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Decoding the Subtext: The Blanched Soldier

Dates :

Baring-Gould dates The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier in January of 1903. This is the exact date given by Holmes (i.e. Watson, as we will see in our examination of authorship) giving us no reason to question Baring-Gould's date. The story was first published in October 1926. It is interesting to note that Watson published a story for each of the months September through December in 1926, with two of these claiming to have been authored by Holmes.

Synopsis:

In an unusual twist, The Blanched Soldier sees Sherlock Holmes assuming the role of narrator as he tells the story of Mr. James M. Dodd. James is searching frantically for his missing friend, Godfrey Emsworth, and believes something sinister is going on in Godfrey's family home. James, upon a recent visit with Godfrey's parents, woke in the middle of the night to find Godfrey's face pressed up against his bedroom window, but when he went out to investigate, all signs of Godfrey had vanished. Godfrey's parents insist that they sent their son on a voyage around the world, but James is certain that Godfrey is being hidden somewhere on the family estate; though, to what end, James does not know. Despite finding the case rather elementary, Holmes agrees to accompany James to Godfrey's family estate, where, with a single written word, Holmes is able to unravel the entire mystery.

The Subtext:

Before we begin our examination of the subtext contained within this story, we must first examine the question of authorship. Indeed, only one other story (The Mazarin Stone) has occasioned such speculation.

There are, of course, several problems with accepting Holmes as the narrator. The first being that Holmes, despite his years of criticism, writes using the exact style favoured by Watson. Even if Holmes had hoped to emulate Watson's style, one would expect at least a little difference. That Holmes would emulate Watson's style must be questioned also, for why would Holmes, who so often scorned Watson's writing, seek to duplicate it (even if he does grudgingly admit that Watson's style is necessary to reach a broader audience).

Then, of course, we have the case itself. Holmes himself calls it elementary, so why chose to document it? Indeed, one would suspect that, were Holmes to pick up his pen, he would concentrate on a case which showcased his powers of observation and deduction. This case demonstrates neither. In fact, the case itself is much more in Watson's line, for it is ripe with romanticisms.

Finally, although we have commented on the style of the story, and have admitted that it is too similar to Watson's to be mere coincidence, we must acknowledge that the story itself is far from good. We know Holmes to be a good story-teller (The Gloria Scott and The Musgrave Ritual are prime examples of this) so one would expect a case written by Holmes to present the same traits which made MUSG and GLOR so interesting to read.

Keeping our above objections in mind, we must now consider several theories regarding the story's authorship.

The most plausible theory (and the one which we will adapt for the remainder of this decoding) is that the story was written by Watson, but that Watson, for whatever reason, wrote the story from Holmes' point of view.

The most implausible scenario is that Holmes is, in fact, the narrator, and that he, not knowing how to write a story, copied Watson's style to the letter, thus resulting in a poorly told tale.

The third theory (and while entirely possible, it is still not very probable) suggests that the story is a complete fake; a pastiche written by person or persons unknown.

As mentioned above, we have chosen to accept that the story was written by Watson. It is entirely probable that Watson, living almost exclusively in Sussex at this point, heard the tale second hand from Holmes (either in a personal interview or via telephone/telegram/letter) and decided to write the story from Holmes' point of view.

Recall that Watson has been living on and off in Sussex for the past few months. During this particular case, Watson was away from Baker Street, and so unable to assist Holmes in the case (although we do not doubt that it was Watson who recommended Holmes' specialist). Upon his return to Baker Street, Holmes filled Watson in on the details of the case, and, struck by a romantic story of friendship and forbidden love, Watson expressed his desire to publish the story.

Sadly, having not been there personally, Watson was forced to choose between three alternatives. He could write the story from a third person point of view. He could write the story in the same manner in which he wrote MUSG and GLOR. Or, he could write the story from Holmes' point of view.

Seeing an opportunity, Watson chose the latter, for by writing from Holmes' point of view, Watson could further his attempts to keep his relationship with Holmes from the public eye, and feign a gradual decline in their relationship. Indeed, Watson even goes so far as to fabricate a second wife.

All of this, of course, makes parsing the subtext quite challenging. We shall, however, endeavour to try.

