously into the latest treatise upon pathology (SIGN, p. 16).The prospect that the Agra treasure might spoil his chances with Miss Morstan certainly weighed heavily on Dr. Watson's mind. So distracted was Watson that when Thaddeus Sholto bombarded him with trains of symptoms, the Doctor found himself prescribing strychnine in large doses as a sedative. It seems evident that Watson was in love.
At any rate, Watson married Miss Morstan soon after the conclusion to "The Sign of the Four." Watson was 35 and Mary 27 at the time their troth was plighted. The popular view is that Mary died in 1893 or 1894. Holmes rose from the dead in 1894 and took Watson's mind off his "sad bereavement" for awhile with some new adventures. This didn't last forever, as, according to S. C. Roberts, Watson remarried soon after the turn of the century. Holmes himself, in "The Blanched Soldier," remarks in January 1903 that Watson had "deserted him for a wife," so it seems evident that Watson remarried at least once. The identity of this second wife has been conjectured by Chris Morley and George Haynes to be Lady Frances Carfax, and by S. C. Roberts to be Violet de Merville (ILLU).
The fact that Watson married Miss Morstan is well-known and goes almost undisputed. Of course, nothing is so abhorrent to many Sherlockians than a plainly stated, obvious fact. Eminent Sherlockian scholar and author Rex Stout wrote an article entitled "Watson Was a Woman," which, if true, would of course preclude any wives.
On the other hand, there are those who contend that Watson had not two wives, but one. In an interesting twist to the Rex Stout theory, Dr. Robert Katz, in his toast to the Second Mrs. Watson at the 1996 BSI Dinner, held that there was only one Mrs. Watson. Katz's logic was that because Holmes was such an intolerable lodger because of his bad habits and his propensity for getting his roommates into danger, they left him after a short while. This posed a problem for the Literary Agent, who had great success with Holmes and Watson. The conflict was resolved by having several Dr. Watsons in succession, each of whom was married only once.
On the other hand, there are those who claim that our mutual friend had three or more wives. We'll ignore Rex Stout for the moment and concentrate instead on the one-wife and multi-wife theories.
The fourteenth century English scholastic philosopher, William of Ockham, held that assumptions used to explain something must not be unnecessarily multiplied. This "shaving away of multiple assumptions" is known familiarly as "Ockham's Razor." A more simple way of stating the principle is that, all things being equal, the simplest explanation is usually the best. This is known in science as the Law of Parsimony. There are only a few published proponents of the one-wife theory, but they claim to have Ockham's razor on their side.
Jane Nightwork, in 1946, made the surprising claim that "Watson's second wife was actually his first wife; and there never was a third." Nightwork speculates that Watson and Mary had a "falling out" in 1894 due to Mary's success in her own dress-making business. Since divorce at this time was all but impossible, it is likely that Holmes was referring to Watson's separation rather than Mary's death when he said, "Work is the best antidote to sorrow, my dear Watson" in "The Empty House." According to Nightwork, when Holmes says, "The good Watson had at that time deserted me for a wife," he is referring to the happy reunion of John and Mary in 1902, when the couple decided to have another go at marriage. There is no need to assume that Mary died. This view was later supported by Christopher Morley.
H. W. Starr claimed that the "sad bereavement" doesn't refer to death, but is Watson's excuse to the reading public for moving back in with Holmes after violent marital disputes. Starr blames the switching of residences between Queen Anne St. and Baker St. on Watson's proclivity to go adventuring with Holmes, a habit which caused much marital strife for Watson. The couple finally reconciled in 1902 and left Holmes by himself.
Dan Warren claims that Mary is instead the victim of tuberculosis. Because she must spend so much time in a German health spa, Watson occasionally lives with Holmes. According to Warren, the "sad bereavement" mentioned by Holmes refers to the Watsons' miscarried child, an event which occurred more frequently among women with TB. How much of this has canonical support, I don't know, but it's a good theory, nonetheless. It might be what Doyle had intended all along, as his first wife Louise died after a thirteen-year battle with TB, and took many visits to Switzerland for her health.
Another bit of evidence for a single marriage lies in "The Dying Detective," which occurred, according to Watson, "in the second year of my married life." "The Dying Detective" wasn't published until 1913, eleven years after the presumed second marriage took place. It is evident that Watson had only been married once by 1913 or he would have said "the second year of his first marriage." As he was in his early sixties by in 1913, it is unlikely that he married again.
There is some support for the claim that Watson had three wives. In "The Veiled Lodger," 1896, Watson says he has taken up separate lodgings. Harold Bell assumed that this referred to another marriage. I don't know if I believe him, but Trevor Hall points out that perhaps Watson was going through a mid-life crisis at this time. He was, after all, in his mid-forties. I think far greater evidence for a marriage lies in "The Five Orange Pips," which precedes "The Sign of the Four," and hence Mary Morstan, by a year.
In "The Five Orange Pips," Watson mentions that "My wife was on a visit to her mother's, and for a few days I was a dweller once more in my old quarters at Baker Street." However, in "The Sign of the Four," Mary states quite clearly that her mother was dead and that she had no relatives in England. The statement in "The Five Orange Pips" was later changed in light of this fact to refer to Mary's aunt rather than her mother, but keep in mind that this was a change made after the fact by editors, not by Watson. This instance gives rise to the theory that Watson had a wife in 1887, before he wedded Mary in 1888. A counter-argument is that "The Sign of the Four" is mentioned in "The Five Orange Pips" and therefore must have already occurred. I refuse to admit the late Gavin Brend's assertion that Watson had messy hand-writing or simply had his dates wrong. This happened only three times that I can tell -- once in "Wisteria Lodge," once in "The Red-Headed League," and once elsewhere in "The Sign of the Four." I think it more likely that Watson included the title for publicity reasons.
