Decoding the Subtext: The Abbey Grange
Baring-Gould dates The Adventure of the Abbey Grange in January of 1897. Watson tells us that it is the winter of 1897, and as Lady Brackenstall, the murdered man's wife, tells Holmes that she has been married exactly a year, January, we have no reason to question Baring-Gould's date. The story was first published in September of 1904.
Dr. Watson awakes one morning to find Sherlock Holmes standing next to his bed. It appears as though there has been a murder at Abbey Grange, and Holmes is bent on heading out to give Inspector Stanley Hopkins a hand. His arrival, however, comes as Inspector Hopkins is about to close the case, for the murdered man's wife, Lady Brackenstall, was able to identify her killers; a gang consisting of a father and two sons, operating under the name of Randall. Holmes, however, is not satisfied by this solution, and soon finds himself investigating the case behind Scotland Yard's back. A third wine glass, filled with beeswing, is what eventually leads him to uncover the truth of Lady Brackenstall's mistreatment at the hands of her husband. From there, Holmes is able to track down the sailor who claimed Lady Brackenstall's heart, and although he lets the man go, it is not without first demanding the man's story in full detail.
It was on a bitterly cold and frosty morning during the winter of '97 that I was awakened by a tugging at my shoulder. It was Holmes.
So begins The Adventure of the Abbey Grange, and already we are treated to the somewhat blatant, and entirely domestic, subtext, which is found throughout the later Canon. While the above statement is quite interesting, for it speaks to the intimacy between the two men, and indeed, Holmes' seeming comfort in Watson's bedroom, it is Holmes' statement that truly astounds us.
"The game is afoot. Not a word! Into your clothes and come!"
Reading the above passage, it becomes quite obvious that Watson, much to Holmes' delight, we are sure, sleeps in the nude. It is also quite obvious that Holmes knows this (for he does not seem in the least bit surprised), which suggests that Holmes has spent a good deal of time in Watson's bedroom, with a naked Watson. While some scholars may suggest that Holmes was referring to Watson's need to change from his nightclothes, here we must point the readers attention to Holmes' cry of into your clothes, suggesting that Watson was very much out of his clothes, night or otherwise.
With some confusion and grumbling, Watson does make it from bed, and is able to follow Holmes down the stairs and into a cab. Here Watson tells us:
Holmes nestled in silence into his heavy coat, and I was glad to do the same, for the air was most bitter and neither of us had broken our fast.
This scene is simply breathtaking in its implications. Indeed, one can almost picture Holmes and Watson, curled together in the back of a hansom, Holmes nestled into his heavy coat, Watson glancing over imploringly, only to have Holmes nod his assent, perhaps with a smirk, for he knew Watson well and expected no less. And so Watson would crawl into Holmes' oversized coat to share Holmes' warmth, and touch, as they travelled to Charing Cross Station. Truly a more romantic picture has yet to be painted.
This gesture of intimacy, and indeed, romance, seems to panic Holmes, for a moment later he descends to insulting Watson's work.
"I fancy that every one of his cases has found its way into your collection, and I must admit, Watson, that you have some power of selection which atones for much which I deplore in your narratives. Your fatal habit of looking at everything from the point of view of a story instead of as a scientific exercise has ruined what might have been an instructive and even classical series of demonstrations. You slur over work of the utmost finesse and delicacy in order to dwell upon sensational details which may excite, but cannot possibly instruct, the reader."
This is very in keeping with Holmes' character, for it was quite difficult for Holmes to allow Watson access to the confines of his heart. Holmes' walls have formed cracks, though, and while they have yet to crumble, we begin to see their inevitable destruction. He fights, cruelly at times, to maintain his distance; keep himself intact, lest Watson penetrate this barrier and Holmes lose himself completely to the one person capable of breaking his heart. He does not mean his words to be as cutting as they appear, and this is evident in his compliment, buried within his rejection. This is Holmes, simply trying to keep Watson at arm's length (further evidence, we might add, to the fight which strained them in SUSS).
Watson is, naturally, quite hurt by Holmes' comment, although he does not allow his hurt to linger for long. He asks why Holmes has not chosen to write his cases himself, to which Holmes replies:
"I will, my dear Watson, I will. At present I am, as you know, fairly busy, but I propose to devote my declining years to the composition of a text-book which shall focus the whole art of detection into one volume. Our present research appears to be a case of murder."
We see here a glimpse of Holmes' heart, and the emotions he tries so desperately to keep from Watson. Here Holmes speaks of spending his declining years composing a text-book on deduction, and yet he goes on to reference the research involved as our research, a clear indication that Holmes expects Watson to remain a constant presence in his life.
Watson seems to catch this, for immediately he turns his attention back to the case, Holmes' dismissal forgotten. Indeed, it soon becomes obvious that Watson still thinks quite highly of Holmes, for sometime later, after they have interview Lady Brackenstall regarding her husband's death, Watson tells us:
The keen interest had passed out of Holmes's expressive face, and I knew that with the mystery all the charm of the case had departed. There still remained an arrest to be effected, but what were these commonplace rogues that he should soil his hands with them?
