Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Refining the Search

   We have been led to believe Watson's first experience of detection began with A Study in Scarlet. So when exactly did the former Sergeant of Marines appear in Baker Street with a letter from Inspector Gregson telling all about the 'bad business' in Lauriston Gardens? We know from internal evidence that the date was March 4th, but what year was it? When exactly did Watson get home from India?' When, precisely, did he land at Portsmouth Jetty? How long did it take him to "gravitate" to London? He stayed for "some time" at the hotel in the Strand, it took him "a day or two" to settle into Baker Street once he'd decided to share lodgings with Holmes, and perhaps was not there long before A Study in Scarlet intervened.
   This might mean that the unfortunate Doctor, if he was sent to the wrong Base Hospital, spent even more time in Peshawar trying to recover his health than we thought. He may not have arrived in England until more than a year after the Battle of Maiwand, which took place on July 27th 1880, between a British Force and one led by Ayub Khan, the Governor of Herat Province and brother of the Amir of Afghanistan. Having unexpectedly won this Battle, and inflicted great losses on British and Indian troops, Ayub and his Army then laid siege to Kandahar.
   So, in the light of the above, can the plaque on a wall near the Pathology Laboratory at Bart's be correct? It reads 'At this place New Year's Day 1881 were spoken these deathless words "You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive," by Mr Sherlock Holmes in greeting to John H. Watson at their first meeting'. There has been some confusion about the actual date on which the battle took place. Tracy and Thomson opt for the twenty-seventh of June, which is obviously a mistake. Other sources mention men returning from hostilities on the morning of July 27th, confusing them with General Burrows' reconnoitring force sent out the day before. The Court Circular published in The Times for August 18th 1882 records the date as 24th July 1880.
   However, General Frederick Roberts' reprisal with Ayub Khan's Army took place on September 1st, after the former had arrived in Kandahar from Kabul with his Relief Force at the end of August. Taking these dates – July 27th and September 1st 1880 – as a starting point, Watson couldn't have made up his mind to change his way of life as early as the commonly accepted date. He says of his stay in hospital that he only rallied enough to walk about the wards and to bask a little on the verandah before being struck down by fever, in which case he was lucky to be alive at all. The area around Peshawar was known to European troops as the valley of death, and those who went there couldn't wait to leave. Either he has exaggerated the length of his illness, his period of recovery and his stays at various venues before being introduced to Holmes, or the supposed date of their meeting should be considerably advanced.
   Even if we accept that he muddled up the names of the base hospitals and was one of the eighteen invalids who left Karachi in the Orontes with Surgeon-Major Alexander Francis Preston (said to be the model for Watson) roughly six weeks after the Kandahar Garrison was relieved by Roberts, and arrived in England in November 1880, he would still have to go some to meet Sherlock on the first of January 1881.
   For example, how long after he docked at Portsmouth Jetty did he stay in Hampshire? 'Gravitating' to London implies a period of doubt about what to do next, and his "comfortless, meaningless existence" in the hotel in the Strand lasted for quite a while. It is only when he realises that he is living beyond his means, and feels the need to retrench, that he uses the word "soon". And even healthy combatants who took part in the Battle of Maiwand didn't get back to barracks in Britain until February 18th, 1881.
   However, it makes for better 'theatre' to fix the famous meeting for New Year's Day. The laboratories were empty, apart from Sherlock, and the streets thronged with people. January 1st didn't become a bank holiday until 1971, and in the nineteenth century most people worked on Saturday mornings, even professionals. Was 'young Stamford' on his way out to lunch after finishing a morning's stint as a newly qualified doctor at Bart's when he met Watson? Were the streets crowded with Saturday afternoon shoppers? For anyone who thinks, in the light of all Watson's difficulties as a soldier and as a civilian, that it's more likely he met Holmes a year later than he said, it is useful to know that in 1882 January 1st fell on a Sunday.
   Sherlock, when the mood for action was on him, wouldn't care what day, or what time of day, it was, and may have obtained permission to conduct his own private enquiries into cadavers and/or bloodstains on Sunday as much as Saturday afternoons. This permission, once Holmes was accepted as a visitor, would not be difficult to get since, in a large hospital such as Bart's, the laboratories were probably nearly always in use by others anyway. Holmes either invites Watson to meet him next on a Sunday or on a Monday.
   Whichever it was, Watson moved out of his hotel "that very evening" and Holmes joined him the following morning. It took a short time for the two men to arrange their possessions. But in Watson's words they gradually adapted to their new life. There were many occasions when Holmes worked hard at something mysterious. But for days on end there were "intervals of torpor", when he lay on the sofa not uttering a word or moving a muscle. Weeks went by as Watson, whose health forbade him venturing out "unless the weather were exceptionally genial", wondered what Sherlock could be doing for a living. Taken with all the other imponderables, the weather's keeping Watson in points to the possibility of the season being autumn or winter; but fixing his meeting with Holmes for the first day of 1881 allows very little flexibility when trying to sort out a timetable for him after Maiwand...

Read on in In Search of Doctor Watson by Molly Carr, MX Publishing 2010

A longer version of this article first appeared in The School Report, the journal of "The Priory Scholars of Leicester"

Refs. The Encyclopedia Sherlockiana by Jack Tracy, NEL 1977
         The Secret Journals of Sherlock Holmes by June Thomson,
         Constable  1993


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