Decoding the Subtext
Sherlockian Theory
Canon Companions

Decoding the Subtext: The Bruce Partington Plans


Baring-Gould dates The Adventure of the Bruce Partington Plans in November of 1895. As Watson agrees with this date, there is no reason to question the story's place in Baring-Gould's chronology. The Bruce Partington Plans was first published in December of 1908.


Sherlock Holmes is beginning to suspect that the London criminal is no longer an enterprising fellow, as crime of late has been petty at best. No sooner, however, does Holmes complain of the lack of crime than he receives word that Jupiter, in the form of his brother, Mycroft, is descending. Mycroft brings with him a dire case which threatens the very security of England. He all but begs Holmes to look into the curious death of Cadogan West, whose body was found on the Underground line near Aldgate with seven of the ten missing pages of a top secret government project in his pocket. It is believed that Cadogan West stole the Bruce Partington plans, and that the three most valuable pages are now in the hands of an enemy agent. Despite the bleakness of the case, all is not lost, for Holmes is able to construct a case simply upon noting that the body was found next to a series of points. An illegal break in, an interrogation, and a bit of impersonation are all that are needed to bring the case to a close and to safely retrieve the missing plans for the Bruce-Partington submarine.

The Subtext:

In the third week of November, in the year 1895, a dense yellow fog settled down upon London. From the Monday to the Thursday I doubt whether it was ever possible from our windows in Baker Street to see the loom of the opposite houses.

So begins The Adventure of the Bruce Partington Plans, and it is interesting to note that Watson goes on to tell us that he and Holmes spent those four days locked inside of Baker Street, with only each other for company.

But when, for the fourth time, after pushing back our chairs from breakfast we saw the greasy, heavy brown swirl still drifting past us and condensing in oily drops upon the window- panes, my comrade's impatient and active nature could endure this drab existence no longer.

It is interesting, too, to note that Watson was able to distract Holmes from his inaction for three full days. While we are disappointed that he could not manage a fourth, we really must applaud him; both for his perseverance, and his stamina.

Fortunately for Holmes (and, indeed, Watson), the monotony of their fourth day is soon interrupted by a telegram from Mycroft. This raises Holmes' spirits considerably, and he asks:

"By the way, do you know what Mycroft is?"

Recall that Watson first met Mycroft in The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter, a case which Baring-Gould set in 1888. We have speculated that Holmes and Watson, during this time, had only just begun to experiment with redefining their relationship. This was obviously quite tentative, for Watson, at the first sign of trouble, abandoned Holmes for a wife. We can safely assume, then, that Holmes, while quite taken with Watson, did not fully trust Watson when he first introduced Watson to Mycroft. It is interesting, then, to note that this has changed.

"I did not know you quite so well in those days. One has to be discreet when one talks of high matters of state. You are right in thinking that he under the British government. You would also be right in a sense if you said that occasionally he is the British government."

This gives us what is perhaps the strongest evidence to suggest that Holmes and Watson's relationship has become quite serious. It is also quite apparent that both Holmes and Watson are quite aware of this shift. We have not, however, seen any evidence to suggest that either of them have voiced their feelings on the subject, and yet, the above example of trust is a clear indication that they are well on their way.

Holmes continues his detailed description of exactly what Mycroft's job entails, Watson listening with attention until Holmes mentions Cadogan West. It is then that Watson recalls having heard the name before, and he is soon able to produce the newspaper clipping describing Cadogan West's death. The news peaks Holmes' interest and he asks Watson to relay the facts, as they are set out in the article.

He snuggled down in his armchair. "Now, Watson, let us have the facts."

Curious, is it not, that Watson should describe Holmes as snuggling down into his armchair. Curious, too, that Holmes should feel compelled to snuggle down into his armchair before listening to the sound of Watson's voice.

Watson's recital of the publicly known facts soon gives way to Mycroft's arrival. Mycroft is able to fill in the lesser known facts, and, upon hearing the whole of the case, Holmes does as his brother suggests and springs into action.

"Well, well!" said Holmes, shrugging his shoulders. "Come, Watson!"

Not, of course, without his Watson.

Their first stop is the line of the London Underground near Aldgate station. There, Holmes is struck by the proximity of the body to a set of points. Indeed, he becomes quite excited, and Watson tells us:

On these his eager, questioning eyes were fixed, and I saw on his keen, alert face that tightening of the lips, that quiver of the nostrils, and concentration of the heavy, tufted brows which I knew so well.

While we are not in the least surprised by Watson's observation of Holmes, nor are we surprised by the attention to detail Watson gives in describing Holmes, the above statement is quite remarkable in its eroticism. Not that Watson speaks of the tightening of Holmes' lips, and the quivering of his nostrils. He then goes on to mention the concentration in his brows, telling us that he knew it so well. While we cannot doubt that this is the expression Holmes' donned when investigating a case, we must also note that tightening lips, quivering nostrils, and concentrative brows are quite common in more intimate settings. One wonders, then, if Watson was describing Holmes on the case, or Holmes the prior evening, before Mycroft came to distract Holmes from Watson's attentions.