I would take this opportunity to remark that if I burden myself with a companion in my various little inquiries it is not done out of sentiment or caprice, but it is that Watson has some remarkable characteristics of his own to which in his modesty he has given small attention amid his exaggerated estimates of my own performances. A confederate who foresees your conclusions and course of action is always dangerous, but one to whom each development comes as a perpetual surprise, and to whom the future is always a closed book, is indeed an ideal helpmate.

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of assuming Watson's authorship is that, throughout the story, Holmes makes several references to Watson and Watson's place in his life. This has led several scholars to reject Watson as the author simply because Watson is, as Holmes so elegantly puts it, quite modest.

Here we must suggest that Watson anticipated this reaction; he knew that he could not write a story from Holmes' point of view without alluding to himself from a third person perspective, and so that is exactly what he did.

We have mentioned Watson's modesty above, and so we must automatically discount the concept of Watson inventing such a statement. This leaves, then, only one option; that Holmes had, in fact, made a similar statement at some point in time during their relationship. It becomes clear, then, that Watson has merely reworked one of Holmes' comments to fit within the confines of the story. If this is the case, then we see a true compliment indeed, for Holmes clearly acknowledges Watson's intelligence and importance.

We see this on several occasions throughout the story, Watson re-hashing previous conversations with Holmes in order to convince his reader that Holmes is, in fact, the story's author. The most obvious example of this rests in Watson's invention of a second (or third, according to Baring-Gould) wife:

The good Watson had at that time deserted me for a wife, the only selfish action which I can recall in our association. I was alone.

It is quite easy to picture Holmes referring to Watson's marriage to Miss Morstan as a selfish act, and so when Watson decided to allude to his non-existent marriage, the sentiment likely came back to him. The above statement has the added benefit of reaffirming Holmes as the author.

We do not, of course, doubt that Watson has fabricated this marriage. It is entirely too convenient, and entirely too inconsistent, to be anything other than a fabrication. We have suggested above that Watson was, in fact, dividing his time between Sussex and Baker Street, and that Watson was residing in Sussex during this case --hence Watson's absence. Watson's addition of a wife, then, can be seen as a mere literary device, meant to distract attention from Holmes and Watson's cozy co-habitation in Sussex (it is entirely likely that too many rumours had surfaced concerning the once famous detective and his doctor who were living in a single bedroom villa on the outskirts of town). In short, this second wife is Watson's attempt at damage control.

As Watson does not appear in the case, or, indeed, the story, we must turn now away from Holmes and Watson, and examine the plot of the story itself. It is here, through the tale of James Dodd And Godfrey Emsworth, that we gather our strongest evidence for a relationship between Holmes and Watson. Curious, is it not, that Watson should choose to abandon Holmes for a wife in a story revolving around two clearly homosexual characters. We will see, as the story progresses, that the relationship between James and Godfrey (and note the similarities between the names James and John, and Godfrey and Sherlock) is meant to represent the relationship between Holmes and Watson.

There is ample evidence throughout The Blanched Soldier to suggest that Godfrey was, in fact, James Dodd's lover. In fact, James, when describing Godfrey to Holmes, states:

"There was not a finer lad in the regiment. We formed a friendship — the sort of friendship which can only be made when one lives the same life and shares the same joys and sorrows. He was my mate — and that means a good deal in the Army. We took the rough and the smooth together for a year of hard fighting."

A very suggestive statement, to be sure!

But not more suggestive than James' mere presence, for James hires Holmes to help him find Godfrey; an act very indicative of the love James bore for Godfrey.

We see, too, evidence of society's rejection of homosexual love in James' reference to the problems between Godfrey and his father (which are highly indicative of a father's disapproval of his son's homosexuality; indeed, this comes up later in James' meeting with Godfrey's father, for Colonel Emsworth takes an instant disliking to James, his son's lover).

"...and also that his father and he did not always hit it off too well. The old man was sometimes a bully..."

Not that this stops James; indeed, he immediately sets out to Godfrey's family estate, where he spends the night in hopes of uncovering Godfrey's location. So consumed is James by Godfrey's welfare that he stands against the verbal assaults of Colonel Emsworth, refusing to back down despite the Colonel's threats:

"We had a bit of barney right away, and I should have walked back to the station if I had not felt that it might be playing his game for me to do so."

James even goes so far as to tell Colonel Emsworth:

"I was fond of your son Godfrey, sir. Many ties and memories united us."

