A Layman’s Guide to the Holmes/Watson Relationship

Over the past few years, this site has seen a dramatic surge in visitors (and for this I thank you, BBC and Guy Ritchie). Many visitors have emailed, wanting more information on Holmes and Watson and their relationship. While I still recommend reading Canon and then my series, Decoding the Subtext, I thought providing a summary of Holmes and Watson’s relationship, as found in Canon, would prove useful.

What follows is a more or less chronological (hard to do as not all the stories are dated, or dated correctly) summary of their relationship, along with the key Holmes/Watson stories all newcomers to the pairing should read. If I’ve missed anything, please feel free to let me know, and I’ll add it to the table.

1881Holmes and Watson meet. They are, at this point, in their mid-to-late twenties, Watson some years older than Holmes.Watson, having returned to London from campaigning in Afghanistan (during the second Afghan War), and sporting an injured shoulder and/or leg (Doyle varies on the location of Watson’s wound) runs into an old acquaintance, Stamford. Watson tells Stamford he is looking for cheap accommodations, so Stamford offers to introduce Watson to Holmes, who is looking for someone to go halves with on a set of rooms (Baker Street).They agree to take the rooms and move in together. Within the span of a few weeks, Watson has become obsessed with his new roommate and begins keeping lists of Holmes’ limits. Holmes preens under the attention. Shortly after Watson’s list-taking begins, Holmes chooses to reveal his profession (consulting detective) and begins dragging Watson out on cases. Holmes, ever the showman, is delighted to have found an audience. By the end of the story, Watson has announced his intention of writing and publishing Holmes’ cases. A great friendship/love affair is born.A Study in Scarlet (STUD)
1881-1888Holmes and Watson live in domestic bliss, continuing to work together on numerous cases. While there is some evidence for a physical relationship, most agree their relationship up until this point was platonic. This, however, is open for interpretation.
1888Holmes’s cocaine use places a strain on Holmes and Watson’s friendship/relationship and they argue/break up. Mary Morstan appears in Baker Street, requesting Holmes’ aid in helping to solve a case. Watson, over the course of 2 days, falls deeply in love with Mary and proposes to her. Or so he would have us/Holmes/himself believe. Holmes, horrified by losing Watson, spends the entire case attempting to woo Watson back. He even serenades him on the violin. Sadly, Holmes fails, and turns to cocaine once again to ease the upset of Watson’s leaving.The Sign of the Four (SIGN)
1888-1889Watson, still living in Baker Street, but engaged to Mary Morstan, continues to help Holmes with his cases, most notably, The Hound of the Baskervilles (HOUN).
1889Watson marries Miss Morstanimplied behind the scenes
1889Holmes is hired by the King of Bohemia to retrieve a photograph and some letters from the woman who is blackmailing him: Irene Adler. Holmes meets Adler twice, both times in disguise. She never sees him as his true self. Adler alludes Holmes, taking the King’s photograph with her, but she leaves a letter stating that she has found the love of a better man (her now husband, Godfrey Norton), and hence won’t bother the king anymore.A Scandal in Bohemia (SCAN)
1889-1891Watson continuously abandons Mary Watson (nee Morstan) in favour of sleeping at Baker Street and accompanying Holmes on his cases.
1891Holmes and Watson’s relationship is now slightly strained, likely due to Mary’s influence. Holmes has come up against his greatest adversary, Professor James Moriarty. Holmes, after months of investigation, has finally found a way to capture Moriarty. The plan requires him to leave London (for his own safety) so he shows up at Watson’s home, requesting his company on a trip to the continent. Watson agrees, ditches Mary, and the pair spend several weeks traipsing about Europe. Moriarty eventually slips through Holmes’s net and Holmes learns he is now bent on revenge. Holmes has become a dangerous companion and attempts to send Watson away. Watson refuses. It is important to note that neither Watson nor the reader meet Moriarty – we must take Holmes’s word that he exists. In a dramatic conclusion, Holmes, having been separated from Watson in the Swiss Alps, finds himself confronting Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls. Locked in mortal combat, the pair plummet to their deaths. A short time later, Watson, finding only Holmes’ stick, cigarette case and a short note, deduces that Holmes has died and is devastated.Final Problem (FINA)
1891-1893Period known as The Hiatus.Watson, over the course of two years, records and publishes twenty-three of Holmes’ cases. He still believes Holmes to be dead. Mary either dies or leaves Watson.
1894Holmes returns to London and Watson. Watson faints. Then forgives Holmes for faking his death. Holmes offers his condolences on Watson’s loss (of Mary). They immediately fall back into their old life, with Watson selling his practice and moving back into Baker Street. It should be noted that it was in fact Holmes, though a cousin, who purchased Watson’s practice, so eager was he to have Watson back.The Empty House/Norwood Builder
1894-1902Holmes and Watson continue taking cases, working and living together.
1902I felt a sudden hot sear as if a red-hot iron had been pressed to my thigh. There was a crash as Holmes’s pistol came down on the man’s head. I had a vision of him sprawling upon the floor with blood running down his face while Holmes rummaged him for weapons. Then my friend’s wiry arms were round me, and he was leading me to a chair. “You’re not hurt, Watson? For God’s sake, say that you are not hurt!” It was worth a wound — it was worth many wounds — to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask. The clear, hard eyes were dimmed for a moment, and the firm lips were shaking. For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain. All my years of humble but single-minded service culminated in that moment of revelation.The Three Garridebs
1903Holmes retires and moves to Sussex to keep Bees.While it is suggested that Watson remained behind in London, it is entirely probable that this is a blind, meant to distract the reader from the true nature of their relationship.The Creeping Man/The Lion’s Mane
1903-1927Watson writes the remainder of the stories.
1914Holmes and Watson’s last known case together, on the eve of WWI.His Last Bow