We must, however, turn for a moment from the case and examine a very curious statement. As their investigation continues, Watson has reason to tell us:

It was one of my friend's most obvious weaknesses that he was impatient with less alert intelligences than his own.

While the above is not subtextual in nature, it is interesting to point out, for it suggests that Watson truly did underestimate his abilities. If Watson lacked in intelligent and was incapable of stimulating Holmes, one cannot doubt that Holmes would have long grown frustrated by Watson's presence. As this has not occurred, and, indeed, it would appear as though Holmes has allowed Watson access beyond that of any other person, we must conclude that Watson was far more intelligent than Watson's writing would have us believe. Truly, then, their relationship was one of equals.

Returning to the case at hand, having now discovered the unusual coincidence of a set of points and curve existing where the body was found, Holmes and Watson are free to continue on with their investigation. They engage in a series of interviews before finally examining the building in which the submarine plans were usually kept. There, Watson tells us:

It was only when we were on the lawn outside that his interest was strongly excited.

And we must conclude that Holmes was quite the exhibitionist. One can easily imagine, then, that it was Watson who kept him in line and prevented any hint of scandal.

Things grow darker for Cadogan West as their investigation continues, and Holmes begins to despair ever retrieving the missing documents. Distressed, and without a real lead, Holmes and Watson head back to Baker Street. It is there that they receive a wire from Mycroft listing known foreign agents believed to be in London during the time of the theft. One address sparks hope, and Holmes, turning to Watson, states:

"Why, Watson, I do honestly believe that we are going to pull it off, after all." He slapped me on the shoulder with a sudden burst of hilarity.

We see here another element of their relationship. Above, we suggested that Holmes appreciated and enjoyed Watson's intelligence, and here we suggest that Holmes was also quite grateful to have someone with whom he could celebrate his successes. We have no doubt that Holmes would be quite bored, and, indeed, quite lonely, without his Watson.

Holmes then announces his intention to head out. He is careful, however, to state:

"It is only a reconnaissance. I will do nothing serious without my trusted comrade and biographer at my elbow."

Clearly Holmes has come to value Watson beyond that of a mere helpmate. That he should think to reassure Watson is quite indicative of the feelings Holmes has developed for Watson. Holmes values Watson's time and contribution to his cases, but more so, Holmes values Watson's feelings, and is quite careful to ensure Watson does not feel taken for granted.

Holmes continues, telling Watson:

"Do you stay here, and the odds are that you will see me again in an hour or two. If time hangs heavy get foolscap and a pen, and begin your narrative of how we saved the State."

Holmes begins by giving an estimate of how long he shall be away, an act which is far more suggestive of a husband speaking to his wife than of a friend speaking to a friend. Then, of course, there is Holmes' suggestion that Watson begin his narrative, Holmes attempting to validate Watson's position by encouraging Watson's writing (something which Holmes has so often criticized in the past).

Indeed, that Watson's response should be to wait patiently for Holmes' return is also quite telling.

All the long November evening I waited, filled with impatience for his return.

One can easily picture Watson waiting, and longing, for Holmes' return. Clearly, at this point in their relationship, the two are quite inseparable.

Watson does not have to wait long, for he soon receives word from Holmes, instructing him to meet Holmes at Goldini's Restaurant. Watson does not, of course, hesitate in heading out.

Upon Watson's arrival, Holmes begins to relay the chain of events he has been able to forge. Watson listens with interest, but upon hearing that Holmes means to illegally enter the home of a known foreign agent, Watson expresses some reservation. Their conversation, one must agree, is quite telling.

"I don't like it, Holmes."

"My dear fellow, you shall keep watch in the street. I'll do the criminal part. It's not a time to stick at trifles. Think of Mycroft's note, of the Admiralty, the Cabinet, the exalted person who waits for news. We are bound to go."

My answer was to rise from the table.

"You are right, Holmes. We are bound to go."

He sprang up and shook me by the hand.

"I knew you would not shrink at the last," said he, and for a moment I saw something in his eyes which was nearer to tenderness than I had ever seen. The next instant he was his masterful, practical self once more.

Note first that Holmes did not in truth doubt his Watson. He knows Watson well, and while he may have anticipated Watson's initial objection, Holmes was certain Watson would join him. This speaks to their long association and intimacy, and, indeed, their intimacy.

It is not, however, this familiarity which makes the above exchange so extraordinary. I refer here, of course, to the look of tenderness which appears in Holmes' eyes. In order to fully absorb the meaning behind this, we must once again turn to chronology.