In the extreme case, Watson hypothetically could have had at least 4 marriages:
1887 - A short marriage to someone unknown. (FIVE)
If we're to trust Baring-Gould about "Angels of Darkness," Watson had a fifth wife in the mid-1880's named Constance Adams. Trevor Hall supports the five- wife theory, citing Watson's wives as Constance Adams, Miss X, Mary Morstan, Miss Y, and Miss Z.
In his review of the unpublished play "Angels of Darkness," Harlan Umansky claims that the play ends with Watson being engaged to Lucy Ferrier at the deathbed request of John Ferrier. Is Lucy Ferrier Miss X? Or should we add her to the list, making six short-lived wives for Dr. Watson? That is open to speculation, since, according to the rumor mill, the plot of "Angels of Darkness" directly contradicts that of "A Study in Scarlet"--it has Watson working in San Francisco and doesn't involve Holmes at all. It would be nice if the six-wife theory were correct--it would fulfill Ms. Sayers' prophesy of Watson having as many wives as Henry VIII.
A case could be made that Watson had seven wives if you juggle the dates around in "The Sign of the Four," "The Five Orange Pips," and "A Scandal in Bohemia." We'll call this mysterious lady Miss Q. The evidence for her existence is flimsy at best, however, so I won't go into it.
Now, given the fact that Watson probably couldn't have divorced any of his wives by the laws in England at the time, this means, unless Watson was a bigamist as some have suggested, that all but the last of his wives must have died, and none of them under circumstances Watson sees fit to describe to the reader. In fact, Miss Q, Miss X, and Miss Y must have died after no more than a year of marriage--Miss Q and Miss X because Watson remarried the next year, and Miss Y because Watson was living back in his old quarters in Baker Street by 1897 (ABBE).
There are two theories we can dismiss out of hand. The first is that Dr. Watson was a deadbeat addicted to gambling.
Look at the facts. Watson is always skipping out on his practice to run off with Holmes. Watson spent a summer at "Shoscombe Old Place" of horseracing fame. He frequently spends half his pension check at the races. Holmes kept Watson's checkbook locked in his desk drawer. Is it any surprise to learn that Watson would be in dire financial straits? Could he have, for instance, had a system of marrying rich women who were at death's door, taken out huge life insurance policies on them, and then merely wait for them to pass on in order to collect and support his gambling habit? Given what other information we have about Dr. Watson's personality, my answer must be "Not bloody likely."
The second dubious explanation is that Watson was a serial killer.
How hard would it be for a doctor to procure poisons or administer deadly infections? Watson does admit to having "another set of vices" in "A Study in Scarlet"--could he be referring to a murderous streak a mile wide? This would make Watson one of the most diabolical, cunning, and daring killers of all time, to stay so brazenly close to the world's greatest detective and yet defy discovery at every turn. One would surmise that Holmes would get suspicious by the fourth or fifth time he was asked to present a ring as the best man.
Or could it be simply that because Watson, as a doctor, came into more frequent contact with women of frail health, he was hence more likely to marry such women? I tend to support this position. Cases could, and have, been made that Watson had as many as seven wives, but I tend to think he had only two: Mary Morstan and the Miss Z of 1903. It is now time to use Ockham's razor to cut through the extraneous theories. There are two strong canonical references to Dr. Watson's wives--Mary Morstan and Miss Z of 1903. The inference that these are one and the same woman is a stretch, and I believe that those who have claimed to have Ockham's razor on their side by saying that Watson had only one wife are misinterpreting the nature of parsimony. 'One' is not necessarily a simpler number than 'Two' when 'Two' makes more sense. In order to play The Game, we must accept what Watson says at face value unless he is clearly, undeniably wrong.
Baesch, J. Personal Communication. 20 August, 1997.
Baring-Gould, W. S. (1962). Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street.
Brend, G. (1951). My Dear Holmes.
Bunson, M. E. (1994). Encyclopedia Sherlockiana.
Doyle, A. C. (1993). The Sign of the Four. New York: Oxford University Press.
Fink, J. (1992). The marital hoax of John H. Watson. The Baker Street Journal, 42(2), 102-105.
Fitz, R. (1944). A Belated Eulogy: To John H. Watson, M.D., in Profile by Gaslight, Edgar W. Smith (Ed.), Simon and Schuster: New York.
Hall, T. (1971). The Late Mr. Sherlock Holmes.
Katz, R. (1996). To the Second Mrs. Watson. The Baker Street Journal, 46(1), 9-10.
Moriarity, D. Personal Communication. August, 1997.
Morley, C. (1934). Doctor Watson's Secret, in Rothman, S. (Ed.): The Standard Doyle Company, 1990.
Nathan, H. (1978). John H. Watson, M.D. Discovered at Last. The Baker Street Journal, 28(4), 204-213.
Nguyen, H. Personal Communication. 22 August, 1997.
Nightwork, J. (1946). Watson à la Mode. The Baker Street Journal, 1(1), 15- 20.
Redmond, C. (1984). In Bed With Sherlock Holmes.
Roberts, S. C. (1953). Holmes & Watson, New York: Otto Penzler's Sherlock Holmes Library.
Starr, H. W. (1946). Some New Light on Watson. The Baker Street Journal, 1(1), 55-63.
Stout, R. (1944). Watson Was a Woman, in Profile by Gaslight, Edgar W. Smith (Ed.), Simon and Schuster: New York.
Warren, D. C. (1991). Mary, the One and Only. The Baker Street Journal, 41(1), 21-24.
Wigglesworth, B. (1947). Many Nations and Three Separate Continents. The Baker Street Journal, 2(3), 273-278.