The statement does not, of course, sit well with the Colonel, and yet this does nothing to dissuade James, James excusing his insolence by stating:

"You must put it down, sir, to my real love for your son."

Again and again we are given evidence to suggest that the relationship between Godfrey and James was that of lovers. We begin to see, then, that their tale was told because Watson dare not share the story belonging to him and Holmes. Indeed, we begin to see, too, the reasons for Watson choosing this story, for clearly it does not present any other points of interest; it is a story of love and friendship, having nothing to do with detection or deduction.

So far, however, we have only been graced with James' point of view. As the story progresses we begin to see that James' feelings for Godfrey are quite reciprocated. Indeed, in spending the night in Godfrey's family estate, James catches his first glimpse of Godfrey through the window, telling us:

"He was deadly pale — never have I seen a man so white. I reckon ghosts may look like that; but his eyes met mine, and they were the eyes of a living man. He sprang back when he saw that I was looking at him, and he vanished into the darkness."

That Godfrey would disobey his father, and risk public scandal by leaving his safe house, simply because he is overcome with desire to see James is quite suggestive.

In fact, later, Godfrey himself tells us:

"Old Ralph told me you [James] were there, and I couldn't help taking a peep at you."

A clear indication of Godfrey's need and love for James.

Prior to discovering Godfrey, however, James first sets out to search the grounds in hopes of finding his friend's hideaway. He stumbles across an old cottage, and, peering into the window, James tells us:

"However, I had little thought to spare upon such details, for a second man was seated with his back to the window, and I could swear that this second man was Godfrey. I could not see his face, but I knew the familiar slope of his shoulders."

To recognize a man by the slope of his shoulders is a true feat indeed. This speaks to intimacy beyond that of mere friends and comrades.

It is shortly after James' narrative that Holmes agrees to accompany James to Godfrey's family estate. There, our conviction that James and Godfrey are, in fact, lovers is strengthened.

"I cannot leave here," said my client firmly, "until I hear from Godfrey's own lips that he is under no restraint."

James' devotion becomes even more apparent when he risks everything to stand up to Godfrey's father. Finally, there is the eventual reunion between Godfrey and James, Holmes telling us:

A man was standing with his back to the fire, and at the sight of him my client sprang forward with outstretched hand.

"Why, Godfrey, old man, this is fine!"


We soon discover, however, that Godfrey is in quarantine with a suspected case of leprosy. His worry for James' safety becomes quite apparent, Godfrey crying:

"Don't touch me, Jimmie. Keep your distance."

Despite this, Godfrey does admit that he does not mind James seeing him in this state (and note the familiarity of 'Jimmie').

"That's why I don't court visitors," said he. "I don't mind you, Jimmie, but I could have done without your friend. I suppose there is some good reason for it, but you have me at a disadvantage."

James, we will see, despite Godfrey's leprosy, does not flinch from his friend; indeed, he stands quite true, his love and devotion proved beyond a shadow of a doubt. The story does, of course, end well for the lovers, for Holmes has brought with him a second opinion, and it is soon discovered that Godfrey does not, in fact, have leprosy, but rather, a rare and treatable, yet not contagious, skin condition.

It is this fact which draws the case to a close, but not before Holmes turns his thoughts, once again, to Watson, Holmes stating:

And here it is that I miss my Watson. By cunning questions and ejaculations of wonder he could elevate my simple art, which is but systematized common sense, into a prodigy.

Bearing in mind our assumption that Watson is the true narrator of this story, the above statement becomes quite amusing, for while we can easily imagine Holmes (especially this late in their relationship) admitting to such a thing. The above statement is too well fitted to this story to have been taken out of context. We must therefore suggest that this statement did come from Holmes' pen, and that Holmes, in reading over Watson's manuscript, insisted upon its addition. We can well imagine, then, that Watson, upon reading Holmes' words, was moved to tears by Holmes' heartfelt confession.

Alternatively, it is entirely possible that Watson was merely extrapolating, perhaps from a conversation that ran thus:

"Ah, Watson, you should have been there. You would have made a fine case of it; by cunning questions and ejaculations of wonder you could have elevated what amounted to an elementary problem into a spectacular tale of interest and intrigue."

"I take it, Holmes, that you missed me."

"Hardly that, Watson. Hardly that."

And with his words, Holmes reached out his thin arm and drew me into the bedroom.

 
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