Recall that Holmes and Watson have been living together, on and off, for some fifteen years. In that time they have gone from acquaintances to roommates, to reserved friends, to close friends, to lovers, to estranged lovers, to intimate friends again, and then, upon Holmes' return, they have once again fallen into the role of lovers. There is, however, a significant shift, for prior to Watson's marriage their relationship was fumbling, built more on lust than love. Now, however, they have come to love one another, completely and utterly, without condition, and while they have yet to vocalize this love, we see here that they draw ever nearer to doing so.

That Holmes should allow, even if only briefly, his affection for Watson to show upon his features is quite telling. It speaks of trust, and it speaks of Holmes' growing comfort, for although he is still uncertain how best to express the depths of his emotions, he is beginning to see that doing so is not such a difficult thing, after all.

Watson having agreed to aid Holmes in his quest, they soon head out for the home of Oberstein, where Holmes soon realizes that they will need to scale a small wall. Here we are privy to the obvious sense of professional partnership which existed throughout their personal relationship. It is quite remarkable that they were able to blend the two together so seamlessly.

"Give me a hand, Watson, and I'll do the same for you."

Then again, it is entirely possible that Holmes merely wanted an excuse to hold Watson's hand in public.

We must deviate from the story itself now to touch on an interesting parallel. The later half of The Bruce Partington Plans sees Holmes and Watson engaging in criminal activity. Their intent is to break into a private residence and gather evidence. It is, however, quite interesting to note that this expedition occurs simultaneously with the distinct shift in their relationship that we have mentioned above. As Holmes and Watson grow closer, Watson's literary accounts of their relationship becoming increasingly obvious. We begin to see, then, the obvious innuendo hidden in many of Watson's references to the case.

For example, on their journey to Oberstein's residence, Holmes states:

"Don't drop the instruments, I beg. Your arrest as a suspicious character would be a most unfortunate complication."

Here Holmes suggests that Watson's arrest would complicate their investigation. While carrying housebreaking tools was illegal in London after dark, we cannot help but wonder if this was the only law Holmes was referring to. Indeed, this theme continues:

"There is an excellent archway down yonder in case a too zealous policeman should intrude."

We see again Holmes referring to the law, and the illegality of what they are about to do. We must also note that Holmes suggests that they hide out of sight, so as to avoid the eyes of the law.

Hardly had we reached the dark shadows before the step of the policeman was heard in the fog above.

Finally, we are treated to Holmes and Watson hiding in the dark shadows in order to avoid the police. In order to analyze this from the point of view of the student of subtext, we must first recall that homosexuality, during this time period, was quite illegal. By noting this, we begin to see the insinuation in Watson's narrative. Holmes and Watson's burgling, then, becomes an allusion for Holmes and Watson's sexual relationship. Both are illegal in the eyes of the law, but right in the eyes of justice.

One of the most remarkable characteristics of Sherlock Holmes was his power of throwing his brain out of action and switching all his thoughts on to lighter things whenever he had convinced himself that he could no longer work to advantage.

Their investigation goes well, and upon returning to Baker Street, Holmes soon puts the case aside in favour of recreational activities. One can easily imagine that Holmes was just as struck by the innuendo of their earlier activities.

His libido satisfied, Holmes is able to once again focus on the case, and he and Watson soon find themselves back at Oberstein's home, this time waiting in ambush for the man responsible for stealing the submarine plans.

With the shock, his broad-brimmed hat flew from his head, his cravat slipped sown from his lips, and there were the long light beard and the soft, handsome delicate features of Colonel Valentine Walter.

The above passage occurs moments after their trap has been sprung, and it is interesting to note Watson's description of Colonel Walter. Clearly, Watson is still able to admire and appreciate an attractive man. One wonders if Holmes shared his opinion, or if, upon later reading Watson's account, Holmes scolded Watson for allowing his eye to wander.

It would appear, however, as though it was Watson who was prone to jealousy, for later, the case successfully concluded, Holmes returns to Baker Street after a solitary outing wearing a remarkable emerald tie-pin. It is quite amusing to note that Watson is unable to prevent himself from asking after it.

When I asked him if he had bought it, he answered that it was a present from a certain gracious lady in whose interests he had once been fortunate enough to carry out a small commission. He said no more; but I fancy that I could guess at that lady's august name, and I have little doubt that the emerald pin will forever recall to my friend's memory the adventure of the Bruce- Partington plans.

While Watson does make this appear a casual affair, we cannot doubt that his first worry was that Holmes had received the tie-pin from another suitor. Watson's relief, then, upon learning that Holmes had received it at Windsor, is quite evident. Even then, it is entirely possible that Watson, in the following month, purchased an equally lavish gift, which he then gave to Holmes as a Christmas present.

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