Watson's contempt for the commonplace rogues thought responsible for Sir Eustace's death is quite apparent, but it is contempt on Holmes' behalf, a rather curious sentiment, one must agree. Truly, in Watson's eyes, Holmes' position was elevated above mere man. We must note, too, how quickly Watson is able to deduce Holmes' thoughts simply by a shift of his features. Indeed, we begin to see why Watson tolerated Holmes' criticisms, for Watson must have easily seen through Holmes' guise; right to the core of Holmes' heart.
It is the existence of these rogues which first turns Holmes off the case. Truly, if Sir Eustace's death is the result of mere burglary, what is there for Holmes to do? Holmes appears to think so, at least, for he turns to Watson and states:
"Come, Watson, I fancy that we may employ ourselves more profitably at home."
We cannot, of course, agree more, for we are certain that Watson is very much looking forward to returning to the warmth of his bed and his (eventual) slumber.
Sadly, they do not make it back to Watson's bed, or Baker Street at all for that matter, for Holmes is suddenly struck by the curiosity of finding three wine glasses, yet only one filled with beeswing. So strong is this impression, in fact, that Holmes immediately decides to return to Abbey Grange.
At last, by a sudden impulse, just as our train was crawling out of a suburban station, he sprang on to the platform and pulled me out after him.
We cannot help but note here that Holmes refuses to return without his Watson, going so far as to tempt death and personal injury (on both their behalves) in order to secure Watson and return to the scene of the crime.
It is there that Holmes begins his investigation in earnest. After a thorough investigation of the house, and a second interview with Lady Brackenstall, Holmes and Watson take their leave, but not before:
There was a pond in the park, and to this my friend led the way.
Remarkable, is it not, that Holmes continues to take time out of his cases so that he and Watson might take romantic walks in the park.
In truth, it is to examine the hole in the ice which led Holmes to this pond, and while the student of subtext will maintain that Holmes' motives were not entirely case based, we must accept this fact, for it leads Holmes to his final conclusion and the conclusion of the case.
The case comes to a close in Baker Street, but not before Inspector Hopkins arrives to confirm Holmes' suspicion; that the thieves did indeed throw their loot into the pond. Holmes does not tell Hopkins his theory, leaving the Inspector to head back to Scotland Yard empty-handed. At this, Holmes comments to Watson that he has treated Stanley Hopkins rather badly. Watson's response, one must agree, is quite telling:
"I trust your judgment."
Holmes has lied to Scotland Yard, without explaining his reasoning, and yet Watson merely states that he trusts Holmes' judgment. While Watson does know Holmes well enough to trust in his professional judgment, we cannot help but feel Watson infers a trust beyond professional capacity. This will become quite apparent in a few moments, for Holmes has arranged for the true murderer to arrive at Baker Street. Upon his arrival, Watson tells us:
There was a sound upon the stairs, and our door was opened to admit as fine a specimen of manhood as ever passed through it.
While not of particular interest in terms of Holmes and Watson subtext, we include this line and wonder: Oh, Watson, did you really think you were fooling your public?
Returning to Holmes and Watson, and Watson's implicit trust, it is shortly after Captain Crocker arrives that Holmes convinces him to share his side of the story. Upon hearing his reasoning, Holmes decides that justice is best served in letting Crocker go. We note here that Watson does not disagree, or even disapprove, despite the fact that Holmes is clearly breaking the law (and making Watson an accomplice in the process). Indeed, Watson even agrees to fulfil the role of jury:
"Watson, you are a British jury, and I never met a man who was more eminently fitted to represent one."
A fitting compliment from Holmes, one must agree. On occasion, Holmes does indeed reveal the depth of his feelings. It is quite clear here that Holmes respects Watson, Holmes elevating Watson to the ideal of the legal process he holds so dear. We are not surprised, then, when Watson decrees Crocker not guilty.
Indeed, we are not surprised at all by the conclusion of the case, for this is not the first time in which Holmes has allowed a guilty man to walk free. Holmes seeks justice, and should that justice be in conflict with the law, then Holmes is more than willing to break that law to see justice done. This case, however, provides ample evidence that Holmes can be persuaded by love, too, for it is only with the certainty that Crocker acted out of love that Holmes makes his decision. Time and time again we see Holmes siding on the side of love, and this is not an action taken by men incapable of the emotion. Truly Holmes has loved, and does love, and we cannot doubt that, shortly after Crocker's leaving, Holmes and Watson were finally able to return to the warmth of Watson's bed.
There is one final element to examine in this case, for it occurs several times throughout Canon, and we begin to see a pattern forming. The story of Captain Crocker and Lady Brackenstall, and the murder of Sir Eustace, comes about due, in part, to the laws of England, which, at the time, forbade divorce (in most circumstances). We see this theme crop up on several occasions, at one point Watson referring to the deplorable laws of England (DEVI). It is curious, too, that Watson should include so many cases which highlighted the injustice of British law. One wonders, then, if Watson's decision to include these cases came as a direct result of his own failed marriage, and his own desire to divorce. We have suggested before that Watson's marriage was not ended by Mary's death, but rather, by Mary's leaving. Could it be, then, that Watson was still, in every legal capacity, married to Mary, and incapable of obtaining a divorce?